Your Attention. Now!

A man walks onto the TED stage and introduces himself: “I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you ethically steer people’s thoughts.”.

My first thought was, how is it possible to “ethically” steer people’s thoughts? However, I think this particular speaker, now billed as a “design thinker”, may be worth listening to.

In his TED talk from last spring, Tristan Harris wants us to know about the “handful of people working at a handful of technology companies” who are working very hard to attract our attention and hang onto it for as long as possible. The better to sell that attention – us – to their advertisers. And they want to leave nothing to chance.

Because it’s not evolving randomly. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every new site — TED, elections, politicians, games, even meditation apps — have to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and there’s only so much of it. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques that I learned in college at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab to get people’s attention.

Teachers especially need to understand what he’s talking about since they work with some of the primary targets of these companies looking for attention. If you teach high school students, possibly middle school, maybe even play this in class and follow it with a discussion. We need to help students understand what these adults are doing to them.

Finally, this is a good time to remember that, if you are not paying for a service, chances are you are the product, not the customer. Everything comes with a price and, on the web, that price is very often your information.

Unsocial Media

Like 2 billion other people in the world, I have a Facebook account. Unlike most of them, I very rarely use it.

no facebook iconI know, shocking.

I do open the site once or twice a month, primarily to see new photos from friends and relatives, and to catch up on Bloom County (which includes the only civil discussion section on the internet).

Other than that, nothing. I haven’t posted anything to my timeline in several years, rarely leave comments, and certainly never click on anything – lest Facebook track me around the web.

As to why, read the words of a writer for The Guardian who explains what caused her to stop using Facebook, and why she’s very cautious about starting again after four years.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to leave Facebook. It was similar to when I stopped smoking: every other time I’d made a song and dance about quitting I had failed, but when one day I realised that it didn’t make me feel good it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be missing out.

But it’s the messiness of my home feed that reminds me why I left in the first place. I am perplexed by some of what Facebook now thinks is a good idea: inserting into my news feed all the happy birthday messages people I know have left on other people’s walls (why? what?). Much on the news feed is a cacophony of dullness and makes for a messy interface. This I haven’t missed and is why I suspect my head has felt at least a little clearer these past four years. Just one less screaming technological wail of attention to deal with.

I completely agree. The messiness of Facebook is just one factor that never made me feel good either.

Whenever I do open my account, the page seems to be overun with advertising, mixed with that “cacophony of dullness” resulting from a random stream of mostly meaningless stories. The result is that “screaming technological wail of attention”. A phrase I’ll have to remember.

Now, I’m not a technological hermit by any means. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, but I find that platform far easier to adapt to my needs, and much more useful. I regularly share my photographs on Flickr and elsewhere for anyone to view.1 And, of course, I’ve been ranting in this space for almost fourteen years, even if the potential audience is far below 2 billion people.

Not that anything in this particular rant matters anyway. With or without me, Facebook will likely keep growing, both in users and the profit from selling them to advertisers. Little ol’ me isn’t going to slow them down.

However, I’m picky. I want to have a little more control in my online life. And much less chaos.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Reading The Digital Fine Print

Have you ever read Facebook’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy? How about Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or any of the many other social networking sites you likely interact with?

Those user agreements are not just a formality in the registration process. They are legally binding contracts between you and the company, which apply whether you read and understood the whole thing or not.

A lawyer who has read many of these documents explains some of the little pieces you missed, using Instagram as an example.

Instagram’s Terms of Service is a long document, most of which is pretty straightforward and reasonably fair. You agree not to harass other users, not to try to hack their code, and other things that I think we can all agree are pretty necessary to keep things functioning.

The licensing section, though, is what I’d like to examine a little more closely. Particularly, this paragraph:

Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, subject to the Service’s Privacy Policy, available here http://instagram.com/legal/privacy/, including but not limited to sections 3 (“Sharing of Your Information”), 4 (“How We Store Your Information”), and 5 (“Your Choices About Your Information”).

That’s pretty clear, right? Well, maybe not.

Here, in one sentence, is what you’ve just agreed to: “You’ve just granted Instagram the right to do anything at all with your photos, without ever paying you a dime for any of it.”

But that’s not all.

Instagram and the others are not non-profit, public services. They are trying to make a lot of money. And since you didn’t give them any, the companies find other ways: “They provide a service for free, and in return you give them some information about you, which they sell to advertisers.”

Whether you know it or not, your data is pretty valuable stuff. Your browsing history provides a lot of information about you and, through the use of cookies and other technologies, Instagram and others are able to collect and share those particulars with anyone willing to pay for it.

The privacy policy for these services often talk about “anonymizing” your data, removing any specific information about you before passing it along to a third party. However, there are no promises.

Does Instagram anonymize data in this way? Probably so, although it’s difficult if not impossible to verify that. But under the terms laid out in Instagram’s TOS, they are under no obligation to do so, and if they suddenly decided to stop and just straight-up sell all your personal info to advertisers, (1) they would be perfectly within their legal rights, and (2) you would probably never know about it.

Ok, if I just delete my account, all will be well, right? Probably not.

But under the TOS, Instagram is perfectly free to keep sharing those photos regardless of whether they’re deleted. The TOS is most likely worded that way to cover those times when a user deletes something, but cached copies continue to appear for a while. Nonetheless, the intent is irrelevant when the language is clear, and that language in the TOS is unambiguous.

Although this post (on a blog for photographers) examines Instagram, the terms of service and privacy policies on other social media sites are very similar, if not the same in the case of Facebook which owns Instagram. And the writer is not recommending you abandon these services.

Nothing I’ve written here is meant to say that you shouldn’t use Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, or any of the others. I use them myself, and just like you, when I signed up I clicked “OK” without reading the user agreement. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a moment to examine why you’re using them and what you’re getting out of it, and consider how you can prepare now for contingencies that may arise down the road.

I’m not suggesting you quit either.

However, knowing what you’ve agreed to with a simple click of the mouse/tap of the screen is always a good thing. And once you understand, explain it to your students, colleagues, and your own children as well. They deserve to know what they’ve legally agreed to as well.

3-2-1 For 10-2-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Growing up I was a big fan of Issac Asimov. Although he is primarily known for science fiction, Asimov also wrote books, short stories, and essays on almost any topic you can name. Like this piece from Technology Review, unpublished until 2014, in which he explores the sources of creativity. Although written in 1959, it’s still very relevant and a good example of Asimov’s thought processes. (about 7 minutes)

This week I saw a lot of chatter around the “fact” that NASA had updated the signs of the zodiac and inserted a new astrological sign. It all sounded like just another of the many absurdities that swim around the web and Phil Plait, who writes as the Bad Astronomer, explains just how stupid the whole deal is. Starting with the real fact that NASA had nothing to do with this, not to mention that astrology isn’t “worth wrapping a fish in”. (about 4 minutes)

Speaking of space, Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla Motors, this week outlined his vision for not only traveling to Mars but establishing large working colonies on that planet. His current plans call for launching the first mission to Mars in 2024, less than eight years from now. It’s all very ambitious, and very much lacking in details. But Musk’s plans are certainly worth watching. (about 18 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

Did you ever wonder how Facebook determines which news stories and ads will be placed in your timeline? On a segment of the Note To Self podcast the host and a reporter for Pro Publica discuss those invisible algorithms and the impact they might have your perception of the world. They also introduce a Pro Publica project that asks users to contribute their data in an attempt to learn more about the Facebook “black box”. (18:00)

At last Monday’s presidential debate, both candidates tossed around a variety of economic terms, most of which you may have heard before. But what do they mean? The Planet Money team does an entertaining job of explaining the Terms of the Debate. (20:25)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

Have you ever seen an assembly line for airplanes? Boing builds 42 of their workhorse 737 model every month at their massive facility in Renton, Washington. This short video is an interesting look at how the assembly of each aircraft is completed in just nine days. (2:28)

Twitter is About Today

A writer on Medium explains Why I love Twitter and barely tolerate Facebook, starting with “Twitter put simply is fun, fantastic, and all about the here and now.” while “Facebook is mired in the past.”.

There’s no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting. Though that concept may seem daunting to some (archivists, I feel your pain), it also means the content in my feed is an endless stream of new information, either comments on what is happening right now or thoughts about the future.

Twitter is a steady stream of mostly joy and makes my life better. Facebook is filled with people I barely know, chain-emails and disaster news about the sky falling that reminds me of my own past as well as my “friends” at every turn. The Internet is here today and all about tomorrow, and I prefer my social media to reflect that, and that’s why I love Twitter.

No matter how you feel about the two services,2 the short piece is worth a read.