Technosophy

Practical computer tips, with a smattering of digital philosophy

Monthly Archives: February 2009

Why I (don’t) hate blogs: The post that started this blog

The following is one of several posts which I’ll be “porting” over from a website devoted to a wonderful class I recently took on Social Media and Virtual Communities, which was taught by the legendary technologist Howard Rheingold (I’d provide a link to a bio, but he’s everywhere; you can find him on Twitter, Wikipedia, any one of his ten websites, and a wide range of other social media sites).  I had an opportunity to do a lot of mental callisthenics in that class, the results of which I thought I’d post here on the off-chance someone might find them mildly interesting.

The Beginnings of a Blog: Thoughts on Blogging

I really would have liked to start off this post by making some bold, inflammatory, totally unqualified statement: something to the effect of “I hate blogs.”  But that really wouldn’t be completely accurate.  True, I don’t trust blogs.  I find some of them overtly annoying.  But before I launch headfirst into an empassioned diatribe about the dangers and evils of blogging, I should perhaps disclose an interesting tidbit of information.  Last week, for no particular reason that I can figure out (except, of course, that I was casting around for something to do other than homework), I went out and started a blog.  No kidding.  Go to technosopher.wordpress.com, and you’ll find some rather bizzare introductory remarks, followed by a length and exceedingly dry exegesis on the fine art of manually removing a particular strain of malware from a computer.  I have now, of my own volition, officially become a blogger.  As I ask on the front about page of my new blog, just after having said more-or-less exactly what I just said here, “Confused yet?  Good.”

I mention all this partly to shield myself from potential future embarrassment (somehow, it doesn’t seem like the best idea to heap unconditional scorn upon a community I just voluntarily opted to join), but mostly to demonstrate that my stance on blogging is by no means doctrinaire.  While it is true that my general attitude towards the blogs I encounter in the wild is extremely wary – even, on occasion, openly hostile  – I believe that blogging (and even microblogging) in principle have tremendous positive value – when used properly.  So I suppose that what follows is less of an invective against the medium of the blog than a summary of my personal views on how the medium should be used: my highly-opinionated opening stab at creating an “Elements of Style” for this new medium, whose defining characteristic at the moment seems to be that nobody (me included)  seems to quite know what to do with it.

Here, for the time being, is a brief list of the concerns I have about the ways in which blogs are commonly being used today:

– The “random guy in his mother’s basement” phenomenon.  Why, exactly, should I trust, or even so much as take the time to read material produced by someone who has no credentials save those which he assigns himself?  How do I know what standards of journalistic integrity (if applicable) such a freelance is holding himself and his work to, if any?  Here is where I side very (perhaps excessively) strongly with one Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenburg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age), when he said, “one of the advantages of the net is that everybody can publish: it’s a free medium. There’s something very appealing and attractive about that. You can cut out the middleman–the publisher and the agent and everybody else. But when you open the floodgates entirely, you don’t get egalitarianism. You get babble. My shopping list becomes as valuable as Cormac McCarthy’s latest book. And then you go back to thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, maybe those middlemen had some function, however flawed they were.'”

– This actually brings me directly to my second point, which is that a disproportionate number of blogs currently being penned (and, strangely enough, read) seem to consist of absolute nonsense – or worse.  Many are horrifically error-prone, both in terms of what they report (Steve Jobs died of a heart attack today; using <insert name of random product here> will give you cancer; etc.), and in terms of the grammar used to describe the subject matter.  I’m not talking about minor misspellings here; it seems as if working in the medium of the blog gives some people the impression that anything goes; that traditional language conventions are restrictive and fundamentally unnecessary. Maybe they are.  But I’m not sure how I feel about that.

At any rate, my larger point is that many blogs seem to lack a focus altogether, being more a random collection of a random individual’s thoughts – the kind of thing that would have been suitable material for a private journal in previous eras, but which is now being posted, archived, indexed, and ultimately made eminently accessible to all the world, whether or not the world is interested.   And in some cases, it seems as if the world is displaying far too much interest.  For the compliment to the phenomenon of blithe self-exposure is the equally fascinating (and, perhaps, disturbing) phenomenon of consuming voyerism; put simply, for every random person who feels compelled to share his/her every thought and wish and desire with the universe, there’s at least one other random person who is willing to spend a huge amount of time inspecting and commenting on said soul-spilling.  In some ways, I suppose this is a comforting thought.  If nothing else, it serves as compelling proof that all this talk of “virtual community” may have some real merit.   And yet all of this haphazard, somewhat superficial communication leaves me wondering: are we becoming so caught up in the minutia of other people’s lives (as well as in the task of recording the minutia of our own) that we’re actually spending less and less of our time actively living?*

Before you huff off feeling maligned, please see the the companion/counterpart to this post, in which I outline what I perceive to be the immense positives of blogging.

*Please note that these criticisms in no way applies to those enlightened souls who are currently reading this particular blog.  Please also note that for the purposes of this post I have temporarily forgotten the definition of “irony.”

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A Response to Facebook’s Terms of Service

Actually, the following is really a response to every outrageous disclaimer, release of liability, reservation of “rights, “and other blatantly unethical (and dubiously legal) provision that appears in the EULAs (End User License Agreements), ToSs (Terms of Service notices), and lack of Privacy Policies that are constantly being shoved down our throats by large corporations. I plan to extend this eventually; for now, “enjoy.”

ERLA/ToS (End Reader License Agreement):

1. PRIVACY POLICY

I hereby declare that I (“me”, myself”, or “a human”) am endowed with an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive Right To Privacy, as identified and articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, that no action, speech, indication of accord, or other form of representation (symbolic or otherwise) on my part or that of another party (with particular reference to any coercive actions undertaken by the corporate sponsor of the forum in question, know as “Facebook”) can be construed to signify that I have waived said right, and that I intend employ any means necessary to safeguard said right against unlawful infringement or revocation, including but not limited to:

i. Refusing, even under duress, to disclose any and all personal information I do not want published, marketed, manipulated, misused, and made visible to everyone under the sun.

ii. Acting in direct violation of any privacy-related directives or policies provided by Facebook that are or would be generally viewed (if anyone actually bothered to read them) as being coercive, unlawful, unethical, unjust, or otherwise so completely devoid of adherence to standards of reason and/or public expectation that they would be laughable in any other context. In particular, I shall retain the right to ignore the directive that “[my] User Data must be accurate and current,” and will likewise reserve the ability to disseminate “false, misleading or fraudulent information,” and more specifically to “provide any false personal information in [my] profile” whenever I deem it necessary to do any of the above to safeguard my real-world identity from spammers, id thieves, targeted/behavioral marketing firms, and all other parties who I do want to endow with the ability to track and/or impersonate me. I will likewise “attempt, encourage [and] facilitate… the above” whenever possible, for the purpose of increasing public awareness about the dangers of excessive information disclosure.

2. CONTENT POLICY

I hereby reserve an “irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license” to all content I choose to display, modify, and/or produce within the framework provided by Facebook, with the stipulation that all such content may be used in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike of the Creative Commons 3.0 license, which explicitly prohibits any party from deriving or seeking to derive any monetary compensation from the use of said material. Specifically, no party is permitted to “(a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content [I] (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website, or (b) to use [my] name, likeness and/or image for any commercial purpose,” particularly “in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.”

3. INDEMNIFICATION FROM GUILT-BY-ASSOCIATION : RELATIONSHIPS

I hereby disavow any responsibility for or association with the actions and/or behaviors and/or expressed desires and/or attitudes of all wayward associates, especially those collectively referred to by the corporate sponsor of the forum in question (known as Facebook) as Friends, pursuant to the statute of limitations established in sec. A1 of HSAGC (the Humanoid Self-Awareness and General-Consciousness Provision of the SSE (Sentient State of Existence), also known as Common Sense, wherein it is stated that the actions/attitudes of an individual associated only loosely with an individual of the same species can have only a limited bearing on the actions/attitudes of the latter individual in the event that at least one (1) of the following conditions are satisfied: i. Parties in question have contact only in as much as is allowed by the confines of the kind of entity to which this agreement refers – namely the series of constructs collectively known as “social networks.” ii. The first party engages in activity/speech/representation in question without first consulting the second party (in this case, the author) as to the merits/propriety of said activity/speech/representation.

4.  LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS*

These terms are subject to change at any time, without notification, opportunity for redress of grievances, compensation for emotional or bodily harm, internal tax audits, or any other proof or manifestation of the accountability which you might otherwise expect.  Any legal disputes arising between you and the content owner must either be settled by binding arbitration, or by letting the author get what he wants (please note that there is usually no difference between the aforementioned options).   Your continuation past this point on the page indicates that you have read and understood all of the above, that I am liable for nothing and responsible for even less, that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, and that if you try it is very likely that you will shortly thereafter find yourself being prosecuted for copyright infringement, breach of contract, conspiracy, and any other obscure sections of the penal code we can dig up that might be applicable to your circumstances.

*Please note that I break from my previous style in this section: rather than writing a summary of my own legal prerogatives (as far as facebook is concerned, after all, I have none), I felt it would be more useful to “translate” that capitalized section found at the bottom of most ToSs and EULAs, into terms that (a) actually mean something, and (b) can be understood by ordinary mortals.

Facebook pulls a “Google”; now owns all user info

I think it likely that we all just haven’t paying attention for the past few years, and collectively failed to notice that facebook has always given themselves the right to do whatever they want with the content their users post – but for whatever reason, the New York Times reports that Facebook’s recent changes to their policy regarding user content have produced a fairly substantial outcry from the general public.  Of course, I’m completely in favor of any increase in critical scrutiny towards large coorporations content policies, but I’m also somewhat bemused as to why this change has generated so much criticism, when google has openly admitted to doing the same thing for years.

In case you’re curious, here’s the exact verbiage that has caught everyone’s attention.  If you’ve read my post on google’s content policy, this might sound rather familiar:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof. You represent and warrant that you have all rights and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses.

– Exerpted from http://www.facebook.com/terms.php

If you find all this even remotely concerning, you might also want to take a look at this video from adbusters.org.  Though it does seem to veer dangerously close to conspiracy theory in places, it nevertheless provides a valuable perspective, as well as additional information corroborating the fact that Facebook actually does have a coorporate agenda (surprise!) which doesn’t necessarily coincide with public interest.

Thoughts on Social Media and Virtual Communities: Wikis

The following is one of several posts which I’ll be “porting” over from a website devoted to a wonderful class I recently took on Social Media and Virtual Communities, which was taught by the legendary technologist Howard Rheingold (I’d provide a link to a bio, but he’s everywhere; you can find him on Twitter, Wikipedia, any one of his ten websites, and a wide range of other social media sites).  I had an opportunity to do a lot of mental calisthenics in that class, the results of which I thought I’d post here on the offchance someone might find them mildly interesting.

On Wikis and Writing

It occurs to me that I have a marked tendency to write in blog form.  Even in the context of a wiki, which supports a far more piecemeal approach, I almost always tend to strive to create a coherent narrative.  This probably explains, in part, why I have a deep-seated fear of editing wikis: the first (and last) time I tried to edit Wikipedia, I started rewriting an entire paragraph to make it flow more coherently.  Oddly enough, the same characteristics of the wiki medium that make me so terrible at dealing with it have also been cited as some of the (few) failings of Wikipedia.  In the words of author Stacy Shiff, found in an excellent New Yorker article on Wikipedia, “the entries can read as though they had been written by a seventh grader: clarity and concision are lacking; the facts may be sturdy, but the connective tissue is either anemic or absent…Wattenberg and Viégas, of I.B.M., note that the vast majority of Wikipedia edits consist of deletions and additions rather than of attempts to reorder paragraphs or to shape an entry as a whole, and they believe that Wikipedia’s twenty-five-line editing window deserves some of the blame.  It is difficult to craft an article in its entirety when reading it piecemeal, and, given Wikipedians’ obsession with racking up edits, simple fixes often take priority over more complex edits. Wattenberg and Viégas have also identified a “first-mover advantage”: the initial contributor to an article often sets the tone, and that person is rarely a Macaulay or a Johnson. The over-all effect is jittery, the textual equivalent of a film shot with a handheld camera.”

Despite what it might sound, I happen to be an ardent supporter of Wikipedia and the paradigm it represents; wikis have long been one of my favorite forms of social media.  But the above analysis, coupled with my own thoughts on the importance of imperfection in the digital media, makes me wonder what the overall consequences of the wiki phenomenon might be in regards to the evolution of language.  Must our lingustic standards undergo change an across-the-board change (presumably towards the less-structured)?  Or is it our  standards of “wiki-literacy” that need a major overhaul?  Alternatively, perhaps there’s a way to find some common ground: might we eventually come to recognize and accept a greater difference in writing intended solely to impart fact, as compared to that whose purpose is to discuss and analyze ideas?   I’m strongly in favor of the last alternative – I’m just not sure how to promote it’s development.  I’ll think about it.