Psychology Social Networks

Social networks and their impacts on personal psychology & society

I’ve been using social networks for many years. My original masters thesis revolved around the then emerging technologies of social networks. I coupled the ideas of early day twitter & Facebook & combined them with a virtual learning environment for universities.  Back then, I thought that social media, the semantic web & Web 2.0 as we called it, was the future.

Through the years I’ve adopted more of these platforms and integrated them into my life. I’ve continued to study them from both a personal & a societal point of view, and in the last few years my view has shifted radically. Read More....

Put the laptop away & read a newspaper

I’ve cancelled my Netflix account – and that’s just the beginning of the cull

This has been a long time coming but I’ve finally cancelled my Netflix account. I’ve had a Netflix account off and on for years, almost since they started rolling out online streaming and on the whole, it has been mediocre at best. I did enjoy having access to older TV shows such as Bottom and Red Dwarf, which I grew up watching & always enjoy putting on for nostalgia, but I finally decided to end my subscription.

Netflix on the whole is a good service. It is relatively cheap & does have some good content. The problem stems from the one reason for Netflix existence, and that again is content.

In recent years, the tug of war between the tech giants for our attention has intensified. What was once a relatively straight forward transaction between customer & service has become a war to keep us engaged for as long as possible.

Content has become the latest battleground & if I’m honest, my attention span has finally snapped. Like many people, I favour watching content online now as opposed to the more traditional mediums such as TV & radio. My music is stored in the cloud thanks to iTunes match, so I no longer need to worry about syncing music to my devices. Similarly, between Netflix & Amazon Prime I have access to a great deal of premium content. I have my favourite YouTube subscriptions which keep me entertained, and my favourite podcasts in iTunes. I have a newspaper subscription to both The Guardian & The Times in the UK because I support good journalism, but I also read The Verge, The Register, Minimalism Life, Mac Rumours, Macworld, Ars technica and Revolver on a daily basis online. I read Mini Magazine each month & Mini World. I have countless kindle books on the go & I’m working through my paper book collection thanks to my quest to be a minimalist. Then we have the DVR, and my Xbox Games Pass. The list is endless.

That last paragraph is a small example of the problem I’m talking about, and the composition of the paragraph just goes to show what’s going on with our attention. It’s a mess.

When I was completing my bachelors degree around 2006, I had a paper subscription to Mini magazine & Mini World, along with a paper subscription to Custom PC magazine. I had a few TV shows recorded on the DVR which I’d watch at my leisure, and I’d have one book at a time, normally from the university library. I had a fairly large DVD collection but this was limited by both my income & my desire to actually go out and buy the DVD. Same with Xbox games.

The inherent problem with modern media delivery is the lack of in-built stopping cues. From my two examples above, you can see that in 2006 I had in-built stopping cues. A stopping cue is anything that brings a natural conclusion to a task.

If I finished a DVD box set for example, I’d have to physically go and buy the next series. That was a stopping cue. Something to nudge me into thinking ‘that’s probably enough TV, now go and write that essay’. Similarly with books, I’d have a library book limit of 5 books, so I’d take out a few texts at a time & struggle home with them in my backpack. I’d read the books & return them. I listened to a few podcasts back in 2006, but I’d listen to these on my iPod, which was offline at all times, meaning I’d single task the listening of podcasts while walking somewhere.

Contrast that with 2018. If I finish an episode on Netflix, the helpful UI auto plays the next episode or the next series. If I finish all episodes in a series, it will algorithmically recommend new content based on my viewing habits. Without a stopping cue, I’m encouraged to waste all of my time wanting to watch everything which looks interesting on Netflix. Similarly, for such a low monthly fee, the further stopping cue of cost is removed, meaning another barrier to me binge watching has been removed.

Netflix isn’t the only guilty party here. Amazon do exactly the same thing on Prime Video. It used to be that a friend or colleague would personally recommend something to read or watch, or perhaps an album to listen to. These where valuable recommendations given to me by trusted third parties with a good understanding of my tastes and placed within context. The algorithms of today are just a brute force tool to keep you engaged on their platform.

YouTube is another prime example. I personally run an ad blocker, so I don’t see Google Ads on YouTube (say what you will, but I control my browser & choose not to allow advertising at a network level), but YouTube & parent Google are in the ad business, meaning the more engaged you are the more ads they can show you. This means they throw psychologists, neuroscientists, UX gurus and everything but the kitchen sink at their platform to maximize eye-ball time & engagement. The longer you are hooked, the more ad revenue they can yield.

There is an old school of thought in computer science which suggests that with any free service, you are not the customer but the product. These platforms don’t’ exist to serve you, they exist to sell your attention to advertisers. Tim Wu highlights this brilliantly in his book The Attention Merchants.

I read & research a lot about ethical computing and ethics online, and even I was sideswiped by the realisation that I’d fallen into the attention merchants trap. I’d gone from a productive computer scientists, reading journal articles, learning, formulating new ideas & examining web technologies to just another consumer of content.

As a self-employed academic & business owner I am solely responsible for my time management. From scheduling time to write, to completing work for clients, it’s down to me when & where I work. This also means that if my attention is disrupted, I become less productive & less able to do my job. If you work in a regular workplace, you will have targets & rules, perhaps you aren’t allowed your phone, or perhaps your internet usage is monitored. I have none of that & I need to rely on my own self discipline.

I’ve got to admit that my discipline has been tested & destroyed thanks to the modern content platforms such as YouTube and Netflix. It got to the point where I had Netflix shows running on my laptop sat next to my desktop, so I could try & catch up with shows while working.

I watch YouTube videos while I’m supposed to be concentrating & my attention is fragmented. This has had an effect on my workload, the speed at which I can get things done & also my general motivation.

This attention sapping extends across all popular ‘content providers’ as we should now refer to them. Instagram takes up too much of my time & attention, as does Twitter. I’ve actively wiped my Facebook account & stopped using it, but still use Whatsapp to keep in touch with friends on Android.

The news websites have been tweaked to always rotate headlines. Headlines are modified throughout the day based on metrics until the most engaging ones are found. News is delivered in Real Time and is never-ending & always inconclusive. This sort of news delivery, via websites, social media or the TV news channels is frenetic, chaotic and by far the most distracting & anxiety inducing part of my day. The age of outrage is truly upon us & its present in most aspects of our internet usage.

Twitter is alive with the sound of trolling & political discourse, often descending into pointless fighting. Polarization and outrage are favored by the platforms as the psychologists at Twitter and Facebook know this is good to keep you jacked in and checking for updates. Trump is golden for Twitter engagement & Twitter stock prices.

Netflix & Amazon prime don’t rely on advertising dollars, but they keep you hooked with auto play and recommendations to keep you as a customer, paying monthly fees & to amass more data which they can sell to content producers. The bigger their numbers, the better the content they can get from the studios.

Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music. They use algorithms to recommend more music. You have so much music to listen to that you need to dedicate more of your time to listening. The art of single album listening is dead. The data they collect can then be used to profile customers & probably sell to third-party advertisers.

Podcasts have taken off big time, but now they are full of advertisements and the content normally reflects the distracted nature of society, generally a bit lackluster, repetitive and shallow. Research is a thing of the past. There are now so many podcasts that I can’t keep up with the ones I’ve listened to for years, never mind find new ones.

So this argument isn’t just about Netflix, it’s about tech companies in general in 2018. The obsession with content creation for the sole purpose of engagement has led us down a dangerous path. If we are all so distracted by trying to keep up with all of the content, who is doing the deep work? Who is thinking of solutions to the major problems we face?

The work I do now in a week I could have completed in a day in 2006. Back then, when my magazine was done I’d have to wait until the next month for a fresh copy. Cost constraints and availability where my natural stopping cues. Now, with an almost infinite amount of content being generated, reaching the end of anything has become a thing of the past.

I honestly think this is leading to a spike in anxiety in our societies & is also the reason for higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem. With all of this content, all of these amazing lives in front of our eyes day & night, how can we ever feel content?

I know I still have the ability for deep work, I just need to reclaim my attention. Back in the mid noughties I finished my Degree, worked in the city as a web developer for a few years & then went back to do a masters Degree. Funnily enough, in 2008, as the social media platforms started to appear & Web 2.0 was the buzzword, I did a Masters thesis on combining an E Learning environment with aspects of a social media platform. I even built the prototype. Shortly after, social media became the big thing & more pervasive in everyday life.

After studying it for my masters I fell for social media Big Time. Since then, for one reason or another, I’ve delayed completing my doctorate. I now firmly believe that the distraction of social media, and the modern internet giants, coupled with their manipulative & psychologically perfected platforms have sapped a lot of my attention and ability to complete deep work. I also believe that my self-confidence, self-esteem and anxiety levels have all been affected by Social Media and the distraction technologies.

But no more. After committing to reading a long reading list of relevant books throughout 2018, I’ve realised how these platforms work & also the polarizing & damaging effects they are having on society. I’ve decided to take action and reset to a more manageable online life.

So far I’ve already cancelled all music streaming. I have an extensive MP3 library & any albums I do want, I’ll buy in second-hand shops or via the iTunes store. This means I’ll actually value those albums, instead of blindly consuming. It also means I’ll choose carefully which albums I introduce into my collection.

With regards newspapers, I now buy a physical copy of the Sunday papers and catch up on the week’s news curated into proper stories. I still checkout the headlines online, but I do this once a day in the morning & never follow the live news blogs.

I’ve uninstalled all news apps from my iPhone & I’ve also removed all music & video apps with the exceptions of the Music app which I use with my MP3 collection.

I’ve cancelled Netflix & I’ve unplugged my Amazon Fire Stick. If I want to watch a TV show, I’ll buy the DVD or pick it up on the iTunes store and watch it via the Apple TV. I’ve just done that with the BBC series Detectorists & enjoyed it much more watching on my own schedule and without the crazy algorithms trying to snatch my attention. Without Auto play, we watched 2 episodes each evening with a break in between. The simple task of having to click the next episode is enough for us to call it a night with the TV. And I’m going to do that old-fashioned thing & recommend Dectectorists to everyone.

I’ve subscribed to Mini Magazine & Mini World on my iPad. I await each months issues just like the old paper magazines.

I use the Forest App on my iPhone to plant trees and stop me from picking up the phone. I do the same in Firefox on the desktop & laptop to stop me checking news & social media sites for upto 2 hours at a time. It has really helped to rewire my brain.

Curating my own collections has slowed down content consumption for me. I still use YouTube but now only subscribe to a select few channels. I watch YouTube via the Kodi app, which pulls in only my subscriptions and no recommended content.

I’ve unfollowed a lot of people on Twitter, including all news agencies & most brands. I only use the Tweetbot app on iPhone and Mac now, which syncs my timeline position, removes all ads, keeps everything in chronological order & allows me to mute certain keywords forever. I’ve also disabled all retweets from all users. This has reduced my Twitter usage to around 10 minutes a day from what was around 3 hours a day.

I no longer use Facebook but keep an account just in case anyone needs to contact me. I’ve not logged in now for almost a year. I still have an Instagram account, but only check it a couple of times a day. I’ve accepted the fact that if I miss posts, I’ve missed them. Changing my attitude to content has really helped.

I’ve cancelled the Xbox games pass and buy used games from CEX. The act of going looking in the shop for a bargain has really helped me to buy games with intent. No more giving things a go just because it’s free. My time isn’t worth it for a freebie.

You can apply these techniques across most content platforms. Think about the content you are consuming & equate it to time well spent. Ask yourself if the time you will spend watching something or consuming something for the sake of it is worth it? even if the content is free.

Also, when producing content, either in blogs, social media or for any other purpose, create the stuff you want to create. Don’t just create what you think will be most popular or most engaging. This is having a negative effect on the internet as a whole, with each of us producing near identical content to try to engage. Forget your audience & produce stuff which you love. Even if you think nobody in the world will be interested in it, stay true to your ideals and your passions & forget the magic formulas.

So I say, dump the attention merchants & reclaim your head space. Next time you leave the house for a walk, leave the phone at home. It’s liberating. In the evening, forget the curated playlists of rubbish & instead pick an album with intent & purpose & enjoy the whole thing as an experience. Ditch the algorithms & trust your own taste & judgement. It’s such a nice feeling nowadays to listen to an album from start to finish as the artist intended, and then it ends & you get that natural stopping cue to do something else.

Introduce stopping cues wherever you can. If you want to write a blogpost, turn off your wifi & set a timer. Just see how much you can get done. The same goes for household chores, set a 20 minute timer to clean your house & you will get it all done against the clock. Without that timer, it could take an hour with distractions.

Consider buying movies & ditching the streaming. You might lose access to a plethora of content, but you will regain your attention & so much of your valuable time. You may spend a little more money, but a lot of the good TV & Movies aren’t available to stream anyway, so you will be choosing quality content over quantity of content. You will also change your viewing habits & reclaim your time.

Use an adblocker.  There is enough stuff that you already want without getting new ideas.

Ignore algorithmic recommendations, you already have enough to get done.

Buy a newspaper or magazine & enjoy some time offline.

Visit a record shop. They are still amazing & the people you meet may become great sources of inspiration.

Set times for tasks. For me social media is when I sit at my desk for 10 minutes in the morning, and again after lunch for 10 minutes. If you use it for business, create a buffer account & schedule your posts in a single sitting once a day.

Read news in a single sitting! There will be new news every time you check back, but any real news will still be on the website tomorrow.

Reclaim your time, your self-esteem & your smile. I guarantee you will feel less anxious & more content with life. You will also get more of your things done & feel like you have extra time, as opposed to too little time in your day.

It truly is liberating to reclaim your attention & I can’t recommend it enough!

Social Media Addiction

Quitting Social Media – The Evidence Is Becoming Clear

This evening I was having a quick browse on the internet. I was looking for Social Media videos, more specifically scientific lectures regarding the effects of social media on our brains. Purely by chance I stumbled across this TEDx talk by Dr Cal Newport. Cal is a university professor & by chance, he didn’t ever sign up to Facebook when the rush to create accounts was in full force. His reasons at the time are quite trivial, he was a little miffed that Mark Zuckerberg’s business had taken off so well while so many others had failed in the dot-com bust.

However, this gives Cal a unique perspective on Social Media. He has been able to observe his friends, peers & students adopting the technologies and how the platforms have fundamentally changed people’s behaviour.

The arguments are very compelling.

People argue that rejecting social media makes you some kind of Luddite as these technologies are fundamental to our daily lives in the 21st century. Cal argues that social media isn’t a fundamental technology, it’s an entertainment platform of little value & can be easily compared to the casino slot machine. The only difference is that we carry this slot machine in our pockets day & night & allow it to fragment & steal our attention.

Furthermore, social media isn’t required to be successful. In fact, he argues that the ability for deep concentration is ruined by the addictive entertainment nature of social media, making people less valuable in the workplace & less able to produce meaningful & valuable unique work. I totally agree with this point. I personally feel my concentration has been ruined by Social Media platforms & fragmentation of my attention. I’m already noticing huge changes in my brain function since quitting certain platforms and reducing my twitter use. I may just quit Twitter after watching this video.

Lastly, Cal’s final argument concerns those who say that they are light social media users, they use it to have fun and it causes no harm. Cal’s response to that is that it causes a range of harms, from fragmentation of attention to the inability to enter a state of deep concentration and achieve what psychologists refer to as flow.

Many of you will know that I’m super interested in social media and specifically how it is changing our relationships with each other & with the institutions & world around us. I have a lot more to write about this stuff & It will feature heavily in upcoming posts. Until then I’ll leave you with Cal’s video. Please do give it a watch, it might just plant a seed in your consciousness.


Twitter For Web - Full of noise

Slaves to the Algorithm – Social Media Algorithms

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about algorithms and their brute force introduction in to our everyday lives. I think there is a time & place for an algorithm but in many ways, they are failing us as users & failing us as a society.

There are times algorithms are of great use, such as those used by search engines to gather up millions of documents, sort them & hopefully present the one closest to your search term. I take issue with the algorithms developed by the likes of Google, but more with respect to how they censor results & control information flows. Their information retrieval techniques have always been astonishing & their ability to sort & serve data with algorithms is commendable, however, they are now straying into the murky territory of policing the information we see which is disconcerting. I very much recommned switching to Page for your search. Google results without google & their creepy data mining.

However, on the whole, the Google search algorithms aren’t the ones I’m concerned most about. That dubious award goes to the likes of social media algorithms. I was a major fan of the original Twitter for example. Back when Twitter started, we had a simple, chronological timeline. Tweets were shown in order of post time and it was impossible to miss a tweet. We didn’t have access to a retweet button, you had to do that manually with an RT and copy & paste. This meant twitter was much less spammy as it took the actual effort to retweet. We also didn’t have the like button. If you liked something, you either smiled to yourself, or you replied & started a conversation. It was social.

Fast forward to 2017 and Twitter is an algorithm infested quagmire. If you use the official app or a web browser, you are presented with a hideous mess of tweets you may like, based on tweets liked by people you follow. You also have a selection of tweets you may have missed and a whole bunch of other crap tweets you have no interest in. Combine that with sponsored tweets & Twitter have quietly achieved infinite scroll. You literally can’t catch up on all of your tweets as it will just keep presenting you with content which you never asked to see. They have also introduced the quick retweet buttons and threaded conversations, meaning your timeline is now chock full of noise and junk. The simple & easy to follow timeline of the past is now an algorithmically controlled advertising & data mining leviathan.

I personally try to limit the amount of noise I see online. I’ve read hundreds of books from the fields of tech & psychology which all suggest that we are suffering from information overload. The ‘attention merchants’ as many like to call the social media companies & content creators are finding more ways to aggregate data & content in order to keep your eyeballs on their platform. Numerous academics suggest that human beings simply haven’t evolved & developed the mental capacity to take in so much data. Our brains simply aren’t able to deal with so much data, leaving us lethargic & burnt out.

I personally felt like there was a rapidly diminishing return on the value of Social media. I gave up Facebook completely over 6 months ago due to their algorithms & the febrile political and social atmosphere developing on the platform & I also deleted all Facebook apps from my smartphone. Snapchat is gone. I now stick with Twitter & have closed down all of my other social accounts.

I found that the algorithmic changes implemented by tech companies worked too well. I was hooked on social media and constantly trying to absorb stream after stream of information & content. With no end in sight & the possibility of infinite information & an infinite scroll in apps, I decided to take control of my social media usage. Add into that trendint topics & hashtags & recommended users to follow & you are combarded with information you didn’t seek.

I initially considered stopping using all forms of social media but decided instead to focus on using only Twitter and tailor my experience away from their algorithms & back towards something I can use. This meant making some changes to the way I use the platform.

The first thing I decided to do was to unfollow all but my favourite friends on twitter. No more companies, no spammy content, no people I’d added through curiosity or after a single exchange. I wanted a concise list of people to maximize the value of twitter & minimise my exposure to information. I managed to get down from 1400+ people I was following to around 300. I’m constantly reviewing this list but find it manageable. I unfollowed all news outlets and breaking news accounts, I stick to reading that on news websites when I choose to.

The second step I took was to turn off retweets for everyone I follow. No exceptions. I was interested in original content & I’ve found that links people actually take the time to recommend with a tweet and a link are much more valuable to me than those which are simply retweeted, often blindly. It took a while to click-through to everyone to turn off their retweets, but this dramatically changed my twitter experience. Now, when I wake up in the morning I may have 40 tweets to catch up on which takes a matter of minutes. Before I literally couldn’t catch up so I would give up and potentially miss important tweets. The first major problem with algorithms, they decide what I’d like to see rather than letting me decide.

My next step was to ditch the official website & apps altogether. Twitter bundles its algorithm features and sponsored tweets directly into the apps. This means that even with a small following count & no retweets, it will still show you algorithmically gathered content & bombard you with noise. The key is to use the Twitter API. I’ve used the Tweetbot app on ios for years and ideally, it shows everything on your Twitter timeline in chronological order. No algorithm junk, no sponsored tweets. The great thing I discovered was that TapBots have a version of Tweetbot for Mac OS. This means I can get the same ios style twitter interface directly on my mac. Whats more, I can use iCloud or Tweetmarker to sync my apps across all devices so it remembers where I left off reading on the timeline. I decided to go for Tweet Marker as this is an open & cross-platform service and can be used on Linux and other platforms I use regularly.

With tweetbot, I can now effectively manage my twitter experience & also reduce data overload. I’ve found my social media usage is back to early day twitter. I can check in a few times a day when I have a moment & get caught up on everyone’s tweets. I can then step away and do other things & resume later in the day. It is the perfect workflow for me.

Tweet Bot for Chronological twitter
Tweet Bot for Chronological twitter

Other advantages of Tweetbot include the ability to mute hashtags or keywords. Any keywords you add will allow Tweetbot to filter out entire tweets from your timeline which contain those keywords. These ‘mute words’ sync across your tweetbot apps. I have a few setup now as in 2017 my twitter was becoming a shouting match for politics instead of a useful resource. By adding a few simple mute words I can rid my timeline of the politics, saving me getting into a rage with fellow Twitter users. If 2017 has taught me anything, it is that political discussion & social media do not work. Without face to face discussion debate isn’t possible. So I now filter out the politics & stick to reading news sites without the debate & I chat to real people in person about the state of the world. Much more productive.

Mute function in Tweet Bot. -Perfect to hide politics and political tweets
Mute function in Tweet Bot. -Perfect to hide politics and political tweets

Over the Christmas period, I’ve decided to protect my tweets. This is for personal reasons, but mainly because I’d rather not have the whole world & people I no longer talk to gaining an insight into my time with friends & family.

The above workflow for Twitter is the ideal way to regain control of your social media from algorithms. It’s the main reason I stuck with Twitter. It’s not possible to apply a similar workflow to Facebook because of a lack of API access, so Twitter is the ideal platform still available to tailor in this way. By reducing the algorithmic noise you really will feel better about social media again.

I find Instagram is now unusable because of the algorithm, I miss so many people’s photos. A lot on Instagram is time sensitive, such as when someone posts and they are local to you, but you don’t see the post until days or weeks later so youuo can’t comment or meet up. I find that it is a much less social platform. It’s fun to browse pictures, but as a social platform, it fails miserably. I now also find that every other Instagram post is sponsored or an advert, so again information overload starts to creep in & the time sucking ability of social media begins to affect my productivity.

I’ve found modern social media to be anything but social & I’ve also discovered it becoming more addictive, with many of the negative side effects of addictive behaviour, from reduced attention span, to full-blown anxiety. It feels so nicely to wrangle it back into a usable technology.

Obviously, the issue of algorithms is a vast one. I’ve still not discussed those used by music streaming services or video streaming services, not to mention online shopping sites, but I’ll address these in future posts. I really just wanted to get some thoughts down on paper while I’m still reading around this subject & working out fixes.

I’d love to hear your hacks for getting around modern algorithms, especially in social media. I could take about this subject for days on end, but I’d much perfect to hear your thoughts.

Net Neutrality is dying – but not in the way you might think

Net Neutrality is defined as “the principle that Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication”. While many attacks have been made on Net Neutrality by large corporations, including trying to create a two tier internet & ISP’s slowing the traffic of competing streaming services, on the whole the basic definition of Net Neutrality has remained unscathed. However the definition of net neutrality may just be out of date.

As I see it, net neutrality is already dead. While it may be possible for anyone to create a website or web content & share it with the rest of the world, we have reached a point where a handful of gatekeepers restrict access to that content through their ubiquity & their algorithms.

Take my website for example. The vast majority of my traffic, more than 90%, now comes from google organic search. Only 5 or 6 years ago I would receive traffic from MSN (now bing), Yahoo, AOL, Ask and a plethora of other search engines. I would get hits from DMOZ and other directory sites & I would get lots of links from other blogs and websites.

Today, the majority comes from Google. Google has become the defacto search engine & this is a direct challenge to Net Neutrality. For one, algorithms cater all of your searches to you. This may sound wonderful, but it creates millions of separate filter bubbles. Before google made the algorithm changes that catered search results based on your own activity, a website would climb the ranks based on real world popularity. If you had an amazing blog post or popular webpage it would be promoted up the rankings for all users, regardless of their own browsing habits. This produced a genuine meritocracy in search & every website had its chance to shine, given the content was good.

A few years back, content was ranked based on how many other people linked to it & how authoritative it was deemed. This system could be gamed, but on the whole it worked very well. Around 2012 Google started to make changes. Probably due to the introduction of the Chrome web browser, Android phones and chrome books. Users started to integrate their online lives with Google. A google account was required for Youtube & Gmail and a whole host of their services. At this point, google had the perfect way to start slurping up all of your browsing data, all of your email contents, your google+ posts, your hangouts & messages. This allowed for specific catering of search results & pretty much ended authoritative content on google. This shift to locking users into google services was the first step of the major tech companies in shutting down net neutrality in a new way. It’s no good having great content if Google deems it of no use. This could have huge implications. Think political, social and corporate interests.

Google have made themselves the internet (and not just google, between google, facebook, twitter, instagram & spotify there isn’t any room for competition). By making themselves the first port of call for most web users, they have become the gate keepers. The judges of quality, the architects of our information.

This problem is further compounded by Google’s advertising model. My browser is very secure, I use Ghostery, Adblock & Privacy Badger to block as many trackers & adverts as possible. My search looks very different to that of most regular users, see the screenshots below.

Google with adblock
Google with adblock
Google without adblock - above the fold
Google without adblock – above the fold
Google without adblock - below the fold
Google without adblock – below the fold

As you can see from the above example, searching for badges on Google, in the top screenshot I’m given search results which aren’t filtered by any factors such as my browsing history, location or email contents. This is as close to how google used to work as possible. Without tailoring of my search results I’m mostly given the most relevant and best websites. This doesn’t take into account any blocking from search results google may have done of perfectly relevant content that has been deemed algorithmically unacceptable.

Now the bottom two screenshots tell a different story. That’s how my search looks when I’m logged into google & my ad blockers are turned off. They are hijacked considerably by advertising. Paid links. Most of the content above the fold is advertising content & is given more prominence through styling. It urges a user to click the content. This is not democratic. The more you can pay, the more you can sap search traffic towards content which may be incorrect, irrelevant or misleading. If you have the money, you can top all search results.

It’s the same below the fold, the bottom of the page is full of advertising and noise, the actual search results get lost amongst the noise. This is another way in which net neutrality is being destroyed. My search here is pretty mundane, just searching for badges in the UK, but imagine it was on searches such as climate change, political campaigns or even denial of events. If you had the bank roll & the manpower, you could top all relevant search results & influence a large part of the debate. Given that Google is now the defacto search engine, you could literally get any story in front of everyone searching a topic. The ability to shape or re-write history is yours if you can afford it. This will have profound effects on politics. We have already seen the power of the internet in politics both in the UK & USA and this will only get worse as people discover the power of the internet, not only to influence, but to avoid scrutiny.

I personally use startpage and duck duck go to search. It is not as convenient as being logged into a google account, but I know the results aren’t tailored & that my search history isn’t shaping my view of the internet. I recommend you all consider spreading your search wings & find less intrusive search engines.

Moving on to social media, if it’s photos you are sharing, you probably use Instagram (Facebook), if it’s instant messaging & text messaging, it’s probably whatsapp (Facebook) or Facebook messenger. If you want to share personal thoughts with close friends & family it’s probably Facebook you are using, and for more generic less personal sharing or professional social media use you probably use twitter. For your video watching, you probably use Youtube (google) & for music, no doubt it’s spotify.

You can see the issue here, nearly all of our online lives are controlled by a few companies. It is they who decide what we are allowed to see & they who take payment to promote the websites & views of those with the most money. You probably spend the majority of your time flitting between services owned by Facebook, Google & Twitter. This leads to a serious erosion of net neutrality as you are only exposed on the internet to content they see fit & proper (of course unless money is involved, in which case you can buy as many users eyeballs as your funds will allow).

Facebook is a company I have now distanced myself from. I have an empty profile on there & have even blocked access to Facebook urls in my hosts file on my computers. Facebook is the worst example of both data mining of users data & the filter bubble effect. Facebook wants to keep you online & on their platform, be it via a web browser or app. The Facebook feed used to be a basic set of status updates, you could visit & spend 10 minutes catching up with friends & sharing photos. It was a pretty benign service. I now see it as a serious threat to the open internet. Your Facebook feed is now a never-ending, algorithmically generated quagmire of information, all tailored specifically to you. If Facebook knows you are interested in something, it will show you more of that. Lots more of that. It’s almost impossible to finish using Facebook. All of your likes, all of your comments and all of your activity go towards building a picture of you. They profile every user & compare you to other users. Content other users similar to you like is shown to you. Your bubble becomes smaller and smaller until everybody is exposed only to information which they relate too.

This tailoring of information may sound wonderful if your interest is in something innocent, say kittens or coastal walks, but imagine if your interests are a little more serious. We saw in the UK how Facebook essentially split the country in half. Those of us on the Pro EU side & those on the Anti EU side. Each group were shown more & more information which reinforced their own view, while never being shown the other sides of the argument. This isn’t debate, it’s the reinforcement of divisions in society, the reinforcement of prejudices and without neutrality it has got way out of hand. I stopped using Facebook shortly after Jun 2016 after reading more & more about their algorithms & the filter bubbles they create.

As a web developer I can see the engineering thinking behind these algorithms. As feats of engineering they are superb & very accurate, however as someone who studied Web Development in a humanities department back in 2005 I can see that applying only engineering thinking to social platforms is a recipe for disaster. I believe that the referendum in the UK was extra devastating because of social media. Both sides, from what they could glean from their Facebook pages, thought they couldn’t lose. All of the information they received via Facebook reinforced their own views without ever challenging them. That is not a debate & with such algorithms it will only drive deeper divisions between every niche community in the world. With a referendum or a vote, chances are one side will always lose. It’s the whole point of putting things to a vote, but social media reinforced to both sides that their argument was beyond question to such an extent that the devastation was even greater for the losing side. And it spills out & has real world effects in society.

As I was saying earlier, I learned Web Development very early on. Back then it wasn’t really a thing & my degree route was actually called Web Content Management. We did web design & development, but we also did internet law, internet infrastructure, information architecture & information retrieval. We studied web accessibility for disabled users and a whole host of humanities focused modules alongside the technical modules. This gave me a great oversight of the internet, not just from an engineering standpoint but also that of a user & society in general. Back then, you didn’t google for things, you searched. Youtube didn’t exist, bandwidth was expensive & videos online kept to a minimum. It was much easier to read genuine fresh content, to learn new things & discover new ideas & ways of thinking. Back then it was a neutral place. Discussions were done on IRC or over instant messaging clients. They didn’t take place in public. Tweets didn’t exist & certainly wouldn’t have been used as authoritative quotes in the media. News wasn’t broken, it was triple checked, confirmed, edited and then published. We didn’t use personal information, we used nicknames or handles. We didn’t share private or identifying information. The net was a better place.

If you wanted to publish ideas, you first had to learn a bit about the internet, almost like getting a license to drive. We had netiquette (if you used ALL CAPS you where very angry). If you wanted to write to your MP, you had to write or email, not just shout abuse at them on twitter.

The internet will always have bias as long as engineers are programming the algorithms, but any tailoring based on your own interests introduces another layer of bias which is not healthy. If you think of a traditional library such as a university library, you would go to the shelves housing the subject you where interested in & every single book on those shelves would carry equal weight. Your selection would be based on reviewing a sample of books & choosing the most relevant. Search engines have taken this away from information retrieval as searches are first skewed by paid advertising, then by algorithms & finally by a users search profile. If you are constantly being shown things you are familiar with and never any variation, you will never develop a rounded knowledge of any subject. Imagine walking into a library & there being salesman pushing their books at you, shouting for your attention, it just wouldn’t happen.

I fear for the future of the internet if more people move towards these major tech players. The underlying technology of the internet will probably remain neutral, but if all the portals people use to access the internet are controlled by the likes of Facebook & Google, people will only ever be exposed to the content that is deemed fit. This could lead to major headaches for all democracies. Online electioneering is already beginning, the billionaires are bankrolling the politicians & secretly funding campaigns. They are creating misinformation & fake news is now a thing. They are mining vast quantities of data from social media & targeting users in extremely precise ways online. This funding is known as dark money & as it’s impossible to keep a track of online ad spending it introduces the ability to win elections by buying influence with unlimited spending. All of this information is ours to give, and modern web users give it freely. That needs to change. Consider your privacy, do you want pictures of your children appearing in advertising because in the terms & conditions you agreed to it states that all content becomes the property of Facebook? I know I wouldn’t!

So consider your web usage. If a website requires you to sign-up to browse, look for another service. Try some of the different search engines, they may be slightly less convenient, but your privacy is worth much more to you. If you use a Gmail or Hotmail account, remember that your emails are being scanned & used to cater your search results. Always log out of social media & google when not using them. Consider a service such as Proton mail or self hosted email. Don’t put your most intimate details onto Facebook & twitter. The moment you upload that content you lose control of it. Remember, these services make money from your clicks, they are designed to hold your attention and keep you on their websites. Be careful what you click ‘like’ on. Don’t help them market to you.

Install ghostery to stop these companies tracking your movements around the internet. Don’t rely on Facebook & Twiter for all of your news and facts. Anything that uses an algorithm will never give you balance & will only divide people further.

I intend to write more on this subject. I’ll address different areas one at a time, but hopefully this post will at least get you thinking. There is a world of wonderful & informative information out there on the Web, don’t let Google & Facebook hide it from you.

My Social Media Account

The dangers of Social Media – An end to productivity

You are going to think I’m being a complete dick with this post, but stick with it. I’m not saying that I’m not guilty of any of the points made (I am), just highlighting them in a way that makes you think.

I have been planning this post for a long time & researching these issues for many years. Back in 2008/2009 I based my Masters thesis around social media & it’s uses in a virtual learning environment. After writing 30,000 words & creating my own Social Media platform I realised the many benefits of Social Media when used within a specific context (in this case to enhance University learning). Although I did uncover many drawbacks which at the time (when Twitter was almost new & Facebook very basic) didn’t seem too grand.

Roll on 7 years & social media has become an everyday part of our lives. I for one used to love Twitter, to be able to interact with your peers & the people you looked upto. It used to be a great place, a place of enlightenment and learning. Now it has gone the way of many great tools & become the place to air your dirty laundry or advertise your latest product.

My Social Media Account
My Social Media Account

Social Media seems to be intertwined with daily life in 2015. It creates anxiety when people don’t have access to it. Conversations which used to be between friends at face to face meetings or over an instant messaging conversation/email/text/call are now conducted in the public arena. People are putting their entire life on display & it’s creating some interesting issues for society.

Instagram is a platform I used to enjoy. To see interesting things my friends had found, nice sunsets & new additions to well-known places. Now it’s the preserve of the narcissist & the self editors. We use it to present our best selves, perfectly edited & staged to make it look like our lives are perfect & wonderful. This may be all well & good, but when you are living your daily life (which tends not to be some amazing daily adventure) and you are bombarded with images of great restaurants, beautiful cityscapes, 1st class travel, gorgeous people wearing fabulous clothes, it does tend to make you feel a little inferior. This self editing has led to a climate of jealousy & insecurity. It’s plain to see with our young adults who try to always present themselves immaculately for every occasion. Roll back to when I was 16 and I had no money, grunge inspired jumpers with holes in & the best friendship group you could imagine. We also went on adventures & have such epic stories to talk about to this day.

This insecurity can manifest itself in many ways & I myself (who should know better) have even experienced it. Perhaps you feel you should have a better job, your car is a bit crappy, all of your friends & peers are doing well while maybe you are having a tough time. Rather than bringing people together, social media is breaking people apart. A sort of competitive instinct has developed where you aim to show you are doing better than your peers, simply by getting better instagrams, showing flashier venues or nicer vistas. It’s all fake.

It’s the same story with Facebook. People use that not as a social media platform to keep up with close friends, but as a platform to vent their political/social/personal desires & frustrations. Every time I go on Facebook to check if I’ve had a message from one of my friends (I have friends dotted around the globe) I find myself looking on with sheer disbelief. People are either having intimate exchanges (between partners) in public instead of between themselves, or they are venting their latest political or personal vendetta and sometimes generally being bigoted and racist. It’s a completely pointless platform now. Facebook is the platform I hate most. They hide content from people I actually know & show me conversations between someone I know & someone I don’t. POINTLESS! They also introduced that idiotic share button, so everyone’s feed is now full of pointless crap. They have made it so people don’t use the internet, they just use Facebook. One finely tuned propaganda & marketing machine. Oh, and they censor posts (You can’t type the word Tsu for example, because you may be linking to the social media network which pays users for the advertising they see). Unethical.

Next we have twitter. This used to be the preserve of the more techie & learned people. This was actually shown in a statistic but I can’t lay my hands on it right now (google “twitter users better educated” and you will see loads of studies). Essentially a study was carried out and University graduates tended to favour twitter over Facebook. Now twitter has become an advertising mecca for brands & self promotion. The interesting tweets get lost amongst the constant crap. Even if you trim your following list you still have promoted tweets to contend with. AD blocking cuts through them but it’s not the platform it used to be. Remember back in the day when you could text status updates to your twitter timeline? I bet few people remember that.

The social media landscape is now endless. Snapchat, Beme, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr and many more. All of them promoting insecurity & a luxurious, perfect life beyond our reach. Living everyday feeling inferior is a bad place to be. A life lived in the hope of one day living your dream life is a life wasted. Every day is precious & every day helps you build towards your own future, a future mostly dictated by the actions of right now.

I have found myself bowing to the pressure of Social Media. In my earlier posts you can read all about my attempts to live a more photogenic lifestyle (let’s just say it didn’t end well). This weekend I made a big change to stem this ridiculous digital ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’. I switched of the internet. More specifically I switched off all of my social media & notifications on my iPhone. I didn’t look at it once. My phone remained silent & to one side throughout all of Friday evening while we watched Children in need on the TV. We had fun, we cried, we ate rubbish food & donated. We actually had a really nice evening. I kept this up throughout Saturday & it was bliss. We got load of things done at home and had loads of time to spare. I’d advise you all to step away from your Social Media accounts during a set time each week. It’s called a blackout amongst the people who do it. Try an evening, and then a whole day, then who knows. It’s so liberating.

I’m not saying it’s all bad, but it is addictive, very addictive. It destroys your productivity too. I used to spend so much time reading content on the internet. Well written content from tech industry folks who I respected. I had a huge list of blogs & sites I’d go to for information. Nowadays, I tend to click only the links that are distributed on twitter. It’s bizarre and unhealthy. The internet was a great place before social media. Before baby scan pictures & your pets (I love your children & your pets, but it’s just not that interesting to the world all the time) the internet was filled with insightful writing & thought-provoking ideas. Now it’s an adword infested, self promoting pain in the arse which saps more time than I care to admit.

If you turn off your social media notifications on your smartphone & don’t open your accounts on your computer I guarantee it will give you anxiety. If I ask you to turn off your phone completely while we have a conversation, you will find a million reasons why you need to be reachable via phone. You don’t, if it’s an emergency (which it rarely ever is), someone knows where you are & can find you. I find the Smartphone has ruined old-fashioned face to face conversations with your friends. Checking your phone whilst taking to someone is like saying “I’m interested what you have to say, so long as a better offer doesn’t come up on my phone, so I’ll be checking that now and then to see if anyone more interesting is speaking to me”. The Smartphone infuriates me. It’s become such a vital part of daily life but such a burden in the process.

I’m guilty of most of the things I’ve talked about, but I’m working hard to take back my time & my social relationships with people. I’d rather meet you face to face for a proper catch up that I’ll remember, and I’d rather be interested in hearing all of your stories directly. I hate the “Oh, I saw you did that on FB/Twitter/other pointless platform” response. It kills conversation dead.

This is just the start of a series of posts I’m going to do on cutting the cord with social media. I’ve still not covered click-baiting, armchair activism, bullying & all the other wonderful things that Social Media easily allows. I’m not trying to suggest it’s all bad, it’s just becoming noisy. It’s less of a useful tool & more of a way to keep us distracted & entertained. As this isn’t an academic paper & I’m sure most people have stopped reading by now, I’ll leave it at that. I’d love to hear your comments on this though.