What if social media networks were recalibrated to encourage healthier use and accentuate the positive?

Seth Godin summarizes how social networks have undermined communication and culture with cheap efforts to achieve “engagement:”

And so the social networks created a game, a game in which you ‘win’ by being notorious, outrageous or, as they coined the phrase, “authentic.” The whole world is watching, if you’re willing to put on a show.

That’s not how the world actually works. The successful people in your community or your industry (please substitute ‘happy’ for successful in that sentence) don’t act the way the influencers on Twitter, YouTube or Facebook do. That’s all invented, amplified stagecraft, it’s not the actual human condition.

His prescription is aimed at social media networks, but we would all benefit if traditional media could listen and apply it, too:

Amplify possibility. Dial down the spread of disinformation, trolling and division. Make it almost impossible to get famous at the expense of civilization. Embrace the fact that breaking news doesn’t have to be the rhythm of our days. Reward thoughtfulness and consistency and responsibility.

Indeed. What if social media were recalibrated to encourage healthier use of social media networks? The companies who produce these systems often say their algorithms act neutrally. This is plainly false. You can’t write an algorithm without making decisions about how it will work, first and foremost among them the decision of what the output should be.

Amplifying outrage might be a cheap way to keep people scrolling and clicking, but it’s not healthy—for the users or, in the long run, the social media networks.

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Early news about new covid-19 variants

The BBC has a good plain-English summary and Q&A about the new coronavirus variant causing so many infections in the UK. Key points include:

  • It is suspected to spread 70% more easily than the main coronavirus variant already in circulation (a R0 of 0.4 more than the earlier strain).

  • There have been changes to the protein spike it uses to enter cells—the same spike the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines target.

  • For now, scientists are optimistic that the vaccines will continue to provide protection against the new variant. (It will take a while before we know for certain. It will be interesting to see whether the infection rate for this variant is higher than the infection rate for earlier variants among the test groups in the Phase 3 trials of the current vaccines.)

  • Further mutations affecting the spike could diminish the effect of the vaccines.

  • This is an indication that, as with the flu, we’ll need to update coronavirus vaccines annually to address adaptations in the virus.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, a similar, but not identical, mutated variant has surfaced. (Via Crawford Kilian.)

(EDIT: There are not enough differences in the virus for this to constitute a new “strain.” It is better termed a “variant.”)

Apple’s approach to user privacy: Agreeing with Gruber (and Jobs)

Regarding Facebook’s complaints about Apple’s requirement that app makers get users’ consent to tracking, I think John Gruber has it just right:

Facebook: Free as in Bullshit

It’s an unfortunate quirk of the English language that free as freedom and free as in beer are very different meanings of free. But when you see an ad headlined “Apple vs. The Free Internet”, most people would assume they’re about to hear an argument about free as in freedom.

Not Facebook. They’re arguing about free as in beer.

This may well result in diminishing the effectiveness of personalized advertising. If so, so be it. Facebook’s argument is along the lines of arguing that the police shouldn’t crack down on burglaries because it might hurt pawn shops that have been thriving during a years-long crime spree. The information used for tracking belongs to the users whose behavior and interests is being tracked, not to Facebook and the companies, no matter how small and noble, who advertise with them.

Kara Swisher: ‘Facebook’s Tone-Deaf Attack on Apple’

It’s entirely possible, and I say it’s true, that Apple’s bottom line does not depend on privacy invasion not by happenstance but because the company well and truly believes in privacy as a human right to its core.

Steve Jobs on Privacy

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English, and repeatedly. That’s what it means. I’m an optimist, I believe people are smart. And some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.

That’s what we think.

I’m on board with that. I want my operating system to ask me before apps track what I do. Facebook’s concern is that it knows many of its users do not actually want it to track them in the ways that it has become accustomed to tracking them. I have no sympathy for that.

My devices are supposed to work for me, not for Facebook. If that means Facebook makes less money—if that even means Facebook fails—I do not care. I don’t think Facebook will fail because it has to ask users to track them. But if it does fail, I’m okay with that.

Escaping the Algorithms

It’s been said, in various ways, that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Although that’s an oversimplification, and sometimes arguably just wrong, I know I’m not the only one who has sometimes felt like Facebook or Twitter is trying to mess with my mind in order to get me to keep scrolling and notice ads.

Several days ago, I recalled with nostalgia a time 15 or so years ago, before Facebook1 and Twitter–the earliest days of social media. Blogs were still relatively new, LiveJournal2 hadn’t been sold to Russians yet, and our social “echo chambers” hadn’t yet met the amplifying effect of social media feed algorithms. I monitored the blogs and news sites I wanted to follow using a RSS reader like FeedDemon or NetNewsWire.

Then, a few minutes after that moment of nostalgic reflection, the obvious struck me: Those things are all still out there. I still read blog articles. In fact, if I count on Facebook to promote them to me, I probably miss a bunch of articles I’d like to read.

So, I downloaded NetNewsWire, loaded in an old OPML file, culled out the feeds that hadn’t been updated in years, added a few, and soon had a working set of feeds I liked.

One of the default feeds that came with NetNewsWire belonged to Manton Reece, who started Micro.blog. Micro.blog is a microblogging system that’s not ad-supported, and its discovery timeline is chronological only–there’s no algorithm trying to figure out what will keep you scrolling and clicking. Of course, that means it’s not free, but I’m giving it a try.

In just a few days, my Facebook time has decreased, and my optimism has increased. And now I’m writing a blog post for the first time in years.


  1. Or at least, before people like me who had already graduated from college could have Facebook accounts. 
  2. Yeah, I had one. It was a good way to stay in touch with college friends pre-Facebook.