Social computing: Tribes and tribulations


Knowledge is only a rumour until it is in the muscle – Huli Wigmen

For me, the main difference between being social online and offline is, to be social online we have to be active. Offline, we can be passive. We can be involuntarily social in real life just by showing up. We don’t even have to talk. In fact, sometimes it’s better if we don’t.

Online, social computing refers to the systems which support humans who share and use information such as teams, communities, organisations, and markets. Some ways like photos or status updates on social media platforms are obviously social especially if we have our family and friends online with us, less obviously it may be bidding on eBay or writing a blog – we are doing it, because we presume we have an audience, we have other people in our minds. Recently, I wrote about Virtual Presence, and then The Sustainable Academic wrote a response which turned my monologue into a dialogue. How fabulous is that?

Technology like RSS and permalinks, bridges people’s blogs and then on Amazon or Argos, content generated by social interaction is used to produce new functionality and value for their users. So, we have the most helpful favourable review, and the most helpful critical review. This helps users get a summary of reviews quite quickly and for those who like to review the chance to be seen as a top reviewer which of course encourages reviewers to write more reviews.

It is a study in user participation. Rather like Napster was. Instead of a central database of songs, it had every downloading user become a server, and thus grew a network.

Amazing really since the main question with the birth of the WWW was: Who would put information up for free? Turns out not just information, but songs and bandwidth too. We feel better when we connect and share. Indeed PageRank based its ranking of the importance of pages on how many connections (links) a page had, which can be good and bad depending on who is doing the linking and why. However, writing Wikipedia entries as well as debating the policies and guidelines to improve an infrastructure has led to great accurate pages. Open source software works the same way, people are absorbed coding and teaching in their spare time to make better software for everyone free of charge.

Writing this, I feel all warm and fuzzy, the Internet is a lovely place to be, but then, we get the not so loveliness, the trolling, the prejudice, the awful videos of violence and crime uploaded and left online which once seen cannot be unseen. Apparently, terrible behaviour happens more easily online because offline in our communities we have strong institutions, social norms and laws/comeback from the people around us. Online we only have the weak institutions of social media so people feel freer to say and do whatever they want to as there is very little comeback. And, these people are not behaving like that online or offline I presume in front of family and friends, they are faceless and fake-named, and might be quite different in real life.

A recent article on the BBC talked about how child abuse videos on Facebook have remained online even after many complaints. One Facebook employer is quoted as saying that they can’t censor too much as people will leave the platform, and they don’t want that as: It’s all about making money at the end of the day. Don’t be fooled by the word social.

This was demonstrated in a BBC interview last year with Theresa Hong who led up Trump’s social media campaign HQ to get him elected:

Interviewer: What were Facebook, YouTube, and Google people doing here?
Hong: They were helping us… They were basically our hands on partners.

Trump spent $95m alone on Facebook ad campaigns so Facebook sent over loads of people to help with A/B testing and trialling of colours and buttons and ads to persuade people to vote for Trump. He bought time and skills from Facebook. Hong also wrote Trump’s Facebook entries saying that it was easy for her to write in Trump’s style because: He was authentic, he was refreshing.

I saw a thread on Twitter yesterday wondering about Hong as a person: Is she nuts? In her job, I guess it is rare to meet someone who is saying exactly what they think, when the rest of the time many people who want to be leaders and crave power lose touch with why they wanted to be leaders and will do and say anything to gain influence over other people who stop being people and are viewed as mere commodities. History is full of examples.

It is insidious. Let’s take a look at the language used around social media and social computing. We have community and tribes. What? Marketing guru/racketeer (see I am trialling labels) Seth Godin likes to talk about tribes as people who already want what you have to sell, you just have to find them so you can authentically fit into their experience. What? In business speak, a tribe is a group of people who go the extra mile, who know their why, and who share values as well as objectives. Gah!!!!! Really though this sort of language is empty because the bottom line is really just money and power, and tribes are led by leaders, Godin says so, he says tribes need leaders to guide them i.e., sell them stuff. Basically if you go on enough and target accurately enough you can be a leader. I’ve said it before the most persuasive person wins.

I got email today about Saving the Earth and whilst it suggested that we pick up rubbish and recycle, the point of the email was to sell me a meditation kit. A perfect example of Slactivism which is present everywhere online. Yep I could go outside and make a difference or I could sit indoors, buy this kit, share its purchase and my deep feelings of angst about Saving the Earth on Facebook. Job done. Aren’t I a worthy person?

It is so easy to like a page or retweet a tweet to make ourselves look moral and socially aware. It takes no effort at all. It is much more time consuming and emotionally difficult to write letters or visit people in detention centres. I have a friend who does this. She is amazing. She picks up rubbish on the beach, she campaigns for change socially and politically. She lights the fire by living a good life. She is a leader. She is authentic and makes the world a better place with every action she takes. She is refreshing.

But, it is not easy to be as brave and committed as my friend. We have a powerful need to belong not least of all because social exclusion throughout history has led to disastrous consequences so it is difficult to question social norms for change (not just for a laugh like these odd social norms). To question authority and ask: Why are people being detained indefinitely when they haven’t done anything wrong? And to bear witness, well that takes courage.

We also have a powerful need not to lose our jobs so that we can pay our bills so we behave differently at work. Often we don’t even acknowledge that we have kids ‘cos it might impact how people see us, less committed. In fact, most jobs doesn’t recognise that kids come out of school at 3.30pm and make their parents work until 6pm. Completely nuts.

And, yet a lot of us think that things are fairer online because a computer is in charge. It is an automated authority, doesn’t have emotions, it won’t have a sudden rush of blood to the head and make some biased decision which helps its pals. But, people are running these networks, just look at all the jobs and terminology in this overview of social media: The goal is to create content compelling enough that users will share it with their social networks. Not to serve anyone but to use them. It is like a weird variation of a pyramid scheme. We are back to the idea of customers and competitors, and user or used.

Theoretically, social media could be fair as according to Marx the two necessary components of a public sphere are political communication (equality of voice) and political economy (equal access to resources). And perhaps it was until businesses got on board and wanted to advertise in every last space. It is not equal now, is it? Not when one person can spend $95m on Facebook advertising and buy up all the skills and time on offer to design ad campaigns with the sole goal of persuasion conversion aided by the technology which never gets tired of repeating and tweaking the same thing over, and over, and over again.

And, even if we are suspicious, we are still taken in by positive culture talk. The lack of a dislike button on Facebook is not about creating a positive feel good culture, but more about preventing users from disliking a product or service which has paid for advertising. The well-designed newish emoticons of happy, sad, ha-ha, angry are perfect for data mining. Look at the emoticon and then the comment and figure out the language: Happy =Ease of Use, Angry= low battery life, and so on. It is another form of analytics like the web beacons Facebook created off Facebook to collect which sites users liked and where they went, so they could target these users with similar websites back over on Facebook.

In his book, Social Media: A Critical Introduction, Christian Fuchs talks about social media from a Marxist and neo-Marxist point of view looking at the slave-like labour necessary in the creation of technological goods from the knowledge worker elite (software engineers) who get paid to the prosumers (producer consumers) who fill up the social network with free data and connections to other people, who don’t get paid, and then their personal data name, age, address, personal likes, dislikes, etc., is sold to whoever wants to sell to them. The user/prosumer is a commodity.

That said, when I was reading the reviews on GoodReads (another great example of social computing, purchased in 2013 by Amazon, whose policy changes caused many reviewers to leave), someone said about Fuchs’ book:

This book is crap.

Which made me laugh. But, it doesn’t even come close to my favourite review, to date, about a crime thriller on Amazon (and I don’t even read crime thrillers) which says:

I really didn’t enjoy this book at all. The writing is not to my taste; it is written like an audio description you get on the TV for vision-impaired people, or like a computer dictating sentences on auto-pilot.

I laugh every time I read this. To be absolutely fair I will add that, both books have good reviews too thus, demonstrating the democracy of the Internet.

I have seen social computing described as collective intelligence and also as the lowest common denominator. It is both and everything else on the continuum between these binary extremes.

I love social computing and after wading through all the pages I did to write this blog, I hate it too. Whatever it brings us, it also robs us, leaving us feel grubby and used. There is much we can do online but so much we cannot and wouldn’t want to. So, it is good to step away now and again and experience our humanity. As, Steve Pavlina says:

I’ll take a smile over a smiley any day.

… and perhaps a comfortable reassuring silence.

Ahhhh yes. Now you’re talking!

Human-Computer Interaction Conclusions: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (6)

[ 1) Introduction, 2) Dialogue or Conversation, 3) User or Used, 4) Codependency or Collaboration, 5) Productive or Experiential, 6) Conclusions]

I love the theory that our brains, like computers, use binary with which to reason and when I was an undergraduate I enjoyed watching NAND and NOR gates change state.

As humans, we are looking for a change of state. It is how we make sense of the world, as in semiotics, we divide the world into opposites: good and bad, light and dark, day and night. Then we group information together and call them archetypes and symbols to imbue meaning so that we can recognise things more quickly.

According to the binary-brain theory, our neurons do too. They form little communities of neurons that work together to recognise food, not-food; shelter, not-shelter; friends, foes; the things which preoccupy us all and are classed as deficiency needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Over on researchgate, there was discussion about moving beyond binary which used this example:

Vegetarian diet vs Free Range Animals vs Battery Farmed Meat

If it was just vegetarian diet v battery farming it would be binary and an easy choice but add in free range and we see the complexities of life, the sliding continuum from left to right. We know life is complex but it is easier in decision making to just have two options, we are cognitive misers and hate using up all our brainpower. We want to see a change in state or a decision made. It also reflects the natural rhythms of life like the tide: ebb and flow, the seasons: growing and dying, it’s not just our neurons its our whole bodies which reflect the universe so patterns in nature resonate with us.

I began this series with an end in mind. As human-computer interaction (HCI) is an ever expanding subject, I wanted to pin it down and answer this question: What am I thinking these days when I think about human-computer interaction?

For me, HCI is all about the complexities of the interaction of a human and a computer, which we try to simplify in order to make it a self-service thing, so everyone can use it. But with the progress of the Internet, HCI has become less about creating a fulfilling symbiosis between human and computer, and more about economics. And, throughout history, economics has been the driving force behind technological progress, but often with human suffering. It is often in the arts where we find social conscience.

Originally though, the WWW was thought of by Tim Berners-Lee to connect one computer to another so everyone could communicate. However, this idea has been replaced by computers connecting through intermediaries, owned by large companies, with investors looking to make a profit. The large companies not only define how we should connect and what are experience should be, but then they take all our data. And it is not just social media companies, it is government and other institutions who make all our data available online without asking us first. They are all in the process of redefining what privacy and liberty means because we don’t get a choice.

I have for sometime now gone about saying that we live in an ever changing digital landscape but it’s not really changing. We live the same lives, we are just finding different ways to achieve things without necessarily reflecting whether it is progress or not. Economics is redefining how we work.

And whilst people talk about community and tribes online, the more that services get shifted online, the more communities get destroyed. For example, by putting all post office services online, the government destroyed the post office as a local hub for community, and yet at the time it seemed like a good thing – more ways to do things. But, by forcing people to do something online you introduce social exclusion. Basically, either have a computer or miss out. If you don’t join in, you are excluded which taps into so many human emotions, that we will give anything away to avoid feeling lonely and shunned, and so any psychological responsibility we have towards technology is eroded especially as many online systems are binary: Give me this data or you cannot proceed.

Economic-driven progress destroys things to make new things. One step forward, two steps back. Mainly it destroys context and context is necessary in our communication especially via technology.

Computers lack context and if we don’t give humans a way to add context then we are lost. We lose meaning and we lose the ability to make informed decisions, and this is the same whether it is a computer or a human making the decisions. Humans absorb context naturally. Robots need to ask. That is the only way to achieve a symbiosis, by making computers reliant on humans. Not the other way round.

And not everything has to go online. Some things, like me and my new boiler don’t need to be online. It is just a waste of wifi.

VR man Jaron Lanier said in the FT Out to Lunch section this weekend that social media causes cognitive confusion as it decontextualises, i,e., it loses context, because all communication is chopped up into algorithmic friendly shreds and loses its meaning.

Lanier believes in the data as labour movement, so that huge companies have to pay for the data they take from people. I guess if a system is transparent for a user to see how and where their data goes they might choose more carefully what to share, especially if they can see how it is taken out of context and used willy-nilly. I have blogged in the past how people get used online and feel powerless.

So way back when I wrote that social media reflects us rather than taking us places we don’t want to go, in my post Alone Together: Is social media changing us? I would now add that it is economics which changes us. Progress driven by economics and the trade-offs humans think it is ok for other humans to make along the way. We are often seduced by cold hard cash as it does seem to be the answer to most of our deficiency needs. It is not social media per se, it is not the Internet either which is taking us places we don’t want to go, it is the trade-offs of economics and how we lose sight of other humans around us when we feel scarcity.

So, since we work in binary, let’s think on this human v technology conundrum. Instead of viewing it as human v technology, what about human v economics? Someone is making decisions on how best to support humans with technology but each time this is eroded by the bottom line. What about humans v scarcity?

Lanier said in his interview I miss the future as he was talking about the one in which he thought he would be connected with others through shared imagination, which is what we used to do with stories and with the arts. Funny I am starting to miss it too. As an aside, I have taken off my Fitbit. I am tired of everything it is taking from me. It is still possible online to connect imaginatively, but it is getting more and more difficult when every last space is prescribed and advertised all over as people feel that they must be making money.

We need to find a way to get back to a technological shared imagination which allows us to design what’s best for all humanity, and any economic gain lines up with social advancement for all, not just the ones making a profit.