10 May 2018

How To Manipulate Elections In The 21st Century

Propaganda isn’t a new idea, but we’ve been witnessing its evolution into a 21st century version. Through history, propaganda wasn’t always true but it was usually believable. The word propaganda came into normal use around 1914 but the act it describes is far from new. The ancient Greeks used games, theatre, courts, and religious festivals to spread their ideas, the mass media of the time. Over time, the medium for propaganda evolved to the modern media at the time. Today’s propagandist has a lot more choices for outlets, including the Internet and social media which can spread ideas faster than ever, with opaque fake identities that are hard to catch.

Although spreading stories to push a belief isn’t anything new, making them believable isn’t important anymore. Starting the spread of a false stor...

25 April 2018

Sorry, Reality Violates Our Community Guidelines

Censoring content—whatever the reason, be it for keeping adult content out of the hands of minors, because of manufactured outrage, or any other reason—is an interesting dilemma when it comes to digital content. Parental controls aren’t exactly new or complicated, and online services are increasingly adding “kid-friendly” restricted versions of their services. For the most part, those restrictions aren’t anything too novel as far as gated content is concerned. However, digital bans are more enforceable and certain formats of content can be modified on the fly with surgical precision. We might not always know it’s happening or why since sometimes the only reason for a takedown is a violation of “community guidelines.”

China is one of the most cited examples of digital censorship (though there are other countries with similar policies including Turkey). China’s Internet is controlled by the state and exists within what’s referred to colloquially as “The Great Firewall of Ch...

15 April 2018

We're Addicted To Social Media

It’s not just you; leaving social media is hard. Social sites appear to be genuinely addictive and human psychology has a difficult time resisting them, especially when everyone around us is using them. The effects may even be getting stronger as we find social sites part of our daily lives, carried in our pockets and increasingly, worn on our wrists.

The idea that a service could be addictive isn’t exactly new. CNN posted about Facebook addiction in 2009 and there are articles that are even older. Addiction and social media is hitting to the mainstream discussion lately as questions about the true effects of social media continue to mount after the 2016 election.

Addictive effects of social media have been studied with varying degrees of scientific rigor. In data gathered from an experiment called 99 days of freedom, which encourages people to stop using Facebook for 99 days,

05 April 2018

The Web And Our Attention

The Internet has a weird influence on our attention. We decide the value of a web page, and whether it’s worth reading, in seconds. Ten to twenty seconds is the average amount of time people spend on a web page (assuming it loaded reasonably quickly; waiting for a page to load drives people away). We look in a very particular pattern when we visit a page to decide what it’s about and if it’s valuable to us. Studies have figured out how we behave and sites (and advertisers) are learning to tailor pages and ads to attract our attention and hold onto us for longer.

Not all of this is bad. Sites can use the research to improve how people actually read their content which makes our experience better. This saves us time and effort when browsing the web because we’re able to visually scan a page and, if the site is designed well, get the gist of it ...

25 March 2018

Your Digital Stuff May Not Be Yours

On a Friday in 2009, some people discovered that copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm had mysteriously vanished from their Amazon Kindle e-readers. While this wasn’t the only case of mysteriously vanishing books (copies of Harry Potter and Ayn Rand novels vanished at other times), it was interesting enough to hit the news because 1984 was involved. The disappearing books was not, of course, accidental. Amazon had intentionally taken down the books and deleted downloaded copies from Kindles due to copyright disputes. It sparked an interesting discussion about ownership of digital goods; depending on how you’ve purchased them, maybe you don’t fully own them.

Amazon acknowledged that perhaps its choice to delete the books from the devices of customers who had bought them was a bad one and promised it would change its policies. But, in 2012 Amazon

07 March 2018

Big Cloud, Big Leverage

Net neutrality is extremely important in protecting the Internet as it exists today, but it may not go far enough. The guidelines recently struck down by the FCC that preserved net neutrality only apply to Internet Service Providers, the companies that provide access to the Internet. While we need regulatory protection from ISPs due to a lack of competition, we may be forgetting the other side of the cloud; the services we access via our ISPs. Owning a big, widely used cloud means online services have their own leverage over ISP business and customer experiences.

Neutrality as it pertains to online services is distinct from net neutrality, though related. It’s possible for an online service to violate the goals of net neutrality without violating net neutrality. Online services are able to see what ISP their customers come from, assuming they’re not using a VPN service, TOR, or something similar to mask their origin. Using that information, a service could treat visitors ...

25 February 2018

Social Media is Eating the Web

The social web of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other big social media sites is slowly eating the rest of the Internet. We know that social media only makes up part of the Internet, albeit a large and growing part, and that there are online destinations outside their networks. But, a lot of online destinations that aren’t part of the social web are still integrated with it, bringing social features and its associated tracking along for the ride. To put it bluntly, it’s getting harder to escape social media, and especially Facebook.

As we continue to get more connected across the Internet and our media habits are more integrated with the various social networks we’re part of, more sites now rely on social media to get visitors. It’s a good bet; more than half of people online are on Facebook and the average American spends over 40 minutes a day on it. continue reading

14 February 2018

The Bots Have Arrived

It’s hard to know exactly who, or what, an online persona actually is. We’re relatively sure that the people we know in real life are who they claim to be online (though their online life is likely nicer than their real one), but as for anyone else, it’s anyone’s guess. The fact that some larger social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in particular, are also home to the persona of brands further blurs the line of what’s real and what’s not. Then, there are the bots.

Social media bots come in a variety of flavors. At their simplest, they’re helpful and provide things like unit conversions, periodic market prices, or other non-conversational information. At their more complex, they stand in for brands or people, tweeting about current news and even trying to talk to other users. With the more complex bots, it can be hard, if not impossible, to tell a bot from a real person. Due to that difficulty and the ability to manipulate online conversation by influencing ...

04 February 2018

The Unraveling Social Ecosystem

Social media promises to connect people across distances big and small, no matter where people are physically located. Social networks do provide a platform for that, but only if you become a member of the network that connects the people you want to connect with. If you use Facebook, while a friend uses Twitter, that’s a no-go unless you both use the opposing platform or look at things without interacting with them. It’s worse when it comes to interest groups that operate primarily on a particular social network. Without using the platform, it’s impossible to keep up with and to participate with the group. Many social platforms aren’t as open as they pretend to be, and limit how much you can see (if anything at all) and stop you from interacting until you sign up.

Physical communities have been using online platforms to connect for a long time. Technologies such as email have provided open ways for anyone to be involved before the rise of social networks. The move to soc...

11 January 2018

Your Internet Might Be Different From Mine

When we get online, we may not see the same Internet as others. All of us are living in what’s referred to as the “filter bubble,” or a manufactured version of reality produced by algorithms tailoring content to our interests. The effect produced is an echo chamber that reflects the beliefs social media and search engines think we hold. We may feel more connected and educated, even though the opposite is true.

The online world has quietly evolved from one of openness and community to one divided by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, human nature makes challenging our beliefs uncomfortable so we haven’t noticed as our feeds changed to reflect us. Our social media is comfortable but more divisive than we could have ever imagined. It’s relatively rare for our feeds to show us oppo...

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