Now that we’ve had a little more time since the initial shock and awe of the Elon Musk purchase of Twitter, social networks have had a chance to build up interest as potential next networks to replace Twitter.
We have been given a rare chance, as a culture of social media addicts, to break a cycle we keep repeating and move to something that isn’t just owned by somebody who stands to make billions of dollars from your decision.
Unfortunately, we’re in real risk of falling into the same well as before, convinced that the open choice is somehow too complicated. That has meant that two separate social networks, Post and Hive, have driven interest from Twitter’s failings, away from open networks like Mastodon or the broader Fediverse, or even legacy networks that have generally proven good corporate citizens, like Automattic’s take on Tumblr.
Don’t fall into the well again.
Cookie notices are usually pretty generic and dry, so I really noticed how human and honest this sounded.
Jarvis Johnson explains that big companies like Google and Facebook don’t need to listen in on you via your phone/tablet, because they already collect so much data on you that they can guess what ads might be relevant on that alone. I love the critical thinking aspect to this - it’s easy to oversimplify complex systems, because our brains aren’t good at understanding that many variables, but reality is not required to bend to our beliefs.
I know you are not a terrorist but still you give privacy for understood in many aspects of your daily physical life. You expect it every time you go to the bathroom and close the door, you expect it when you go to the doctor or you confide to a close friend.
Everyone has things that keep to themselves, things that only say to a special person, things that can be shared with close friends or family, things they talk only to a doctor and so on and so forth.
If in real life we have so many layers, why don’t we expect the same level of privacy on internet? We are giving to Facebook, Google, Linkedin and the others more information about ourselves than we give to our SO or even to ourselves (remember Google is investing in DNA mapping).
[T]he web looks more and more like a feudal system, where the geography of the web has been partitioned off by the Frightful Five. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are our lord and protectors, exacting a royal sum for our online behaviors. We’re the serfs and tenants, providing homage inside their walled fortresses. Noble upstarts are erased or subsumed under their existing order.
Relevant points [of disabling Disqus] are:
- Load-time goes from 6 seconds to 2 seconds.
- There are 105 network requests vs. 16.
- There are a lot of non-relevant requests going through to networks that will be tracking your movements.
Among the networks you can find:
google-analytics.com- Multiple requests; no idea who’s capturing your movements.
connect.facebook.net- If you’re logged into Facebook, they know you visit this site.
accounts.google.com- Google will also map your visits to this site with any of your Google accounts.
pippio.com- LiveRamp identify mapping for harvesting your details for commercial gain.
bluekai.com- Identity tracking for marketing campaigns.
crwdcntrl.net- Pretty suspect site listed as referenced by viruses and spyware.
exelator.com- More identity and movement tracking site which even has a virus named after it!
doubleclick.net- We all know this one: ad services and movement tracking, owned by Google.
tag.apxlv.net- Very shady and tricky to pin-point an owner as they obsfuscate their domain (I didn’t even know this was a thing!). Adds a tracking pixel to your site.
adnxs.com- More tracking garbage, albeit slightly more prolific.
adsymptotic.com- Advertising and tracking that suppposedly uses machine learning.
rlcdn.com- Obsfuscated advertising/tracking from Rapleaf.
adbrn.com- “Deliver a personalized customer journey across devices, channels and platforms with Adbrain customer ID mapping technology.”
nexac.com- Oracle’s Datalogix, their own tracking and behavioural pattern rubbish.
tapad.com- OK, I cant’t be bothered to search to look this up anymore.
liadm.com- More? Oh, ok, then…
sohern.com- Yup. Tracking.
demdex.net- Tracking. From Adobe.
bidswitch.net- I’ll give you one guess…
mathtag.com- Curious name, maybe it’s… no. It’s tracking you.
I can’t visit many of these sites because I have them blocked in uBlock Origin so information was gleaned from google crawl results of the webpages and 3rd parties. Needless to say, it’s a pretty disgusting insight into how certain free products turn you into the product. What’s more worrying are the services that go to lengths to hide who they are and what their purposes are for tracking your movements.
We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it?
The learning algorithms have no ethics or boundaries. There’s no slot in the algorithm that says “insert moral compass here”, or any way to tell them that certain inferences are forbidden because they would be wrong. In applying them to human beings, we leave ourselves open to unpleasant surprises.
The issue is not just intentional abuse (by trainers feeding skewed data into algorithms to affect the outcome), or unexamined bias that creeps in with in our training data, but the fundamental non-humanity of these algorithms.
So what happens when these tools for maximizing clicks and engagement creep into the political sphere?
This is a delicate question! If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.
Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this. The idea that these mechanisms of persuasion could be politically useful, and especially that they might be more useful to one side than the other, violates cherished beliefs about the “apolitical” tech industry.
One problem is that any system trying to maximize engagement will try to push users towards the fringes. You can prove this to yourself by opening YouTube in an incognito browser (so that you start with a blank slate), and clicking recommended links on any video with political content. When I tried this experiment last night, within five clicks I went from a news item about demonstrators clashing in Berkeley to a conspiracy site claiming Trump was planning WWIII with North Korea, and another exposing FEMA’s plans for genocide.
This pull to the fringes doesn’t happen if you click on a cute animal story. In that case, you just get more cute animals (an experiment I also recommend trying). But the algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.
But even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try. Good intentions are not going to make these structural problems go away. Talking about them is not going to fix them.
We have to do something.
I’ve talked about this before: As web designers, we can’t trust the network. Sure, we have to contend with mobile data “dead zones” and dropped connections as our users move about throughout the day, but there’s a lot more to the network that’s beyond our control.
Here’s a roundup of some of my “favorite” network issue related headlines from the last few years:
- Sky Broadband misclassified the jQuery CDN as a malware site and broke much of the web for their users.
- Comcast admitted to injecting self-promotional advertising into web pages served by their Xfinity routers. (They have also been called out for artificially inflating subscriber bandwidth usage with their own crap.)
- United was recently called out for blocking access to the New York Times on their in-flight Wi-Fi.
- Samsung smart TVs were found to be injecting video ads into video streaming apps.
Some of these issues can be avoided by serving content over HTTPS, but that still won’t enable you to bypass things like firewall blacklists (which led to the jQuery outage on Sky). Your best bet is to design defensively and make sure your users can still accomplish their goals on your site when some resources are missing or markup is altered.
We can’t control what happens to us in this world, we can only control our reaction to it.