Categories
internet

Best buy: on Facebook and Instagram

Back in 2012, many observers scoffed at the billion-dollar price that Facebook paid for Instagram. Who’s laughing now? That acquisition seems more and more prescient as time goes by—as M.G. Siegler remarked recently, “The smartest thing Facebook ever did was buy Instagram.” The social networking giant managed to secure its own life raft, long before most of us noticed that the seas were getting choppy.

Now, Facebook itself is sinking. My friends, at least, have long since stopped posting there. The conversations that do happen on Facebook tend to be politically-charged and impolite. As Seigler notes, many teens never even join the service. At the same time, the company faces increasing pressure from government watchdogs—both for its role as a Russian lever in the 2016 election and for alleged censorship of particular political viewpoints.

Happily (for Zuckerberg & Co.), Instagram has avoided these problems. The service’s exclusive emphasis on photo-sharing—formerly Facebook’s best feature—has made it irresistibly sticky—even to the Snapchat generation. Plus, because Instagram only does photos (i.e., no text posts and no links), its conversation threads are less political, less controversial, and generally less fraught than on Facebook. Meanwhile, the branding firewall between the two companies has prevented Facebook’s regulatory controversies from engulfing Instagram. Six years post-acquisition, many users still don’t know it happened.)

Facebook’s strategy has worked perfectly on me, at least. I visit Facebook only rarely—and often only for a few seconds each time. There just isn’t much there for me.1 But Instagram remains a daily habit; who doesn’t love seeing snapshots of friends and family?  ■


  1. To be fair, I may not be the best anecdotal example, since I’ve worked hard to detach myself from Facebook these past few years. I’ve deactivated my account multiple times, I refuse to install the app on my phone, and I run content blockers to prevent the news feed from showing up on the web.
Categories
culture tech

Stealing back the attention that tech stole from me

Justin Rosenstein, who helped invent the now-ubiquitous Facebook “Like” button, writes this:

“These are our lives — our precious, finite, mortal lives. If we’re not vigilant, TVs, computers, and mobile devices will guide us to spend our time and attention in ways that don’t align with our deepest desires.”

Here, Rosenstein succinctly captures what I was feeling when I picked this site’s name. “Careful tech” is about approaching our devices with more clarity, more mindfulness, and, yes, more caution. The risk is real: we’re in danger of wasting our lives.

We may even be losing our souls—those things that make us human. Tech distraction suppresses our agency, deadens our compassion, dulls our consciousness, and drowns out our sense of purpose. When we’re held captive by our gadgets, we stop pursuing noble causes and instead squirrel away our hours, chasing red badges and refreshed timelines.

Rosenstein continues:

“Businesses that depend on demand-generation advertising… are incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to stare at them, from sensationalist journalism, to outrage-baiting discourse, to addictive software. That’s why they sometimes bring out the worst in humanity: they turn people into a product for advertisers to buy…. I’m hopeful we can move onto other business models—in the way that HBO & Netflix have shown is possible for television—in which content producers’ and consumers’ interests are economically aligned.”

“Free” ain’t free

A corollary to all this? “Free” software isn’t free. I’m bartering something for that $0 price tag; in many cases, I’m giving up my attention. Ad-supported software attacks my focus; over time, it makes me shallower, more anxious, and less present. This barrage makes me unhappy.

That’s one reason paid software still matters, even in 2017. In buying great software, I incentivize developers to build apps that help me feel better—instead of ones that steal my focus. I’m helping align the app ecosystem with my best interests. So maybe money can buy happiness, after all. Or, at least, it can fend away unhappiness.

Owning my attention

But I can’t wait around for the software industry to align its financial model with my best intentions. I’m on the Internet all day, every day, which gives my monkey mind plenty of opportunities to get distracted. So here are some changes I’m making now to guard my attention:

  • I’ve locked down my phone notifications. Those buzzes and alerts aren’t doing me any favors. One example: until today, my podcast client pinged me every time a new episode was available. That’s pointless; very rarely do I drop what I’m doing to listen to a show. There are too many apps I let interrupt me for no good reason. You might find it helpful to scroll back through your phone’s notification center, so that you can remember which apps are constantly sending reminders.
  • This feels scary, but I’ve even turned off Twitter notifications. I’ll no longer instantly be aware when someone retweets or replies to me, unless I’m actively using the app. This not only protects my attention, it also prevents me from obsessing about how much (or more often, how little) interest my posts drum up.
  • If a phone app has a reasonably-priced upgrade that disables in-app ads, I’m going to spring for it. For example, I check Weather Underground, my weather app of choice, multiple times each day. That app lets you obliterate ads for $1.99 a year. That’s a good buy.
  • If an app has advertising or distracting media that can’t be turned off, I’m going to delete it. I’ve already dumped Facebook, the preeminent offender here. I’ve also killed the Weather Channel app, which offers a $3.99 “no ads” option but doesn’t (as far as I know) let you turn off its ridiculous ‘video’ and ‘news’ features.
  • First and second pages of my home screen
    First and second pages of my home screen

    I’ve rearranged my home screen (yet again) to make productivity and focus my priorities. My most productive apps (OmniFocus, Calendar, and Drafts) get pride-of-place in the bottom dock. The first page is completely empty, as a reminder to be intentional about what apps I open. On the second page, everything gets buried into folders. And within those folders, the first folder page is dedicated only to favorite apps that improve my focus. Check out the screenshots at right.

These are small gestures, but hopefully they give me just a little bit more headspace. ■

Categories
internet

Facebook escape: tips for deleting your account

Yesterday, I finally deleted my Facebook account.

The great divorce

I’ve flirted with deletion for months now, repeatedly deactivating Facebook, only to come crawling back a few days later.

This past weekend, however, I made the first change that couldn’t be easily undone: deleting all 500+ friend connections using a Google Chrome script. That step had “weight” to it, since rebuilding my social graph would mean starting from scratch. I would have to manually, painstakingly send each individual request, and confused friends would hesitate to accept, since they’d wonder whether my account was legit (“Wasn’t I already friends with Matt? Is this a spammer?”)

As it turns out, the great unfriending purge lent me just the momentum I needed. Once that was done, I felt liberated to finally delete my account for good. Of course, as Facebook eagerly reminded me, I haven’t escaped quite yet. There’s a two-week waiting period; if I log in again, my old account will instantly be resurrected (“It’s a MIRACLE!”). This is the last Facebook face-off; the company leaves the door unlocked for those whose willpower can’t last the fortnight.

But, again, the unfriending step has given my Facebook departure some inertia. Because that old account no longer has any friends, I’m not tempted to come crawling back. Even if I did log in, there’d be nothing to see; Facebook’s a ghost town to the friendless.

Facebook deleted, but

I do have a confession. At the same time I was deleting my old account, I was creating a new one—a “dummy” account that’s 100% undiscoverable and nearly empty. It has no Facebook Messenger history (by which old friends could track down my profile). It has no ‘like’ history or profile info for Facebook to target advertisements against.

Why maintain a dummy account at all? I’d rather cut ties with Facebook completely, but there are three reasons I’m keeping my toe in the water:

  1. IMing with my wife. We use different chat services for different purposes. iMessage works well for on-the-go contact. Google Hangouts serves as our ‘work chat’ solution. But we still need an asynchronous conversation for sharing articles and links. Divorced from the grossness of Facebook itself, Messenger is actually a pretty decent messaging app. More importantly, it’s one my wife is already using. So my dummy Facebook account has one (and only one) friend: my wife.[1]
  2. Promoting my online work. Although Facebook isn’t for me, others have found ways to make the service tolerable—even valuable. I want them to be able to enjoy my work; a reader is a reader, no matter how they find me.
  3. Keeping tabs on new tech developments. Like it or not, Facebook is a major player in the online space. They’re likely to be influential for years—even decades—to come. If I want to understand the features and products that Facebook will announce in the future, I’m going to need an account. I might as well have it ready to go.

Summary: tips for deleting your Facebook account

Quitting Facebook is hard. The service is optimized for capturing and recapturing human attention; it’s literally engineered to keep you from leaving. But it’s possible to ease yourself out the door, so that the actual account deletion feels anticlimactic. To summarize, here are my recommendations:

  1. Try account deactivation first. Short-term Facebook “fasts” are a good first step. They wean you off the service’s constant, algorithmic stimulation. Plus, you may be pleasantly surprised how much more time you have and how much better you feel. These realizations will make it easier to take the deletion step.
  2. Unfriend everyone before deleting. Taking this step makes it less likely that you’ll reverse your decision after the fateful click. One note: Facebook makes it infuriatingly difficult to unfriend people in bulk. Fortunately, there are browser extensions that can speed up the process dramatically.
  3. Consider using a “dummy” account. Facebook’s orbit is hard to escape. You may need to manage a Facebook page for work, or Facebook Messenger may be your family’s default chat platform. For these one-off needs, create a replacement account, locked down and hidden from everyone you choose. Just remember that Facebook specializes in increasing user engagement; it will do everything it can to suck you deeper into its ecosystem. ■

  1. It sounds kind of sad when I put it that way, huh?  ↩
  2. Pencil artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.
Categories
internet

The everyday annoyance of quitting Facebook

I first shuttered my Facebook account a few months ago. For the most part, I haven’t felt tempted to reactivate, even though I miss reading friends’ comments on our kid’s photos.

But Facebook isn’t just “sticky” from a relationship perspective. There are also some practical annoyances that make it difficult to resist the blue behemoth. From time to time, I’ve even given in and and temporarily reopened my account (then immediately deactivated it again). Here’s what keeps dragging me back:

  • Many web services rely on Facebook identity for authentication. When I sold my old Apple Watch a few weeks ago, I was forced to reactivate my Facebook account in order to log into Swappa. Lesson learned: whenever possible, avoid using third-party services (e.g. Facebook, Google, or Twitter) to create accounts for new apps and web services. If an app forces you to connect to Facebook, consider skipping it (and letting the developer know why).
  • Some meatspace (i.e., real-life) groups only communicate via Facebook. For example, my local ultimate frisbee “league”[1] drums up attendance each week by posting to a shared Facebook group. Without an active account, I can’t chime in—or even check whether anyone else is planning to show up. Lesson learned: I only have myself to blame here, since I was the one who originally created the Facebook group. Looking back, a shared text message thread would have accomplished the same thing, while remaining platform-agnostic.
  • Similarly, many local businesses use Facebook as their only web presence. I’ve occasionally been tripped into logging in, just to get at a restaurant’s operating hours or menu. Lesson learned: fortunately, most Facebook page info is accessible to anonymous users, though it’s not hard to imagine Facebook someday locking this data behind their authentication wall. In that case, there’s not much you can do, unless you want to (a) pester business owners by complaining about their skimpy web presence or (b) offer to help them establish a “real” website. And even if you have the time for this, many business owners are reluctant to pay for web hosting, when so many of their customers live in Facebook anyways.
  • Since I started blogging again, I’ve wondered whether I ought to be promoting my posts and podcasts on Facebook. I don’t want to do this, but it would drive more traffic. Lesson learned: no good solution here. If I want Facebook users’ eyeballs, I will have to reopen my account and cross-post there. There’s no way to update a Facebook page without maintaining an active personal profile.

Of course, if I were really serious about quitting Facebook, I could simply delete my account. At that point, it would be a chore to re-join, since I’d have to rebuild my friends list and repopulate my profile. Momentum would likely keep me from getting sucked into Facebook’s orbit again.

But for all the reasons listed above (and especially the last one), I haven’t yet had the courage to quit, cold-turkey. ■


  1. And by “league”, I mean “a dozen people who like to drop frisbees and jog meekly around an elementary school soccer field.”  ↩



Categories
internet tech

“The more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are”

‘You are the product’ by John Lanchester

“The researchers found quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. A 1 per cent increase in ‘likes’ and clicks and status updates was correlated with a 5 to 8 per cent decrease in mental health. In addition, they found that the positive effect of real-world interactions, which enhance well-being, was accurately paralleled by the ‘negative associations of Facebook use’. In effect people were swapping real relationships which made them feel good for time on Facebook which made them feel bad.”

Lanchester forcefully makes the case that Facebook is a net evil—bad for your mental health and bad for society as a whole.


Cynical about Facebook’s motivations, its suck on my time, and its effects on my well-being, I’ve tried to untangle myself from the service lately. I first deleted the app a few months ago—a divorce that didn’t take, since I reinstalled within days. My second attempt proved more successful, however, and I haven’t used the app since late spring. I do occasionally get sucked into checking Facebook via the web, but that happens less and less frequently. I’m slowly psyching myself up for a permanent account deletion.

What keeps me from pulling the trigger? Family photos, of course. It’s hard to resist the spurts of dopamine I get when friends comment on pics of my adorable two-year-old. That same mild addiction also makes it tough to quit Instagram (which is owned, of course, by Facebook itself.)

Categories
technology Uncategorized

“Twitter Isn’t Raising the Character Limit. It’s Becoming a Walled Garden.”

Smart take from Will Oremus, writing for Slate. He posits that Twitter’s rumored move to allow longer tweets is effectively its version of Facebook’s “Instant Articles”:

Twitter, like Facebook, has long played the role of a switchboard that routes people to in-depth stories elsewhere on the Web. This is great for those other sites, but not so great for Twitter, which is essentially giving away one of the Internet’s most valuable commodities: readers’ attention.

“Beyond 140” (Twitter’s code name for the new feature) would essentially replace links to external content with content hosted by Twitter itself.

This makes sense, from Twitter’s perspective (even if I resent the change as a content creator. I would’ve guessed that Twitter might partner with Medium, a closed blogging platform that already hosts writers’ work in a similar way. Medium was founded by Ev Williams, who also co-founded Twitter and still sits on Twitter’s board. But apparently Twitter would rather keep users’ content in-house.

One question about “Beyond 140”, though: why 10,000 characters? Twitter applied that arbitrary limit to direct messages last summer, but how did they arrive at the number? 10,000 characters is approximately 2,000 words—longer than most blog posts and long enough that many users would never even approach the limit. So why not just drop the character limit entirely?

My guess: Twitter considers brevity an essential part of its brand identity. An unlimited character limit would mean that Twitter had effectively done nothing more than build another closed publishing platform. But if the announcement includes a fixed limit (even an absurdly large number like 10,000), Twitter can market the change as a natural extension of its familiar clipped format.

Categories
internet Uncategorized

Online contests: stop selling your followers.

Savvy companies know the value of a meme. Viral advertising pays for itself, so marketers employ a variety of techniques to get their brands trending. The perfect celebrity endorsement. The quirky video. The well-managed controversy. Another sure-fire way to kick-start some buzz? Contests. Offer a sparkly prize, and require your fans to share your message in order to enter.

It’s not hard to find examples of this strategy in the wild:

https://twitter.com/ThatKiddKuda/status/588123329053200386

Of course, businesses sponsored contests long before the advent of social media. The difference? Social networks give marketers a direct line to customers’ eager eyeballs—through their Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds.

Stated plainly: when you pass along these companies’ “advert-contests,” you’re selling your friends. You’re bartering your followers’ attention for a raffle ticket. You’re exchanging your friends’ time for the chance to win a vacation (or a PlayStation, or a car). You’re saying to them, “I value even the possibility of free stuff more than I value you.”

Would you sell your friends’ phone numbers to a telemarketer? Or give their home addresses to a door-to-door salesperson for cash? Would you slip ad brochures under your friends’ windshield wipers, if it meant you might win the lottery? Chances are, these exchanges would make you queasy. Yet we enter online contests without a second thought. We don’t ask, “Is this appropriate? Do I want to leverage my friendships into a chance to win a toaster?”

Your social graph is an asset, and you’re free to spend it as you see fit. You can sell your friends to marketers. But don’t be surprised if that friend count takes a hit. For many (including me!), it’s an automatic unfollow.

Categories
marketing Uncategorized

Retroactive ads.

As commercial breaks become less and less effective (thanks to TiVo), embedded advertising will take over.

Films and television are overrun by this covert advertising. In fact, almost any logo or brand mention on modern shows has almost certainly been purchased by a multinational conglomerate and placed according to a strict marketing contract.

What’s the problem?

On the one hand, we might celebrate these developments. The two minute commercial break is hardly beloved by the TV-viewing public, and preroll ads at the movie theater are almost universally despised. Moving to an embedded advertising model eliminates the interruptions and lets the medium tell its story unhindered.

Rebuffed by consumer technology, advertisers have invaded previous sacrosanct areas. Without ‘commercials’ in the traditional sense, we’ve lost the border between artistic content and purchased advertising. The consumer can no longer be sure a plot point or visual represents the creator’s intention, a corporation’s insertion, or some amalgam. Such marketing is scarily subliminal, often passing underneath a viewer’s radar altogether.

Not only have advertisers invaded our present, they’re surreptitiously hijacked our past, as well. Reruns now included retroactively-inserted ads, purchased long after the original content creators surrendered creative control. Your favorite Friends episode inserts a box of Oreos next to Chandler, that lovable doofus. Don’t you want to be lovable like Chandler? Such marketing capitalizes on our sense of nostalgia, embedding corporate brands into our collective memory.

hypotheticals

Where will such digital rewrites end?

What if broadcasters catered its in-broadcast product placement to appeal to you, specifically? Google and Facebook know what you click on the web–what if Jerry Seinfeld’s shelf showed Golden Grahams for my wife and Cracklin’ Oat Bran for me?

Where would we draw the line? If a viewer preferred brunettes to blondes, why not make the change on-the-fly, to keep them glued to the program? Why not prolong the relevance of a sitcom by retroactively updating the hairstyles, cell phones, or computers of the characters?

stepping back

Of course, these are television programs. These are sham worlds, inventions of the ad-driven media conglomerates. They aren’t classics or sacred art; How I Met Your Mother isn’t Casablanca. And if your memories are so media-saturated that altering TV shows upsets you, you may need to build some real relationships and make some worthwhile memories.

But these may not be safe, either. What happens when advertisers purchase rights to alter our more personal images? What if Nabisco could add a box of Oreos to photos from your summer vacation? Lest you scoff, consider this:

Changing pictures on Facebook to include product placement will create false memories. We will have memories of things we never did with brands we never did. Our past actions are the best predictor of our future decisions, so now all of a sudden, our future decisions are in the hands of people who want to make money off of us. That makes me very, very scared. I can see this happening and I can see it happening very soon.

—Aza Raskin, keynote speech, University of Michigan School of Information. Via readwriteweb.

Get ready for Nostalgia(tm), brought to you by Starbucks.

Categories
technology Uncategorized

Social media = dessert.

Candy makes a lousy meal. Sure, for a while, it’s delicious. But after a certain sugar threshold, sweets stop tasting sweet. Mucous builds up on your tongue. Your teeth ache. And it’s addictive; long after you’re gorged, you’re still digging congealed corn syrup nuggets from the bag.

Social media is like that. You know you’re craving ‘real food:’ thoughtful conversation, shared adventures, drinks with friends. But, instead, you socialize online. It’s hauntingly empty. Your heart hurts. And it’s addictive; long after you’re bored, you’re still refreshing your browser, hoping for an update.

Dessert tastes best after a hearty, healthy meal. Social media works best as an extension of real experiences, real relationships. Make it the main course, and you’re likely to get sick.

Categories
technology Uncategorized

Why tweet?

A week or two ago, I explained how Twitter is not just another inbox. It’s meant to blur by–a stream we visit occasionally but don’t follow post-by-post. Smart twitterers learn to ignore the service’s constant background noise.

But this raises another question. If no one’s really listening, why tweet at all? Why post something that others may not even read?

Many of us tweet because we’re in denial about the value of our narcissistic “content.” We’re too self-absorbed to realize that no one else cares about our excruciating minutiae: food selections and location check-ins and tired talking points. Misguidedly, we convince ourselves that our quips are clever, our insights profound, and our thoughts worthy.

We may even have grandiose ideas about Twitter ushering us into fame and fortune. We shamelessly self-promote, hoping to attract new readers, woo new customers, or capture mind share. With each new post, we cross our fingers, hoping beyond hope that this one goes viral.

For others, tweeting provides an outlet for our social frustration. We long for real, embodied human contact–something our fast-paced, screen-mediated lives deny us. This disconnection hurts, and we recoil. We spasm. We tweet, hoping that someone will notice and reply.

Ugh… this is depressing. I’d better end the post–and plug it with a well-worded 140 characters or less.