Elizabeth Dubois has a great episode of Wonks and War Rooms where she interviews Etienne Rainville of The Boys in Short Pants podcast, former Hill staffer, and government relations expert. They unpack how government staffers collect information, process it, and identify experts.
Broadly, the episode focuses on how the absence of significant policy expertise in government and political parties means that social media—and Twitter in particular—can play an outsized role in influencing government, and why that’s the case.
While the discussion isn’t necessarily revelatory to anyone who has dealt with some elements of government of Canada, and especially MPs and their younger staffers, it’s a good and tight conversation that could be useful for students of Canadian politics, and also helpfully distinguishes of of the differences between Canadian and American political cultures. I found the forthrightness of the conversation and the honesty of how government operates was particularly useful in clarifying why Twitter is, indeed, a place for experts in Canada to spend time if they want to be policy relevant.
Mark Stenberg has a good assessment of the challenges facing Clubhouse, the newest ‘hot’ social media app that involves individuals having audio discussions in real-time with one another in rooms that are created on the platform. He suspects that Clubhouse may work best in quarantine:
A glimpse of Instagram brings a fleeting burst of serotonin, but a second’s worth of Clubhouse is meaningless. Will you then, at night, leave your family in the other room so you can pop your headphones in and listen to strangers swapping their valuable thoughts on the news of the day?
When commutes and daily life return, people will once again have a few parceled-off periods of the day in which they can listen to audio entertainment. If there are no good Clubhouse conversations at those exact times, the app is far less valuable than a podcast platform or music-streaming service. The very characteristic that makes it so appealing — its real-time nature — will make it challenging for listeners to fold it into their lives when reality returns.
Whether a real-time app that depends on relative quiet and available time, and which is unsuitable for multitasking, survives in its current form as people emerge from their relative isolation will be interesting to measure in real-time once vaccines are widely spread throughout society. But, equally interesting (to my mind) are the assumptions baked into that very question: why not just ask people (e.g., essential workers) who continue to commute en mass and inquire about whether they are, or will be, using Clubhouse? Why not ask those who do not have particularly fungible or quiet lives at the moment (e.g., parents who are homeschooling younger children while working their day jobs) whether the app is compelling during quarantine periods?
To put it another way, the very framing of Clubhouse presupposes a number of affordances that really mostly pertain to a subset of relatively privileged members of society. It’s lovely that some tech workers, who work from home, and journalists who have similar lifestyles are interested in the app. But that doesn’t mean that it’ll broadly interest people, just as most people are dismissive of text-based social media applications (e.g., Twitter) and even visual-based apps (e.g., Instagram).
But, at the same time, this may not matter. If the founders are aiming for growing and sustaining the existing platform and not for the typical Silicon Valley viral growth, then their presently suggested modes of deriving profits might work. Specifically, current proposals include, “tipping, subscriptions, and ticketing” which, if adopted, could mean this is a social networking platform that doesn’t rely on the normal advertising or data brokerage models which have been adopted by most social media platforms and companies.
Will any of this work? Who knows. Most social media companies are here today, gone tomorrow, and I bet that Clubhouse is probably in that category. But, at the same time, it’s worth thinking through who these kinds of apps are designed for so that we can appreciate the politics, privilege, and power which are imbued into the technologies which surround us and the ways that we talk about those technologies.
I owe a lot to Instagram. Starting in January 1, 2017 until October 2017 I began a project of uploading a photo a day (or thereabouts) and, in the process, I learned an awful lot about how to use my cameras, shots that I tend to prefer taking, and the cool stuff you could do by looking at other photographers’ shots.
It was pretty great.
But for reasons I’ve previously written about I’ve drifted away from regular postings to Instagram or even taking photographs with the regularity of the last year. Specifically, I wrote:
… something is changing in how I approach photography itself, at least right now: I don’t want as many amber memories, and instead want to enjoy the development and unfolding of certain memories, and feel more comfortable in the knowledge that the ‘final’ memories I’ll have will be even more subjective than those associated with photographs. Some will even vanish in their entirety.
In fact, from November 2017 – April 2018 I didn’t post a single photo to Instagram and only logged in once or twice.1 But my not uploading photos has been nagging me because I know that part of why I was taking shots — and getting good ones! — was because I had been actively trying to upload stuff on a regular basis. Instagram was a method for pushing me to practice my own skills and, occasionally, receiving feedback on the shots I was getting.
So I dipped my toe back in, with a fresh upload, and then started to browse my feed. As usual, there were great photographs from the photographers that I follow.2 But there were also a lot of ads. I mean, every 5-7 images was another ad. That really, really, really sucked because it made the platform a lot less enjoyable to browse and look at; it was less a network of people, and more an ad network that was interspersed with real people’s photographs.
So what I’m going to do is upload a photo a week, or so, to Instagram because I’d like to keep my profile alive. But I’m not going to invest the time in the platform that I did in the past. And, instead, I’m going to reflect on where I want to put my content, why I want it there, and with what regularity I want to upload photos to the public Internet. That’s part of an activity I’ve been undertaking over the past year but I’d honestly thought that Instagram might remain a fun place to interact with people. Sadly, it looks like that might not be the case after all.
I was, however, taking photos during that period though not with daily-regularity. ↩
I don’t tend to follow people, including friends and family, unless they take shots I find aesthetically pleasing. So there aren’t a lot of family photos, breakfast shots, or other site such material that make their way onto my feed very often. ↩
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are calls for people to delete their Facebook accounts. Similar calls have gone out in the past following Facebook-related scandals. As the years have unfolded following each scandal, Facebook has become more and more integrated into people’s lives while, at the same time, more and more people claim to dislike the service. I’m confident that some thousands of people will delete (or at least deactivate) their accounts. But I don’t think that the Cambridge Analytica scandal is going to be what causes people to flee Facebook en mass for the following reasons:
Few people vote. And so they aren’t going to care that some shady company was trying to affect voting patterns.
Lots of people rely on Facebook to keep passive track of the people in their lives. Unless communities, not individuals, quit there will be immense pressure to remain part of the network.
Facebook is required to log into a lot of third party services. I’m thinking of services from my barber to Tinder. Deleting Facebook means it’s a lot harder to get a haircut and impossible to use something like Tinder.
Now, does this mean Cambridge Analytica will have no effect? No. In fact, Facebook’s second-worst nightmare is probably an acceleration of decreased use of the social network. So if people use Facebook hesitantly and significantly decrease how often they’re on the service this could open the potential for other networks to capitalize on the new minutes or hours of attention which are available. But regardless, Facebook isn’t going anywhere barring far more serious political difficulties.
Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding “likes” from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.
I didn’t know that how ‘likes’ were doled out were designed to get you to keep coming back into social media applications. If Instagram is toying with its users this way then I’m going to seriously evaluate whether I ever want to use the application again. Activities like those described are just slimy and I don’t feel the need to provide such companies with either my content or my attention.
I was listening to ‘Tips from the Top Floor’ this week and, in response to the question of where a listener should consider posting their photos online, Chris Marquardt launched into a good series of questions about why people share news, photos, and other media online. Is it to draw attention to things? Is it to generate likes? Is it to elicit feedback? Or is it for some other reason?
It’s not the first time that I’ve thought about why I, personally, produce and share materials. And there are very different reasons for how and why I write and share in different mediums. Some venues, like Twitter, are where I and my professional colleagues tend to share information with one another while also engaging in (limited) conversations. My professional website, today, is a space where I publish mostly- or totally-complete work to make it accessible to colleagues who are interested in my longer-form materials. My personal website, Excited Pixels, is largely for me: I write, and collect information, because doing so helps me think about the issues and products that I find interesting or noteworthy. I’d be lying if I said I always shared or linked material here that I thought was interesting but my goal is to at least have some material to go back through.
Other places, like Flickr when I used it, was where I stored my photos in the case of a serious data disaster like a hard drive crash or house fire. Earlier social networks were really used to share information with my friends (as opposed to colleagues), though I’ve largely stopped publicly writing about deeply personal or day-to-day content at this point.
There was one major new social network service that I regularly used last year: Instagram. It was very, very helpful in forcing me to take more photos and get a lot more comfortable with my cameras and some basic editing software. I can see a difference in the photos I take a year later but, equally as important, I can get the kinds of photos I want faster because I understand my gear a lot better today. I did enjoy looking at really amazing photos on a regular basis but found that the site both takes a lot of time, in part because the almost daily curation of content was a pain in the bum. Furthermore, the time that I spent there meant I wasn’t spending time elsewhere, such as here, or engaging in any number of other pursuits.
This year my ‘new’ social network to try out is micro.blog. And to be honest I don’t know exactly what I think about it. As a plus, the people who are currently using it produce a lot of signal and not a lot of noise, and the blogging tends to be more personal than is common today. It feels like a community of people who have, and are, coming together. It’s a new network and so there are UI things that are still being developed, and the actual way that it works remains a borderline mystery to me,1 but it’s interesting to watch. And why do I post there? I…don’t entirely know. In part because I’m curious to see how the network develops: it’s sort of like watching Twitter, back when I joined, but where most of the users are more mature and self-aware and mindful of what is being posted.
I’ve always tended to delete almost as much content as I post, not so much because I self-censor2 as because I want to be careful and mindful in what I permanently add to the Internet. One of the benefits of blogging in different venues since the early aughts is that I lived through the blowback that can arise when the stakes were relatively low and consequences minimal. That’s less the case today as a result of the memory of the ‘net combined with the speed at which errors can spin out of control. What once could be forgotten, even online, is now likely semi-permanent at best, and the speed at which an error can go viral, today, is unlike almost any other time in history. Still, the questions raised by Chris apply as much to text-based social media and content production and sharing as they do to photography. It’s helpful to be reminded periodically that the best content is that with which we deliberately engage.
Related to photography, one of my personal goals for this year is to print more of my stuff! The last time I did a lot of printing of my own material was in 2016 and I really want to refresh my frames!
There are a few different ways I’m planning on making my photos a little more physical. First, I’m going to be printing a ‘best of’ album for 2017. I imposed a 50 photo limit to make me cull, cull, and then cull a lot more. In my initial analysis what’s most striking is that while I might not think that the photos are necessarily the best technical shots I took, they all possess similar kinds of tension and drama. So over the next few months I think that I’m going to consider what went into getting the ‘best of’ shots and then seeing if there are interesting or novel ways to better fill my shots with more drama.
Second, I’m going to be printing a bunch of photos on canvass for the first time! At the moment I’m thinking I’ll try printing a bunch of 8×8” black and white photos and, above them, 2-3 much larger colour prints (likely in gold frames) to draw some contrast on the empty wall that I have available to me.
Third, I’m going to probably print a bunch of 4×6 shots for the purpose of sending them to family members. I’d like to include a short message on each of the photos; it gives a nice thing to put up on a fridge or wall3 and also a physical artifact with my thoughts about the recipient or whatever is on my mind at the time. I’d actually intended to print and send these to my dad and stepmother last year, in an effort to start repairing our relationship, but sadly wasn’t able to. But I don’t see why a good idea can’t be recycled and used to maintain the relatively good relationships I have with my surviving family members!
Quotation That Resonated With Me
“Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith let’s go.”
Little things like…I have no idea what I’m paying a monthly fee for, exactly. I think I need to pay to be a member of the network, or to post to the network, or something? But I really have no idea and the support documentation when you sign up is utterly unclear just how things work, or why, which makes sense given its relative youth and the technical sophistication of a lot of its early members. I have faith this will improve as its user numbers grow. ↩
Or, at least I don’t self-censor too often. Except when I need to do so to avoid legal jeopardy. ↩
Some of my family have almost entirely bare walls…so I can imagine these photos migrating onto at least one person’s walls. ↩
For one thing, Instagram is killing it right now. Every time Facebook reports their financial earnings, they need to show robust growth in their flagship products; almost just as importantly, they need to show healthy engagement. Growth and engagement are the life forces of Facebook’s stock, and any decrease in either can send shares south.
Now, consider that my @canonbw account was liking over 30,000 photos every month along with thousands and thousands of comments. That doesn’t even include the activity generated from people responding and liking my images/following me in return. If I took every Instagram user I know in my life who doesn’t use a bot, it’s more than likely that my single account generated more “activity” than everyone else over the last year combined.
If we take into account the massive number of people botting everyday all around the world, the number of likes and comments are astronomical. It’s very unlikely that this huge engagement engine will ever be shut down by Facebook Inc. The relationship between Instagram and botters is seemingly symbiotic, but I argue that in the long run, Instagram suffers.
The problems linked with false engagements fuels the life of Facebook as a public company, while turning the actual product space into one that is as demoralizing as Facebook itself. A growing number of academic articles are finding correlations between Facebook use and depression, in part linked to how much content is liked. While Instagram use remains relatively strongly correlated with happiness, will this persist with the growing rise of bots?
The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”. Such granular information, Harris adds, is “a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person”.
Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. “There’s no ethics,” he says. A company paying Facebook to use its levers of persuasion could be a car business targeting tailored advertisements to different types of users who want a new vehicle. Or it could be a Moscow-based troll farm seeking to turn voters in a swing county in Wisconsin.
Harris believes that tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They were responding to the incentives of an advertising economy, experimenting with techniques that might capture people’s attention, even stumbling across highly effective design by accident.
The problems facing many Internet users today are predicated on how companies’ services are paid: by companies doing everything they can to capture and hold your attention regardless of your own interests. If there were alternate models of financing social media companies, such as paying small monthly or yearly fees, imagine how different online communications would be: communities would likely be smaller, yes, but the developers would be motivated to do whatever they could to support the communities instead of advertisers targeting those communities. Silicon Valley has absorbed many of the best minds for the past decade and a half in order to make advertisements better. Imagine what would be different if all that excitement had been channeled towards less socially destructive outputs.
Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp made sense in terms to buying a potential competitor before it got too large to threaten Facebook’s understanding of social relationships. The decision to secure communications between WhatsApp users only solidified Facebook’s position that it was less interested in mining the content of communications than on understanding the relationships between each user.
However, as businesses turn to WhatsApp to communicate with their customers a new revenue opportunity has opened for Facebook: compelling businesses to pay some kind of a fee to continue using the service for commercial communications.
WhatsApp will eventually charge companies to use some future features in the two free business tools it started testing this summer, WhatsApp’s chief operating officer, Matt Idema, said in an interview.
The new tools, which help businesses from local bakeries to global airlines talk to customers over the app, reflect a different approach to monetization than other Facebook products, which rely on advertising.
This is Facebook flipping who ‘pays’ for using WhatsApp. Whereas in the past customers paid a small yearly fee, now customers will get it free and businesses will be charged to use it. It remains to be seen, however, whether WhatsApp is ‘sticky’ enough for consumers to genuinely expect businesses to use it for customer communications. Further, Facebook’s payment model will also stand as a contrast between WhatsApp and its Asian competitors, such as LINE and WeChat, which have transformed their messaging platforms into whole social networks that can also be used for robust commercial transactions. Is this the beginning of an equivalent pivot on Facebook’s part or are they, instead, trying out an entirely separate business model in the hopes of not canibalizing Facebook itself?