Monday, May 31, 2010

How many "friends" online is too many?

I remember a Chemistry 201 unknown (qualitative analysis) where I got docked (way back in 1962) on a lab assignment, because I had found “one too many”. I remember the yellow precipitate in the test tube: I think I had incorrectly identified arsenic, as if in a film noir.

So it is with Facebook. “5,001” is one friend too many, according to a syndicated story by Aimee Lee Ball, appearing in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times on May 30, link here.

According to Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar, the maximum number of people one can interact with effectively as individual living souls (my father’s words) is about 150. No, not even the political candidates with enormous campaign followers can really make 5001 friends, it seems.

But the idea that you really should know the people personally is undercut by the idea of having thousands of people on a Friends’ list. But do you need to? Maybe they are more like stakeholders or customers.

People from the past (going back to the 1980s) have showed up on the Friends list. But so have suggestions written in other alphabets (like Russian).

I don’t know if Myspace and Twitter have similar maximum limits, or whether Blogger has a maximum number of Followers per blog. My own counts of friends and followers are low. The number of people I follow on these is relatively low, as I have other “private” cheat sheets to look up things. But now even some seniors have been building up large followings in these media. (Tory Johnson on ABC says to do so as part of your job networking.) Enormous popularity isn’t just for the under 25 set.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blogger journalism, shields, and novel information: good faith, please

Let me take a brief moment to note that I follow a number of sensitive issues about freedom of expression (or self-promotion, perhaps) and social justice, in the most subtle context imaginable.

Sometimes I will learn of administrative, legislative, or court actions on sensitive matters whose meaning is not clear at first, and where I think there is an unusual sensitivity because of some matter, perhaps of a business nature, going on in my life. As an “amateur” journalist, I’m aware of the importance of maintaining business confidences, and sometimes of protecting or obscuring sources of some materials. (The latter is a subject of big controversy: should “journalistic shield laws” apply to self-instantiated bloggers?) There is also a bigger “online reputation” (or even more general reputation) issue: I can’t afford to create the impression that I am out to expose something after exiting a situation or leaving a job (that’s the ABC “Food Lion” problem from an incident in the 1990s leading to litigation).

Some issues do take time to vet before I can blog about them. The amount of time can vary, from a few days or weeks to months. At the same time, within a reasonable time period, I really do want to cover every topic that relates to our debate today on freedom, justice, and culture conflicts. Generally, every important novel topic, at least as an issue (not as it relates to specific people) does get covered in what I believe is a responsible way.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Personal secession" advocated by rural Christian groups; "intimate strangers" are not to be trusted, perhaps

CNN has an article about “personal sustainability” or even survivalism today, “Unplugged Christians living off the grid”, a story by Misty Showalter, link here.

The story describes communal living in Oregon, with Christian groups whose values seem to resembled those of the Amish somewhat. The piece describes a process called “personal secession”, where one accepts personal loyalty and emotional connections to family and community and gives up access with or interest in the outside world except as it directly affects the family.

The lifestyle seems to demand total commitment, and seems to reject the idea of “intimate strangers” that has developed with the Internet, as was discussed yesterday.

Of course, to me it seems like a good thing when one finds a “stranger” on the Web whose thought processes and outlook (judging from the person’s Web content) resemble one’s own. That’s actually a positive thing about the “online reputation” problem. One can believe that “in another universe” with closer ages someone could have become a life partner.

Of course, that’s not good enough in Christian thought. “Real life” is important, and everyone in the community is committed to taking care of one another, with some emotional enthusiasm, including the childless. The outside world is not reliable and is not to be counted on. That’s particularly true of big government, which this type of religious community says didn’t even exist a couple centuries ago.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Time Magazine reports on "friends without borders" and changes in privacy expectations

Time magazine has a big issue on Facebook and the Privacy Controls Controversy (it sounds like the Investiture Controversy from the Middle Ages), with a long piece by Dan Fletcher, in an article “Friends Without Borders” on p 32, in the May 31, 2010 print issue. Fletcher admits being excommunicated from Facebook for creating fake multiple identities, against TOS. Being banned could amount to be banned the mainstream of job searching, if you believe some people.

But the best article in the Time issue is a companion piece by Steven Johnson on p 39, “In Praise of Ovrsharing”, link here. Johnson talks about the “valley” between two ridges of “privacy” and “celebrity” or fame. He talks about sharing with “intimate strangers” as now a legitimate and necessary tool for advancing oneself in the world, including future workplaces. What’s controversial, then, is the nexus between social networking (as we now conceive of it), and publication for its own sake.

Time also has a slideshow of the Facebook office spaces in its /facebook directory.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Facebook announces privacy controls; moderation needed in managing "Friends" lists

Mark Zuckerberg announced today that the rollout of simpler privacy controls for Facebook has begun. The CNN story by Dick Cross is “Facebook, facing criticism, ramps up privacy options”, link (web url) here.

Zuckerberg reassured users that simple controls will be available to keep away all third party applications or data mining from advertisers, and implied that people will be able to use Facebook as a free service in “diaspora” mode, as non-public persons.

As I’ve indicated, there could be long term implications for social media companies “admitting” that they need to include totally private, non-commercial access as part of their free services. People could be challenged, in some employment or family situations, as to their “need” to be public at all.

Of course, this gets into another issue, that social networking sites were originally intended as “meeting people” venues, not as publishing or debate platforms for political issues. To meet people or reinvigorate old contacts, you need the “everyone” access. Then that gets into the question about the “meaning” attached to becoming a Facebook or Myspace “friend.”

There’s a letter in the syndicated “Miss Manners” column today by Judith Martin, “Giving the slip to would-be friends on Facebook”, link here. ("Slip" means "pink slip").

Let me state my own personal feeling about this, at age 66. I generally don’t make an issue of whether someone wants to be my Facebook (or any other site) “Friend” or even follower on Blogger. I personally find that it’s important to be able to float in the physical world. I don’t want to set up the unnecessary opportunity for someone to “pass judgment” in advance. So I don’t make an issue of how many “friends” I attract. For me, the “everyone” option is much more important as a publishing tool than as a social one, and that itself is controversial.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of new Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, near Stanford.  I was last in the area in 1995.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Facebook publishes op-ed in Washington Post; compare views on privacy to that of cell phone founder Marty Cooper

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has an op-ed on p A19 of the Monday May 24 Washington Post. The piece (link here) is brief and admits that Facebook privacy controls should become simpler, and that users should be able to bloc third-party services. However, Zuckerberg lays out some principles, and says that Facebook does not give or sell personal information to advertisers. He also reassures us that it must remain a free service.

Visitors may want to go back to my Dec. 2, 2009 posting here where I embedded a CBS 60 Minutes video interview of Zuckerberg about the privacy issues then. (I hope I haven’t spelled the last syllable with a “u” anywhere; I see that a lot on the web.)

I think that the view of privacy expressed in the debate over Facebook and other social media contrasts sharply with the view expressed last night by Marty Cooper, given credit by CBS 60 Minutes as founders of the cell phone. Cooper, 81 (compared to Zuckerberg’s 26) thinks that the ability of companies to track the tastes of consumers from computers and cell phones is a great and efficient thing, and we have to get used to new ideas of privacy.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

There’s another subtle problem below the surface of the privacy debate. Some people are in life situations (often because of employment, sometimes because of family situations, with “witness protection” being the extreme or bounding example) where they need to keep their “persona” on low profile, and cannot allow themselves to become known publicly at all. This may become a more important problem than we had expected it to be.

In the past couple of years, pundits have warned web users about over-depending on someone else’s free service. The “free” needs to be paid for somehow, and that usually involves allowing the service provider to set up an efficient way for marketers to contact consumers on the web in an automated fashion. Marty Cooper seems to get this one right. And he doesn’t need to serve as an “apprentice.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Will Apps "supervise" the Web?

Here’s an interesting cyberworld view, in The New York Times Magazine, p. 16, May 23, “The Death of the Open Web,” by Virginia Heffernan, column called “The Medium”, link here.

The writer compares the Web to an old rust belt city, that gradually stratifies itself into suburbs and hollows out (Detroit is a good model, with all the mile-roads).

The strata are defined by new devices, particularly from Apple, the App Store for the iPhone and now iPad. Websites have to meet specific criteria to be loaded on to them, and, the writer says, in time more customers will use these devices to the exclusion of more general purpose Internet access from conventional desktops, laptops and even notebooks. In a sense, these “gentrified” playback environments (“the burbs”) would bring the Web back to some of the supervision that it needs.

I find the premise capable of challenge. Laptops become more powerful, like desktops, particularly to handle the demands of video. And for my money, the web access on my Blackberry is somewhat confining, even the sites specifically formatted for it by Bing. (Even checking baseball scores from the disco floor is a pain, as if a drag queen would really want to announce it when the Nationals win.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why would an employer deny a job on one Facebook image holding a cordial

We hear stories about people not getting jobs, school acceptance, or even internships because of a single or very few risqué Facebook or other social networking compromising photos (involving, for example, underage drinking or marijuana use) sometimes taken and posted by others, perhaps even with the person misidentified (which is surprisingly easy to happen, and gives business to online reputation defense companies). Recently, I mentioned here a person not allowed teaching credentials by a small college because of a single Facebook picture that seemed to show her drinking.

It may not be practical to try to regulate the employment standards of a private business (libertarians don’t want to, of course) but it’s a good question, why would an employer make so much of minor indiscretions visible online? Isn’t this just over the top?

Perhaps some employers or schools doing this are committed to the belief that, like it or not, you belong to a community. (You wouldn’t use social media if you didn’t.)

Now, my own Facebook wall looks pretty mainstream – some controversial stuff – but mostly within what mainstream America sees as acceptable. I wouldn’t worry about it. But I suppose if my job was to represent some company publicly by selling insurance, for example, maybe it could drive away some customers. Moreover, even though I think I know what I’m doing, there can be other people connected to me in a community who are more vulnerable. I think that when some employers or schools want to make so much of “gratuitous” presence online, they want to make a point that some day you (or I) may be responsible for others through them.

So, some employers do seem to be taking the position that social media should be monitored as evidence of social conformity. Imagine the links in the military to “don’t ask don’t tell.”

The privacy issues for Facebook and other social networking sites (already covered this week here) get to be more serious, perhaps, because of the community context. Probably, 99.9% of the time, it doesn’t hurt me if some marketing companies have some personal information that leaked out, because I’m pretty able to monitor my credit and reputation. But what about others connected to me? The ethical issues under the privacy debate get murky indeed. But Facebook isn’t responsible for all of society’s other problems that make privacy such a big issue potentially and sometimes unpredictably. Facebook and similar media are showing us more about the problems that we do have.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Gratuitous" publication and self-broadcast: risk and benefits

It’s interesting, and perhaps disturbing, to walk the track of logical inferences from the debate over Facebook and other social media privacy controls.

Almost certainly, Mark Zuckerberg and his company will go along with the public desire for a “social media users bill of rights” and allow users to have completely non-public (away from search engines and marketing) profiles. That follows the “disapora” model recently proposed.  (Note: see addendum at end of May 17 posting for story about Facebook fix made May 20.)

Of course, many questions arise. Business models require that companies be able to find individuals and present themselves online to individuals. Once a “private Internet presence” becomes accepted as normative, questions arise as to who should have the “right” to broadcast himself. And we also realize that many people, especially those who came of age (at least psychologically) in the age of media like the idea of being in the limelight, even if there is little obvious payback.

Another word of caution goes with this idea of non-public profiles. Presumably, social media users should have the right to make(all of) their materials available only to “friends”, but that has little practical impact if the media user has 1000 “friends” most of whom he or she does not “know” personally. “Bad information” seems to spread quickly among friends lists (even without the help of search engines), as several serious incidents reported in the media point out. If we think back, say, to the 1980s as to how we networked and go back to that model, we quickly wonder what social media really would be for. The 80s weren’t that bad.

What I did, of course, starting around 1997, was a bit different. I self-published: first in book form, tehn in flat websites, and finally blogs. I actually find that this “older” mode of media use works, and attracts the right kind of people, even if my “relationships” with many of them are intermittent – they still have real substance. But my real purpose, as I’ve explained before, was to help people (including “professional” politicians and media) connect the dots, and to “keep them honest”.

One can ask, by what right did I appoint myself to do that? Why not, say, use only books and accept the amount of publicity that physical book sales could generate? Instead, just like newspapers, I “gave a lot away” by eventually posting all my content on the Web and letting people search for it. And I indeed did have a “disproportionate” impact on the debate (especially, probably, on gays in the military and later on Internet censorship with the COPA trial).

For most of my adult life, I was indeed responsible mainly only for myself, and worked as an “individual contributor” and could avoid many of the conflicts that could come from self-broadcast over political controversies. As I’ve explained before, I was acutely concerned over the possibility of conflict of interest, particularly, in my case in the 1990s, over the military issue.

Here we come to that basic tension, between our roles in society as individuals, and as members of social units, both in the family and often in community and business, where we must take responsibility for others, sometimes being able to protect others. We cannot always avoid this, even when we try. For example, the growing eldercare problem is highlighting the fact that procreation isn’t the only way many of us wind up with family responsibility where others depend on us “socially.” This can take us down an existential path where remaining alone (and childless) is actually penalized (by forcing the “standing alone” person to accept, with reservation and without consent, purposes dictated by the needs of others anyway), and contribute to the motive for the “upward affiliation” that I’ve discussed before.

Sometimes social or self-published media can create distractions or disruptions in these areas, partly because some people make a lot of “associations.” A blogger might address a particularly controversial topic (in open, searchable space) that somehow affects a workplace subordinate, and because of some context the subordinate might believe that merely addressing the topic connotes hostility. Sometimes these beliefs occur because of the way social orders used to work in the past, where people give a lot of emphasis on “family honor” or the welfare of the group. Extreme extensions of this concept help explain the “snitching” issue in some destructive social hierarchies, such as gangs.

All of this brings up the question of “purpose” of self-publishing and social media use. It is apparent that in the modern world many people feel that use of “free entry” media makes them “feel important” even when the monetary remuneration is small or non-existent. But this circumstance could lead to the idea that such self-promotion amounts to “gratuitous publication” (almost a psychological form of spam, and related to the legal concept of "implicit content") that adds to unpredictable or unbounded risk but provides little actual benefit. This observation could occur in either a social networking (even a Diaspora model when there are many “friends”) or blogging or more conventional self-publishing environment.

One could say that the “risk” associated with giving individuals “power” that they didn’t enjoy before is simply an inevitable byproduct of innovation. Compare it to the automobile! Security-related incidents connected to Internet or social media use make big headlines and sometimes ensnare “innocent bystanders” such as other family members (especially associated with some teen use). So far, it seems as though there may have occurred more incidents related to “hostile friends” on social media sites or to careless use of sales-listing sites (like Craigslist) than related to finding “search engine celebrities”. It’s important to remember that there are a couple hundred million Internet users in the country, and probably hundreds of billions of Internet postings every year, so the rate of loss (from an insurance perspective) from “amateur” activity is very low, even if the incidents reported by the media are sensational and disturbing. The overwhelming majority of users of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogger and Wordpress have positive experiences with few problems; but just as with driving a car you have to know what you’re doing.

I suppose filmmaker James Horner has a point when in his movie "Avatar" he proposes that on some planet within 50 or so light years a civilization comparable to ours has a "biological Internet" where everyone's thought are made public through biological (maybe telepathic -- read wireless) connections.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Federal judge protects anonymity on "trash talk" boards about companies; another "reputation management" company is on stage

A company in Pennsylvania, USA Technologies, tried to subpoena the identity of an online critic, but a federal judge in San Francisco denied the motion, after Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that the First Amendment protects anonymity and pseudonymity of otherwise protected speech.

The critic was user “Stokklerk” who tried to criticize the company for lack of earnings and high compensation for executives (such as CEO George Jenser, Jr.).

The company made what sounds like a frivolous claim that the user was trying to manipulate stock prices on a “trash talk” message board.

The EFF story is here and the staff attorney defending the speaker was Matt Zimmermann.

There have been cases in the past where employees with inside knowledge of companies have been fired or even prosecuted for setting up websites to manipulate stock prices. There was a notorious case in North Carolina in early 1999 which was an early incident in the (at the time) slowly growing awareness of the “risks” that could be posed by the “wild web”. Generally, employees of companies should be careful when commenting on their employers’ stock performance on investor “trash boards” which were already getting popular by 1998. I have memories of those days, before 9/11 (and even before the dot-com bubble bust), when people would speculate about “capitulation.”

Companies, like individuals (and especially smaller businesses), may become very sensitive about their online reputations. Today I stumbled across another online reputation company, “Reputation Management Consultants”, link here. This company says it can offer “inoculation” (rather like a vaccine shot in medicine), which appears to consist of manipulating search engine results in order to leave the most positive impression.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Facebook v. "Diaspora": a question about paradigm and publicity as well as privacy; a social media user's "Bill of Rights" proposed

Ryan Singel has an account on Wired “Open Facebook alternatives gain momentum, $115K”, link here , dated May 13.

One proposal would create a system called “Diaspora” described in a trick link as “the privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open source social network.” Note the “open source”.

You could also look on Web Pro News for an article "What is this Diaspora that everyone is talking about?" here.

Diaspora: Personally Controlled, Do-It-All, Distributed Open-Source Social Network from daniel grippi on Vimeo.

Singel attracted attention on CNN Sunday as he reviewed Facebook’s policy change in December to insist on controlling a kernel of a member’s presence and keeping it public. He also reported that a lot of discussions were going on at Facebook in California this week on the whole privacy issue.

Facebook is tremendously popular, and the overwhelming majority of users do not encounter significant reputation, privacy or security problems in practice. However, as with any innovation, there are new, barely perceived risks that once in a while can have catastrophic consequences for the few. Just think of the safety policy issues that grew once people could drive automobiles. (Even horse and buggy provided dangers.)

There’s a “paradigm” issue with the idea that a hosting service company wants to keep even a small kernel of a member’s presence public, for seemingly legitimate business reasons (marketing). That forces any member to become a “public figure” and exercise a “right of publicity”. We could certainly have a legal or even a constitutional debate as to whether “the right of publicity” is a fundamental right outside the ways people usually have competed for it (when they wanted it). It’s related to “the privilege of being listened to”, as covered here before. But some people, because of their employment circumstances (including military service) or family circumstances (even mechanisms like witness protection come to mind here), really do have to keep a low profile. They would be placed in the position of having to abstain from a service like Facebook altogether. But the proposed Diaspora would still be a possibility because that sort of service would not make their identity (or “what they stand for”) a matter of public record.

Facebook has sometimes said that the concept of sharing certain materials only among a list of real-world friends is an important resrouce. But it’s not possible to know 1000 people well. In practice, many people use Facebook as a “broadcast” tool even if the content is more finely parsed (into tidbits and images) than similar content in a blog or particularly a conventional site or (even more so) a self-published or self-distributed book or film (or even a video of significant substance on YouTube).

In fact, the Facebook model seems like an antethesis of, say, Wikipedia, where contributors publish a detailed knowledge base but largely remain anonymous.

I suspect Facebook will find itself before the Supreme Court in due course. Maybe Mark Z will see the inside of the chambers well before he is 30.

Update: May 19

Kurt Opsahl of Electronic Frontier Foundation proposes "A Bill of Privacy Rights  for Social Network Users" here. On his list of "fundamental rights" are (1) informed decision-making (2) right to control and (3) right to leave.

Update:  May 21

Cecilia Kang, referring to a Wall Street Journal article, reports "Facebook moves to fix privacy loophole after WSJ review", link here, removing a "privacy loophole that allowed advertisers to access user identification and potentially other information" with a computer code elevation on May 20.

The WSJ story is by Emily Steele and Jessica Vascellaro, "Facebook, MySpace Confront Privacy Loophole ", link here. WSJ may require a subscription to see the entire article.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When you tell your own story, you tell that of others: what generates the culture wars

Technology has enable someone like me to publish and broadcast my own story, and stimulate debate in important linked or concentric areas, including gays in the military. The technology is not only the much debated pizzazz about search engines and social media (and privacy, reputation and security concerns); it also included much more efficient desktop publishing and book manufacture earlier, back in the 90s.

Generally, we think that in a legal sense, we own the stories to our own lives. Of course, however, when we broadcast these stories in a self-generated, unsupervised manner there is the risk of drawing in the stories of others, who may feel compromised.

The genesis of own story seems to center around the 1961 college expulsion from William and Mary (for admitted sexual orientation). It came six months after Memorial Day weekend science field trip to Mt. Washington, NH that for me had acted as the psychological equivalent of the senior prom (which I did not even try to attend – and this is prom weekend, folks.)

Although the obvious link to the “don’t ask don’t tell” debate seemed to be “privacy” in close quarters, a much more subtle aspect concerns family. I am an only child, that the College’s handling of the incident amounted to a brutal way of telling my parents that they probably would have no lineage. That could have amounted to an existential threat to their marriage, which survived to a 45th wedding anniversary (my father would die in 1986).

But the family aspect of all of this (reflected in my six months as a patient at NIH in 1962) really does link into the culture wars today, transcending the gay marriage debate the way it is usually articulated.

Again, think about the “hidden agenda” that stable married parents back in the 1950s and in “greatest generations” tried to impart to their kids. To wit, you belong to a family and a community, and sometimes the family or group has to be more important than the individual for us to survive at all. Don’t expect the world to be stable or always fair. The competitive skills demanded of boys really aren’t about “winning” although (Donald Trump notwithstanding) they often seem to be. They are about team play and social order, and finding the best place where you can matter to others. Yet, some boys, like me, might feel humiliated by what seems like the competitive component, and decide to walk away from it and go their own way, and stand alone. So I did, and because of a rapidly evolving technological culture, I managed to do so with some success. But it well might not have been.

Someone with a psychological makeup and experience like mine in youth will tend to invest emotionally in “upward affiliation” and believe that his choices of significant others are, besides constituting a fundamental right, expressive in nature and make a moral statement, perhaps demonstrating “the knowledge of good and evil.” But society (parents, schools, church) tried to impose a certain socialization on me. It was immoral to focus on one’s own choices in building attachment to people; instead, it was essential to respond to people on the basis of complementarity and need. Part of the deal was to accept the goals of the group rather than of the self without a sense of “sacrifice” or loss. (This is the “it isn’t about you” think of Rick Warren, and related to the “natural family” concept of Carlson and Mero.) That was supposed to make it possible for a less competitive person to marry and have children, too – if only everyone would agree to play by the same rules. Society would be hierarchal: only some people would rise to the top (by competition) and become visible publicly, but family would take care of everyone and give everyone a place in “God’s plan”.

This worldview, then, presumes that everyone is born into a community that confers not just some birthrights but also some shared social responsibility, managed for life by parents, and that family responsibility pre-exists and is not just created by specific chosen acts.

Of course, this process (and social structure that sets it up) can become corrupt, as “absolute power” subverts complementarity; but it does process a context for everyone to be cared about. The alternative, to focus on hyperindividualism and “personal responsibility” could lead to an elimination of the weak like what was seen in Sparta, Rome or even with the Nazis.

It’s the understanding of this dichotomy that I am after when I tell my story.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ambiguity over social media privacy policies requires users to develop a "tin eye"; ACLU has a petition for Facebook

On CNN this Saturday morning, digital lifestyle editor Mario Armstrong (website ) discussed the controversy over Facebook privacy controls and warned that one can never be sure that anything posted on the Web will remain “private”. He recommended a website called “Tin Eye”  (site) which can do a reverse image search for pictures supposedly “private.”

The problems come from the fact that privacy controls are confusing and perhaps fuzzy; more important, some “friends” won’t respect “confidentiality”.  Armstrong's comments de-emphasize the significance of search engines, which I have often suggested have a lot of significance in how they promote personal "fame".

Electronic Frontier Foundation has a “deep links” blog entry by Kurt Opsahl, “Facebook should follow its own principles,” link here.  EFF notes that in practice Facebook seems to be taking the position that in using its free service, one its “opting in” to whatever information sharing it deems necessary for its own bottom line (that is, ability to continue offering the free service – think about this in a “free market” way). There is even a controversy over retaining the information if you close an account.

Armstrong warned this morning (Saturday May 15) on CNN that the looseness of social media privacy could cause some people, those in publicity sensitive jobs or delicate family situations, to have to abstain from social media services altogether, reversing a trend of the past few years where most individuals (baby boomer and younger) and corporations and even governments jumped in. That point, about digital abstinence, is made in the new book “Delete” by Mayer-Schonberger, as mentioned on this blog Wed. (May 12) and reviewed on my books blog May 13 (navigate to Bills Book Reviews through Blogger Profile).

Visitors may want to visit ACLU's petition "Facebook's Privacy Transition: Push Facebook in the Right Direction" with a "Dear Mark Zuckerberg" lletter, here. You would think from the tone of this petition (as with some recent letters to Mark from US Senators) that Zuckerberg has more political power than president Obama.

Update: May 16

Ryan Singel from Wired explained on CNN today how Facebook decided in December to make certain core information for "everyone", inclyding your name, photo, and causes you support, which Facebook allows some hiding but not full privacy and which Facebook sells to marketing-associated companies like Yelp.

But Singel also said that Facebook is enormously popular because it is so effective in sharing information, and many people want to share it.

When Congress came up with "don't ask don't tell" in 1993, Zuckerberg was only 8.  Could Congress have imagined that the tecnological innovations brewing in the minds of the next generation of kids would blow away all their "honorbale compromises?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Minnesota "Kevorkian" case tests limits of Internet free speech

The limits of free speech on the Internet are being tested with a case in Minnesota, that of William F. Melchert-Dinkel, a 47-year-old husband and father from Faribault, Minn. He is accused of aiding suicide with Internet chats and various resources. Apparently, he posed online as a nurse. Essentially, he played “Kevorkian” digitally, online, with no actual physical involvement. The results took place in Britain and were tracked down by a British blogger or detective, but Dinkel is still being prosecuted under Minnesota law. Some have compared his activities to others that promote anorexia.

The story in the New York Times Friday May 14 is by Monica Davey, with link here.

It’s interesting because some conservatives have suggested that new Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan favors government restriction of free speech when for the common good (but that happens in China). Check Wesley Pruden’s editorial in the Washington Times today, “The First Amendment under ‘Progressive’ Siege”, link here.

Anderson Cooper presented this story on May 19 and interviewed legal advisor Jeffrey Toobin, who feels that a judge may not let it go to trial, even though the defendant's behavior seems "creepy".

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

PA woman denied teaching career over ironic Myspace photo; an extreme example of the online reputation problem

A college student, Stacy Snyder, was denied a teaching certificate by the administration of Millersville University in Pennsylvania because officials found a Myspace photo she had posted showing her sipping from a plastic cup, with a pirate hat, and a caption “Drunken Pirate”. She sued the university, in a story reported in “The Smoking Gun” (web url) here.

She was old enough to drink, was not breaking any laws, and the picture was obviously ironic (it did not prove she was drinking). Yet, university officials had already decided on an "ex post facto" zero tolerance policy for any online behavior that could cause a teacher's reputation to be even questioned. (See my own account of this problem in my own sub experience July 27, 2007 in this blog.)

Her story is the opening anecdote in a new book “Delete: The Value of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, who reports that her suit was unsuccessful.

The AP story from April 29, 2007, appears on Fox News here.

On my own site (doaskdotell) a friend expressed concern in early 2006 about a reference to a press release he had written that, in later context, could have seemed misleading. It had been available in the online HTML version of my book for eight years. I changed the name to initials, and soon the search engine references to the name dropped off (eventually the caches dropped off). By around 2006, the problem of online reputation and the permanence of digital postings (rather like plastic washing up on the beach perhaps) was getting noticed after a full decade of innocence.

I plan to review the “Delete” book soon on my books blog. The author notes that even conventional trade publishing (in addition to “amateurs”) generates this issue, since so much text winds up permanently online anyway.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Obama: "information becomes a distraction, a form of entertainment..."

You might want to check Larry Dignan’s piece today on Zdnet, “Obama’s information distraction riff: a real issue?” link here.

At the Hampton University Commencement (in Tidewater Virginia), Obama said

“You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations, — none of which I know how to work — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”

Information as a form of entertainment? Well, maybe “command of knowledge” gives people a “false sense” of independence from the need for other people when they don’t want them. That sounds like what he is talking about. Hence, you have the family dinner hour (or Mormon family home evening), where all electronics are put away. The here-and-now of family is all that matters. The wars and bad things outside don’t. But, of course, if you stayed a singleton and “stand alone” you may want to stay in touch with “The Outside” at all times. Hence the blinker on your Blackberry (the president has one, remember) tells you, somebody remembers you.

Here’s the Whitehouse YouTube video of the speech.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Latest take on a "focused" web presence

I do expect to “consolidate” my web presence later on this year as I anticipate trying to “sell” my movie ideas. As of now, here is how I see the new structure evolving:

Part I: Core essays

These documents would be a bit like another book (oh, no!), and perhaps I will have them printed. They would remain stable, with some endnotes as in my other books. Each essay would start with a personal narrative and proceed inductively to suggest some principled conclusions. Of course, any personal narrative needs to respect confidentiality and be presented carefully.

The “master essay” would examine the limits on individualism and personal sovereignty. Many people experience life and see themselves through the complementarity of social relationships within the family unit or other communal structure, and this has the capability of providing sustenance for differently abled adults as well as of raising children. Hyperindividualism threatens this “solidarity”. There is a paradox that occurs as we look for equality and justice: no perfectly just society could be totally free. Individualism tries to deal with this idea by modifying the measuring stick of karma to allow the idea that sometimes karma allows expropriation (of other people’s debts within a social unit). Individualism needs also to be correlated to the legal or constitutional concepts of “fundamental rights.”

There would be four other essays based on the major activities in which I engaged in my life.

(1) The issue of gays in the military and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, which becomes a nucleus around which many other issues develop. The biggest challenge from “gay rights” is to the psychic and collective investment people make in more traditional social structures and lineage, and “gay rights” needs to be understood also in terms of infringement on individuals by others who need to see everyone else “conform” to community rules.

(2) The problem of Internet censorship and the COPA trial

(3) The development of self-publication and self-promotion in the Internet age, with the problem of “online reputation” and “implicit content” (and even “the privilege of being listened to”).

(4) The evolution of computing as a career and as part of our culture, from the days that it was a mystery and bureaucratized (through the evolution of the mainframe computer culture with IBM winning the war) to the culture of personal computing and instant communication (with companies like Microsoft and Google winning the wars).

(5) Eldercare and population demographics (the big wild card).

Part II: The Blog

Maybe it’s The Blob. No, I would collect all my media reviews (books, movies, TV) onto one blog so that I could cross reference them (which I cannot do as effectively when they are on separate blogs) with categories or labels. Wordpress may be a more effective too than Blogger.

There would exist a master index (next Part) to the reviews, with hyperlinks, in tabular format with standard distribution information (availability in print or DVD or instant play, etc).

Major news stories that that impart significant new information to the topics covered in the “Essays” would be covered with blog entries on the same blog. There would be an emphasis on original research and news gathering rather than on restatement of current stories. They would provide significant updates in areas that I think are particularly important, like blogger insurance, downstream liability, online reputation, cybersecurity, privacy. Some areas (like Internet safety) might have a greater volume of entries than others. Every entry will have a relevance to some specific passage in one of the essays (as shown by code).

Part III: Quick Update

I would use Twitter to provide quick references to other news stories without much explanation.

Part IV: Legacy

The documents of the “Do Ask Do Tell” books would be placed here.

Part V: In Progress

Facebook would provide personal news (with appropriate care about confidential and personal information and some use of privacy settings), particularly about progress in marketing screenplay scripts and a novel (along with networking about treatments or scripts on Facebook as appropriate). Care must be followed in discussing script contents that will later be submitted to agents (because of the “Third Party Rule”).

Part VI: Indexes and links

Redundant material (on my multiple sites, especially, and others, and blog entries) would be removed from public access, although I would keep digital copies of all the work I had ever done on my own.

So, then, what does this “master journalism” project accomplish?

I could cite Anderson Cooper’s “Keeping them Honest”. Or perhaps the CIA’s “connecting the dots”. A journal site run by one person or a small group with low capital (and attracting attention through search engines as well as “word of mouth”) can, if set up properly and run efficiently, generate enormous “intelligence” on what is going on for the public, in a way that noses in on certain issues that still escape the major media today. There are a number of these, as I have mentioned, such as “implicit content” or “gratuitous publication”, as well as downstream liability and new paradigms for modeling risk in a society that suddenly offers so much opportunity through asymmetry.

One could say this is a bit like Jimmy Wales and “mastering all knowledge” through an open source community effort (Wikipedia or similar compendia). Or it may sound like Digg or Mixx. But it is more focused because it is driven by one’s persons concentric experiences.  But I must admit, that if I had become more socially competitive as a youngster, I wouldn't find value in almagamating and publishing "the truth".  As I've noted before, it's important to stay out of certain conflicting activities (such as making decisions about direct report employees or customers) if one wants to be recognized as a public focal point or funnel for correlated policy knowledge.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Individualism, conformity, cooperation, and reflective speech: the merry go-round: the "pro-family" movement wouldn't host many tea parties

Once again, the real importance of the issue of “equal rights for gays” is not found in the mathematical analysis of the benefits of marriage (in terms of “present values” and other actuarial mumbo), but in something broader: how the notion of “family values” affects adults who “choose” other paths in life besides (or at least not including) forming and sustaining the procreational (or at least lineage-sustaining) family.

Probably a few years ago this would have seemed like a novel statement, but everybody understood this a half century ago.

In September 2009, I discussed the "Manifesto" “The Natural Family” by Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero on my Book Review blog. I’m struck by the practical implications of what the authors argue: it’s up to (married) parents to socialize the next generation into using love and power capacities not just as a vehicle for a personally tailored expressive agenda, but as an acceptance of complementarity, a way to link up to people in a community (read, “the natural family” of kinfolk) on the basis of needs, not merit. That’s what makes sexuality different from everything else; in their view, it comes from a common (God-given) resource related to organicity and life itself, not from one’s own “works”. Perhaps this does mesh with Vatican theology.

It follows, then, that the unmarried and childless can well expect to be put upon and expropriated, to have their goals chosen by others. The modern idea that you only become responsible for something with chosen acts (chosen conception) is buried by the mere fact that you belong to a community that needs to make common demands on you to sustain itself. Don’t think that you get out of “responsibility” for others by not having children. The authors say that “mere conformity” begets “cooperation.” That can get elaborated to include expecting the unmarried to focus on maintaining ties with other family members rather than pursuing lives of their own.

But what strikes me this time around (as I glance at passages from the book again) is the take on individualism (around p 80). The modern libertarian construct for a moral society seems to produce markets and satisfying relationships (“marriages”) between adults who see themselves as equals, often stable enough to raise kids, but maybe looking back toward the elderly with some distance. The problem, Mero and Carlson say, is that individualism fragments “visions” or purposes into individual agendas, away from sustaining the family (one’s own life) into the indefinite future and accepting a part in something bigger and more permanent than self. That’s especially a problem in the “speech” area, where the “purpose” of ("reflective" but not "genuine") published content (especially when gratuitous on the Internet) comes into question. For example, someone who felt humiliated by being expected (when younger) to “compete” to form families along the lines of conventional gender roles, may have a psychological motive (even “sadistic” as coming from the “psychological defenses” as discussed by Rosenfels), might have a motive to make others similarly challenged to feel uncomfortable about their own ability. If enough people did this, there could develop an trend toward re-implementing totalitarian values in the interest of “absolute justice”, away from the community sense that is necessary to sustain freedom.

Carlson/Mero may have a point here. But if most people are supposed to put the “family” (as a collective entity) first, there will live a power structure. Somebody (or “somebodies”) will be in charge, and there will be a lot of opportunity for “good old boy” style corruption. And individuals would lose their rights to protest. I’m not sure that the world of Carlson and Mero could host many tea parties, as friendly it might be to wedding anniversaries and blessed events.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Locational privacy becomes a growing problem in the age of social media, but not just because of social media

The discussion of privacy and security continues in the media, inasmuch as many people, of all ages up through baby boomer, gradually surrender more privacy, especially “locational privacy”, in a modern world.

While some media outlets have pointed out how online use can compromise home security recently, others have been showing that ordinary activity in public now leaves an electronic trail that a determined adversary might be able to tap. This audit trail includes transit system swipes, traffic speed and red light cameras, toll turnstiles (which offer the added problem of making it difficult for out-of-towners to get in the right lane for cash sometimes), and street cameras, common in convenience and retail stores, but even more so in public spaces in many areas (especially now in Britain). Andrew J. Blumberg and Peter Eckersly wrote an article for Electronic Frontier Foundation in Aug. 2009 “on locational privacy, and how to avoid losing it forever,” here.

There are other problems of locational privacy even from the physical world. Just plain “dumpster diving” can, in rare cases, divulge home locations and compromise home security or identity security.

I think there is a more subtle problem than the obvious one (already covered) of people giving out unnecessary personal or home-related information on social networking sites, a practice suddenly getting noticed by insurance companies after a (very) few recent spectacular crimes around the country. One size does not fit all shoes, inasmuch as families vary so much as to circumstances and as to how well secured their homes are. What also seems to be of concern is that anyone can become a “celebrity” and attract potential “enemies” with no particular competitive process or investment of capital, compared to how it was in the past. But it’s also true, if almost “everyone” is one the Web (especially social media), it takes more than merely going online to attract the wrong kind of attention. (If everyone is famous, then no one is famous.) Therefore, the nature of someone’s published content (whether on social media, blogs or conventional sites or other media like books and movies) still will set someone off as able to attract attention, sometimes unwanted in a world where many people see the whole system as essentially “unfair” or ethically meaningless. So, still, it’s a good idea to use “land address” mail boxes or, even better, “private registration” of domain names, permitted by ICANN, when registering personal domains.

One problem is the practice of data brokerage companies that sell reports on unlisted phone numbers and addresses. Likewise, many municipalities publish names and addresses publicly in real estate tax records online. I never use these services and will not out of curiosity, but I, like many people, certainly know how to use them.

The Center for Democracy and Technology has an important but brief missive, “Over-sharing and Location Awareness” from Feb. 24, 2010, here.

Back in May 2005 Rep. Jim Moran (D, 8th District, VA) had written to me about this matter, and his comments bear repeating here: “As you know, some Internet businesses, such as, are selling information about people for a minimal fee. This information includes current and past addresses, telephone numbers, police and court records, subscriptions, and other public documents. These businesses are not warehouses of information, but rather search engines that consolidate information from existing public records and sources for a fee.

Like you, I have reservations about these businesses. They operate on the fringe of what may be legally permissible and verge on privacy invasion. I am also concerned that these firms could facilitate domestic violence or stalking where certain information should remain confidential. Without infringing on First Amendment rights to assemble and sell what is already public information. Congress should look into ways for people to opt out of such listings and investigate whether certain types of data should not be disclosed. I will continue to look into this issue.”

Congress needs to pay more attention to the activities of these companies.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

A Sunday prayer notes that we continue to add up the cost of everything

There were some words in the “Prayer and Confession” Sunday morning (May 2) at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA that caught my eyes. They were “You offer us grace and visions of abundant life, but we live judging others, counting the cost of everything. Clinging to old ways, we rail to reflect on the new things you are doing.”

Is this a matter of “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”? It strikes me that individualism has found a common denominator, call it “karma” – and we normally view considering one’s karma as a good thing. One should be aware of his or her unseen dependencies or perhaps evasions of shared risk. Yet, the whole idea of an akashic record seems to reduce things to getting a “grade” on one’s life. Final exams always come.

There is a notion of “station in life” and it comprises a lot more than money: things like notability, achievement, expression, a sense of public importance, and even sovereignty over adult relationships (our legal system calls this concept “consent”).  The notion also encompasses the capability to resist adapting goals chosen by others when one has a personal moral objection to those goals.

But then there is “living in a community”, isn’t there. Stay tuned.

"I vs. we": Social media keep giving the English language some new verbs

Well, the English language keeps inventing new verbs. We’ve had “to dooce” (to "fire an employee because of the contents of a publicly searchable Web posting") and “to Facebook” and now the latest verb is “to zucker”. Conjugate in French, Spanish and German (especially), please.

The background for all this is an MSN story “Facebook: the evil interface: is your personal information suddenly flapping in the breeze?” The link(story by Mary A.S. Popkin) is here.

There’s no question that social networking companies need to “have it both ways”, as do personal publishers (in a different sense) like me. I think there is a deeper question than just privacy as being discusses: it’s notability, and what “fame” is for. If Facebook (or Myspace, etc) is about “social networking”, can you really have 1000 friends and know them well? If blogging is about free speech, do you have to be responsible for what people read in to your deepest “intention?” (Yup, I had to get into that here July 27, 2007). There is always that Enron-like question, “Ask Why”.   How often does an individual talk in the "royal we" when he wants to draw attention to the "I"?

The article makes a good point, that with social networking sites, privacy loss occurs by “proxy”, often through long chains of group association.

As for the verb “zucker”, Tim Jones at EFF explains with some kindness in a piece April 29 called “Facebook’s ‘Evil Interfaces’”, link here. But I’ll let English teachers making up weekly vocabulary tests come up with a precise definition of the verb. It would be a good class project. The EFF starts out with “the act of creating deliberately confusing jargon and user-interfaces which trick your users into sharing more info about themselves than they really want to.”

Then, Gawker weighs in with a brief story about the letters from several Senators to Zuckerberg, but the most interesting thing about the article is the rather feline photograph of the company’s founder.

Update: May 8

Check this sotry by Caroline McCarthy from CNET, "Understanding Facebook's Privacy Aftershocks", link here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Pundits look for "lowest common denominator" on Internet fame (especially when it gets into the world of work)

Well, the “common denominator” of advice on the Internet for “ordinary people” gets sillier. Yesterday, on my “Proposal for a Project” blog (check my Profile) I noted a recent Consumer Reports article that advises people to uncheck the option allowing search engines to troll their Facebook pages. Well, I thought people wanted to be “discovered”. It seems like the right to fame is supposed to be earned by climbing Jacob’s Ladder the old fashioned way, through social and gold-old-boy hierarchies so nobody gets mad.

Then on another site called “Work Buzz” hit the point that prospective employers really might be concerned about how you look on Facebook. The article (link) was called “6 things you should probably remove from your resume” but it seems to consider your Facebook profile as part of your resume, by default. Be careful, if you are balding and gray. Really. It says “These may not be on your résumé, but once a potential employer has your full name they might as well be. Polish all social networking profiles and remove any unprofessional or embarrassing photos. Ask your friends to clean up social networking profiles for you, too. If you are gray or balding, you might consider removing your photo during your job search.” Not only to people (men) bald as they grow older, their fingerprint ridges get less distinct; how many people care about that?

There is always a problem of how one “stands out”, and of whether one “conforms”. Social media, self-publication, and search engines all change the balance between the individual “standing alone” and functioning as “a member of the group” (especially the family).

Sunday, May 02, 2010

NYTimes piece questions effect of social media on real-world social skills of teens

The New York Times Style section today May 2 carried a big story that carried on the recent debate about the effect of social networking sites on teens (or tweens). The article by Hilary Stout is called “Antisocial networking: experts wonder if technology keeps children connected or diminishes their ability to read social cues and interact the old-fashioned way”, link here.

The “experts” may be concerned about the ability to develop body language and the sort of group empathy that makes social structures like the family sustainable. But that may be a religious or culture-war charged observation.

From a practical viewpoint, there is a real question as to what kinds of skills kids really need. Technology encourages a sense of autonomy and independence – maybe a good thing for personal stability and freedom from jealousy, but maybe a long term threat of real-life social isolation. Facebook, after all, started with the purpose of facilitating real-life campus dating and networking. It just grew exponentially, even beyond the original visions of its founder(s).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Washington Times may be sold by Unification Church; former editor may be investor

Ian Shapira has a story on p A11 of the Saturday May 1 Washington Post, “Unification Church will put Washington Times up for Sale”, link (web url) here.

The article mentions John Solomon, publisher of the Energy Guardian (and a former editor of TWT who resigned in Nov. 2009), as likely to be a major investor.

The Unification Church has reduced subsidies and ordered massive cuts late in 2009, resulting in elimination of the Sunday paper.

The Washington Times has long been known as the “conservative” paper in the DC area (but so is the free “Washington Examiner”). The paper has sometimes caricatured the debate over gay rights, putting quotes around the word “marriage” when talking about gay marriage, and producing an aerial shot of the 1993 March on Washington. True, some of its editors and columnists see conservatism in “social responsibility” terms, like the “natural family” notion which sees inequality as inevitable makes family responsibility (and family “communitarianism”) more fundamental that the idea of individual choice and consequences. But in the 1990s the paper started running more columns of a libertarian nature, from columnists such as Deroy Mudoch.

I have had good success with my own letters to the editor; five of six have been published (see August 22, 2008 on this blog).

On October 12, 2005 the Washington Times published a controversial editorial on bloggers and Campaign Finance Reform that accidentally ignited a controversy with my own substitute teaching (see this blog July 27, 2007). That editorial is no longer available online but it had read “Everyone else, like those who pay nothing for a site at, would have to have some way of knowing if their blogging is violating the briar patch of campaign-finance laws which only lawyers know how to navigate. Forcing a potential blogger to hire a lawyer would effectively kill the blogosphere as we've come to know and appreciate it.”

I hope that the links to the Washington Times articles stay out there indefinitely. I have referred to many of them, and TWT has covered some dangers, maybe with a bit of fanaticism, of potential perils like “electromagnetic pulse” attacks that other papers won’t touch (see the “EMP” label on my International Issues blog).

I could not find a story on The Washington Times website this morning about the Post story.

(P.S._ sorry -- I first mistyped the title of the post as "Washington Tomes" -- no pun intended, but the pun would actually work!)