3. The Power of Facebook

Jul-06-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: Google’s motto is “Do no evil”; Facebook’s is “Move fast and break things.” The excellent opening piece looks at the unprecedented amount of information Facebook has, and explores the kinds of power that gives them. I don’t think Facebook/ Zuckerberg is evil; I do think unconstrained power is problematic, at best. And we have two useful followups, particularly if you use Facebook. As Cory Doctorow often quotes, If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.

* What Facebook Knows  Technology Review

If Facebook were a country, a conceit that founder Mark Zuckerberg has entertained in public, its 900 million members would make it the third largest in the world.

It would far outstrip any regime past or present in how intimately it records the lives of its citizens. Private conversations, family photos, and records of road trips, births, marriages, and deaths all stream into the company’s servers and lodge there. Facebook has collected the most extensive data set ever assembled on human social behavior. Some of your personal information is probably part of it.

…Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what’s going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. But… unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.

In April, influenced in part by conversations over dinner with his med-student girlfriend (now his wife), Zuckerberg decided that he should use social influence within Facebook to increase organ donor registrations. Users were given an opportunity to click a box on their Timeline pages to signal that they were registered donors, which triggered a notification to their friends. The new feature started a cascade of social pressure, and organ donor enrollment increased by a factor of 23 across 44 states.

* Facebook Just Changed Your Email Without Asking; Here’s How to Fix It Gizmodo

Hey, here’s something really stupid and annoying: Facebook abruptly switched everyone’s default email address to the @facebook.com account you’ve never used. Here’s how to switch back Facebook’s obnoxious overreach right now. So people can actually, you know, contact you.

Remember long, long ago, when Facebook launched a Facebook email system and then nobody used it? That’s fine—it was always just an option you were more than welcome to completely ignore. And we did, because we already had Gmail and work inboxes, and didn’t need yet another. If our friends wanted to email us, they could just head to our profiles and have options.

Not today! If you go to your profile (or anyone else’s), you’ll see the @facebook.com email account listed—which just forwards to your Facebook messages inbox—and none of your others. They’ve all been hidden in a ham-handed attempt to make the Facebook inbox relevant.

* Five Hints on Our Facebook Future  Technology Review

As Facebook heads for an expected $100 billion debut on the stock market two weeks from today, many users of the site may be wondering what this means for their experience of the social network. The 30-minute “retail road show” video made public by Facebook yesterday to tempt investors gives some clues. Here are five of them.

1. Your like button clicks make ads more valuable. If you “like” a business on Facebook, the company will sell ads to them that show up on your friends’ pages to say that you did so. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, says people are 50 percent more likely to recall an ad with that “social context.”

2. Facebook may start selling more than just purple cows. The social network has its own currency called Facebook credits, mostly used by companies like Zynga to sell virtual goods in games, that pulled in $500 million in revenue for Facebook last year. “In the future, we may seek to extend our payments into areas outside of games,” says CFO David Ebersman, “but with Facebook likely keeping a lower revenue share than 30 percent in areas where developers costs are higher.” Digital content such as movies and music would be a good fit with Facebook’s ability to let you see what friends are doing.



4. Getting to Know Anonymous

Jul-06-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: In the beginning there was 4Chan, a social media board on which all posts were from “Anonymous”. Then 4Chan fought Scientology, and Anonymous became something more. What exactly it is isn’t clear. But the three articles below offer some facts, some perspectives, and some lulz.


* How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, and Takes Organizations Down  Wired

The possibility that Anonymous might be telling the truth—that it couldn’t be shut down by jailing or flipping or bribing key participants—was why it became such a terrifying force to powerful institutions worldwide, from governments to corporations to nonprofits. Its wild string of brilliant hacks and protests seemed impossible in the absence of some kind of defined organization. To hear the group and its defenders talk, the leaderless nature of Anonymous makes it a mystical, almost supernatural force, impossible not just to stop but to even comprehend. Anons were, they liked to claim, united as one and divided by zero—undefined and indefinable.

In fact, the success of Anonymous without leaders is pretty easy to understand—if you forget everything you think you know about how organizations work. Anonymous is a classic “do-ocracy,” to use a phrase that’s popular in the open source movement. As the term implies, that means rule by sheer doing: Individuals propose actions, others join in (or not), and then the Anonymous flag is flown over the result. There’s no one to grant permission, no promise of praise or credit, so every action must be its own reward.

What’s harder to comprehend—but just as important, if you want to grasp the future of Anonymous after the arrests—is the radical political consciousness that seized this innumerable throng of Internet misfits. Anonymous became dangerous to governments and corporations not just because of its skills (lots of hackers have those) or its scale but because of the fury of its convictions. In the beginning, Anonymous was just about self-amusement, the “lulz,” but somehow, over the course of the past few years, it grew up to become a sort of self-appointed immune system for the Internet, striking back at anyone the hive mind perceived as an enemy of freedom, online or offline. It started as a gang of nihilists but somehow evolved into a fervent group of believers. To understand that unlikely transformation, and Anonymous’ peculiar method of (non)organization, it is necessary to start at the very beginning.

* “Right now we have access to every classified database in the U.S. government.”  Anonymous

Q: What do you say to people who believe Anons are just cyber-terrorists?

A: Basically I decline the semantic argument. If you want to call me a terrorist, I have no problem with that. But I would ask you, “Who is it that’s terrified?” If it’s the bad guys who are terrified, I’m really super OK with that. If it’s the average person, the people out in the world we are trying to help who are scared of us, I’d ask them to educate themselves, to do some research on what it is we do and lose that fear. We’re fighting for the people, we are fighting, as Occupy likes to say, for the 99%. It’s the 1% people who are wrecking our planet who should be quite terrified. If to them we are terrorists, then they probably got that right.

“Information terrorist” – what a funny concept. That you could terrorize someone with information. But who’s terrorized? Is it the common people reading the newspaper and learning what their government is doing in their name? They’re not terrorized – they’re perfectly satisfied with that situation. It’s the people trying to hide these secrets, who are trying to hide these crimes. The funny thing is every email database that I’ve ever been a part of stealing, from Pres. Assad to Stratfor security, every email database, every single one has had crimes in it. Not one time that I’ve broken into a corporation or a government, and found their emails and thought, “Oh my God, these people are perfectly innocent people, I made a mistake.” 

* Five Things Every Organization Can Learn From Anonymous   Forbes

#2 Be fluid, not formal.

Anonymous is a great example of the growth of the leaderless, decentralized organizations set out in Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom’s 2006 book, “The Spider and the Starfish: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”. Brafman told me in an interview last year that Anonymous fell squarely into the category of starfish: impossible to kill with one blow, and destined to grow a leg back if one was cut off. Centralized organizations, on the other hand, are like spiders: knock one on the head and it’s dead.

The growth of digital openness has heralded an era of more starfish-like organizations, and Anonymous takes that label to the extreme. The harder anyone like law enforcement tries to stop starfish-style movements like Anonymous, Brafman said, the more fuel is added to their fire. Similar examples of starfish groups are Alcoholics Anonymous, which had to be decentralized in order to maintain people’s privacy and Al Quaeda, which doesn’t require the stamp of approval of a senior leader to carry out attacks. The takeaway for other organizations isn’t that they should completely ditch their leadership structure, but consider that decentralizing power can make them more effective and resilient.



9. O Internet! O Mores!

Jun-15-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: We didn’t run the hilarious marriage video cited in the first piece, as it had pervaded popular culture and we figured you’d already seen it. But Sunny Hundal raises good questions about how our lives become measured in contrast to those whose lives we see on the screen. And are our internet friends (that’s you, dear reader) really our friends? I have many friends whom I’ve never met in “the real world” (a.k.a. meatspace); does that mean they are less real friends than those I see once a year? We look at the care and non-feeding of internet trolls, and note the ironic fact that you are now most likely to contact a computer virus through computer sects, as opposed to computer sex.

* ‘Marry You’ Video Only Feeds My Existential Crisis Sunny Hundal The Guardian

This video turned up on my Facebook feed the other day, as is de rigueur, and I watched with much amusement. As I got into it, my amusement turned into a sense of romanticism and yearning. How many of us aren’t moved by love and amateur dancing? But that warm, fuzzy feeling soon turned into alarm and then outright annoyance. “Look mate,” I thought to myself, “I appreciate all this effort you went into; nothing beats making your partner happy. But really? Did you have tofilm it?”

YouTube is rapidly becoming the bane of our existence. Instead of worrying about people catching us doing something foolish and uploading it, soon we’ll be worrying that many of the amazing feats uploaded every day make our lives look like a series of non-events. Call it the “YouTube-inspired existential crisis”. I’m tempted to think there’s value in doing something so absurd that it goes completely viral – at least you stamp your mark on the future. Inspired spin-off memes? Bonus points!

That marriage proposal, conducted to the soundtrack of ‘Marry You’ by Bruno Mars has already been viewed 9m times in less than a week and will no doubt eventually hit 100m. People are suckers for this stuff. But just remember, they’re evil. With every video, the bar gets raised higher. Soon, our lives will be dictated by films uploaded by others. Got a cat? Film it mercilessly. Dog? Teach it to skateboard so you can brag online. Want to propose? Organise a lavish surprise! But wait, what about that guy who got brutally rejected? Maybe put that 24-piece band on hold until you’re sure …

* Should One Attend The Funeral Of A ‘Virtual Friend’?  Edward Collier The Guardian

Last Thursday I learned that my friend George had died after a short illness. My first thoughts were for his family; George was one of those men for whom the term “larger than life” might have been coined, and his absence would be deeply felt. And then there was the funeral – assuming it was not a private, family affair – should I attend?

The question was moot because I’d never actually met George in the flesh. We had become friends through the wonder of the internet, brought together through a mutual love of cricket. We “met”, if that’s the correct term, on a cricket forum where his closely reasoned yet contentious posts struck an immediate chord with me. I will miss his brazen attempts to wind me up, attempts that often succeeded.

His death has made me wonder about the correct “form” for cyber grief. Is it like any other grief, expressible in the same way? These days there is burgeoning interest in virtual relationships – and some days it seems that there is no aspect of human behaviour, from transgressive sexual relations to falling in love, from larceny to largesse, that cannot be conducted down the wire. But just as phone sex is not the same as sex-sex, so the question arises – is a virtual friendship the equal of a “real” one?

* What Is An Internet Troll?  Technology | The Guardian

I’m sitting waiting for the House of Commons to start debating a Law Against Trolls or, as they would call it, an amendment to the Defamation Act. It would basically let internet providers off the hook for the publication of their content, so long as they signed up to divulge the identity of any of their users. To warrant such a disclosure, the injured party would have to show that their reputation had been significantly damaged; then they would be given the offender’s identity, and would be free to pursue a civil case. Online abuse still won’t be a criminal offence, even if the bill is passed. It has wide support in parliament, so is not intended to be a very heated debate: I want to watch it to see how many MPs actually know what a troll is.

The term is widely misused: Frank Zimmerman, who received a suspended sentence for asking Louise Mensch which of her children she wished to remain alive, is not a troll, he is a hater (the death threats take him beyond the realm of ordinary hater into criminal hater; but that’s his category nonetheless). You can hear haters described in song by Isabel Fay, but they’re not the same as trolls, even while many people (Fay included) use the terms interchangeably (I’m not being a hater when I say that, by the way; I’m being a pedant). Trolls aren’t necessarily any more pleasant than haters, but their agenda is different – they don’t just want to insult a particular person, they want to start a fight – hopefully one that has a broader application, and brings in more people than just the object of their original trolling. The term derives from a fishing technique – say your stupid thing, watch the world bite.

* Malware And Computer Viruses: They’ve Left Porn Sites For Religious Sites.   Slate Magazine

 Church blogs and Christian youth forums aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of scareware, malware, worms, and Trojan horses? They should be. In its latest annual Internet security threat report, Symantec, the maker of Norton AntiVirus software, found that “religious and ideological sites” have far surpassed pornographic websites as targets for criminal hackers. According to the company you’re now three times as likely to encounter malware—insidious software that can steal your data, pelt you with spam, or enslave your machine in a botnet—on your local church blog as you are on a porn site.

The explanation is straightforward: The entrepreneurs who run adult websites are old hands at Web security, and they’ve long since learned to use protection. Those who build and host church websites, by contrast, may have the best intentions, but they tend to be naive and inexperienced. For hackers, that makes them easy prey.



6. Followups & Corrections

Jun-08-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: I was wrong in my post last week about the utility of PLUs (price look-up codes) Correction below; mea maxima culpa. A stunning piece by Rabbi Brian Walt is essential reading; it’s a personal and brave attempt to separate Judaism and Zionism. Juan Cole travels in Libya, and finds it’s doing better than we’ve heard. And Cory Doctorow fights on for your privacy online, or whatever’s left of it.

* GM Foods and PLU Codes   The Food Ethics Blog

Can PLU (Price Look-Up) codes help concerned consumers avoid genetically-modified foods?

No.

The idea that a 5-digit PLU beginning with “8″ is a reliable guide to the genetic characteristics of a piece of produce has spread around the internet like wildfire.

Trouble is, it’s false. Now, it’s a falsehood rooted in fact: the numeral “8″ (in the 1st position of a 5-digit code) has in fact been set aside, (by the International Federation for Produce Standards) to designate GM foods. But the code is entirely voluntary, and no one is actually using it.

* Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity Without Zionism  The Palestinian Talmud

Rabbi Brian Walt, of Rabbis for Human Rights, writes (as described on Shalom Rav), “a breathtaking piece that deserves the widest possible audience. I don’t know exactly how describe it except to say it’s at once an intensely personal confession, spiritual autobiography, political treatise and most of all, an anguished cri de coeur.”

“I finally had to admit to myself what I had known for a long time but was too scared to acknowledge: political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethno-nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews. As such political Zionism violates everything I believe about Judaism. While there was desperate need in the 1940s to provide a safe haven for Jews, and this need won over most of the Jewish world and the Western world to support the Zionist movement, the Holocaust can in in no way justify or excuse the systemic racism that was and remains an integral part of Zionism.

In the past I believed that the discrimination I saw – the demolished homes, the uprooted trees, the stolen land – were an aberration of the Zionist vision. I came to understand that all of these were not mistakes nor a blemishes on a dream – they were all the logical outcome of Zionism.

As a Jew, I believe in the inherent dignity of every human being. As a Jew, I believe that justice is the core commandment of our tradition. As a Jew, I believe that we are commanded to be advocates for the poor, the oppressed the marginalized. Zionism and the daily reality in Israel violated each of these core values. And I could no longer be a Zionist. I will always be a person with deep and profound connection to Israel and my friends and family there, but I was no longer a Zionist.

I came to understand that the democratic Jewish state is an illusion. There is no democratic Jewish state, nor will there ever be. Israel will either be a Jewish state or a democratic state. A Jewish state by definition privileges Jews and cannot be democratic. Israel is a democratic state for Jews and a Jewish state for Arabs. It is true that Palestinians who live within Israel have the franchise, but they are do not have equal rights in many different ways, nor could they ever be full and equal citizens of a Jewish state.”

* Wrong about Libya Juan Cole Informed Comment

There is a kind of black legend about Libya, that it has become a failed state and is a mess, that there are armed militiamen everywhere, that everybody is a secessionist, that the transitional government is not doing anything, that people of subsaharan African heritage are bothered in the streets, etc., etc. The black legend is promoted in part by remnants of the Qaddafi regime and his admirers in the West, in part by overly anxious middle class Libyans navigating an admittedly difficult transition, in part by media editors looking for a dramatic story.

…So imagine my surprise on visits to Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli, to find that there were no militiamen to be seen, that most things were functioning normally, that there were police at traffic intersections, that there were children’s carnivals open till late, families out, that jewelry shops were open till 8 pm, that Arabs and Africans were working side by side, and that people were proud in Benghazi of having demonstrated against calls for decentralizing the country.

As someone who has lived in conflict situations, I take as a very serious gauge of security whether shops are open and how late they stay open. Jewelry shops in particular are easily looted, and the loot is light and easy to fence. But in Tripoli there was loads of gold in rows of jewelry shops, along with clothing stores newly stocked with Italian fashions. Shopkeepers I interviewed were fully stocked, confident and glad to finally be rid of Qaddafi’s erratic governance, under which they were never sure if they would make a profit because policies changed frequently.

* The Curious Case of Internet Privacy Cory Doctorow Technology Review

Here’s a story you’ve heard about the Internet: we trade our privacy for services. The idea is that your private information is less valuable to you than it is to the firms that siphon it out of your browser as you navigate the Web. They know what to do with it to turn it into value—for them and for you. This story has taken on mythic proportions, and no wonder, since it has billions of dollars riding on it.

But if it’s a bargain, it’s a curious, one-sided arrangement. To understand the kind of deal you make with your privacy a hundred times a day, please read and agree with the following:

By reading this agreement, you give Technology Review and its partners the unlimited right to intercept and examine your reading choices from this day forward, to sell the insights gleaned thereby, and to retain that information in perpetuity and supply it without limitation to any third party.

Actually, the text above is not exactly analogous to the terms on which we bargain with every mouse click. To really polish the analogy, I’d have to ask this magazine to hide that text in the margin of one of the back pages. And I’d have to end it with This agreement is subject to change at any time. What we agree to participate in on the Internet isn’t a negotiated trade; it’s a smorgasbord, and intimate facts of your life (your location, your interests, your friends) are the buffet.



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