Farewell Social Media

I recently purged the data from my Facebook account. This effort was shockingly labour intensive: it took a browser script all weekend to crunch, and still many aspects of the process required manual execution. Torching years and years of old Facebook activity felt so liberating that I found another script to do the same thing to my Twitter account.

Going in, I had no idea just how difficult it would be to remove so much data. There is zero commercial incentivize for Facebook or Twitter to provide a “Delete all my posted data but let me keep my contact network” option. These platforms make it monstrously tedious to remove one’s content short of deleting one’s entire account. These systems are apparently designed to make personal ‘data purges’ extremely cumbersome for users.

As Tom Peters observed, “The sole concern of Google and Facebook is to convert the most intimate details in your life into revenue.” But many of us have been using these platforms for so many years that we fail to appreciate just how much data we have donated to them along the way. Try scrolling to the very bottom of your Facebook activity log or Google search history to see what I mean. Dylan Curran’s recent piece in the Guardian demonstrates the scale and magnitude of our complacency. If you want to become acutely aware of how valuable your data is to these companies, try jumping through the hoops required to take your data off their systems. Even if you decide to award the contract for chronicling your life to these companies, you need to be precisely aware of how much you are giving away. As soon as you try to do something as ‘simple’ as remove your past posts, you suddenly realize how soothingly you’ve been lulled into shovelling your personal life into corporate data mines.

At present, I have no plans to post to Facebook, Twitter, or Google again anytime soon. The sole function of my now ‘dormant’ accounts is to allow me to utilize these networks as ‘living directories’ when they present themselves as the only available tools to make contact with certain individuals. Other than that, I’m signing off, at least for the time being. I will leave this post as final ‘breadcrumb’ on Facebook and Twitter.

My focus remains on writing. I will continue posting regularly here on my blog, with a greater emphasis on engaging in the discussions and debates that emerge. If you would like to follow my writing moving ahead, you are welcome to subscribe to weekly email updates. You can also subscribe to this site’s RSS feed with a service like Feedly, Feedbin, Inoreader, or Feed Wrangler. I highly recommend Reeder as a feed reader client.

I will not be syndicating links to new blog posts on social media. I am not interested in supporting our increased dependency on algorithms to determine what we see and read… and, ultimately, think. I do not want to spend my time tweaking or ‘gaming’ algorithms. I am just not interested in the race anymore. The more I play the algorithm game, the more the algorithm game plays me.

I’m out. There are many things I hope to do while I am alive… trying to convince somebody’s advertising algorithm to pay attention to me is not one of those things. Multiply this conviction by the sense that spending time on social media is a suboptimal use of time that comes at the expense of things I truly care about and leaving seems evermore desirable. Just one life to live: I refuse to be a collateral pawn in someone else’s attention war.

Moving ahead, I will use email as my principal means of communicating and organizing personal endeavours, initiatives, and projects. If we have not already corresponded by email, please send me a note at contact [at] jamesshelley.com and say hi. Why? Email is peer-to-peer, distributed, non-proprietary, and adaptable. It is, as far as I can tell right now, the best ‘social platform’ presently at our disposal.

(I will also be maintaining my presence on micro.blog, which is a fascinating, experimental platform. Micro.blog is like a ‘social layer’ that maps over open and independent web sites.)

If you are thinking about purging or deleting your social media accounts, I’d love to hear what you are thinking. What are the considerations that you are weighing? What are your primary concerns? I am curious about your story. Looking back, it’s interesting how many different factors played into this decision for me. How do other paths unfold?

I can’t quite describe how ‘lightening’ it feels to start over again. It is our data that we are giving away here, and it is entirely within our prerogative to take it back. To each their own, but I, for one, am moving on. In the final analysis, it is simply about exercising my choice: Facebook and Twitter are not working for me, so I will focus my energies in other directions. This is about more time and space for connection, community, and conversation. Saying no to the algorithmic data miners really means saying yes to something else.

After some reflection, I’ve concluded that even posting to Twitter is just providing content to a platform for hate and anger. I can’t fix that problem, but I can stop contributing to the platform. And so I will. — Curtis Clifton

Lanier’s Social Media Ultimatum

Jaron Lanier argues that you have two choices: delete all your social media accounts or fully educate yourself on how your brain being getting hijacked.

People have to take responsibility to become literate in a new way if they are going to use the technology at all. So if you just can’t find it in yourselves to delete all your social media accounts, then you must take it upon yourself to really learn how it works. Learn how the addiction cycle works. Learn how the manipulation works. Become aware of it. If you can’t make one of those two choices you’re becoming a drone and you’re not really functioning as a citizen in the new world. I have to be very blunt about that. Those are the choices available to you. There are no others. (Listen at 21:16)

Digital illiteracy leaves people increasingly vulnerable to corporations like Facebook that have systematically fine-tuned their algorithms for stealing, trading, and selling attention. As in many cases of exploitation, the least educated are the first subsumed. Lanier’s stark ultimatum is good advice: learn everything you can about how these systems are taking advantage of you or get the hell out. (The third ‘default option’ isn’t a viable option at all: become a mindless, scrolling automaton, endlessly seeking the next ping, like a pigeon in a B.F. Skinner experiment.)

On the Folly of Personal Analytics

Personal analytics

Remember how early personal web pages often included a ‘guest book’ for visitors to sign? Remember how bloggers used to place little ‘hit counters’ at the bottom of their sites? In one form or another, web analytics have been around about as long as the internet itself.

For as long as we have been posting digital content for the world to see, we have also wondered, “How many people are actually seeing this?”

Today, measuring and quantifying online activity is a full blown science and business. Virtually every website tracks where visitors are from, what they click, and how long they stay on each page. To ‘surf the web’ is to sail an ocean of conversion rates, key performance indicators, and statistical analysis. Even signing up for a free blog comes with the opportunity to drill down into visitor data.

Once upon a time, this site was a number-crunching machine, too. I would feel the euphoria of watching my stats ‘soar’ upon publishing a particularly ‘popular’ post. And the sit in the despair of an attention vacuum when other posts ‘didn’t connect’ with readers.

However, one day I had an epiphany: the impetus and passion to share ideas negates the importance of tracking analytics. I admit this proposition is equal parts unsexy and counter-intuitive, yes. But please allow me to unpack this idea.

I am driven to write in this space because I am compelled to articulate thoughts, ideas, and perspectives that have shifted my perception. For example, take the recent piece on Water Protectors: this article captures a moment of time in my personal evolution where my relationship with the world was significantly recalibrated. I want you — and anyone — to read Water Protectors because I think it represents a genuinely noteworthy set of observations and arguments. At very least, these ideas are important to me because they have changed me as a person.

But what good does it do for me to know how many ‘page hits’ Water Protectors has? If only one other person was ever going to read the article, would I have still written it anyway? Definitely. If an idea is worth sharing with the world, it must be no less important to share it with an individual. (After all, what are human conversations?)

Or consider this: let’s imagine that absolutely no one read Water Protectors. Would I decline to write about the next important lesson I learned simply because no one read my article about water? Of course not. The analytics for earlier blog posts had nothing to do with my compulsion for writing about water. In the same way, the number of page views for the water essay has nothing to do with my motivation for writing this piece.

The value of sharing an idea for the sake of the idea itself cannot be conflated with how many times the page is viewed.

To the extent that writers care principally about sharing ideas, I think we care less about web analytics. We write because ideas need to be written, not because we believe ‘page views’ have some intrinsic value. The zeitgeist of our times says that the metric for the value of an idea is synonymous with its popularity, shareability, and clickrate. We say it is a lie. If we measure the investment of our writing solely by its analytical return, we are no longer truth-seekers, philosophers, and concept architects — but perhaps something more akin to digital populists; submissive copywriters following the dictates of our algorithm overlord.

This is how I came to the decision to uninstall all the statistics and analytics tracking modules from this site. I arrived at a point where I didn’t event want to know how many people read this space because this knowledge neither has nor should have any useful input in determining what I will write about next. It is a distraction. A diversion. I don’t want to know how many people subscribe to my newsletter or podcast, either, for precisely the same reason. I write what I believe merits sharing. And even if no one ever read this post, the lack of audience has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not I will write again tomorrow.

The poverty of personal analytics is that we buy into the corporately sponsored dogma of our age: everything we do and think is meaningless unless other people ‘like’ it, too.

Reign of the Algorithm

This is (yet another) reflection about the ways that ‘Web 2.0’, social media, and the mass adoption of smartphones have changed society. But first, here is the introductory, prerequisite stanza: I began blogging in 2004. MySpace was one year old. Facebook was exclusively for Harvard students. I had a cool PalmPilot and used Windows XP.

For a moment, please indulge my nostalgia. We didn’t think of the ‘tweetability’ of our headlines back then. We did not worry about whether our titles balanced the aim of inciting a ‘curiosity gap’ without being renounced as ‘clickbait’. We did not feel obliged to find eye-catching ‘featured images’ for our blog posts. The ambition for likes, shares, and retweets did not exist — simply because likes, shares, and retweets had not been invented yet. Words like ‘viral’ and ‘trending’ had not yet even become associated with digital content.

Back in 2004, the only metrics available were page hits (we called our visitors ‘guests’) and perhaps newsletter subscribers. (RSS analytics had only just been invented.) Primarily, your readership grew only if the quality of your writing convinced your ‘guests’ to bookmark your site and return on a regular basis. ‘Networking’ was accomplished when blogs linked and referred to one another, as well as by commenters who highlighted parallel or opposed theses elsewhere.

Fundamentally, the same ingredients remain today: there are still writers and readers. However, a number of new incentives — now baked into the workflow of the social/searchable web — have added significant layers between writers and readers. To varying degrees, these incentives change the substance and style of language itself. (Insert obligatory remark here about the influence of the telegram and printing press on the evolution of language — and perhaps a shoutout to Plato’s dread of writing itself as the demise of memory — with an appreciative nod for the cyclical nature of all such observations.)

The first layer of incentives lurking in the subtext of these words is the social algorithm. You see, I desperately want you to ‘Like’ or star this post: every time you click on that heart or ‘thumbs up’ icon you are indicating the potential likelihood that other people will click on it too. This kind of predictive work is precisely the purpose of social algorithms, and as far as the owner of the algorithm is concerned, your clicks are invaluable data points for discerning what to put in other people’s newsfeeds.

However, this gets a little messy. As a writer, my goal is to share ideas with people. Like most writers, I want the biggest return on my investment of time: that is, I want to share my ideas with as many people as possible. Your supportive click on the social algorithm is the principle mechanism for getting these words in front of more eyeballs. Now that I know your response to this article determines the probability of others reading it, consider the incentive I have for getting you to click on that little icon…

Every second you read these words is a battle. I, the author, am competing with petabytes of other eye-catching, interest-grabbing bids for your attention. At any point you will abandon this piece if you suspect a net loss in return for the opportunity cost of reading it. Therefore, I really need you to click that Like button as soon as possible. Consequently, I am highly incentivized to appeal to your likely beliefs and presuppositions. If you are going to support my covert algorithm agenda here, I’m predisposed to reinforcing your current ideas or at least making you feel psychologically sophisticated for your penchant for robust analysis. Either way, same end goal: you darn well better ‘Like’ this, and the sooner you click that shiny little button the better.

Concurrently, while I am busily appealing to your subconscious to give the social algorithm a pretty gold star on my behalf, there are other algorithms I am seeking to appease at the same time: namely, search engines. We all know that one of the greatest utilities of the internet rests in its searchability. Most inquiries begin with questions. Therefore, I am not only writing to you, the reader, I am also writing to the algorithm that is going to rank where this article comes up in future searches. Strange, isn’t it? In order to write for human readers — or, I should say, in order to find human readers — I first feel compelled to write for a computational analysis by some software.

Will this article win the search engine game? Probably not. For an experiment, I submitted all the paragraphs above to a search engine optimization (SEO) tool. So far, this article fails most SEO tests miserably: I apparently do not use the article keywords in the right places. The readability score is low. There are no subheadings or sections. The title is too short. The meta description does not score well against the body text. There’s a whole list of changes I should make to give this article a better chance at being ranked higher by search engines.

As someone interested in history and writing, I find the algorithm-induced pressures of writing in today’s world fascinating. No matter what topic is addressed, algorithms have turned the internet into a giant race for ‘Likes’ and search rank. The armchair economist in me is simply left to wonder how this will go on to impact writing itself, both stylistically and linguistically.

Writers, remember: the more we play the algorithmic game, the more the algorithmic game plays us. (All hail the great Algorithm in the Cloud!)

Algorithm-oriented content is becoming ubiquitous. It doesn’t matter what you read or what topics you search for, a growing percentage of online material is designed ground-up for the acquisition of ‘Likes’ and the courtship of search engines. Food, politics, current affairs, cats, academia — everything. It doesn’t matter what you are interested in, there is an army of people writing about it with strategic intent to leverage the algorithmic landscape for their advantage.

I do not want to argue that algorithms themselves are evil. All I am saying is that they create a set of incentives that can substantively influence the work of a writer. This is nothing new. Seeking to win the approval of an editor or publisher equally incentivizes certain form and format considerations . The point is not that writers should — or ever could — work in a vacuum. The historical lesson here is simply that being cognizant and vigilant about how such pressures frame our ideas in the first place is critical.

‘Content is king’, says the old maxim. But when the crown is won by an algorithm, to what extent can we say that the competition for the throne was meritocratic? Algorithms do not merely mediate what we see and read online — they arbitrate it, they select it. Therefore, one of the central tenets of digital literacy must be realizing that algorithms are not neutral: they have implicit agendas, functions, and benefactors.

As much as we might like to think that ‘content is king’, increasingly we are living under the reign of the algorithm. But we should not fear algorithms. They are simply computer programs operated by the human beings who set their rules. But we should damn well get smart about them and start studying the deeper impacts that they have on our social discourse with a detached, critical eye.

Inasmuch as we appreciate the inherent biases of publishers, editors, and media corporations, we must equally acknowledge the inherent agendas of those who determine the substance of our newsfeeds.