Facebook Outrage of the Week, etc.

For the past few months I’ve been writing for a fine literary-type site called The Nervous Breakdown. I write essays and humor and whatnot. To help share what I’ve written, I also post links to pieces on all the usual social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

But this week there’s been a catch: When I tried to post a link to my latest piece on Facebook, I got this:

Obviously this is insane. Everyone in my Facebook feed shares stuff. I’ve shared the last three things I’ve written. And The Nervous Breakdown has its own FB page … though lately it isn’t sharing stories from its site on its page either.

Yes, I think I am seeing that pop-up by mistake: Facebook’s mistake. I hope they fix it soon.

The Kase Against Klout

I’ve been kvetching about Klout for a few months. I blogged about it in June, complaining that the social media measurement company turns people into numbers. And then, when the company changed the way they measure people’s online influence, I had another hack (at a site called The Nervous Breakdown, in the technology section).

The same week, the mainstream media got in on the action. The New York Times picked up one of the stories I mentioned, about a woman whose children were assigned Klout profiles, without their knowledge or consent.

Salon.com ran a piece called “Klout is bad for your soul,” by a grad student studying social media, which made many of the same points (though I dragged out Michel Foucault to make my points … who’s sounding more grad-schooly now, eh?)

Anyhow. Turns out some of this backlash is making a difference. You CAN opt out of Klout, though if you’re on Twitter and/or Facebook, you should also update your privacy settings to disallow Klout access to those accounts (here’s how).

But once all that is said and done, know what you get? You get a really satisfying result (this is from Hootsuite):

Getting Klouted

As you can see on the right there, I’m on Twitter. Instead of going through twitter.com, I use a third-party app called Hootsuite, which shows followers, following, number of updates, and a number for something called Klout.

I’ve never liked the Klout number. It’s not even explained — you have to go looking for what it means.

The word clout means both a blow with the hand, and social influence, or political power. The company Klout gave the word a web 2.0 spelling (r you familr with Tumblr or Flickr, mothrfuckr?), and took it from there. They call their number “the measurement of your overall online influence.”

In addition to unfortunate rhyming, the About Klout page claims, “Klout isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list.’ We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Only one little problem: that’s bullshit.

Exhibit 1:  the wallpaper on Klout home page:

I have no idea whether these are actual people who have been piteously reduced to their Klout scores. (It’ s also possible they’re part of a human subspecies known as homo stockphotoicus.) But you see the issue, don’t you? These people have become their number.

Klout never exactly says it’s ranking people. They don’t have to. People will rank themselves, they way they would with IQ scores, SAT scores, income — it’s just how people operate.

Call it “social media” if you want, but once it gets quantified, it gets measured. Once it gets measured, it gets ranked. Once it gets ranked, you get squicky quotes like “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me” (that’s on the Klout website).

Exhibit 2: What’s in a Klout score, anyway? They can’t exactly tell you that either, but rest assured, it’s a scientifical factorizing of the innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary and patent-pending equation-matrix that includes:

Followers, Mutual Follows, Friends, Total Retweets, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, @ Mention Count, List Count, List Followers Count, Unique Retweeters, Unique Messages Retweeted, Likes Per Post, Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %, Unique @ Senders, Follower Mention %, Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, Update Count, List inclusions, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, Unique Senders, Unique Retweeters, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Influence of Followers, Influence of Retweeters and Mentioners, Influence of Friends, Influence of Likers and Commenters.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m checking out a hottie, the things I want to know most are her Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %,  and her Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message figures. Hubba hubba!

Know what’s not on the Klout website? The Klout scores of Chief Executive Officer / Co-Founder Joe Fernandez, Chief Technical Officer / Co-Founder Binh Tran, and Advisor Thomas McInerney. Here’s a memo, guys — want to walk the walk? Then quantify yourselves. Drink your own Kool-Aid.

If you’re certifiably datafiable, you can log in to learn even more about your Network Influence, Amplification Probability, and True Reach.

Not that there’s anything to worry about, right? I mean, this is a positive experience, their mission is to help us, and we wouldn’t want to instill anxiety in people, to make them conform in any …

Hmm. Guess not. Better suck it up and try harder at social media, or your score will go down and you will plummet in the rankings. Or if you think you suffer from social media anxiety, talk to your doctor about … etc.

In his brilliant 1996 book The Mismeasure of Man, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould cut straight to the heart of problem with IQ tests. He argued,

…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.

Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions the way IQ did, of course (to my knowledge, no one has been sterilized because of low Klout). But the process is the same: your “overall online influence” reduced single entity, assigned a number, and then ranked.

Though to be fair, Klout is hardly the only one reaming your information. There’s a story on the wires this week that all your online information (Facebook, Twitter, blog)  is being archived by companies that provide pre-employment screening and background information on potential employees for clients.

Let’s not forget monetized — did I mention that Klout is backed by three venture capital firms? In the strangest little coincidence, the day after I started this post, along came …

Exhibit 3: A  story in FastCompany, “Facebook gets new VIP Sections.” The gist of it is that Facebook is developing a new VIP page, and today Audi and Klout are creating tools for it. A Klout VP told the magazine that “the new exclusive page is about finding influencers, movers, and shakers in their niche markets. Brands will be able to give favored treatment to visitors.”

To its credit, FastCompany almost addresses the creepiness of this:

“The creeping influence of money on the Facebook experience could have serious psychological impacts on how users begin to see what was once simple recreation. Facebook and Twitter have allowed few initiatives to permeate the wall between money and fun, but their data gives brands increasingly clever ways to exploit the precise monetary value of each user.” (my emphasis)

Klout says, “Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.” But that mission has nothing to do with what fattens its bottom line: namely, getting in bed with other companies (Facebook, Audi) to mine, process, analyze and sell user data for corporate benefit.

Turns out there’s a lot to that little number: It’s a nice bit of metonymy, reducing me to a number so that Audi and Facebook and Klout and God Knows Who Else, Inc. can understand my precise monetary value to their brands.

Oh, no!

Pastry Hunt, 2.0

In the comments to my blog post “A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods,” one commenter asked, “Would you be able to tell us where in Paris you had that memorable pain au chocolat?”

Good question — and I’m using good question the way a politician does, when s/he doesn’t have an answer. When I travel I lean on a guidebook for things like hours, directions and tips, but I also do a lot wandering around on foot, and tend to eat at whatever place looks appetizing.

I learned this tip from my cousin. We were rambling through Seattle one day in search of lunch, and I had my nose in my guidebook. He suggested winging it, and we ended up eating in Chinatown at a place called Uncle Ball’s. The food was just okay, but eating at a place with such a bizarre name was one of the highlights of our trip.

But I digress. I didn’t actually know the name or exact location of the patisserie in Paris, but I did know it’s general location, since I had gone to the Saturday produce market at Place de la Bastille:

Then I wandered down a side street, went by a good-looking patisserie, and bought goodies there. I also remembered it was right around the corner from a Starbucks.

Thanks to the awesome power of Google (and I mean awesome in both senses of the word), it’s alarmingly easy to retrace my steps. I didn’t know the name of the side street,  so I simply mapped the locations of Starbucks nearby.

Place de la Bastille

Detail from a map of Paris, showing Place de la Bastille

From that I knew the Bucky’s I was thinking of was on Rue de la Roquette. I used Google Street View to check out the street corner a half-block away and then panned around, and … voilà:

There’s your answer: La Tradition du Pain, at Rue Duval/Rue Saint Sabin. If you paste the store’s name into Google, you can even see some Italian guy’s photo of the display cases on Flickr.

His photo caption sums up my thoughts pretty nicely: Aspettavo il giorno successivo solo per fare di nuovo colazione lì sperimentando altre squisitezze!

(P.S. – Don’t read Italian? Try dropping the sentence into Google Translate.)

Trees vs. Fraud

I don’t typically go around espousing consumer goods and services, but sometimes you just gotta.

This morning the Supreme Court “gave corporations a major win Wednesday, ruling in a 5-4 decision that companies can block their disgruntled customers from joining together in a class-action lawsuit” (that’s the lead from the LA Times).

Instead, the companies can now block this from happening, and can force consumers into arbitration instead. One (non-SCOTUS) judge that disagrees with the decision noted that this allows a company to “insulate” itself “from liability for its own frauds by deliberately cheating large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money.”

(Not that AT&T has ever been the slightest bit controversial. Well, there was that one time it wrote this into its privacy policy: “AT&T — not customers — owns customers’ confidential info and can use it ‘to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process.” There are one or two more — okay, dozens more — of examples on Wikipedia.)

Later today I was going through my backlog of email, and found this from the company I have my cell phone service with:

CREDO is also a for-profit company, but it uses a portion of that profit to benefit progressive change. To date that’s amounted to about $65 million.

Yeah, asking me to like them on Facebook is a form of marketing. But hey — to get a tree planted? I’ll do it.

Today, the choice between these two companies could hardly be easier to make.

Why I Suck at Goodreads

I have a slightly embarrassing confession, which if you read the title of this post you might have guessed: I suck at Goodreads. For those of you who aren’t obsessive book types, Goodreads is a sort of “social cataloging” site where you can make reading lists, make friends, compare friends’ reading lists, write blog posts, book reviews, see how many books you have in common with a friend, etc.

A wonderful idea, in practice. But that depends on you practicing things like logging in and participating. With pretty good intentions I updated my reading list some time late last year.

Between then and now, I haven’t stopped reading. I had Tinkers listed as the book I was reading, and the sad fact was, I stalled on page 81 (or you might say, I stopped tinkering with it). But that’s one of the problems with social media sites: despite heroic efforts by software engineers to make the sites robust yet easy to use, one of my apparent destinies on earth is to be a use case that throws a site’s shortcomings into sharp relief.

For example, I have every intention of finishing Tinkers. I’m leaving the bookmark in. I’ll come back to it one day.

Or maybe I won’t.

But how do you express that on Goodreads? The four default lists are good and commonsense: all, to read, currently reading, and to-read. But really, I start a lot more books than I finish. I get them out of the library, I get them as gifts, I swap them with friends …. I start some, some sit by my bed, others on my dresser, others in stacks around the house.

In the broadest possible terms, I guess my books fall into “to read,” “currently reading,” and “read.” But almost every book has its own shade of gray. Tinkers was a gift from a good friend, so I am more motivated to finish it because of that. I have three books by the same author. I’m about 100 pages into the first. Probably won’t read the other two. How do I express that on a list?

I’ll probably finish the ones on my list now (in the screen grab, above). But what about the music instruction book I have? It’s nonfiction, and not the kind of tome you read from beginning to end. You dip into it, you know? Am I reading it? Well, yeah. Also, no. Am I done with it? Yes. No. Depends. But since I’ve started it, it shouldn’t be in the “to read” list, right?

Except there’s a section that’s over my head right now, but when I can play more, I’ll go back. At some point I am going “to read” more.

I’d argue that I have a separate relationship with almost every book I could conceivably put on my list. And I could put books into groups, but the groups wouldn’t have simple names. For example:

  • Books that I was hot about when I bought them, but then I cooled off (Cloud Atlas, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
  • Books by authors who are friends of mine
  • Books I picked up on a whim
  • Books I stopped reading because I’m a feckless dilettante
  • Books I read because everyone else had, yet I felt slightly icky and disappointed with myself for having finished them (Da Vinci Code, Dragon Tattoo)
  • Books I ought to read because they appeared on some goddamned BBC Book List challenge, and despite having an MA in English, I somehow missed

Can’t you just see some programmer shaking his head at that last list, and saying, “No no, that’s much too long to fit into the book-list-name parameter string”?

That’s sort of my point. Zadie Smith makes this point too, as does Jaron Lanier. Smith wrote a good essay for the New York Review of Books about Facebook, and mentioned Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Here she is summarizing him:

Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics).

Smith asks whether we’re reducing ourselves to fit into the software. My answer is, of course we are.  She floats an extreme stance (though her piece is, as is all her writing, considerably more nuanced)

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.

I’m not so naive to think social media would be possible without limits. That’s actually part of the fun, to work within parameters. And for all its shortcomings, social media allows me to keep distant friends visible on the periphery, to get a condensed version of what’s happening in their lives. And there’s no better break from being a productive worker bee than a little slack-jawed happy time on Facebook or Twitter.

On the other hand, Facebook’s mobile app asks for my location EVERY SINGLE TIME, and its contact fields don’t include a field for Twitter. For its part, Twitter has the de facto effect of quantifying your popularity, either by number of followers, number of retweets, number of favorite stars (don’t ask), or even third-party algorithms with crappy spelling, like Klout. If there had been numeric popularity rankings in my high school, I might have seriously considered moving to Alaska to work as a fry cook.

On the other hand, one thing I like about Twitter is its lists. I don’t actually use them much, but it’s fun to see the lists I appear in. A short list of list names:

  • Sweet supportive saints
  • froods
  • inkpunk-types
  • 1-800-400
  • locomocos

Do I know what those mean? Not really. But the randomness is what makes it great.

To its credit, Goodreads allows you to edit your “shelves,” which is to say you can make up your own names for your own lists. Naturally, I had to try it. How did it work?

books-i-ought-to-read-because-they-

… Yeah. I sort of figured.

Will the Real Bob Smith Please Stand Up?

That’s Bob Smith. Do you know him? I’m not sure I know him either — but Facebook is convinced I do. See for months, every time I had a moment of cognitive weakness and clicked on People You May Know, up popped Bob.

Not much information about him, though. No photo, obviously, just the Alfalfaesque cowlick on the top of his head. No profile info, either. I clicked on his profile, and learned that “Bob only shares some profile information with everyone.” In this case, some profile information actually means no profile information.

And yet, Facebook insisted I may know this faceless, informationless silhouette. But it wouldn’t even tell me if we had friends in common.

I’m not terribly cynical, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was Facebook’s version of “Operation Sock Puppet.” (The link is to a story in the Guardian about how the US military is contracting out to create ‘sock puppet’ software to create fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda via social media. Your tax dollars at work!)

Maybe Facebook was taking pity on me, for not having enough peoples-I-may-know. Or maybe they just make people up to fill the grid, though that seems unlikely, since there are 600 million real people to choose from.  Today, for example, all the users have photos, but the first three, Yeyizz PTe, PaOo – PAoo,  and Alejita Slip sound more like spam names than real people. Strangely, two others are Neida Yoana Cetina Rodriguez and Carmen Lucía Muñoz Salazar (she’s from Colombia. Colombia??)

I asked around, and no one else knew Bob Smith either. There was, in other words, almost no way to know whether this avatar with one of the most common English names possible was real, or just a digital fiction.

Almost no way. There was one thing left to do, which was to send a friend request.

You maybe can guess the result: no answer.

From the Department of Little Ironies

The Oregonian is running an Associated Press story saying that “Facebook users who check in to a store or click the ‘like’ button for a brand may soon find those actions retransmitted on their friends’ pages as a ‘Sponsored Story’ paid for by advertisers. Currently there is no way for users to decline this feature.”

As everyone knows, Facebook is famous for pulling shit like this. What’s just as interesting is how the story presents on the Oregonian. Notice the story’s Facebook integration between the headline and the story:

Solar Highways

A while back I wrote a story for a magazine called Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure about the nation’s first solar highway project. Here are the first two paragraphs:

It’s not often that innovation comes from watching television. But don’t tell that to Allison Hamilton, a project director with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). While watching a NOVA special on PBS about solar power, she noticed solar panels on the German Autobahn. The sight of them made her sit up, turn to her husband, and ask, “If they can do that there, why can’t we do it here?”

Nineteen months after the light bulb went on over Hamilton’s head, ODOT commissioned the nation’s first solar highway project on Dec. 19, 2008, putting renewable energy into the grid to power lights on Interstate 5. By all measures, the 104-kilowatt solar array located at a freeway interchange 15 miles south of Portland is a success. Even so, the project showed some of the bumps on the long road that will exist until renewable energy is widely adopted on U.S. freeways.

Here’s the rest of the story.

Speed-the-Ochwat

About a month ago, Google introduced Google Instant, “a new search enhancement that shows results as you type.” In case you want to geek out, their “key technical insight was that people type slowly, but read quickly, typically taking 300 milliseconds between keystrokes, but only 30 milliseconds (a tenth of the time!) to glance at another part of the page. This means that you can scan a results page while you type.”

(from the WSJ🙂 Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, said Google Instant could shave two to five seconds from the average 25 seconds previously needed to search and choose a link—reducing the collective time spent on Google searches by 350 million hours a year. It’s “search at the speed of thought,” she said.

But who cares about that? Especially when there are better uses for this shiny new technology, such as seeing how long it takes Google to predict your last name. Here’s the answer:

Instead of typing all six letter of my last name, I only have to type four, and then not accidentally select “ochweb.” And they even spell it correctly, unlike all these hapless folks.Wow. Dazzling.

So, 2-5 seconds of savings for the dozens upon dozens of people searching for Ochwat, and you have some real time savings–which you can use for better purposes, like Lolcats and Failblog.