Why I quit Quora and Medium for good

It's not a temporary rage-quit; I've deleted both accounts. I have zero followers, no content, and no username. I'm outta there.

This is going to be more interesting than it sounds, I promise.

When I first joined Quora in 2011, I loved it, with a few small reservations. Then, after some run-ins with what I regarded as unreasonable moderation, I started to dislike it; I even temporarily quit in 2015. Then the events of 2018 gave me a new perspective on social media in general. I re-evaluated Quora again, and found it wanting. So I deleted my account today, for good. All my followers and articles are gone.

I went through a similar process with Medium two weeks ago.

Why? Glad you asked.

Digital sharecropping

Until maybe 2012 or so, if you had asked me, I would have said that I am a confirmed and fairly strict open source/open content/open data guy, and the idea of people happily developing content, without a financial or ownership stake, to benefit a for-profit enterprise had always bothered me. It bothered me in 2000 when Jimmy Wales said the job he hired me for—to start a new encyclopedia—would involve asking volunteers to developed free content hosted by a for-profit company (Bomis). I was happy when, in 2003, the Bomis principals gave Wikipedia to a non-profit.

(Ironically, not to mention stupidly, in 2011 Jimmy Wales tried to blame me for Bomis' original for-profit, ad-based business model. Unfortunately for his lie, I was able to find evidence that, in fact, it had been his idea.)

In 2006, technology journalist Nicholas Carr coined the phrase "digital sharecropping", saying that "Web 2.0,"

by putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.

This bothers me. I'm a libertarian and I support capitalism, but the moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me, as it did Carr, as very questionable. I even remember writing an old blog post (can't find it anymore) in which I argued, only half-seriously, that this practice is really indefensible, particularly if users don't have a governance stake.

The moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me as very questionable.

The rise of social media, and joining Quora and Medium

By 2010, despite having been an active Internet user for over 15 years, my perspective started changing. I didn't really begrudge Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube their profits anymore. The old argument that they are providing a useful service that deserves compensation—while still a bit questionable to me—made some sense. As to the rather obvious privacy worries, at that stage they were mainly just worries. Sure, I knew (as we all did) that we were trusting Facebook with relatively sensitive data. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. (That sure changed.)

If you were plugged in back then, you regularly joined new communities that seemed interesting and happening. Quora was one; I joined it in 2011. It struck me as a somewhat modernized version of the old discussion communities we had in the 1990s—Usenet and mailing lists—but, in some ways, even better. There was very lightweight moderation, which actually seemed to work. A few years later I joined Medium, and as with Quora, I don't think I ever heard from their moderators in the first few years. If I did, I was willing to admit that maybe I had put a toe over the line.

Within a few days, Quora actually posted a question for me to answer: "What does Larry Sanger think about Quora?" Here is my answer in full (which I've deleted from Quora along with all my other answers):

Uhh...I didn't ask this.  It's a bit like fishing for compliments, eh Quora team? But that's OK, I am happy to compliment Quora on making a very interesting, engaging website.

Quora is pretty interesting. It appeals to me because there are a lot of people here earnestly reflecting--this I think must be partly due to good habits started by the first participants, but also because the question + multiple competing answers that mostly do not respond to each other means there is more opportunity for straightforward reflection and less for the usual bickering that happens in most Internet communities.

A long time ago (I'm sure one could find this online somewhere, if one looked hard enough) I was musing that it's odd that mailing lists are not used in more ways than they are. It seemed to me that one could use mailing list software to play all sorts of "conversation games," and I didn't know why people didn't set up different sorts of rule systems for different kinds of games.

What impresses me about Quora is that it seems to be a completely new species of conversation game.  Perhaps it's not entirely new, because it's somewhat similar to Yahoo! Answers, but there aren't as many yahoos on Quora, for whatever reason, and other differences are important.  Quora's model simply works better.  Quora users care about quality, and being deep, and Yahoo! Answerers generally do not.  I wonder why that is.

But unlike Yahoo! Answers, Quora doesn't seem to be used very much for getting factual information. Quora users are more interested in opinionizing about broad, often philosophical questions, which I find charming and refreshing. But for this reason, it's not really a competitor of Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers (or Citizendium...). It's competing with forums.

I think it needs some more organizational tools, tools that make it less likely that good questions and answers aren't simply forgotten or lost track of. Or maybe there already are such tools and I don't know about them.

As I re-read this, some points have taken on a new meaning. I chalked up Quora's failure to provide more robust search tools to it being at a relatively early stage (it was started in two years earlier by a former Facebook CTO), and the ordinary sort of founder stubbornness, in which the founders have a vision of how a web app should work, and as a result don't give the people what they actually want. I see now that they had already started to execute a new approach to running a website that I just didn't recognize at the time. It was (and is) very deliberately heavy-handed and top-down, like Facebook. They let you see what they want you to see. They try to "tailor" the user experience. And clearly, they do this not to satisfy explicit user preferences. They don't care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.

Quora and Medium, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, make it really hard for you to use their sites on your own terms, with your own preferences. You're led by the hand and kept inside the rails. Before around 2008, nobody could imagine making a website like that. Well, they existed, but they were for children and corporations.

I could see this, of course. But all the big social media sites were the same way. I guess I tolerated what looked like an inevitable takeover of the once-decentralized Internet by a more corporate mindset. I suppose I hoped that this mindset wouldn't simply ruin things. By 2012, I was already deeply suspicious of how things were turning out.

But now it's just blindingly obvious to me that the Silicon Valley elite have ruined the Internet.

Increasingly heavy-handed and ideological "moderation"

Maybe the first or second times I heard from Quora's moderation team, I was merely annoyed, but I still respected their attempts to keep everything polite. I thought that was probably all it was. That's what moderation used to be, anyway, back when we did it in the 90s and 00s. But I noticed that Quora's moderation was done in-house. That struck me as being, well, a little funny. There was something definitely off about it. Why didn't they set some rules and set up a fair system in which the community effectively self-moderated? They obviously had decent coders and designers who could craft a good community moderation system. But they didn't...

I see now only too well that the reason was that they wanted moderation to be kept in house, and not just because it was important to get right; it was because they wanted to exert editorial control. At first, it seemed that they had business reasons for this, which I thought was OK, maybe. But as time went on and as I got more moderation notices for perfectly fair questions and polite comments, it became clear that Quora's moderation practices weren't guided merely by the desire to keep the community pleasant for a wide cross-section of contributors. They were clearly enforcing ideological conformity. This got steadily worse and worse, in my experience, until I temporarily quit Quora in 2015, and I never did contribute as much after that.

Similarly, Medium's moderators rarely if ever bothered me, until they took down a rather harsh comment I made to a pedophile who was defending pedophilia. (He was complaining about an article I wrote explaining why pedophilia is wrong. I also wrote an article about why murder is wrong.) I hadn't been sufficiently polite to the pedophile, it seems. So, with only the slenderest explanations, Medium simply removed my comment. That's what caused me to delete my Medium account.

They don't care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.

You don't have to agree with my politics to agree that there is a problem here. My objection is not just about fairness; it's about control. It's about the audacity of a company, which is profiting from my unpaid content, also presuming to control me, and often without explaining their rather stupid decisions. It's also not about the necessity of moderation. I've been a moderator many times in the last 25 years, and frankly, Internet communities suck if they don't have some sort of moderation mechanism. But when they start moderating in what seems to be an arbitrary and ideological way, when it's done in-house in a wholly opaque way, that's just not right. Bad moderation used to kill groups. People would leave badly-moderated groups in droves.

Lack of intellectual diversity in the community

Being on the web and not artificially restricted by nationality, Quora and Medium do, of course, a global user base. But they are single communities. And they're huge; they're both in the top 250. So whatever answer most users vote up (as filtered by Quora's secret and ever-changing sorting algorithm), and whoever is most popular with other Quora voters, tends to be shown higher.

Unsurprisingly—this was plainly evident back in 2011—Quora's community is left-leaning. Medium is similar. That's because, on average, intellectual Internet writers are left-leaning. I didn't really have a problem with that, and I wouldn't still, if we hadn't gotten absolutely stunning and clear evidence in 2018 that multiple large Internet corporations openly and unashamedly use their platforms to put their thumbs on the scales. They simply can't be trusted as fair, unbiased moderators, particularly when their answer ranking algorithms and the moderation policies and practices are so opaque.

In addition, a company like Quora should notice that different cultures have totally different ways of answering life's big questions. The differences are fascinating, too. By lumping us all together, regardless of nationality, religion, politics, gender, and other features, we actually miss out on the full variety of human experience. If the Quora community's dominant views aren't copacetic to you, you'll mostly find yourself in the cold, badly represented and hard to find.

Silicon Valley, your experiment is over

Look. Quora, like Medium, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, have been outed as shamelessly self-dealing corporations. It's gone way beyond "digital sharecropping." The problem I and many others have with these companies isn't just that they are profiting from our unpaid contributions. It's that they have become ridiculously arrogant and think they can attempt to control and restrict our user experience and our right to speak our minds under fair, reasonable, and transparent moderation systems. And while the privacy issues that Quora or Medium have aren't as profound as for Facebook, they are there, and they come from the same controlling corporate mindset.

So that's why I've quit Quora and Medium for good. I hope that also sheds more light on why I'm leaving Facebook and changing how I use Twitter.

As if to confirm me in my decision, Quora doesn't supply any tools for exporting all your answers from the site. You have to use third-party tools (I used this). And after I deleted my account (which I did just now), I noticed that my account page and all my answers were still there. The bastards force you to accept a two-week "grace period," in case you change your mind. What if I don't want them to show my content anymore, now? Too bad. You have to let them continue to earn money from your content for two more weeks.

Clearly, they aren't serving you; you're serving them.

We've been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it'll be OK, we thought. Maybe the concentration of money and power will result in some really cool new stuff that the older, more decentralized Internet couldn't deliver. Maybe they won't mess it up, and try to exert too much control, and abuse our privacy. Sure! Maybe!

The experiment was a failure. We can't trust big companies, working for their own profit, to make good decisions for large, online communities. The entire industry has earned and richly deserves our distrust and indignation.

So, back to the drawing board. Maybe we'll do better with the next, more robustly decentralized and democratic phase of the Internet: blockchain.

We'll get this right eventually, or die trying. After all, it might take a while.

We've been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it'll be OK, we thought. ...

The experiment was a failure.


A plea for protocols

The antidote to the abuses of big tech is the very thing that gave birth to the Internet itself: decentralized, neutral technical protocols.

  1. The thought that inspires
    my work.
    Ever since I started
    work on Nupedia and then Wikipedia, a thought has always
    inspired me: just imagine the stunning possibilities when people
    come together as individuals to share their knowledge, to create
    something much greater than any of them could achieve individually.

  2. The sharing economy. There
    is a general phrase describing this sort of laudable activity: the
    “sharing economy.” The motivations and rewards are different
    when we work to benefit everyone indiscriminately. It worked well
    when Linux and OSS were first developed; then it worked just as well
    with Wikipedia.

  3. The Internet itself is an
    instance of the sharing economy.
    The Internet—its ease of
    communication and publishing together with its decentralized
    nature—is precisely what has made this possible. The Internet is a
    decentralized network of people working together freely, for mutual
    benefit.

  4. The Internet giants have
    abused the sharing economy.
    About ten years ago, this all
    started to change. More and more our sharing behavior has been
    diverted into massive private networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and
    YouTube, that have exerted control and treated contributors as the
    product.

  5. Facebook’s contempt for
    our privacy.
    All you want to do is easily share a picture with
    your family. At first, we thought Facebook’s handling of our
    private data would just be the price we had pay for a really
    powerful and useful service. But over and over, Facebook has shown
    utter contempt for our privacy, and it has recently started
    censoring more and more groups based on their viewpoints. We don’t
    know where this will end.

  6. This aggression will not
    stand, man
    . We need to learn from the success of
    decentralized projects like Linux, open source software, Wikipedia,
    and the neutral technical protocols that define the Internet itself,
    that we don’t have to subject
    ourselves to the tender mercies of the Internet giants.

  7. How.
    How? Just
    think. The Internet is made up of a network of computers that work
    according to communication rules that they have all agreed on. These
    communication rules are called protocols and
    standards.

  8. Protocols
    and standards...
    There
    are protocols and standards
    for transferring
    and displaying
    web pages, for email, for transferring files, and for all the many
    different technologies
    involved.

  9. ...which
    are
    neutral.These
    different standards are neutral. They explicitly don’t care what
    sort of content they carry, and they don’t benefit any person or
    group over another.

  10. We need more
    knowledge-sharing protocols.
    So here’s the thought I want to
    leave you with. You evidently support knowledge sharing, since
    you’re giving people awards for it. Knowledge sharing is so easy
    online precisely because of those neutral technical protocols.
    So—why don’t we invent many, many more neutral Internet
    protocols for the sharing of knowledge?

  11. Blockchain is awesome
    because it creates new technical protocols.
    Probably the biggest
    reason people are excited about blockchain is that it is a
    technology and a movement that gets rid of the need of the Internet
    giants. Blockchain is basically a technology that enables us to
    invent lots and lots of different protocols, for pretty much
    everything.

  12. Why
    not Twitter- and Facebook-like protocols?
    There
    can, and should, be a protocol for
    tweeting without Twitter.
    Why should we have to rely on one company and one website when we
    want to broadcast short messages to the world? That should be
    possible without
    Twitter. Similarly, when we want to share various other tidbits of
    personal information, we should be able to agree on a protocol to
    share
    that ourselves, under our
    own terms—without
    Facebook.

  13. Wikipedia centralizes,
    too.
    Although Wikipedia is an example of decentralized editing,
    it is still centralized in an important way. If you want to
    contribute to the world’s biggest collection of encyclopedia
    articles, you have no choice but to collaborate with, and negotiate
    with, Wikipedians. What if you can single-handedly write a better
    article than Wikipedia’s? Wikipedia offers you no way to get your
    work in front of its readers.

  14. Everipedia,
    an encyclopedia protocol.
    Again,
    there should be a neutral encyclopedia protocol,
    one that allows us to add
    encyclopedia articles
    to a shared database that its creators own and develop, just like
    the Internet itself. That’s why I’m working on Everipedia, which
    is building a blockchain encyclopedia.

This is a little speech I gave to the Rotary Club of Pasadena, in the beautiful Pasadena University Club, January 31, 2019.


We need to pay more for journalism. A lot more.

I'm going to say a few obvious things, and then then a few unobvious things, about the business model for news publishing.

Obvious thing #1: One of the most consequential facts of the Internet age is that news content has become free of charge. We all watched in morbid fascination in the 1990s and 00s when news came out from behind paywalls. What will this do to the business model? we wondered. How will news publishers survive and flourish?

Obvious thing #2: None of them flourished, and many didn't survive. One of the worst industries to get into these days is journalism. Major news organizations have never stopped hemorrhaging jobs. I feel sorry for my journalist friends, and I'm glad there are some who still have jobs. There are quite a few desperate journalists out there; I don't blame them.

Obvious thing #3: There are two main business models for news publishing: advertising and subscription. I'm not familiar with the statistics, but it seems obvious that most news that is read is supported by advertising. Note, I don't say that most money that is made, or the best news available, comes from advertising. I'm just saying that if you add up all the news pageviews supported by ads, and compare it to the news pageviews supported by subscriptions, you'd find a lot more of the former.

I'm done boring you with the obvious. Now something perhaps a little less obvious: Desperate journalists, whose jobs depend on sheer pageviews because that's how you pay the bills, are desperate to write clickbait. Standards have gone out the window because standards don't pay the bills. Objectivity and fact-checking are undervalued; speed and dramatic flair are "better" because they drive traffic and save jobs. But even this is pretty much just the conventional wisdom about what's going on in journalism. It's very sad.

As long as the business of journalism is paid for by ads, it won't be journalism.

It will be clickbait.

If you look at the line of reasoning above, however, you might notice something remarkable. At least, it struck me. It is the simple fact that the news is free of charge that led almost inevitably to a decline in standards. This lowering of standards has even affected more serious reporting that can only be found behind paywalls, in my opinion.

I remember keynoting a publishers' conference in 2007, and many people were asking: "The Internet is threatening our business models. How do we solve this problem?" I suppose they thought I'd have a bright idea because I had managed to build something interesting on a shoestring; but I didn't have any. Since then, as far as I can see, news publishing hasn't gotten any farther along. I haven't had or encountered any fantastic new ideas for getting journalists paid to do excellent work.

As long as the business of journalism is paid for by ads, it won't be journalism.

It will be clickbait.

If you want to support real journalism, with real standards, consider subscribing to a publication that you think practices it, or comes as close to it as possible. It's on us, the public.

But that's lame. You thought I was going to stop there? If so, you don't really know me. Journalism never was very good. Standards have dropped, that's for sure; but we should look back and recognize that they never were terribly high in the first place. What we really need are journalists who recognize just how elusive the entire, nuanced truth really is. (Maybe require them to have had a few philosophy courses.) And we need publishers who demand not just good traditional journalism but neutrality, in the sense I defined in an essay ("Why Neutrality?"):

A disputed topic is treated neutrally if each viewpoint about it is not asserted but rather presented (1) as sympathetically as possible, bearing in mind that other, competing views must be represented as well, and (2) with an equitable amount of space being allotted to each, whatever that might be.

This standard, it turns out (as laid out in my paper), is pretty hard-core. But following it would solve many of the problems we've had. The extra work meeting such a high standard would cost more to produce. But I think enough people care enough about their own intellectual autonomy that they would pay a significant premium for truly neutral news reporting with unusually high standards, above and beyond the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

I know I would.


How to stop using social media

Updated January 28, 2019.

It's no longer a matter of whether—it's a matter of how.

It's sad, but for social media addicts, quitting seems to require a strategy. By now, some of us who have tried and failed know that it is simply unrealistic to say, "I'm going to quit social media," and then just do it. There are reasons we got into it and why it exerts its pull. We must come to grips with those reasons and see what—if anything—we can do to mitigate them.

Why we participate in social media, and why we shouldn't

We participate in social media because we love it; but we want to quit, because we also hate it.

Why we love social media

  1. Social visibility. Active users of social media want social visibility. We want to be understood. We want to be connected with others who understand us, respect us, or like us.
  2. Staying plugged in. So much of social and political life seems to have moved onto social media, we simply won't know what's going on if we quit.
  3. Political influence. Unless we have entirely given up on political participation, we want to "have a voice," to play the game of politics.
  4. Ambition and narcissism. Quite apart from 1 and 2, we are drawn to platforms particularly like Twitter and LinkedIn because we think these accounts will advance our careers. We follow and are followed by Important People, we stay in touch with them. This is where valuable connections and deals can be made.
  5. Staying connected to family and friends. Golly, your family and friends are on Facebook. You really do have fun with them. How could you give it up, even if you wanted to? You don't want to miss out, of course.

We've tasted the forbidden fruit. We surely aren't giving up the clear advantages that social media offer. That ain't gonna happen.

The fear of missing out—that lies at the root of all five reasons. If you leave any of the networks, you just won't be seen. It'll be like you're invisible. If you leave Twitter, you won't really know what's going on in the world's most influential news and opinion network, and you will be leaving the field wide open to your political enemies. If you leave Twitter and LinkedIn, your career might take a blow; how could you possibly justify just giving up all those followers you worked so hard to get? And if you leave Facebook, you might be cutting yourself off from your family and friends—how could you do such a thing?

So, look. We've tasted the forbidden fruit. We surely aren't giving up the clear advantages that social media offer. That ain't gonna happen.

And yet, and yet. There are reasons we should stop participating in the current configuration of social media. I've written at some length in this blog about those reasons, as follows.

Why we hate social media:

  • We're giving up our privacy and autonomy: By leaving the management of our online social presence in the hands of giant, privacy-disrespecting corporations, our information, even our digital lives, becomes theirs to sell, manipulate, and destroy. We must trust them with the security of our data, which is thrown in with that of billions of others. We must endure the indignities of their control, and the various little ways in which we lose our autonomy because we are part of a giant, well-oiled machine that they run. This is dehumanizing.
  • We're irrationally wasting time: Like most mass-produced, mass-marketed entertainment, social media is mostly crap. Too many of us are basically addicted to it; our continued participation, at least the way we have been doing so, is simply irrational.
  • We're complicit in the dumbing-down and radicalization of society (see also 1, 2, 3, 4). Nick Carr famously said in 2008 that Google is making us stupid. Since then, social media systems have blown up and have made us even dumber. Their key features are responsible for things like (especially) artificially shortened statements of opinion and reflection, having to take special actions to write more than one paragraph, all-or-nothing "upvoting" and "downvoting," and letting posts fall into a hard-to-search memory hole.

What a horrible conundrum. On the one hand, we have terrifically compelling reasons to join and stay connected to social media. On the other hand, doing so shows contempt for our own privacy, autonomy, and rationality, and undermines the intelligence and toleration needed to make democracy work. It is as if the heavy, compelling hand of corporate-driven collectivization is pushing us toward an increasingly totalitarian society.

So what's the solution? Is there a solution?

Non-solutions

Let's talk about a few things that aren't solutions.

You can't just quit cold turkey, not without a plan. If you've been hooked and you try, you'll probably come crawling back, as I have a few times. I'm not saying nobody has ever done so; of course they have. But so many people who say they're giving up or restricting social media do end up coming back, because the draws are tremendous, and the addicts aren't getting their fix elsewhere.

You can't expect "alt-tech" to satisfy you, either. This would include things like Gab.ai instead of Twitter or Facebook, just for example; other examples would include Voat instead of Reddit, BitChute instead of YouTube, Minds instead of Facebook, and the Mastodon network instead of Twitter. For one thing, some (not all) of the alternatives have been flooded by loud, persistent racist/fascist types, or maybe they're just people paid by the tech giants to play-act such types on those platforms. More to the point, though, such sites don't scratch the itches that Facebook and Twitter scratch. At best, they can appeal to your narcissism and provide some social visibility; but this isn't enough for most people. They're not happenin' (yet); they almost certainly won't help your career.

What about blockchain solutions? I, at least, am not satisfied to wait around for awesome crypto solutions, like Steemit, to grow large enough to challenge their main competitors (Medium, in that case). I mean, I probably will join them when more influential and widely-used decentralized platforms show up. The startup I joined a year ago, Everipedia, has plans to develop a platform for hosting a decentralized competitor of Quora. That's exciting. But I want to quit these damn networks now. I don't want to wait any longer.

Even if those are non-solutions, we do, at least, have the requirements for a solution: we want to secure the advantages of the first list above (1)‑(5) without falling prey to the disadvantages of second list (a)‑(c).

The advantages of social media—without social media?

Let's review (1)-(5). I think there may be ways to secure the advantages of privacy-stealing social media. I would really, really appreciate it if you have any other bright ideas about how to secure these advantages, because this is where the rubber meets the road; please share in the comments below.

  1. Social visibility without social media. Social visibility is probably the easiest thing to secure online. If you just want to connect with others and feel heard, there are lots of ways you can do that. So I'm not going to worry too much about that one; I think it will probably take care of itself, if the other advantages are secured.
  2. Staying plugged in without social media. Staying plugged in, too, is very easy. You can simply consume more traditional media, for one thing. Another idea is that you could create throw-away accounts on Twitter or Facebook, for example, and follow the people you were following before. As long as you, yourself, don't actually participate, then you're still more or less as plugged-in as before. But one big disadvantage of that idea is that you might be tempted to get back in because it's just so darned easy to interact with friends and family on Facebook, and to call out or refute the benighted on Twitter. But if you don't use Facebook at all, even to read, you can always stay in touch via email, especially if you use old-fashioned cc email groups or email lists, and you use it, and you manage to get your friends to use it. If you get into the habit, I think they'll get into the habit, too. It is mainly just a matter of habit.
  3. Political influence without social media. Twitter plays an almost unique role in our political discourse, and there is no way to make up the influence you'd have over that community, if you leave it. The question, however, is whether your participation on Twitter really does have that much influence. If it does, then you probably have other ways to get the word out. I have 3,000 followers, which despite being a high percentile but not especially influential. I could throw that away without much hand-wringing. After all, I could easily put in the same amount of time on my blog, or on mailing lists (i.e., listservs), or writing for publication (which I might do more of, but it's kind of a pain in the ass), and I think I might ultimately have more influence, not less. But more on this further down (you can use Twitter in a particular way that I think is OK).
  4. Ambition and narcissism without social media. I don't mean to say that narcissism is a good thing, mind you. I hope I don't much too care about securing the ability to preen more effectively in public. But I have gained a reasonable professional following on Twitter and LinkedIn, and a smaller one on Facebook (mostly because I've mostly used it for actual friends and family). When I came back from my September-October 2018 social media break, I told folks it was because of professional obligations. I thought I would Tweet less, and only about career stuff. But I wasn't serious enough. I was sucked into all the rest of it, too. I can only hope I'd be able to resist the pull. And I can support my "personal brand" (really, my professional brand) via my blog, writing for publication, and perhaps a mailing list; the latter sounds like a good idea (expect an Everipedia email discussion list!). Another idea is to post to Twitter only via some service, and never, ever replying on-site, but instead telling people to look for my replies on my blog.
  5. Staying connected to family and friends without social media. This also strikes me as being particularly easy. I know that my family and my real friends will be happy to write to me by email if I start writing to them, especially if I get into the habit of using email cc lists and maybe, again, mailing lists. We could also use other networks or sharing services that (say they) have more commitment to privacy and self-ownership.

So much for the suggestions. I haven't really discussed whether they're actually feasible qua solutions, so next I'll tackle that.

Evaluating the solutions

A lot of the solutions suggested so far might sound like "rolling back" to older technologies. There's something to that; but I'll also consider some other, privacy-respecting solutions. Besides, the older technologies are still very sound, and the newer social ones that have replaced them are obviously problematic in various ways.

Consuming more traditional media

Like many, as I started spending more time on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, I started spending less time consuming professionally-produced content. Maybe, the suggestion goes, we should just regard this as something of a mistake. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm a crowdsourcing guy at heart and I hold no brief for the merits of traditional media, especially mainstream media. But insofar as one of the purposes of social media is to clue us in to what's going on, news reports and good blogs can be used. They probably should be, too; when I started Infobitt in 2013, one thing that really struck me was how poorly informed we would be if we just looked at the stuff that came across our social media feeds. I discovered this when I helped to prepare news summaries daily. There were a lot of important news stories that we found that were not widely discussed in social media, or even in most of the mainstream media. You'll probably be better informed if you stop using social media to keep up with the news; of course, your mileage may vary.

Going back to email, cc lists, and listservs

There are many social functions that social media can do, that email and traditional email discussion lists can't, or not as easily. But many of these functions have turned out to be unimportant and not worth preserving.

  • Short public and semi-public back-and-forths. Facebook and Twitter both excel at a kind of communication that is pleasant and easy, usually banal, and rarely profound. If you're actively using these services and occasionally get into rapid-fire discussions about some controversial subject, ask yourself: Is anyone really improved by these exchanges? Again, they're fun. They're hard for me to resist, that's for sure. But when I take a step back and look at them, I have to admit that short messages might be good for marketing, but as a method of public discourse, they're an ultimately insidious and harmful. Advantage: email.
  • Registering instant support or other reaction. If you ask me, this is one of the more obnoxious features of social media, one that addicts us but for no good reason; it merely appeals to our petty egos. There's little useful information conveyed by the fact that a tweet or a post gets a lot of likes, and this also tends to make us "play to the crowd" instead of revealing our most authentic selves. Advantage: email.
  • Memes. They're possible on email, but there's more support for them on social media. They can be funny or rhetorically effective, but they're one of the things that is making us dumber and coarsening our discourse. They're better off gone. Advantage: email.
  • Sharing multimedia. It's true that pictures and especially videos are more difficult to pull off in email and even more so on listservs. Video is neat to share with friends. If I could trust Facebook, I'd be happy to share family videos with family and close friends—I've never been foolish enough to trust them that much. And email has nothing on YouTube. That's why I actually haven't shown my extended family many pictures in the last several years; regrettably, I got out of the habit of one-on-one sharing. Other (and perhaps ultimately superior) methods of sharing multimedia socially among those we trust might be necessary. Advantage: social media.

There are many social functions that social media can do, that email and traditional email discussion lists can't, or not as easily. But many of these functions have turned out to be unimportant and not worth preserving.

And here are the ways in which email, email cc lists, and listservs are perfectly fine, if not superior to social media:

  • Actually communicating personal news and opinion. The main and most important thing we do with Facebook is to share news and opinion. Email is perfect for this. It's a "push" notification in that people can't ignore it. But that pressures the sender to make sure the announcements really are important and aren't just cat pictures, or whatever. (Yes, I know some people love cat pictures. Mostly, though, they love sharing their own cat pictures.)
  • Long-form messages. As my friends know, I sometimes like to go on...and on...and on. This isn't a bad thing. Long-form text is a good thing, a necessary thing for actual intelligence. The ability to easily have our say at a length as great as we please means that those of us with more complex and voluminous thoughts on a subject won't feel we're doing something frowned-upon when we wax, er, eloquent.
  • Threading. Email (whether one-on-one, in small groups, or on a listserv) naturally comes in threads by subject. If you change the subject, you change the email subject line. Easy-peasy, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. As to side-threads, in a whole-group discussion, remember how we did this? We said, "Take it off-list, guys." Sometimes, we did. Sometimes, we recognized that it wasn't worth the bother. And a lot of times, those endless public exhibitions of rhetorical ping-pong really weren't worth the bother.

I'm not meaning to say that we must choose between email and social media, here. I'm saying that email (and listservs) can probably be considered a sound substitute for social media. There are other possible substitutes, too.

Blogs and traditional publishing

I've created a fair bit of value, I imagine, for Quora, Medium, Facebook, and even Twitter, with various long-form posts. I know that what I've written has given them well northwards of a million impressions over the years (I think several million), free of charge. I could have put those posts on my blog, or in some cases cleaned them up a little and submitted them to professionally published websites and magazines. Why did I end up spending so much time on Quora and Medium in particular? (By the way, as of this writing, I've saved my old Medium writings and I have deleted my Medium account. I will do the same with Quora soon.)

In the case of Quora, I joined because it looked like (and was, surely, and to some extent still is) a powerful and successful engine for extracting really interesting opinion and insight from some smart people. My problem with it is the same as the problem I've had with Medium. It's a multi-part problem. First, over the years, the platforms have grown greatly, each a single enormous global community. (Federated sub-communities a la Stack Exchange would be better.) Second, partly as a result of that, they have come to be increasingly dominated by the left. As my regular readers know, I'm a libertarian and an individualist, but all groupthink I find to be a turn-off, especially when my contrarianism is no longer tolerated. Third, the left has become increasingly censorious. I've found my sometimes prickly remarks, once accepted without comment, increasingly censored by "moderators" who rarely explain their often arbitrary-seeming decisions, unlike the more honest and polite older-style listserv moderators.

While censorship is part of the problem I have with these platforms, another part is the fact that I am writing to financially benefit people who set themselves up as my digital masters. This was acceptable to me for a while, as it has been to many of us—mostly, I suppose, because I think it might have gained me a larger and more active audience. In retrospect, however, I'm not so sure. I think that if I had simply stuck with my blog and had written as much there as on Quora and Medium, I would have ultimately had a larger and higher-quality audience.

If I have an important message that I really want to get out there, then I hope I'll try to get it traditionally published more often than I have been.

Will I ditch all social networks? What about alternative social networks?

The big exception will be Twitter; more on that in the next section.

There are some social networks I won't leave. One is Stack Overflow, the question and answer site for programmers. As far as I can tell, it really does seem to respect its audience and to be well-run. I might well be inspired to check out the other Stack Exchange sites. I'll stick around on Reddit for a while, too, at least for work-related stuff. It seems relatively OK.

Messaging services are generally OK—but that, of course, is because you're not the product. I hate Facebook, so I'll stick around on Messenger only as long as my work colleagues use it. I'll tell my friends and family to start using other services, like Slack or the awesome Telegram, if they want to message me. (Of course, good old text messaging is usually my favorite for people who have my phone number, but that's for things that demand an immediate reply.)

I certainly see no reason whatsoever to leave any of the web forums that I occasionally frequent. Web forums are still robust and have few of the problems listed here. I'll consider them over mailing lists, but I think mailing lists are a bit better for meaningful discussions.

I might well consider some alternative networks that respect privacy and practice decentralization more (I intend to study them more; see below). One is Mastodon; another is MeWe. I have great objection to such networks. The problem, as I said above, is that they don't scratch the itch. The root problem is that they don't have critical mass and I can't guarantee that my friends and acquaintances will follow me there. Email is different: everyone has it, everyone uses it.

Even quit Twitter?

After much soul-searching, I decided to keep using Twitter, but only following one strict rule about how I use it: I will not post, retweet, respond to, or like anything else, including my many pet topics, unless I'm promoting something I or a work colleague has written.

I'll just include a Twitter thread I posted:

https://twitter.com/lsanger/status/1089940575946723328

Do I merely want to roll back the clock?

Traditional media, email, listservs, and blogs: Are those really my answer to social media? Do I want to roll back the clock?

At this point, my honest answer is: Not really. I'm actually reluctant to leave social media, because what used to be called "Web 2.0" really does contain some useful inventions. The tweet is excellent for advertising and promotion. Multimedia sharing on YouTube, Facebook, and (if you use it much—I never did) Instagram is very convenient. The moderation engine on StackExchange sites is excellent. I might be able to get behind some variant on the general Facebook theme. I'm very sympathetic to some newer styles of social networks.

Centralization is what we got. That led directly to decisions that degraded our experience in the service of profits and political influence. The centralization of social media has proven to be a blind alley. It's time to turn around and find a new way forward.

It will prove to be the downfall of all of the older, soon-to-be-dying social media giants that, at root, they chose centralization over neutral protocols. They chose to concentrate power in the hands of corporate executives and bureaucracies. That is neither needed nor welcome for purposes of connecting us online; once we knew what we wanted, Internet protocols could have been invented to deliver them to us in a decentralized way. But that would have made the platforms much less profitable. Centralization is what we got. That led directly to decisions that degraded our experience in the service of profits and political influence. The centralization of social media has proven to be a blind alley. It's time to turn around and find a new way forward.

Do I want to stick with email and the rest forever? Of course not. I've had (and often proposed) all sorts of new technologies. I think we need decentralized versions of social media, in which we participate on our own terms and enjoy the benefits of ownership. That would bring me back.

But...but...but...what about...?

We've already discussed these things, but you didn't believe me the first time. Let's review:

  • What about my followers? If you have a certain number of followers on Twitter, you will probably have a following on most other services proportionate to your Twitter percentile. If you have thousands of followers on Twitter, chances are you could start an email discussion list and, particularly if you loudly announced over a period of some weeks that you are going to leave Twitter forever and delete your account on such-and-such a date, you'll get a fair number of your followers to join you on that mailing list. You might, perhaps, get them to follow you to another social network, but this is much more of a crapshoot, as far as I'm concerned. Again, everyone has email, but almost nobody is on whatever also-ran privacy-loving social network you're considering.
  • What about missing out on all the essential controversies that are going on on Twitter? Think now. How essential are they, really? Most of those conversations are merely pleasant, and frequently insipid, crappy, or vicious. You might as well wring your hands because you'll miss out of an important article in the New York Times because you don't read it cover-to-cover, or because you don't attend every professional conference in your field, or a zillion other venues. Of course you're missing out. You can't avoid missing out all sorts of things. Here's a liberating thought: you really aren't missing out on much that is really important, in the long run, if you leave Twitter (and Facebook). Your mileage may vary, but I'm pretty sure this is true for 95% of us. It's certainly true for me.
  • What if my family and friends stay on Facebook, and my work colleagues stay on Twitter, and... And what? Finish the thought. You can't, in any way that should give you pause. Share a picture? Look, you can and should start sharing pictures and videos privately. There are lots of ways (even fairly simple, automatic, and secure ways) to do that. Learn the latest gossip? Well, use email. Anyone close enough to have gossip you have any business caring about will be happy to chat one with you (and maybe an ad hoc group of your close friends) if you start it up and keep up the habit. And say something that is outrageously false and cannot stand? Well, of course you know that's just silly. There are people saying stupid things all around the Internet. Sorry, but you have no way of intervening with your righteous indignation everywhere. So, why not do it in communities that respect your privacy? Maybe ones you make yourself?
  • OK, what if they don't follow me to email or whatever? What, you're going to email your family and friends, and they know you've left Facebook, and they won't reply? Nice family and friends you have...I think mine will respond fine as long as I start the habit.

It's OK. Really. Just remember: Facebook and Twitter really, actually, sincerely do suck. You're not missing out on anything important, especially if you scratch the itches that they scratch in other ways.

So what will the next steps? Should I just, you know, delete my account?

If you, too, find yourself wanting to quit social media, maybe you'll be asking me for advice on how to do it. Well, I can't do better than tell you what my plans are. Obviously, though, your requirements are different from mine, so you should make your own damn plans.

I'm not saying I'm definitely going to do all of these, in just this order; this is more of a draft plan. The first step in every case is to figure out exactly what's going on and think it through. I'm also pretty sure that locking down my contacts is the first thing to do.

  1. Lock down my contacts. Since so much of the solution (for me) involves email, my first step will be to consolidate my email and phone contacts, putting them 100% out of the hands of Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Frankly, I've left my contacts to the tender mercies of these companies for so long that the data formats and redundancies and locations (etc.) confuse me.
  2. Email updates for family. Start regularly interacting with my family more regularly with a cc list and texts, or maybe I'll persuade them to use Telegram. Not like formal Christmas letters; more like the usual joking, self-pitying, and boastful notes we post on Facebook.
  3. Replace Facebook and Twitter conversational patterns and groups with specific email lists or maybe forums. Create some email cc lists or listservs, for friends, for cultural/philosophical allies, about Internet and programming, a replacement for the "Fans of Western Civilization" group I started, and no doubt a big list for all my acquaintances. Others as well. I'm going to look into and see if there aren't some improvements on the old ways of doing things available now. I might install some web forums, as I tried a year or two ago, but I doubt it. I don't think they'd get nearly as much use as email.
  4. Pull the trigger: delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I'll download all my data first, for posterity. I'll also give my Facebook friends my coordinates for the various lists (above) that might interest them. I'll leave my account up for a couple weeks, making regular announcements that I'm leaving and urging people to join my lists (or, if I use another technology, whatever that technology is).
  5. Move Medium, Quora, and maybe Facebook data to my blog. This could prove to be labor-intensive, but it'll eventually get done.
  6. Delete Medium (done) and Quora accounts. Won't be sorry to be gone from there. For me, anyway, this is a long-overdue move.

It's OK. Really. Just remember: Facebook and Twitter really, actually, sincerely do suck. You're not missing out on anything important, especially if you scratch the itches that they scratch in other ways.

When is deletion day for you?

I will actually press the delete buttons on February 18, about a month from now. I'll update this blog with specifics of how I do each task, and spam my social networks with repeated invitations to join various lists, because I'm going away, permanently this time.

I'm giving myself time because I want to talk about people about what I'm doing via social media, and try to spark a mass exodus among my friends, family, and followers. And who knows? Maybe we'll get Silicon Valley to notice, and they'll start competing to make better products, ones in which we aren't the product. If not, we're sure to benefit anyway.


Why does information privacy matter, again?

It's not just because you are a criminal and the coppers might catch you. Or because you really, really hate big corporations who just want to sell you stuff more easily. Or because you're paranoid.

If that's as far as your thinking goes, when people start talking about "privacy" on the Internet, you really need to bone up on the subject.

You probably already knew that you don't have to be criminal, paranoid, or anti-capitalist to be very jealous of your Internet privacy rights. After all, plenty of law-abiding, merely sensibly cautious, capitalism-loving people are freaking out about the way FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) companies, and many more, are creepily tracking their every move. Then those same corporations are selling the information and making it available to governments (or, at least, not going out of their way to stop governments from getting it).

Are people right to freak out about these privacy violations?

Yes, they are, or so I will argue. The threats come under three heads: corporate, criminal, and government. And let's not forget that in the worst-case scenario, the three heads merge into one.

The corporate threat

Left unchecked, in ten years, some of the biggest, most influential corporations will know (or have ready access to) not just your name, email address, phone number, age, sex/gender, credit card numbers, family relationships, friends, mother's maiden name, first car, favorite food, various social media metrics, browsing history, purchase history, as well as a large collection of content authored and curated by you. That's already bad enough (for reasons I'll explain). But they might add to their dossiers on you such things as your social security number, credit score, criminal record, medical history, voting history, religion, political party, government benefits, and more.

But how? Well, you might have asked that about the first list twenty years ago. How indeed? They'll create must-have devices and services that become very popular. Everybody has to have the device, or the service. Then they'll talk a good game when it comes to your information privacy and security, but they'll get their hands on your medical history, your credit score, your government benefits--and that will be it.

Imagine, too, the possibilities that highly motivated project managers will dream up when they can mash up your growing dossier with data from facial recognition, AI/big data text analysis, and other new technologies.

In such a situation, what information isn't private?

"But I can make up my own mind about what to buy," you say.

Well. Top-flight marketing and product people are, naturally, very good at what they do. It's not an accident that, once everybody and his grandma got online, some of the wretched Mark Zuckerbergs of the world would stumble on some platform that would connect us by our personal relationships, not care one bit about privacy, and hire people who are and become very, very, very good at manipulating us in all sorts of ways. They'll keep us online, give us more reasons to share more information, watch ads, and yes, buy stuff.

But corporate control of your private life is much more insidious than that.

Do you feel quite yourself when you're reading and posting on Facebook and Twitter, shopping on Amazon, watching and commenting on YouTube and Netflix, etc.? I admit it: I don't. We become more irrational when we get on these social networks. Sure, we retain our free will. We can stop ourselves (but often won't). We are the authors of what we write (as influenced by our echo chambers), which reflects our real views (maybe). We could quit (fat chance).

We have become part of a machine, run by massively powerful corporations, with their clever executives at the levers. Only part of what is so offensive about this machine is that we are influenced to buy things we don't need. What about radicalization--being influenced to believe things we haven't thought sufficiently about? What about self-censorship, because the increasingly bold and shameless social media censors (no longer mere "moderators") increasingly require ideological purity? What about the failure to consider options (for shopping, entertainment, socialization, discussion, etc.) that are outside of our preferred, addictive networks?

More importantly perhaps than any of those, what about the opportunity cost of spending our lives coordinated by these networks, with less time for offline creativity, meaningful one-on-one interaction, exercise, focused hard work, self-awareness, and self-doubt?

The machine, in short, robs us of our autonomy. As soon as we started giving up every little bit of information that makes us unique individuals, we empowered executives and technologists to collectivize us. It is not too much of a stretch to call it the beginnings of an engine of totalitarianism.

The criminal threat: privacy means security

If you've never had your credit card charged for stuff you didn't buy, your phone hacked, precious files held hostage by ransomware, your computer made inoperable by a virus, or your identity stolen, then you might not care much about criminal hackers. Several of these things have happened to me, and since I started studying programming and information security, I've become increasingly aware of just how extensive the dangers are.

Here's the relevance to privacy: keeping your information private requires keeping it secure. Privacy and security go hand in hand. If your information isn't private, that means it's not secure, i.e., anybody can easily grab it. You have to think about security if you want to think about privacy.

So, even if you (wrongheadedly) trust the Internet giants not to abuse your information or rob you of your autonomy, you should still consider that you're trusting them with your information security. If a company has your credit card information, government ID number, medical history and health data, or candid opinions, you have to ask yourself: Am I really comfortable with these companies' confident guarantees that my information won't fall into the wrong hands?

If you are, you shouldn't be. Think of all the data hacking of systems that, you might have thought, were surely hacker-proof: giant retailers like Target, internet giants like Facebook, major political parties, and heck, the NSA itself (not just the hack by Snowden).

No, your credit card info is not guaranteed safe just because the corporation storing it makes billions a year.

If you want to keep your information safe from malevolent forces, you shouldn't trust big companies. There are all sorts of ways bad actors can get hold of your information for nefarious purposes. They don't even always have to hack it. Sometimes, they can just legally buy it, a problem that legislation can make better--or worse.

The government threat

Remember when Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has a (once) secret spy program that actually empowers it to monitor all telephone calls, emails, browser and search histories, and social media use? Remember when we all were shocked to learn that Bush and Obama, Democrats and Republicans had together created a monster of a domestic surveillance program?

I do. I think about it fairly often, although one doesn't hear about it that much, and the programs Edward Snowden uncovered, like NSA's PRISM, have not been canceled. That means (a) everything you do and access online can be put in government hands, whenever they demand it, and (b) it's no more secure than the NSA's security.

Remember when everybody left social media in droves and started locking down their Internet use, because otherwise the NSA would have easy access to their every move?

No, I don't remember that either, because it didn't happen. Nor, sadly, was there a popular revolt to get these programs repealed. I think many of us couldn't really believe it was happening; it just didn't seem real, it seemed to be about terrorists and spies and criminals, without any impact on us.

One thing that bothers me quite a bit is that pretty much the whole Democratic Party thinks Donald Trump is a crypto-Nazi and is one step from instituting fascism—but still, puzzlingly, nobody thinks to observe worriedly that he's in control of the NSA and can find trumped-up excuses to spy on us if he wishes. In other words, if Trump were a fascist and he did turn out to want to start the Fourth Reich here in the good ol' U.S. of A., it doesn't seem to bother many Democrats that Trump holds handy tools to do just that.

Meanwhile, Republicans often think the Democratic Party is beholden to social justice warriors that want to institute socialism, thought policing, censorship, and general totalitarianism. You know--fascism. But they, too, seem strangely uninterested to dismantle government programs that systematically monitor everyone.

Both sides think the other side is just desperate to lord it over us, the innocent, good salt of the earth. But nobody seems to care that the very tools that make a police state worse than 1984 possible are already in place. And they're only too happy to keep building and rewarding a corporate system that feeds directly into the NSA.

Government surveillance isn't that bad! Fascism will never happen here! We can keep putting our entire lives in the hands of giant corporations! So say the people whose direst fear is that the other side will consolidate even more power and start executing their secret desires to institute fascist control.

What to do

But it can happen here. That's why we need to start demanding more privacy from government.

If you're really worried about fascism, then let's defang the monster. Complain more about government programs that systematically violate your privacy rights. After all, knowledge is power, so NSA's PRISM program, and similar surveillance programs in other countries, is really just an undemocratic power grab. With enough of a public uproar, Democrats and Republicans really could get together over what should be a bipartisan concern: shutting down these enormously powerful, secretive government programs.

In the meantime, we need to wake up about our personal privacy.

Look--everything you do online has multiple points of insecurity. If you can see that now, then what's your response? Hope for the best? Throw your hands up in despair? Do nothing? Figure that decent people will eventually "do something" about the problem for you?

Don't count on it. If you aren't ready to start acting on your own behalf, why think your neighbor or your representative will?

Stop giving boatloads of information to giant corporations, especially ones who think you are the product, and contribute to the market for genuinely privacy-respecting products and services. If you don't, you're opening up that information to hackers who will exploit those points of security, and making it easier for governments everywhere to control their people.

Do your personal, familial, and civic duty and start locking down your cyber-life. I am. It'll take some time. But I think it's worth it and, soon, I'll be finished getting everything set up.

What if you and all your family and friends did this? If there were a groundswell of demand for privacy, we might create tools, practices, education, and economies that support privacy properly.

Think of it as cyber-hygiene. You need to wash your data regularly. It's time to learn. Our swinish data habits are really starting to stink the place up, and it's making the executives, criminals, and tyrants think they can rule the sty.


"OK," you say, "I'm convinced. I guess I should start caring about privacy. But really, how deep do I need to go into this privacy stuff, anyway? Well, I've answered that one, too."

Part of a series on how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


Stop giving your information away carelessly!

27 tips for improving your cyber-hygiene

Who is most responsible for your online privacy being violated?

You are.

Privacy is one of the biggest concerns in tech news recently. The importance of personal privacy is something everybody seems to be able to agree on. But if you're concerned about privacy, then you need stop giving your information away willy-nilly. Because you probably are.

Well, maybe you are. See how many of the following best practices you already follow.

  1. Passwords. Install and learn how to use a password manager on all your devices. There are many fine ones on the market.
  2. Let your password manager generate your passwords for you. You never even need to know what your passwords are, once you've got the password managers set up.
  3. Make sure you make a secure password for the password manager!
  4. Stop letting your browser save passwords. Your password manager handles that.
  5. If ever you have reason to send a password to another person online, break it into two or more files (texts, emails, whatever) in different media, then totally delete those files. Also, some password managers help with this.
  6. Credit cards and other personal info. Stop letting your browser save your credit cards. Your password manager handles that.
  7. Stop letting web vendors save your credit card info on their servers, unless absolutely necessary (e.g., for subscriptions). Again, your password manager handles that. Maybe you should go delete them now. I'll wait.
  8. If you give your credit card info out online, always check that the website has the "lock" next to its address on the address bar. That means it uses the https protocol (i.e., uses encryption).
  9. Stop answering "additional security" questions with correct answers, especially correct answers that hackers might discover with research. Treat the answer fields as passwords, and record them in your password manager.
  10. Stop filling out the "optional" information on account registration forms. Give away only the required information.
  11. Americans, for chrissakes stop giving out your social security number and allowing others to use it as an ID, unless absolutely required.
  12. Stop giving your email address out when doing face-to-face purchases. Those companies don't actually need it.
  13. Stop trusting the Internet giants with your data. Consider moving away from Gmail. Google has admitted it reads your mail—all the better to market to you, my dear. Gmail isn't all that, really.
  14. Maintain your own calendar. When meeting, let others add your name, but don't let them add your email address, if you have a choice.
  15. Maintain your own contacts. No need to let one of the Internet giants take control of that for you. It's not that hard. Then have them delete their copies.
  16. If you're an Apple person, stop using iCloud to sync your devices. Use wi-fi instead.
  17. Browser and search engine hygiene. Use a privacy-respecting browser, such as Brave or Firefox. (This will stop your browsing activity from being needlessly shared with Google or Microsoft.)
  18. If you must use a browser without built-in tracking protection (like Chrome), then use a tracker-blocking extension (like Privacy Badger).
  19. Use a privacy-respecting search engine, such as DuckDuckGo or Qwant. (Ditto.)
  20. Social media, if you must. On social media, start learning and taking the privacy settings more seriously. There are many options that allow you to lock down your data to some degree.
  21. Make posts "private" on Facebook, especially if they have any personal details. If you didn't know the difference between "private" and "public" posts, learn this. And a friend says: "Stop playing Facebook quizzes."
  22. Stop digitally labeling your photos and other social posts with time and location. Make sure that data is removed before you post.
    (Putting it in the text description is better.)
  23. For crying out loud, stop posting totally public pictures of your vacation while you are vacation. Those pictures are very interesting to burglars. Wait until you get home, at least.
  24. Sorry, but stop sharing pictures of your children on social. (This is just my opinion. I know you might differ. But it makes me nervous.)
  25. Consider quitting social media altogether. Their business models are extremely hostile to privacy. You (and your private info) are the product, after all.
  26. A couple of obvious(?) last items. Make sure you're using a firewall and some sort of anti-virus software.
  27. Don't be the idiot who opens email attachments from strangers.

How many did you answer "I do that!" to? I scored 22, to be totally honest, but it'll be up to 27 soon. Answer below. Well, answer only if you have a high score, or if you use a pseudonym. I don't want hackers to know who they can hit up for an easy win!


Kick the tech giants out of your life

If you're like me, you feel a need to need to kick the tech giants out of your life. But how? Well, nobody said it would be easy, but I'm actually doing it!

Stop using Google Chrome. Google is contemptuous of your privacy and of free speech. I recommend Brave.

Stop using Google Search. And it tracks you after you search. I recommend DuckDuckGo, with results just as good as Google's 90+% of the time, in my experience.

Stop using Gmail. Look. Gmail is way overrated. And there are many, many other options out there which do not read your mail and extract marketable data.

Stop using Google Contacts and iCloud. Start managing your own contacts and data. There are lots of great tools to do this; it's not that hard.

Shields up on all the tech giants' websites and devices. Dive in to the innards of your settings (or options)—not just a few, all of them, because they like to hide things—and set your privacy settings to max.

Maybe quit social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others have becoming increasingly censorious and contemptuous of your privacy. Make them less relevant by spending more time elsewhere, if you can't just quit for good.

Use a password manager. Stop letting your browser track your passwords.

And then, if you want to get serious:

Start learning Linux... Microsoft's problems with privacy and security are famous. Apple has its own too. Well, there are these things called "virtual machines" which make it easy (and free) to install and play with your very own Linux installation. Try it!

...then switch to Linux. If you know how to use Linux, why not make the switch to something more permanent? You can always dual-boot.


How I chose an email hosting service to replace Gmail

I want to lock down my cyber-life. One basic constraint is that I want to replace Gmail, and when I do so, I never want to change my email address again. My biggest concern is that I never again want to be beholden to any major Internet corporation that has shown its contempt for privacy and censorship concerns. But if I can get "the last email address I'll ever need" while I'm at it, all the better.

The natural solution is to own my own domain name and seek out email hosting. This is not as difficult as it might sound, but it isn’t as easy as registering a new Google account. But then, that is exactly what Google is counting on: your laziness.

My new address will live at the newly-registered sanger.io domain. I and my family members can have unique and easy to remember email addresses for all the rest of our lives. After purchasing sanger.io (from NameCheap), I listed a number of features I knew I wanted: reasonable price, unlimited (or more than I could reasonably need) email storage space, IMAP support, a webmail app built in to the hosting provider (or else software that they make it easy for me to install on my new domain), and finally, enough email addresses for my purposes.

I ended up weeding out a fair few on grounds that they were too expensive (e.g., ProtonMail) or didn't offer enough storage space or accounts (e.g., NameCheap). I also weeded many out because their Alexa rankings were above 10,000, and while that isn't a total deal-breaker, I didn't want my email host to quit on me, which would be a pain.


Private email hosting comparison (Jan. 2019)

 PriceSpace limitIMAP supportWebmail app# of addressesWeb Hosting Geeks.com ratingIncludes web hosting
BlueHost Plus$5.95/moUnlimitedYesYesUnlimited2.5Yes
InMotion Hosting$6.39/moUnlimitedYesYesUnlimited4.5Yes
Rackspace Email$2/user/mo (so for me, $6/mo)25GB/ accountYesYes1/$2 accountnot reviewedNo
Zoho$3/user/mo (so for me, $9/mo)30GB/ accountYesYes1/$3 accountnot reviewedNo

I also discovered that some competitive email hosting (in the case of BlueHost and InMotionHosting) comes packaged with shared web hosting, which would be handy. I mean, then I could finally ditch GoDaddy, which I've used since time immemorial. (I dislike their upselling and bait-and-switch tactics, and detest their clunky user interface.)

I use Zoho Mail for work, and it's quite decent, but it costs half again as much and doesn't bundle shared web hosting. RackSpace email hosting seems high-quality, but it fails by comparison with BlueHost and InMotionHosting, in that those two offer unlimited email addresses and unlimited email storage space. And between the latter two, InMotionHosting seems to be the better reviewed by WebHostingGeeks.com and in other reviews. Besides, it supports Ruby; I could host my Rails projects there.

I looked at a number of other reviews of InMotionHosting, and it does indeed look good. It also has spam protection (which I didn't think to check on at first), lots of PostgreSQL databases if I want them, and free website data migration from GoDaddy.

I understand that this is not a route that most people will take. Paying for email seems unnecessary, many people would say. And certainly most people don't need their own domain name for email, they think. But just imagine: you can have the same, perfectly appropriate email address for the rest of your life. And you no longer have to feel beholden to the privacy practices of an Internet giant like Google.

Look, you don't have to be an uber-geek to do this. If you can't do it yourself, and you can get a geeky friend to set this up for you—it's not that expensive, and then you'd have your own address forever.

And you'd no longer have to support the growing monster that is Google. Gmail is admittedly a pretty awesome web app, but frankly I find I haven't missed it much when using ZohoMail for work, and I don't even use the Google email client on my phone. So the slightly slicker quality of the Gmail web app really doesn't make that much difference after all.

Next: how I set up my new private email hosting.

This was the second installment in my report about how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


So I tried out Gab.ai

After the recent purges of Alex Jones and assorted conservatives and libertarians by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others, I decided it really is time for me to learn more about other social networks that are more committed to free speech. I decided to try Gab.ai, hoping against hope that it wouldn't prove to be quite as racist as it is reputed to be.

See, while I love freedom of speech and will strongly defend the right of free speech—sure, even of racists and Nazis, even of Antifa and Communists—I don't want to hang out in a community dominated by actual open racists and Nazis. How boring.

So I went to the website, and, well, Gab.ai certainly does have a lot of people who are at least pretending to be Nazis. I never would have guessed there were that many Nazis online.

To support my impression, I posted a poll:

 Are you OK with all the open racism and anti-Semitism on Gab.ai? 57% Yes. 37% I tolerate it. 6% Makes me want to leave.

Wow! 1,368 votes! I sure hit a nerve with Gab.ai. But the results, well, they were disappointing: 57% of self-selected poll answerers on the web poll said they were OK with open racism on Gab.ai, 37% tolerated it, and it made 6% of them want to leave. But I was told by several people that I should have added another option: "That's what the Mute button is for."

There's another reason I've spent this much time exploring the site. It's that I really doubt there are that many actual Nazis on the site. Consider for a moment:

  1. The Establishment is increasingly desperate to silence dissenting voices.
  2. Gab.ai and some other alternative media sites have been getting more popular.
  3. Silicon Valley executives know the fate of MySpace and Yahoo: it's possible for giants to be replaced. Users are fickle.
  4. Like progressives, most conservatives aren't actually racist, and they will be put off by communities dominated by open, in-your-face racists.
  5. There's a midterm election coming up and people spending untold millions to influence social media, since that, we are now told, is where it's at.

Considering all that, it stands to reason that lots of left-wing trolls are being paid (or happily volunteer; but no doubt many are paid) to flood Gab.ai and make appallingly racist, fascist, anti-Semitic accounts. Of course they are; it's an obvious strategy. The only question is how many—i.e., what percentage of the Gab.ai users—consist of such faux racists.

Such trolls aside, there are at least two broad categories of people on Gab.ai. In one category there are the bona fide racists, Nazis, anti-Semites, and other such miscreants, and in the other category there is everyone else—mostly conservatives, libertarians, and Trump voters who do things like share videos of (black conservative) Candace Owens and shill for Trump (I voted for Gary Johnson, and I've always been bored by political hackery). The latter category of user mutes those of the former category, apparently.

So, feeling desperate for an alternative to Twitter, I spent a few hours today on the site, mostly muting racists, and a bit of getting introduced to some people who assured me that most of the people on the site were decent and non-racist, and that what you had to do was—especially in the beginning—spend a lot of time doing just what I was doing, muting racists.

Boy, are there a lot of racists (or maybe faux racists) there to mute. I still haven't gotten to the end of them.

But I'm not giving up on Gab.ai, not yet. Maybe it'll change, or my experience will get better. A lot of people there assured me that it would. I love that it's as committed to free speech as it is, and I wouldn't want to censor all those racists and Nazis just as I wouldn't want to censor Antifa and Communists. Keep America weird, I say!

If it's not Gab.ai, I do think some other network will rise. Two others I need to spend more time on are Steemit.com, a blockchain blogging website, similar to Medium and closely associated with EOS and Block.one, and Mastodon.social, which is sort of a cross between Twitter and Facebook. Steemit has become pretty popular (more so than Gab.ai), while Mastodon has unfortunately been struggling. I also want to spend more time on BitChute, a growing and reasonably popular YouTube competitor.


On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).