Essays on Technology and Culture

LOVEINT and Who We Trust with Our Data

The NSA has a bit of a problem with people poking their noses into data they shouldn’t be poking their noses into. Sometimes, it’s their lovers—or their ex-lovers. It’s common enough that the intelligence service employees have a term for it: LOVEINT. Think about it: if you had access to the communications data for every American, wouldn’t you see what you could dredge up? Especially if you’re a jilted ex. LOVEINT, fortunately, carries consequences if it’s caught—well, sometimes.

Of course, the NSA isn’t the only people collecting data on our every move. The data stockpiles owned by Google and Facebook, as well as older-school data brokers like Axiom, are massive enough to rival the NSA in size. The key difference between the NSA and the data we fed to tech companies however, is that we give our data up to technology companies willingly. Perhaps unwittingly, but there’s a key sense of apathy every time Facebook and Google sink their claws deeper into our data. Though it looks like that might be changing.

But another aspect of all that data collection is whether we trust who has access to it. I’m not talking about malicious hackers getting access into the Facebook database and finding out everything it knows about everyone. I’m more concerned about the stereotypical jilted ex who uses their access to do a deep dive into what their company knows about their former partner. No matter how well you lock down what other people can see on Facebook, someone—likely multiple someones—at the company have access into the database.

Data Facebook and Google sell to advertisers is anonymized, but we don’t know where that anonyimization happens. Someone buying targeted advertising through DoubleClick might not know they’re targeting 32-year-old male, Richard J. Anderson of Briarwood, New York—just a male between the ages of 18–35 who lives in the Northeast, and likes Apple products and 80’s music. The full profile that connects to me has to exists somewhere, though—as does the full profile that connects to you.

I would not be surprised if Facebook, Google, et. al. have procedures, plans, and security audits in place to prevent unauthorized access. I would also not be surprised if they didn’t, or if those plans existed only on paper. The truth is that we don’t know. There have been data leaks from Facebook, but only their shadow profiles, due to a bug, but that’s a large-scale issue.

LOVEINT is smaller scale: sneaking a peek at data for a few people, often just one. A leak that small could fall through the cracks of any sort of protection system. Without transparency into the data collection and protection policies of Internet data brokers, however, we don’t know how unsafe we are. We’re not just putting our trust in these companies to use our data responsibly. We’re trusting that every employee with database access will do the same. That’s asking a lot, and if the NSA can’t avoid it, what makes any of us think Facebook and Google can?

Against The Algorithm And The Feed

Using Little Voices has given me something to think about, when it comes to social media. When we use Twitter and Facebook we are at the mercy of two different impositions. For Twitter, the imposition is the feed—the mostly chronological stream of content that we are fed by the service. On Facebook the stream is replaced by the imposition of the algorithm, which determines what you are supposed to see.

Tools like Little Voices, Nuzzel, and Social Fixer stand against these impositions. To varying degrees, they allow us to take control of our social feeds and bend them to show us what we want to see. Algorithms on social media in particular are not designed with the end user in mind. They are designed to optimize metrics that benefit the company and their advertisers. The more we post, like, favorite, retweet, and interact with the platform, the more data they get to use for monetization.

It’s why Twitter had to fracture their relationship with third-party developers. It’s why Facebook makes it harder and harder to access their chronological feed. Anything that goes against the feed and against the algorithm is dangerous to the bottom line. As long as we have control over our browsers and devices, in some form, we have the ability to interfere with these impositions.

In fact, it’s our duty as Internet citizens to use them and bend these services to our will. Communication technology is most valuable for its ability to build and strengthen social ties. It’s the exploitation of those ties that irks me. It doesn’t matter whether that exploitation comes at the hands of advertisers or harassers. By asserting control over our feeds that we maintain our identities online.

Living with Little Voices

It’s no surprise that people are overwhelmed by social media. Even a well-curated social stream can be a mass of noise with precious little signal. We lose track of the “social” part, and it just becomes a stream of media from our ostensible friends, indistinguishable from leaving the TV on in the background.

Recently, I heard about a Twitter app for iPhone called Little Voices, and decided to give it a try. Little Voices is notable for what it doesn’t do, unlike the stock Twitter app, or my preferred power user alternative, Tweetbot. Little Voices hides pictures, video, links, retweets, and @-replies from people you don’t follow. Instead, as the creators say, “[y]ou’ll only be able to read the funny, silly, educational and foolish comments they make.”

One thing I’ve notices after using Little Voices for a few days along with Tweetbot on my Mac is that the majority of my Twitter stream often is media, retweets, and links. That’s not a bad thing, but it makes me think of just how much Twitter has changed over the time I’ve been using it. Little Voices feels a bit like the Twitter of yore—before @-replies, before embedded media, and before a lot of what made Twitter so useful and so noisy all at once.

I’m planning to pair Little Voices up with Nuzzle so I can tap into the links and media, and keep the social aspects to its own space. By splitting the Twitter experience up a bit, I should be able to avoid the great overwhelming that can sometimes happen even with a power-user app like Tweetbot. Personally, I’d like to see a similar set of tools for Facebook. Social Fixer helps, but it doesn’t have the same filtering capabilities.

Twitter Is An Unsafe Public Square, Facebook Is A Private Living Room

How did Twitter, once the darling of the tech world, fall so far? Why have their numbers stalled out, their growth stagnated? Well, any number of reasons. One that keeps coming up is that people “don’t understand” Twitter. This fails the sniff test for me. Aspects of Twitter can be confusing, but the fundamentals are clear. It’s a place to talk in public—in 140 character bursts, but public none the less.

Facebook, on the other hand, presents itself as a private space. Never mind how porous Facebook is with your data, it appears private, because you rarely have to interact with people you’re more than one degree of connection from. There are your friends, the friends of your friends, and—occasionally—the masses of other people on the platform. If the farmers in Myanmar who love Facebook used Twitter instead, we’d have come across them earlier.

Perhaps a useful metaphor here is that Twitter is the public square, a global agora where people will bump into each other and interact. If you’ve ever been to Union Square in Manhattan, you can get a decent picture of what life is on Twitter. There’s people interacting with their friends in one part, a group of Hare Krishnas having a chant in another. In one corner, a large political protest with chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Elsewhere, peddlers sell their wares. Wandering it through it all, there’s passers by and the occasional homeless person asking for spare change. It can be loud, cacophonous, and overwhelming sometimes. Conflict occurs, but—unlike Twitter—there’s an active moderating presence we call the NYPD.

Facebook, on the other hand, is more like your living room. It’s a place for friends and family. Generally, something is not in your news feed unless you have invited it in, deliberately or otherwise. We follow public figures on Facebook in much the same way we would subscribe to a magazine, or turn on the TV during dinner. I can’t say with certainty that Joshua Topolsky’s claim that “If users get abusive on Facebook, they’re dealt with,” but you certainly hear less about abusers on the platform.

Now, compare this to the new social platforms that have come in the last few years. They all have an element of privacy and closeness that Twitter does not. On Snapchat, privacy is imposed through transience. Messaging apps and private Slack channels are limited only to the people you invite. Instagram is limited by form—images, video, and comments—and can be locked down. Ello and Peach are basically incomprehensible, but that might just me being an old man. Twitter is the only social platform that is public by default.

That might be the biggest problem Twitter has. Do people really want to speak their mind in public? There’s plenty who do, and there’s value in a public agora for the Internet age. Twitter has also been instrumental in exposing police brutality, for coordinating disaster response, and just keeping people up to date. Despite this, not everyone wants a megaphone. We’ve seen what happens to people with megaphones who make mistakes. Let’s not forget the saga of Justine Sacco.

Many people in the tech space have been on Twitter now for nearly a decade. Twitter’s older users are older people, often geeks, and have different expectations of a social platform. Some of us have lived in public online since well before the age of social media. Many people in tech are also, let’s face it, in a position of privilege where living in public often does not bring with the same risks as it does to women and people of color.

When you look at it this way, no wonder Twitter’s growth has stagnated. No wonder people are moving towards more private, locked down online spaces where the demands and the risks are fewer. The “hulking hive mind” Topolsky calls Twitter’s “greatest asset” is a wonderful thing to have. If people can tap into that hive mind without having to contribute to it—or can contribute to it safely and on their terms, people might be more willing to come to Twitter again. Until that happens, Twitter will struggle and lose ground to safer, quieter, private spaces. Why should I hang out in the public square if I’m just going to get yelled at? My living room is much nicer.

The Great Overwhelming

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. The stream demands our attention. It begs us to feed it, and it begs us to engage to with what other people are feeding it. Social media often feels like a digital superstimulus, designed to glue us to the screens in our pockets. And I won’t lie… I’ve checked Twitter while I wrote this.

Naturally, some people are opting out.

It seems every day I am reading about someone else feeling something similar. Someone quitting Facebook, unfollowing everyone on Twitter, deleting their Instagram pictures and account, or closing up shop on their YouTube account. It seems there is just a breaking point that people reach, and when it hits it really hits.

Casually Norm – “Not What I Signed On For”

The frustration rings true. I deactivated my Facebook for the umpteenth time this month, largely because I hit another breaking point with the noise of other people’s lives. More specifically, I hit a breaking point with the noise of the people I know interacting with people I don’t. I might have to unfollow everyone again when I do come back. [1]

For the ones who quit, temporarily or permanently, I salute them. Opting out is a valid response. I admire the dedication of someone like CGP Grey and his process of dialing down to make his life easier. It may have been temporary, but the idea holds merit. Sometimes we just need to turn everything off.

One of the next great challenges as we move into an increasingly connected future is finding the balance. It’s going to be different for all of us, and the amount of connectivity we can take will vary from day-to-day. Nobody is forcing you to keep a Twitter client on your phone, nobody is forcing you to stay on Facebook. Nobody is forcing you to feed the void that is the social Internet. You choose to do it, and you can choose not to. More importantly, you can choose how you do these things, so that you interact on (for the most part) your own terms.

If that changes, and it might, then I will worry. For now, it’s okay to dial down and remember what is to breathe.

  1. I did reactivate my Facebook for one day, so I could join in the global mourning over David Bowie.  ↩