Author: John Biggs

Photos on social media can predict the health of neighborhoods

The images that appear on social media – happy people eating, cultural happenings, and smiling dogs – can actually predict the likelihood that a neighborhood is “healthy” as well as its level of gentrification.

From the report:

So says a groundbreaking study published in Frontiers in Physics, in which researchers used social media images of cultural events in London and New York City to create a model that can predict neighborhoods where residents enjoy a high level of wellbeing — and even anticipate gentrification by 5 years. With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, the model could help policymakers ensure human wellbeing in dense urban settings.

The idea is based on the concept of “cultural capital” – the more there is, the better the neighborhood becomes. For example, if there are many pictures of fun events in a certain spot you can expect a higher level of well-being in that area’s denizens. The research also suggests that investing in arts and culture will actively improve a neighborhood.

“Culture has many benefits to an individual: it opens our minds to new emotional experiences and enriches our lives,” said Dr. Daniele Quercia. “We’ve known for decades that this ‘cultural capital’ plays a huge role in a person’s success. Our new model shows the same correlation for neighborhoods and cities, with those neighborhoods experiencing the greatest growth having high cultural capital. So, for every city or school district debating whether to invest in arts programs or technology centers, the answer should be a resounding ‘Yes!'”

The Cambridge-based team looked at “millions of Flickr images” taken at cultural events in New York and London and overlaid them on maps of these cities. The findings, as we can imagine, were obvious.

“We were able to see that the presence of culture is directly tied to the growth of certain neighborhoods, rising home values and median income. Our model can even predict gentrification within five years,” said Quercia. “This could help city planners and councils think through interventions to prevent people from being displaced as a result of gentrification.”

The team expects to be able to assess the health of citizens using the same method, overlaying pictures of food on maps in order to find food deserts and spots where cafes and croissants are on the rise. Just imagine: all those Instagrammed photos of your favorite sandwiches will some day help researchers build happier cities.

The erosion of Web 2.0

It seems quaint to imagine now but the original vision for the web was not an information superhighway. Instead, it was a newspaper that fed us only the news we wanted. This was the central thesis brought forward in the late 1990s and prophesied by thinkers like Bill Gates – who expected a beautiful, customized “road ahead” – and Clifford Stoll who saw only snake oil. At the time, it was the most compelling use of the Internet those thinkers thought possible. This concept – that we were to be coddled by a hive brain designed to show us exactly what we needed to know when we needed to know it – continued apace until it was supplanted by the concept of User Generated Content – UGC – a related movement that tore down gatekeepers and all but destroyed propriety in the online world.

That was the arc of Web 2.0: the move from one-to-one conversations in Usenet or IRC and into the global newspaper. Further, this created a million one-to-many conversations targeted at tailor-made audiences of fans, supporters, and, more often, trolls. This change gave us what we have today: a broken prism that refracts humanity into none of the colors except black or white. UGC, that once-great idea that anyone could be as popular as a rock star, fell away to an unmonetizable free-for-all that forced brands and advertisers to rethink how they reached audiences. After all, on a UGC site it’s not a lot of fun for Procter & Gamble to have Downy Fabric Softener advertised next to someone’s racist rant against Muslims in a Starbucks .

Still the Valley took these concepts and built monetized cesspools of self-expression. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter are the biggest beneficiaries of outrage culture and the eyeballs brought in by its continuous refreshment feed their further growth. These sites are Web 2.0 at its darkest epitome, a quiver of arrows that strikes at our deepest, most cherished institutions and bleeds us of kindness and forethought.

So when advertisers faced either the direct monetization of random hate speech or the erosion of customer privacy, they choose the latter. Facebook created lookalike audiences that let advertisers sell to a certain subset of humanity on a deeply granular level, a move that delivered us the same shoe advertisement constantly, from site to site, until we were all sure we had gone mad. In the guise of saving our sanity further we invited always-on microphones into our homes that could watch our listening and browsing habits and sell to us against them. We gave up our very DNA to companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, a decision that mankind may soon regret. We shared everything with everyone in the grand hope that our evolution into homo ligarus – the networked man – would lead us to become homo deus.

This didn’t happen.

And so the pendulum swings back. The GDPR, as toothless as it is, is a wake up call to every spammer that ever slammed your email or followed you around the web. Further, Apple’s upcoming cookie control software in Safari should make those omnipresent ads disappear, forcing the advertiser to sell to an undifferentiated mob rather than a single person. This is obviously cold comfort in an era defined by both the reification of the Internet as a font for all knowledge (correct or incorrect) and the genesis of an web-based political cobra that whips back to bite its handlers with regularity. But it’s a start.

We are currently in an interstitial period of technology, a cake baked of the hearty camaraderie and “Fuck the system” punk rock Gen X but frosted with millennial pragmatism and desire for the artisanal. As we move out of the era of UGC and Web 2.0 we will see the old ways cast aside, the old models broken, and the old invasions of privacy inverted. While I won’t go as far to say that blockchain will save us all, pervasive encryption and full data control will pave the way toward true control of our personal lives as well as the beginnings of a research-based minimum income. We should be able to sell our opinions, our thoughts, and even our DNA to the highest bidder and once the rapacious Web 2.0 vultures are all shooed away, we will find ourselves in an interesting new world.

As a technoutopianist I’m sure that were are heading in the right direction. We are, however, taking turns that none of us could have imagined in the era of Clinton and the fax machine and there are still more turns to come. Luckily, however, we are coming out of our last major skid.

 

Photo by George Fitzmaurice on Unsplash

Minds aims to decentralize the social network

Decentralization is the buzzword du jour. Everything – from our currencies to our databases – are supposed to exist, immutably, in this strange new world. And Bill Ottman wants to add our social media to the mix.

Ottman, an intense young man with a passion to fix the world, is the founder of Minds.com, a New York-based startup that has been receiving waves of new users as zealots and the the not-so-zealous have been leaving other networks. In fact, Zuckerberg’s bad news is music to Ottman’s ears.

Ottman started Minds in 2011 “with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world,” he said. He and his CTO, Mark Harding, have worked in various non-profits including Code To Inspire, a group that teaches Afghani women to code. He said his vision is to get us out from under social media’s thumb.

“We started Minds in my basement after being disillusioned by user abuse on Facebook and other big tech services. We saw spying, data mining, algorithm manipulation, and no revenue sharing,” he said. “To us, it’s inevitable that an open source social network becomes dominant, as was the case with Wikipedia and proprietary encyclopedias.”

His efforts have paid off. The team now has over 1 million registered users and over 105,000 monthly active users. They are working on a number of initiatives, including an ICO, and the site makes money through “boosting” – essentially the ability to pay to have a piece of content float higher in the feed.

The company raised $350K in 2013 and then a little over a million dollars in a Reg CF Equity Crowdfunding raise.

Unlike Facebook, Minds is built on almost radical transparency. The code is entirely open source and it includes encrypted messenger services and optional anonymity for users. The goal, ultimately, is to have the data be decentralized and any user should be able to remove his or her data. It’s also non-partisan, a fact that Ottman emphasized.

“We are not pushing a political agenda, but are more concerned with transparency, Internet freedom and giving control back to the user,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs when every network that cares about free speech gets lumped in with extremists.”

He was disappointed, for example, when people read that Reddit’s choice to shut down toxic sub-Reddits was a success. It wasn’t, he said. Instead, those users just flocked to other, more permissive sites. However, he doesn’t think those sites have be cesspools of hate.

“We are a community-owned social network dedicated to transparency, privacy and rewarding people for their contributions. We are called Minds because it’s meant to be a representation of the network itself,” he said. “Our mission is Internet freedom with privacy, transparency, free speech within the law and user control. Additionally, we want to provide our users with revenue opportunity and the ability to truly expand their reach and earn rewards for their contributions to the network.”

Microsoft can ban you for using offensive language

A report by CSOOnline presented the possibility that Microsoft would be able to ban “offensive language” from Skype, Xbox, and, inexplicably, Office. The post, which cites Microsoft’s new terms of use, said that the company would not allow users to “publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity)” and that you could lose your Xbox Live Membership if you curse out a kid Overwatch.

“We are committed to providing our customers with safe and secure experiences while using our services. The recent changes to the Microsoft Service Agreement’s Code of Conduct provide transparency on how we respond to customer reports of inappropriate public content,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. The company notes that “Microsoft Agents” do not watch Skype calls and that they can only respond to complaints with clear evidence of abuse. The changes, which go into effect May 1, allows Microsoft to ban you from it services if you’re found passing “inappropriate content” or using “offensive language.”

These new rules give Microsoft more power over abusive users and it seems like Microsoft is cracking down on bad behavior on its platforms. This is good news for victims of abuse in private communications channels on Microsoft products and may give trolls pause before they yell something about your mother on Xbox. We can only dare to dream.

#deletefacebook

Facebook is using us. It is actively giving away our information. It is creating an echo chamber in the name of connection. It surfaces the divisive and destroys the real reason we began using social media in the first place – human connection.

It is a cancer.

I’ve begun the slow process of weaning myself off of the platform by methodically running a script that will delete my old content. And there’s a lot. There are likes and shares. There are long posts I wrote to impress my friends. There are thousands of WordPress notifications that tell the world what I’m doing. In fact, I would wager I use Facebook more to broadcast my ego than interact with real humans. And I suspect that most of us are in a similar situation.

There is a method to my madness. I like Facebook Messenger and I like that Facebook is now a glorified version of OAuth. It’s a useful tool when it is stripped of its power. However, when it is larded with my personal details it is a weapon and a liability.

Think about it: any posts older than about a week are fodder for bots and bad actors. Posts from 2016? 2017? Why keep them? No one will read them, no one cares about them. Those “You and Joe have known each other for five years” auto-posts are fun but does anyone care? Ultimately you’ve created the largest dossier on yourself and you’ve done it freely, even gleefully. This dossier reflects your likes, your dislikes, your feelings, and political leanings. It includes clear pictures of your face from all angles, images of your pets and family, and details your travels. You are giving the world unfettered access to your life. It’s wonderful to imagine that this data will be used by a potential suitor who will fall in love with your street style. It’s wonderful to imagine you will scroll through Facebook at 80 and marvel at how you looked at the turn of the century. It’s wonderful to imagine that Facebook is a place to share ideas, dreams, and hopes, a human-to-human connection engine that gives more than it takes.

None of that will happen.

Facebook is a data collection service for those who want to sell you products. It is the definitive channel to target you based on age, sex, geographic location, political leanings, interests, and marital status. It’s an advertiser’s dream and it is wildly expensive in terms of privacy lost and cash spent to steal that privacy. It is the perfect tool for marketers, a user-generated paradise that is now run by devils.

Will you delete Facebook? Probably not. Will I? I’m working on it. I’ve already been deleting old tweets after realizing that border police and potential employers won’t use what I write publicly against me. I’m clearing out old social media accounts and, as I mentioned before, deleting old Facebook posts, thus ensuring that I will no longer be a target for companies like Cambridge Analytica. But we love our social media, don’t we? The power it affords. The feeling of connection. In the absence of human interaction we cling to whatever dark simulacrum is available. In the absence of the Town Square we talk to ourselves. In the absence of love and understanding we join the slow riot of online indifference.

When Travis Kalanick led his ride-sharing company down the dark path to paranoia, bro culture, and classist rantings we reacted by deleting the app. We didn’t want to do business with that particular brand of company. Yet we sit idly by while Facebook sells us out and its management pummels and destroys all competition.

I wish it didn’t have to be this way. There is plenty of good in these platforms but the dangers far outweigh the benefits. Try to recall the last time you were thankful for social media. I can. It happened twice. First, it happened when I posted on my “wall” a eulogy for my father who died in January. The outpouring of support was heartening in a dark time. It was wonderful to see friends and acquaintances tell me their own stories, thereby taking the sting out of my own. But months later that good feeling is gone, replaced by ads for fancy shoes and political rants. Out of the Facebook swamp sometimes surfaces a pearl. But it sinks just as quickly.

One more sad example: I found out, accidentally, that my friend’s wife died. It appeared on my feed as if placed there by some divine hand and I was thankful it surfaced. It beat out videos of Mister Rogers saying inspiring things and goofy pictures of Trump. It beat out ads and rants and questions about the best sushi restaurant in Scranton. The stark announcement left be crying and breathless. There it was in black and blue, splashed across her page: she was gone. There was the smiling photo of her two little children and there was the outpouring of grief under these once innocuous photos. Gone, it said. She was gone. I found out from her wall where her memorial service would be held and I finally reached back out to my old friend to try to comfort him in his grief. Facebook, in those two instances, worked.

But Facebook isn’t the only thing that can give us that feeling of connectedness. We’ve had it for centuries.

Facebook simply replaced the tools we once used to tell the world of our joys and sorrows and it replaced them with cheap knock-offs that make us less connected, not more. Decades ago, on one coal-fogged winter morning in Krakow, Poland where I was living, I passed Kościół św. Wojciecha with its collection of nekrologi – necrologies – posted on a board in front of the church. There you saw the names of the dead – and sometimes the names of the newly born – and it was there you discovered what was happening in your little corner of the world. The church wasn’t far from the central square – the Rynek – and I walked there thinking about the endless parade of humanity that had walked across those cobbles, stopping for a moment in their hustle at the church yard to see who had died. I stood in the crisp air, flanked by centuries old brickwork, and imagined who once populated this place. This was the place you met your friends and your future partners. It was there you celebrated your successes and mourned your failures. It was there, among other humans, you told the world the story of your life, but told it slant. You witnessed kindnesses and cruelties, you built a world entire based on the happenings in a few square miles.

No more. Or, at least, those places are no longer available to most of us.

We’ve moved past the superstitions and mythologies of the past. Tools like Facebook were designed to connect us to the world, giving us an almost angelic view of daily happenstance. We replaced the churchyard with the “timeline.” But our efforts failed. We are still as closed, still full of superstition, as we were a hundred years ago. We traded a market square for the Internet but all of the closed-mindedness and cynicism came with it. We still disparage the outsider, we still rant against invisible enemies, and we still keep our friends close and fear what lies beyond our door. Only now we have the whole world on which to reflect our terror.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe some day we’ll get the tools we need to interact with the world. Maybe they’re already here and we just don’t want to use them.

Until we find them, however, it’s probably better for us to delete the ones we use today.

Serial SWATter arrested, charged with involuntary manslaughter

 Wichita police have arrested a 25-year-old online troll who calls himself SWAuTistic, charging him with involuntary manslaughter after sending police to a Kansas address. When police arrived at the address they opened fire on the resident, a father of two named Andrew Finch. SWAuTistic, real name Tyler Raj Barriss, could face 11 years in prison. SWATting is the process of calling in a fake… Read More

Zelda, Overwatch are top PornHub searches for 2017

 My aren’t you a bunch of sly dogs. PornHub, a website dedicated to the distribution of pornographic videos, is onto all you porn lovers and your sexy, sneaky ways. In a nearly catastrophically complete year-in-review post, the company has laid bare all of our deepest desires. Many of the takeaways are mundane. Women enjoy celebrity sex tapes and lesbians. Men enjoy MILFs and and… Read More