Educating in the Metaverse

AR use

Using augmented reality to see what is not physically there.

There is not much mention of education in all the discussions this year about the metaverse, but it is thought that it will better allow students to have a cyber-physical learning experience. The virtual world will merge with the real one more and more seamlessly.

For the past 20 months, there has been a global educational experiment in online learning. But don't think that what has happened in education because of the COVID-19 pandemic is an accurate account or prediction of what teaching and learning are at their best, or what they will become in a metaverse. The forced move to online education was awkward for most schools, students and teachers, particularly in the first two semesters. By the spring of 2021, all parties were better adapted to learning online. For the fall 2021 semester, many schools were able to go back to their pre-pandemic methodologies and content delivery. The best schools and teachers have not abandoned what was learned in those online days, and for them learning has continued to shift between online and in person. Online delivery has become more of an integral component of education. The whole move online in 2020 and 2021 should lead to more inclusive and creative pedagogical solutions.

My earlier post on the building of the metaverse did not consider education. No one should think that what we now call online education looks anything like the metaverse. Actually, some online worlds from decades past, such as Second Life, are closer to the metaverse than current online education. The building game Minecraft is enjoyed by millions of young and old learners and has found a place in higher education too. Both of those products have been used to enhance lectures, allow virtual field trips and make students creators. I took tours of campuses in Second Life at the start of this century. They were crude by today's tech standards but they didn't require a clunky headset. I did it once in front of a giant screen and it was more "immersive" but no metaverse.

Current virtual reality (VR) simulations allow students in medicine, engineering, and architecture to practice skills that are difficult to rehearse in real life.

Most followers of the metaverse will say that some forms of it are already here. I discussed in the previous article some companies that already offer applications and platforms that fit part of the definitions (and there are multiple definitions as of now) of the metaverse.  Another company that is making inroads to educational use is Roblox. In its current version, it looks very much like a game, which is often a serious deterrent for educators to consider using technology. But they are expanding the tools offered and giving users and developers more opportunities to create experiences of their own.  with an emphasis on safety.

Roblox has more than 203 million monthly active users in their virtual world. Some might call this platform a "proto-metaverse." But so far, it lacks the VR and AR that are part of all definitions of the metaverse. There is also caution required here for safety since many of those users are children. Roblox CEO David Baszucki may have used some hyperbole in saying during an interview that his company’s business model predicted the metaverse 17 years ago.

The media is already countering any metaverse visioning with cautionary tales of the dangers it might also offer. It ranges from fears that predators might use it to lure children. Since the porn industry has been at the lead with many technologies from VHS tapes and DVDs to online video, there's a good chance that they will want in on the metaverse. A lot of warnings currently come from a lack of understanding about what a metaverse will look like, and the misperception that somehow Zuckerberg and Meta will be THE metaverse rather than a part of it.

John Preston (Professor of Sociology, University of Essex) believes that some aspects of the metaverse are already in universities. His fear is that it will offer revolutionary potential for greater profits to be made in higher education. His research on digital technologies in higher education shows that a metaverse could monetize the student experience even more than now and also exploit the work of academics.

Jaron Lanier, who was an early promoter of VR and founded the first VR company (VPL Research) and made Virtual Reality the term for the head-mounted display has changed his mind on the metaverse. I attended a workshop he did at a conference in the late 1990s and wore his headset and put on the wired gloves to walk through a virtual world while moving around a small room that had a few ramps and objects that became something else in my headset view. It was pretty cool. And pretty awkward. I heard him speak at an edtech conference around 2010 when he had published his "manifesto" You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier's wonder-filled dreams for what these new technologies as we turned into the 21st century could provide for humanity had become nightmares.  His 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now indicates that the dreams are still nightmares.  In a recent Forbes article, Lanier says, "If you run [the metaverse] on a business model that’s similar to the one that Facebook runs on, it’ll destroy humanity. I’m not saying that rhetorically. That is a literal and specific prediction that humanity could not survive that."

While some people may be creating a virtual research center ecosystem using Microsoft Teams, others are suggesting that we need to forget the tech and focus on human beings, while some feel we need to use digital simulations to prepare students for future careers.

My own metaverse predictions are that it is farther away than the current buzz seems to indicate, and that augmented reality (AR) will play a greater role than virtual reality (VR) - unless they can get rid of that clunky VR headgear. I see that Meta, which owns Oculus (known initially for making hose clunky goggles) has dropped the Oculus branding. Maybe they will also drop the headgear.

Fake Facebook Accounts

signupNo one is giving Facebook or Meta or Mark Zuckerberg a free pass these days. Criticism is a daily event and their PR people must be in constant firefighting mode. But Facebook has been doing things to protect privacy and security and Facebook I keep hearing ads on podcasts about how they are promoting safety.  Unfortunately, the criticism is usually drowning out the tools they do offer and the actions they are taking. If you are on Facebook, you should be doing your part in protecting your account. Much of online protection is a matter of personal responsibility.

One of the areas that often gets attention is fake accounts. By the end of 2019, Facebook removed a staggering 5.5 billion fake accounts. Plenty of companies would be happy to have that many legitimate accounts but Facebook far exceeds that number. The removals continue and from the fourth quarter of 2017 to the third quarter of 2021 they removed approximately 1.8 billion fake accounts, up from 1.3 billion fake accounts in the corresponding quarter in 2020.

Why would anyone want to make a fake account?

Scammers use fake Facebook accounts to connect with users and then their friends to scrape personal information. That can be used to steal identities. They can also reach out to anyone who's accepted that fake friend request to try and scam them, since this fake account is sending friend requests to all your friends. This is called Facebook cloning.

I have seen a number of my friends' accounts be cloned using a few photos they have made public and any "public" information. When a clone of your account is created using your name you are not the real object of attention. It is actually your friends that are the target and the hope is that your friends will accept the fake friend request.

The cloned account often looks quite bare. Some people immediately recognize that they are already friends with that person/name and know this new request is fake. But if you have many friends or accept requests without looking a bit closer, you can be scammed. If you accept that friend request, the scammer now has access to your friend-visible information and then your friends' accounts' personal information. This access expands rapidly even if not everyone accepts the requests.

To report a fake account, go to  https://www.facebook.com/help/306643639690823

You should also take the initiative to use some tools Facebook offers and do some protecting on your own.

Privacy Checkup - helps you control who can see what you share, how your information is used and how to secure your account.

You see the message if you click next to the ad "Why Am I Seeing This Ad?" You can adjust what ads you see starting with that one.

Off-Facebook Activity is a tool most users don't know about. It lets you control or disconnect the information businesses send to Meta about your activity on other apps and websites.

And you can download or request and export your data so you can move it between services.

Welcome to the Facebook Metaverse

meta platforms logoYou've heard that Facebook is changing its name to Meta. Facebook, Inc. is now Meta Platforms, Inc. or Meta to be brief. Search "meta" on Facebook and you find about.facebook.com/meta  (meta.com will also take you there.)

People on the perimeter seem to think that this rebranding is an attempt to turn attention from all the negative press that Facebook and Instagram have been getting the past few months. This is more like when Google became Alphabet. Google still exists and people still say Google when they mean the umbrella company (Alphabet) and I'm sure it will take a long time before Facebook is thought of as being Meta.

I posted on Twitter a few weeks ago when people were guessing about the new name that I thought "Metaverse" would be the new name. It made sense since Zuckerberg has been talking about playing a big role in the future metaverse. Of course, almost no one knows what the metaverse is or will be. I wrote about it here and I still find it difficult to explain to someone this "future of the Internet."

I also suspect that, like Google/Alphabet, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg may drop the CEO role at Facebook and move over to Meta. He made the name change "official" at the company’s developer conference Connect. He hopes that Meta will reach a billion people in the next 10 years. That sounds conservative if you consider that Facebook is at two billion already. Add in WhatsApp and Instagram users into one big metaverse and Branding and marketing experts, however, agree that the Facebook name is too deeply entrenched at this point and the company faces an uphill battle to recast in a new and more transparent light.

In his announcement, Zuckerberg said he went with Meta because it’s a Greek word that “symbolizes there’s always more to build.” Meta from the Greek means "after" or "beyond." I think it is more interesting - and perhaps more on target - that it also means an awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category and self-referential.

Is it coincidental that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (the philanthropy Zuckerberg founded with his wife, Priscilla Chan) had acquired a startup called Meta that uses AI to aggregate scientific research? Officially, the project’s website says it’s a separate entity from Facebook.

Meta’s most obvious connotation here is the metaverse itself. So, what will Meta be doing in the immediate future? We have one clue looking at what they are doing with Oculus which they purchased seven years ago. That company builds virtual reality headsets that allow people to play 3D virtual games. It was also announced this week that the Oculus name would be retired and that its hardware and apps will now operate under the Meta brand.

How will Facebook change? It won't for now. Same with Instagram and WhatsApp. Meta is also Facebook Messenger, Facebook Watch, and Facebook Portal, along with acquisitions Giphy and Mapillary, and has a stake in Jio Platforms.

From MySpace to TRUTH Social

Donald Trump was banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the wake of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. His social media accounts were also flagged multiple times for spreading false information about voting fraud in the 2020 presidential election. So banished from major social media platforms, the former President has now announced plans to form a public company that will launch a social platform of his own.

This past week a press release announced TRUTH Social would be his space. It is supposed to beta launch in November with a wider rollout in 2022. In the information released publically, Donald Trump is listed as the chairman of the Trump Media & Technology Group. TMTG would be formed by joining with Digital World Acquisition Corp., pending regulatory and stockholder approval. DWAC is a special purpose acquisition company, which sells stock with the intention of buying private firms, and the release says the corporation will invest $293 million in the Trump project.

The day I read about the announcement was the same day that a friend emailed to say that he discovered my old MySpace account was still online. the two things fit together for me.

myspace 1

"My space" is what Trump wants. A place where he can say whatever he wants without someone else controlling what content he puts out. He tried this before. His attempt to start a post-presidential blog didn't last very long. In June 2021, that blog shut down.  after Trump had become frustrated because there was little traffic to the site. It was not a well-designed site and cost only a few thousand dollars to make (by a company run by his former campaign manager set it up). Rather than give Trump a megaphone, it ended up making his voice and influence seem small and less significant.

As soon as this new venture was announced the media started commenting. CNN (no friend of Trump) gave three reasons why the Trump venture will fail: Twitter already exists; the conservative social space is crowded (and not doing well); and Donald Trump isn't President anymore.

A post on engadget.com gave a more serious technical reason for problems with the site - a licensing error. "The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) says The Trump Media and Technology Group (TMTG) violated a licensing agreement when it recently launched a test version of TRUTH Social. The website ran on a modified version of Mastodon, a free and open-source platform for operating Twitter-like social media networks. Anyone can use Mastodon provided they comply with AGPLv3, the software license that governs its code." That would include that you share your source code with all users. At the Trump site's test version launch, it did not do that. TMTG has 30 days to comply with AGPLv3 or face consequences.

I can imagine Trump telling the designers of the new platform that "I want my space online to say whatever I want to say."

On the business side of this, the stock price for DWAC skyrocketed on October 21st after the announcement. I hope the SEC is looking at who bought shares of DWAC in the days before the announcement. And I assume they will carefully note who sells that stock before any announcement that, like Trump's earlier social effort, the whole thing collapses.

An Instagram Kids App Is On Hold

Instagram logos
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Facebook has been getting a lot of critical press the past month.  The Wall Street Journal's "Facebook Files" series has focused attention on how Facebook Inc. knows from internal research that its three platforms allow content that causes harm and any actions it has taken have not been effective.

When they announced this summer that there is a project to develop a version of Instagram aimed at children younger than 13, there was an outcry in the media. Concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health and safety were all aired.

This week Facebook announced it is suspending plans to build the Instagram Kids app. Facebook has owned Instagram since 2012. The platform is largely a photo-sharing application, though it has the commenting and likes common to most social sites. The Wall Street Journal series covered how Instagram is known by Facebook to sometimes negatively affect teenage girls in particular.

This suspension is not an end to the project and the company plans to take some time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, but to move forward. Introducing the next generation to the platform would be advantageous to the company, though they had said that the Kids app would be ad-free, introducing kids to what may become in their adult life the Facebook "metaverse."

Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp is certainly not alone in wanting new and younger users and is competing with other platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat.

It may seem somewhat ironic that the WSJ used the results of an internal study by Facebook which they conducted to determine how its apps affect users against the company. In fact, the WSJ did compliment Facebook on doing the research, but their criticism came in what Facebook did or did not do as a result of the studies.

Facebook is scheduled to address these issues this Thursday before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/09/27/facebook-instagram-kids/
https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-pauses-instagram-kids-project-11632744879
https://www.engadget.com/facebook-is-pausing-work-on-instagram-kids-app-124639135.html

Facebook for Educaton

Facebook is probably not at the top of most educator's list of sites to access for resources, but Facebook for Education’s free resource hub is being used to help support learning communities.

The website features access to:
Get Digital: Free lesson plans, videos and activities to help you lead discussions with students about online wellness, digital empowerment and inclusivity in the classroom and at home
Tech Prep: Personalized coding tools and resources to help your students build foundational knowledge and tech careers
Products: How-tos and best practices for Facebook products like Messenger and Pages
Programs: Information on Facebook programs, including Computer Science programs like Facebook University, which provides hands-on internships to college students from underrepresented backgrounds.

child smartphone
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


You might not think of the lower half of K-12 as an audience for this but the K-12 section of the site. offers resources for that wide range. I would say that most of what is offered is focused on developing skills toward STEM careers. 

The cynically-minded might say that they have heard that Facebook is working on an under-13-years-old version of Instagram and that anything they offer as "educational" is really just a way to get the next generation into the Facebook world. There is truth to that and since Facebook wants to be a big player in the metaverse that those kids might grow into, early indoctrination is key.

More optimistically-minded folks will say that you always have the option to use or not use Facebook or any social media and also the ability to use it in smarter ways - which is where educators can help. Their computer science programs can help support learners on that tech skills road. "Code Forward" is an online program for 4th-8th grade educators and organizations that uses videos and interactive activities to inspire interest in computer science and tech.

I suspect that some students will discover and use these resources before their teachers discover and use them. That's a start but I would feel a lot better if they entered this world of tech with some guidance.

Who Will Build the Metaverse?

VR
Image by Okan Caliskan from Pixabay

I wrote elsewhere about how the metaverse is not the multiverse. For one thing, the metaverse is not here yet, and we're not sure if the multiverse is here. Also, you can turn off the metaverse, but not the multiverse. Okay, you might need some definitions first.

Metaverse is a computing term meaning a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. It may contain some copies of the real world and it might combine VR and AR. It might turn out to be an evolved Internet along with shared, 3D virtual spaces that create a virtual universe.

The multiverse is not online. It is cosmology and, at least right now, it is a hypothetical group of multiple universes. Combined, these universes encompass all of space, time, matter, energy, information, and the physical laws and constants that describe them. That's quite overwhelming and far beyond the scope of this article.

The metaverse is being built and it is also a bit overwhelming. One person who wants to help build it is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. He recently said, “In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company… In many ways, the metaverse is the ultimate expression of social technology.”

You might have encountered the word “metaverse” if you read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel, Snow Crash. In that book, people move back and forth from their lives in the 3D virtual living space to their "ordinary" real-time lives.

Matthew Ball has written an interesting "Metaverse Primer" containing nine articles. Ball asks "Who will build the metaverse?" It certainly won't just be Facebook. Google, Apple, and other big tech companies, but they have all been working (and investing) in augmented reality (AR) which layers tech on top of the real world and VR (virtual reality) which creates a kind of "otherverse." (Remember Google Glass back in 2013?) Epic Games, best known as the creator of Fortnite, announced in April 2021 a $1 billion round of funding to build a “long-term vision of the Metaverse” which will help the company further develop connected social experiences.

But Facebook seems to be moving on its own. It has a platform, almost 3 billion users and they own Oculus which already has a metaverse feel though it is a virtual reality (VR) device. It allows you to move between the two worlds. Facebook's platform also includes WhatsApp and Instagram which may end up playing a part in the metaverse.

I recall working and exploring inside Second Life around 2004 which was seen as a virtual world. It seemed more similar to a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Linden Lab always maintained that it was not a game. A friend who was an architect/designer in Second Life kept reminding me that "this is not The Sims." Second Life is still here but I haven't been there in a decade.

Are you ready for the metaverse? Whose metaverse entry point will you trust?

 

It Is Way Past the Time to Update the Communications Act of 1996

social media
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you have been using the Internet for the past 25 years, you know how radically it has changed. And yet, no comprehensive regulations have been updated since then.

The news is full of complaints about tech companies getting too big and too powerful. Social media is often the focus of complaints. We often hear that these companies are resistant to changes and regulations, but that is not entirely true. 

On Facebook's site concerning regulations, they say "To keep moving forward, tech companies need standards that hold us all accountable. We support updated regulations on key issues."

Facebook may be at the center of fears and complaints, but they keep growing. Two billion users and growing.

There are four issues that address that they feel need new regulations.

Combating foreign election interference
We support regulations that will set standards around ads transparency and broader rules to help deter foreign actors, including existing US proposals like the Honest Ads Act and Deter Act.

Protecting people’s privacy and data
We support updated privacy regulations that will set more consistent data protection standards that work for everyone.

Enabling safe and easy data portability between platforms
We support regulation that guarantees the principle of data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another. This gives people choice and enables developers to innovate.

Supporting thoughtful changes to Section 230
We support thoughtful updates to internet laws, including Section 230, to make content moderation systems more transparent and to ensure that tech companies are held accountable for combatting child exploitation, opioid abuse, and other types of illegal activity.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years. Its main goal was stated as allowing "anyone [to] enter any communications business -- to let any communications business compete in any market against any other." The FCC said that they believed the Act had "the potential to change the way we work, live and learn." They were certainly correct in that. But they continued that they expected that it would affect "telephone service -- local and long distance, cable programming and other video services, broadcast services and services provided to schools."

And it did affect those things. But communications went much further and much faster than the government and now they need to play some serious catchup. It is much harder to catch up than it is to keep up. 

 

Memory Sculpting

photo wall
Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels

I was having a Facebook conversation with a friend about how photos and videos change our memories. Kids who grew up in the past 30 years - and more so in the age of smartphones and social media - have definitely had their memories sculpted by images of their past. My sons have said to me several times when I ask them "Do you remember us being there?" that "I remember the photos of it." Do the photos trigger a memory to return or is the photo the memory itself?

I am fascinated by how memory works. Research shows that when we describe our memories differently to different audiences it isn't only the message that changes, but sometimes it's also the memory itself. Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. The next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. This leads some to say that memory is like the "telephone game."

This sent me back to an article I read in 2017. I did a search and found it again since my memory of this article on memory may not be remembered correctly. It is titled "Facebook is Re-Sculpting Our Memory" by Olivia Goldhill. Facebook is not the only social network or the only place that we share photos and videos, but it is a major place for this sharing.

I have a new granddaughter and her parents have set up a shared photo album online for relatives. They don't want people (mostly me - the oversharer) to post photos of her on Facebook, Instagram et al. I understand that privacy caution. My granddaughter will have many thousands of photos and videos to look at one day. I have about two dozen black and white photos of my first two years of life. It is probably two 12 photo rolls of film from that time (the 1950s) which seemed like enough to my parents to chronicle my early life.

Those photos of baby me don't trigger any memories but they are my "memory" of that time along with my mother's narration. "That was your stuffed lamb that was your favorite toy."

I have also kept journals since my teen years. The way to chronicle life once was to write it down. Rereading those journals now is a mixed experience. For some things, the journal is now my memory. Without the entry, I couldn't recall names, places or details from 40 years ago. But for some entries, I know that the version I wrote at age 15 is a kind of augmented reality. I made some things sound better or worse than the actual event. I sculpted the memory. Maybe as my memory degrades, those entries - accurate or not - will become the only memory I have.

Those sculpted memories are not unlike the image of ourselves we put online. Not all, but many people, post almost exclusively the best parts of their lives. Alfred Hitchcock said "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," and that's true of many virtual lives as portrayed online.

That article references Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University, whose 1990s research first established the effects of photographs on memories. Frighteningly, he showed that it was possible to implant false memories by showing subjects photos of an event that they might have experienced but that they didn’t experience.

Another of his experiments found that while looking at photos triggered and enhanced the memory of that particular event, it also impaired memories of events that happened at the same time and were not featured in the photographs.

This sounds terrible, but one positive effect he has found that comes from weaknesses in our memory helps allow us to think meaningfully about the future.

In our recent discussions about fake news and images and videos that are not accurate, we realize that these weaknesses in memory and the ability to implant memories can be very powerful and also very harmful. "Source information” is a weakness of memory that can be tapped for devious purposes. How often have you heard someone explain that they heard it or read it or saw it "somewhere?"  We commonly have trouble remembering just where we obtained a particular piece of information. Though true off-line, for online information we may recall a "fact" but not the source - and that source may Online, this means we could easily misremember a news story from a dubious source as being from a more credible publication.

One phenomenon of memory is now called “retrieval-induced forgetting” I spent four years living at my college but I have a limited number of photographs from the time. Those photos and ones in yearbooks and some saved campus newspapers, plus my journal entries are primarily what I recall about college life. Related things that I can't review are much harder, if not impossible, to remember.

Social media is certainly sculpting (or perhaps resculpting) our memories. Is this making our ability to remember worse? That's not fully determined as of now. Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that looked at some neurological science in an attempt to see the impact of computers and the Net and that is certainly related to but not exactly the same as memory and images. The controversial part of Carr's book is the idea that the Internet literally and physically rewires our brain making it more computer-like and better at consuming data. But a surprisingly large section of the book is devoted to the history of the written word and all that it has done to “mold the human mind.”

Facebook, Instagram, TimeHop and other tools are reminding me daily of memories from years past. At times, I think "Oh yes, we were in Prague on this day two years ago." Other times, I say to myself, "I don't remember writing this 4 years ago." I react the same way to my old journals and black and white photos in an album taken a half-century ago.

The Facebook Board, Trump and Section 230

facebookFacebook's "supreme court" decided recently to uphold the ban on Donald Trump. For Trump, Facebook was never his vector of choice to get out his messages. He used Twitter and they banned him for life.

The Faceboard board upheld the company's decision to remove Trump. The ban had come after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Their claim had been that he had broken Facebook's rules about praising violence.

The board actually criticized the company for the indefinite suspension. They recommended that the company either ban Trump permanently or set a time frame for when he can return. Facebook said it's now considering the ruling and will determine a "clear and proportionate" action.

The problem is one for a number of social sites that have unmoderated content. So why not moderate user content? For one thing, it is difficult and labor-intensive (though companies are trying have AI help. But another thing concerns Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996. It says that an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal (there are exceptions for copyright violations, sex work-related material, and violations of federal criminal law). Section 230 was written so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability and it is critical for social media networks, though it applies to many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

The decision the board handed down is more about Facebook than it is about Trump and it was more critical about the way Facebook enforces its rules in what it sees as an arbitrary way. Not so much in support of Trump, the board felt that an indefinite suspension appeared nowhere in Facebook's rules and violates principles of freedom of expression.

Interestingly, President Donald Trump released an executive order targeting Section 230 and social media back in May 2020 and he ly backed Republican efforts to change the law in Congress. After President Biden’s election, he has pushed for the abolition of Section 230 abolition.

We haven't heard the last of Trump, Facebook, or Section 230.

To Like Or Not To Like

likesTo like or not to like a post on Facebook and Instagram. Or rather to hide or not hide the likes.

Those social media apps plan to let users decide if they want to hide the number of likes on other people's posts, or turn off the counter for their own posts, or leave everything just the way it is now.

There may also be options to change settings day to day or even post to post.

Instagram is testing the new concept and plans to roll the options out to everyone in a few weeks.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, is also planning to give users the option to hide likes on that app too.

Will users want to hide likes? Isn't that why people post - to get likes?

The positive aspect of this is supposed to be that giving users control over likes is part of a larger effort to reduce “social comparison.” That is how on social media we compare ourselves to others. 

From the Social Media History Book

social networks
             Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A decade or two ago when I was teaching one of my social media courses at NJIT, I used to ask students to write a short paper on what they thought was the first social medium or platform. It's one of those questions without a definitive answer and I received a variety of answers over the years. 

Now that we are even deeper into social media and students are even younger - this year's college freshman was born in the 21st century - the early days and history of social media is buried a bit deeper.

The most common answers go back to the 1970s and 80s with forums, bulletin boards and things like AOL's Instant Messenger.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, websites and fledgling social sites and tools were not commercialized. No advertising. How things have changed.

But there were always a few students who went pre-Internet.

On May 24, 1844, some electronic dots and dashes were tapped out by hand on a telegraph machine sending a first electronic message from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Perhaps, Samuel Morse was prescient about what was to come with his scientific achievement since he wrote, “What hath God wrought?” This was communication and could be two-way but wasn't really a social network. Eventually, there did become a network of users and telegrams could be sent to multiple users.

Technology began to change very rapidly in the 20th Century. After the first super computers were created in the 1940s, scientists and engineers began to develop ways to create networks between those computers, and this would later lead to the birth of the Internet. 

A precursor of the electronic bulletin board system (BBS), known as Community Memory appeared in 1973 and true electronic BBSs arrived with the Computer Bulletin Board System in Chicago, which first came online early in 1978. BBS in big cities were running on TRS-80, Apple II, Atari, IBM PC, Commodore 64, Sinclair, and similar personal computers.

Let's back up a bit and look at the PLATO system launched in 1960. It was developed at the University of Illinois and then commercially marketed by Control Data Corporation. Later, it would offer early forms of social media features, In 1973, Notes (PLATO's message-forum application) was added and TERM-talk was an instant-messaging feature. The Talkomatic may be the first online chat room. There was also News Report, a crowdsourced online newspaper and blog. PLATO used Access Lists so that a note file or other application you created could be limited in access to a certain set of users, such as friends, classmates, or co-workers.

Some people point to the emergence in 1967-69 of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), an early digital network, created by the United States Department of Defense, that allowed scientists at four interconnected universities to share software, hardware, and other data. Though not intended to be "social," apparently social niceties did emerge and by the late-1970s non-government and business ideas passed back and forth and a network etiquette (netiquette) was described in a 1982 handbook on computing at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

ARPANET evolved into the Internet after the first Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) specification were witten by Vint Cerf, Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine in 1974. This was followed by Usenet, conceived by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis in 1979 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and established in 1980.

1985 saw the introduction of The Well and GENie. GENie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) was an online service created for GE and GENie was still used well into the late 1990s. It had 350,000 users at its peak and was only made redundant by the development of the World Wide Web.

In 1987, the National Science Foundation launched a more robust, nationwide digital network known as the NSFNET.

The IBM PC was introduced in 1981 and the subsequent models of both Apple Mac computers and PCs, better modems, and the slow increase of bandwidth allowed users to do more online. Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL were three of the largest BBS companies and were the first to migrate to the Internet in the 1990s.

The World Wide Web (WWW, or simply "the web") was added to the Internet in the mid-1990s. Message forums became Internet forums.

A number of platforms appeared tht had social tools inlcuding GeoCities (1994) Classmates.com (1995).

The first recognizable social media site might be Six Degrees which appeared in 1997. Users created profiles, give school affiliations and could "friend" other users. It differed from instant-messaging clients (such as ICQ and AOL's AIM) or chat clients (like IRC and iChat) because people used their real names.

It would be 2003 when Myspace launched and by 2006 it had become the most visited website on the planet. Sharing music was a big part of its appeal.

Mark Zuckerberg built a website called "Facemash" in 2003 while attending Harvard University to be used there. But it caught on, spread to other colleges and in June 2004 the company he had started around "TheFacebook" moved to Palo Alto, California. By 2008, it had eclipsed MySpace and in December, 2009, with 350 million registered users it became the most popular social platform in the world.

The original URL - thefacebook.com - still redirects to the renamed Facebook. Myspace was purchased by musician Justin Timberlake in 2011 for $35 million, but it failed to regain popularity.

If Google seems to be missing in this history it is because its attempts to enter social (Orkut and Google+) both failed. Google+ ended in 2018 with the final nail in its coffine being a data security breach that compromised the private information of nearly 500,000 Google+ users.

REFERENCES

online.maryville.edu/blog/evolution-social-media/ 

digitaltrends.com/features/the-history-of-social-networking/

Infographic via socialmediatoday.com

infographic
via socialmediatoday.com

The Subtle Art of Persuasive Design

child smartphone

Image by Andi Graf from Pixabay

Tech companies use “persuasive design” to get us hooked. Some psychologists say it’s unethical. Children are particularly susceptible to "hidden manipulation techniques," but lots of adults are also taken in by its use, especially in social media and advertising on the Internet. by companies like Facebook and Twitter. 

It is in front of our faces when we are getting notifications on our phone and even when that next episode or video on Netflix or YouTube loads itself as soon as we finish one.

Back in the 1970s, there were plenty of articles and theses written about the dangers of too much television affecting children. Kids have 10 times the amount of screen time now compared to just 2011. Of course, now we are talking about more screens than just the family TV set. They spend an average of 400 minutes using technology, according to Common Sense Media.

Media companies have been using behavioral science for decades to create products that we want to use more and more. Remember how the tobacco companies were sued for the ways they hooked people on cigarettes? Big tech uses persuasive technology which is a fairly new field of research based on studying how technology changes the way humans think and act.

Using persuasive design techniques, companies incorporate this research into games and apps. As soon as a child begins to move on to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft apps, they have been pre-conditioned for specific behaviors. 

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, has warned that algorithms pushing us to catastrophic results, though critics will say that Apple itself is not free from using persuasive design.

Social media companies are being targeted for deliberately addicting users to their products for financial gain. Some design features, such as infinite scroll, are features that are seen as highly habit-forming. Along with features that may appear as a "plus", like notifications, they keep us on our devices and looking at advertising and clicking longer. They encourage the "fear of missing out" (FOMO).

The infinite scroll was a feature designed by Aza Raskin when he was working for Humanized - a computer user-interface consultancy. He now questions its use.

He is not alone. Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook's Like button, said she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of "likes" she had. But Ms Pearlman said she had not intended the Like button to be addictive, and she also believes that social media use has many benefits for lots of people.

Defenders of persuasive tech say it can have positive effects. There are apps that remind/train people to take medicine on time or develop weight loss habits. But critics are concerned with persuasive design that is not intended to improve lifestyles but to keep people on their devices in order to sell.

A letter signed by 50 psychologists was sent to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using “hidden manipulation techniques” and asks the APA to take an ethical stand on behalf of kids.

Cancel Culture

cancel stampThe phrase "cancel culture" is showing up in the news more frequently. Cancel culture (or call-out culture) is the term sometimes used when someone is shut out of a social or professional group. This could be either online (particularly on social media), in the real world, or both. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be "canceled."

I wrote earlier about moderating content and issues about freedom of speech. One conclusion in that article was that private companies (Twitter, Facebook, et al) have the right to remove accounts that violate their terms of service and that is not a freedom of speech issue.  

Let's look at definitions of a non-legal nature. Merriam-Webster says that "cancel" means "to stop giving support to that person." Dictionary.com has a pop-culture dictionary that defines "cancel culture" as "withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive."

The latest spin on the expression "cancel culture" has given it a more negative connotation. Some politically conservative people and groups view recent examples (like Donald Trump being removed from Twitter) as a free speech and censorship issue. My thoughts on that are clear in that earlier post.

Cancel culture or call-out culture can also be less "official" when large numbers of people boycott an individual or company or group who they feel has acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner.

When President Biden was inaugurated, a number of accounts changed hands. As has always been the case, the @whitehouse Twitter account has different administrators with a new President. The @POTUS and @FLOTUS accounts also have new administration.

When those kinds of changes occurred, many followers of those accounts unfollowed them. Is that "cancel culture"? No one would have used that term when Barack Obama became President, but people did follow or unfollow those accounts at the time of Presidential change too. Of course, former President Obama still has a Twitter account as simply @barackobama as do other living ex-Presidents. 

For individuals losing access to social accounts or any form of cancel culture, it can mean losses to reputation, personal branding, and possibly income. For a company or group to lose access, the income portion can be a much greater concern, though all three things are important. 

 

 

Moderating Content and Freedom of Speech

graffiti wall

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

The social media platforms are finally turning off the opportunities for President Trump and many others to pump out misinformation and foment violence. Twitter and Facebook get the most attention because of their audience sizes, but there are lots of other places less obvious for those conversations and misinformation disguised as truthful information.

The right-wing app Parler has been booted off the Internet over ties to the siege on the U.S. Capitol. As the AP reported, "...but not before digital activists made off with an archive of its posts, including any that might have helped organize or document the riot. Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service, and the social media app promptly sued to get back online, telling a federal judge that the tech giant had breached its contract and abused its market power. It was a roller coaster of activity for Parler, a 2-year-old magnet for the far right that welcomed a surge of new users. It became the No. 1 free app on iPhones late last week after Facebook, Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms silenced President Donald Trump’s accounts over comments that seemed to incite Wednesday’s violent insurrection."

Is that an attack on freedom of speech?

As Amber MacArthur wrote recently in her newsletter, "It's easy to say that moderating content is an attack on freedom of speech, but many fail to realize that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Moreover, private businesses do have the right to set their own rules of engagement, which in the case of social media platforms is often outlined in their Terms of Service."

Germany - which has tighter controls on hate speech than the U.S. - nevertheless had Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Trump’s eviction from Twitter by the company is “problematic.” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, sent a kind of mixed message saying that operators of social media platforms “bear great responsibility for political communication not being poisoned by hatred, by lies and by incitement to violence” but also that the freedom of opinion is a fundamental right of “elementary significance” and that “This fundamental right can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators — not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms. Seen from this angle, the chancellor considers it problematic that the accounts of the U.S. president have now been permanently blocked.”

Opinions in America are probably also pro and con with people on either side and some who are partially on both sides, like Merkel's opinion.

 Jillian C. York says "Users, not tech executives, should decide what constitutes free speech online. Social media companies aren’t very good at moderating speech. So why do we ask them to?" She continues: "...While some pundits have called the decision unprecedented—or “a turning point for the battle for control over digital speech,” as Edward Snowden tweeted —it’s not: not at all. Not only do Twitter and Facebook regularly remove all types of protected expression, but Trump’s case isn’t even the first time the platforms have removed a major political figure. Following reports of genocide in Myanmar, Facebook banned the country’s top general and other military leaders who were using the platform to foment hate. The company also bans Hezbollah from its platform because of its status as a US-designated foreign terror organization, despite the fact that the party holds seats in Lebanon’s parliament. And it bans leaders in countries under US sanctions."

I think Snowden's sense of a turning point is correct, but it's not clear into which direction we will be turning.