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Facebook: Now you can annoy your friends even more… for a fee

5 Oct

Facebook is eagerly (desperately?) looking for revenue by looking for creative ways to exploit your personal information.  No news there.  Move along folks…

But just a minute, maybe this particular droid deserves a second look.  Facebook is rolling out a new feature in the U.S. called “Promoted Posts.”  Already tested in the shires of New Zealand and gradually rolled out in 20 other countries so far, but now it’s hitting North America.  Still a bit sketchy, but more details here   Josh Constine at TechCrunch estimates that the cost will be about $7 a pop.  (

Ok, what’s good about this?    …  {long silence}   

Alright, let me rephrase my question.   What fresh Facebook hell is this?   

Well first off, it becomes much harder for you to avoid the material you may not want.  Every mom with a few too many lattes on board is now upping your odds of you being subjected to that incredibly precious picture of her 3 year old covered with spaghetti and tomato sauce.  Your politically crazy “friend” from high school now gets to grab your eyeballs to explain his latest conspiracy theory.  You get the picture– the stuff you used to overlook or bury is now getting promoting into your prime visual real estate.  The only upside of this is that promoting posts might lead to a wave of defriending.  In fact, now that I think about it, I’m going to defriend anybody who promotes a post at me (assuming I’ll be able to tell).

Some worry that this will favor the wealthier users — so we end up seeing the posts of people who can pay  far more than those who can’t.  Fair point. But there are at least two further effects that are just as disturbing when you stop to think about it.

First, as promoted content becomes more prevalent, Facebook will become less social.  My Facebook friends tolerate my occasional fishing pictures and tasteless comments because, well, we’re part of a social network.  And social relationships are reciprocal — I tolerate your stuff, you tolerate mine.  But promoted posts change the equation. They make less about reciprocal relationships and more about just paying the 7 bucks.  Aside from the fact that it allows cash to override judgment, the problem is that promoted posts blur the line between Facebook and… what… maybe Craigslist?   I know, I know:  how about telemarketing! 

Second, and this is more subtle, promoted posts from actual people in my social network are different and have different long term social implications than promoted posts from recognized commercial or nonprofit entities.  In the latter case, we recognize and accept that they are promiting self-interests.  In the case of promoted content from friends, however, you come to the realization, however dimly, that your personal relationship with this person has just been treated as a commodity.  I get why I might want to promote a special event like a wedding, but we all know it won’t stop there.  Instead, as promoted posts expand, our social relationships will increasingly be treated as marketing opportunities.  The commercial mindset bleeds into personal and private behavior.  That’s probably not a good thing– though I don’t plan on paying $7 to say so on Facebook.


5 May

Reading vs. Listening

I’ve been thinking about the difference between listening to a book on audiotape and reading a book.  I posed to friends who, for the most part, responded thoughtfully (well, all except for the one guy who directed me to his blog where he publicized the last couple of best sellers he listened heard on Audible).

Why is it that audio books don’t appeal to me the way they do to my friend or, for that matter, to my wife?  Aside from professional reading which is largely about data mining, reading is a meditative act for me.  Not meditative in the abstract sense, but rather in the sense that reading commands my complete attention.  I read with pencil in hand (yes, a particular pencil) because of the marginalia that marks my interaction with the text.  I do think of reading as interaction with an author.  But here’s the thing:  when I listen to an audio book, I’m just a listener; I’m not in dialogue with the author.  No conversation, just consumption.  My friend Cliff may have been thinking along these same lines when he told me:

I don’t like audio books because they are too linear for me. When I read, I linger

 over phrases and passages. I go back and re-read pages, or words. Or stop and

think about what was just said. In the narrated format, the experience is driven

 too much by someone else’s time, and not by my interaction with the words.

My friend Brandon observed:

 …I seem to get lost in my thoughts when I listen to an audiobook, but when reading

my attention tends to be more binary…I’m either attending to the task or not


My friend Jan felt that audiobooks were more engrossing than reading, but Joe added:

Audio controls your pace (hard to skip, go back, etc.), forces voice images,

 frees you to do as Brandon suggests.

Jaimie said that she didn’t like someone else’s voice in her head, that she liked finding he own voice as she read.  That makes sense to me, but I also can think of exceptions.  Part of the fun of reading poetry, for instance, is the joy of finding a voice as I read.  Most of the time, I’m trying to discover the poet’s voice, or maybe my own, as I read.  Some poems are more accessible than others.  Try reading this poem by Albert Goldbarth (The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 2007):


           Eight hours by bus, and night

           was on them. He could see himself now

           in the window, see his head there with the country

           running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat.

           Darkness outside; darkness in the bus — as if the sea

           were dark and the belly of the whale were dark to match it.

           He was twenty: of course his eyes returned, repeatedly,

           to the knee of the woman two rows up: positioned so

           occasional headlights struck it into life.

           But more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself

           to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only

          overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed:

          only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders

          as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.

I like “Shawl” quite a lot, but felt I was missing something in my reading.  I chose this poem because I recently attended one of Goldbarth’s readings where he read this poem out loud.  This was a bit like listening to an audio book, but being read to, of course, differs from listening to an audio recording in a number of important ways.   Here’s a little piece on Goldbarth that features his reading as a point of comparison.

Goldbarth has a music and a drama in his reading that I wasn’t able to match in my own.  Poetry is, admittedly, the toughest case.  It makes the best case for listening as opposed to reading.  Fiction and nonfiction do not make the case for me, though it is a matter of degree to be sure.  Although David McCullough reading his own work is an exception, in most cases I prefer to take my nonfiction and most of my fiction at my own pace and in my own way.  Listening to it reduces me to a simple consumer, while reading somehow places me in conversation with the author.

And then, of course, the most telling difference of all.  As my friend Michael pointed out:

       When I fall asleep while reading a book it tends to fall to the floor and wake me up.


Publish then filter / Speak then think

8 Apr

“Publish then filter” is the new normal, declared Clay Shirky in his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody.   With their low barriers to entry, ease of production, instant access to a huge potential audience, and nearly frictionless redistribution of information,  social media have been hailed as the little guy’s edge, the reinventor of journalism, and the supreme challenge to those in positions of privilege and power.  And there is some truth in each of these claims.

But just ask David and Elaine McClain about “publish then filter.”   You’ll likely get a very different story from this retired Florida couple who were forced to flee their home in March after movie director Spike Lee retweeted a message listing their address as the home of George Zimmerman who has been accused of shooting an unarmed black teenager in Florida.  Ooops… wrong address, no relation.  Elaine’s son from a previous marriage, William George Zimmerman, had lived in the area more than 20 years ago and was not the person accused of the shooting.  But the facts didn’t prevent some eager tweeter from listing the elderly couple’s address or Spike Lee from retweeting it to his 259,542 followers.

The resulting harassment led the McClains to file a law suit again Mr. Lee, who quickly apologized and quietly reached a financial settle out of court.  But the story shines a bright light an aspect of digital media use that is rarely acknowledged.   The “publish then filter” story being hawked by countless self-described social media experts and promoters is a purely triumphalist account.  Look carefully for even a glimmer of the fact that new communicative opportunities bring new ethical responsibilities.  You won’t find it.  Not a word of recognition of the fact that lowering the costs of communication also shifts responsibilities from old authorities to new voices.  Nothing that anticipates Spike Lee’s error.  To be fair, Mr. Lee is merely a famous person who made a common mistake, but the reach of his social media touch instantly amplified the damage in a way almost unimaginable in the predigital era.

Speech, plain old talk, is also easy to produce, can instantly reach an audience, and can be easily repeated, summarized, mashed up and so on.  And every social group develops informal guidelines that regulate speech because of this.  The problem is that Twitter and other social media still occupy something of a social frontier where norms of conduct have not yet caught up.  Or have they?  Surely Spike Lee should have realized the potential consequences of his actions and thought twice.  There’s nothing that makes retweeting ethically different than speaking.  Perhaps we are so enamored with the “newness” of new media that we fail to appreciate that they are new in only a few ways.  The eagerness with which social media are being marketed and the one-sided perspective that results are doing us no favors here.

Just ask Elaine and David McClain.

Desperate Birds…

20 Feb

Thursday was the first morning I heard the birds sing at dawn.  I had just begun my morning, seated at the heating vent, coffee, and a book of poetry in hand, when I heard them.   It wasn’t quite light, so I wasn’t sure what birds they were.

But there they were. One proclaims that he is the top bird in this yard.  No other males need apply.  One might be alerting her friends:  “cat, cat, cat.”  Another announces his virtues as a mate.   One, perhaps a robin desperately repeats, “oh baby, see me, see me.”  Another pounds out the same refrain.   Each must hope that the songs, so similar to me, are heard differently by unseen females.  Will only one succeed in finding a mate?  “Oh please, see me, see me”  Oh please, see me, see me!”

Just then the cell phone on the table buzzes to announce the first twitter message of the day, followed in quick succession by several more.  Now interrupted and looking them, I think how similar they are to the bird’s tweets.  “Oh please, see me, see me, oh please, see me, see me.”

So my day begins thinking about Twitter.  I do sometimes get useful snippets of information from it, usually retweeted links.  And I recognize that Twitter can be an early warning system (cat, cat).  But more often Twitter is just a distraction, as it is this morning.   Twitter reduces communication to its most elemental signaling function.  Somewhat-famous-writer tweets that he’s arrived in Barcelona.  A colleague reminds us (again) that his book is doing well.  Another tweets a link to a cartoon she liked.  The content isn’t really the message.  “See me, see me:” that’s the message.  My ambivalence for Twitter is not so much the result of wishing for more out of 140 characters per message.  Short messages can be profound (check out  It’s partly that there are so many.  It’s the belief that one must say something, anything, and soon.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  There’s the implicit twinge of desperation about Twitter.

Beyond that is the fact that Twitter traps its power users in soul-sucking irony.   Like birds in a crowded yard, they must all tweet louder and louder and more and more often to be heard.  At some point it all becomes noise and no one is heard.  I can’t help but wonder if the time they spend on sending the second ten messages might not be better spent on, well, a message that someone wants to hear.