Category: Computing

Sharing is Caring, but Resharing is Poison (by )

I've noticed a trend that has led me to develop a theory.

It's widely said that social networks start off fun and then decline; I've usually hard this attributed to some combination of (a) all your colleagues, family, and former schoolmates joining or (b) it "becoming mainstream" and a rabble of ignorant masses pouring in.

This implies an inevitability - such environments are fun when they're occupied by an exclusive bunch of early adopters, but if they're fun they'll become more popular, and before long, they'll be full of Ordinary People who Ruin It. Good social networks are, therefore, destined to either to be ruined by going mainstream, or die out because they never take off.

I disagree. The elitism inherent in that viewpoint is a warning sign that it's a convenient and reassuring fiction, for a start; and I have an alternative theory. As you may have guessed from this post's title, I think that the provision of a facility to reshare (retweet, repost) other's content with a simple action is a major contributing factor to making a social network descend into a cesspit of fake news and hate.

Back in the early days of Twitter, most of the tweets were things that people had typed out themselves. Many of them were links to other things, but doing that required manually copying the URL and pasting it into a tweet, and most people added a word or two of commentary when they did so.

But Twitter these days is dominated by retweets. In a quick survey of the current tops of my various Twitter timelines, I saw 7 retweets and 5 original tweets. I see less of what my follows are doing, and more of what my follows are liking about what others are doing.

As these centralised social networks are advertising companies, this is a desirable state of affairs for them, for at least two reasons:

  1. Single-click resharing means that content can spread virally across the platform, getting seen by millions of people in a very short timeframe. This is attractive to advertisers, so the network can make money selling tools to help them encourage this, to track the spread of content, and to generally spread the idea that their network is a place where things spread quickly and influence culture.
  2. A big part of their business model is to better profile their users, so they can sell targeted advertising. It's harder for a computer to analyse your prose to learn about you (bearing in mind you might use complicated linguistic tricks such as irony) than to just see if you click a button in response to something or not. The algorithm might not be entirely clear on the meaning of the content you've just reshared, but it now knows that you have something in common with the four million other people who also reshared it; and cross-referencing that with other information it holds about you and them is a powerful predictive tool.

But that same ability for things to rapidly spread is the driving force behind:

  1. The rapid spread of fake news; tools designed to help advertisers are easily adopted with people wanting to control our minds for reasons even worse than mere financial gain.
  2. Hate storms, when something gets widely shared between a community of people who hate the behaviour implied by the original content; who then all respond angrily to it within the social network and often, due to the amplified feeling of communal hate and the wide reach bringing it to the attention of unhinged and morally dubious people, leading to crimes being committed against the target as "revenge".
  3. A decreased sense of community, due to seeing more and more content from outside your group. Interacting with the social networks becomes more like watching TV than sitting chatting with your friends.

I think the elitist complaint that social networks go wrong when they "go mainstream" and "the normals come and ruin it" is really just a misguided attempt to put the lingering feeling embodied in that last point into words.

Looking back at the original decentralised social networks such as email, Usenet and IRC, they all lacked a single-click "reshare" facility - but some of the criticisms of email and usenet (excess crossposting, forwarded chain emails) both come down to it still being a bit too easy to share things across community boundaries. IRC escaped this.

I think there's no reason a social network can't scale to cover the planet without becoming a cesspit - but I suspect that making forwarding content on too easy is a great way to drag it down the pan.

Don’t fund your online business with advertising (It’ll only make everyone hate you) (by )

I first got online in 1994 or so, and the Internet was a very different place to how it is now. It was like a busy marketplace - thousands of FTP servers, things you could telnet to, email addresses, Usenet groups, IRC channels, gophers, MUDs and, increasingly, Web sites. Directories like DMOZ and Yahoo!, as well as FAQs for relevant newsgroups and mailing lists, were how I found things. It was cheap to set up servers and run services on them, so lots of people did. Companies and universities got leased lines to provide Internet access to their folks, and ran servers to provide their presence to the Internet; while individuals got dialup Internet access, and basic email/Web hosting capability from their ISPs; or for the nerdier amongst us, wrangled or paid for "colocation", getting somebody with a leased line to let you put your computer on a shelf somewhere, hooked up to their power and network.

It was pretty chaotic, but it worked. Internet usage exploded in that period, but the rate of technological advancement wasn't that fast (relatively speaking). All the technologies we used - TCP/IP itself, DNS, Email, Usenet, IRC, the Web - were built around some documents describing how the system worked (usually in the form of RFCs). Most of these technologies were implemented in two parts: the client that somebody ran on their computer to interact with it, and the server that somebody ran on a big permanently-Internet-connected computer with a fixed IP address and a nice hostname. For instance, with the Web, the client is your Web browser, and the servers are the computers that actually hold all the web pages; your web browser talks over the Internet to the server responsible for the page you want, gets it, and then shows it to you. Because the client and the server talk to each other using the protocol defined in the documents, there would often be several clients and several servers available, written by different people and aimed at various different kinds of users - and they would largely work together. Read more »

Kitten Technologies and OhBot Supporting Ada Lovelace Day (by )

Robo Rob part of the programming board game designed for Cuddly Science

Really wonderful news, the Cuddly Science event Ada Lovelace's Coding Time at the Museum of Gloucester on Saturday 14th Oct 2017 is not only having a wonderful OhBot Robot but also Simple Graphics by Kitten Technologies 😀

Kitten Technologies

This event is aimed at kids and is ticketed at £5 per child, there is puppet story telling, colouring in sheets, Robo Robs Jobs the board game as well as the OhBot programmable robot head and the simple graphics programme. I am very excited about how this event is shaping up 🙂

Oh Bot programmable robot head at the Cheltenham Fun Palace 2017

Ada Lovelace Day 2017 – Dr Rebecca Wilson (by )

Today is Ada Lovelace Day - an annul celebration of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), named after the Victorian mathematician and visionary Ada Lovelace.

Each year we try to do a little write up on women who have inspired us in the sciences. There are many entries for previous years - in fact later today I am going to make a special category for them all 🙂

This year I have chosen my friend Dr Rebecca Wilson.

Broken lift

Rebecca started off in Geology studying at Imperial College's Royal School of Mines, where she not only excelled in her own studies but helped me with some of the more advanced GeoChemistry elements, lending books and explaining things in multiple ways.

She was part of the posse that went with me to the Natural History Museum London to get work experience and helped me get into the meteoritics department. A PhD at the Planetary and Space Science Institute looking for organic material in micrometeorites.

She went on to post doc and research and science outreach at Leicester University and the associated Space Centre. During this time she developed some pretty awesome out reach kits. Those that can be available to the public/teachers are downloadable here.

Rebecca also won an science journalism internship which took her to Ireland, she has in fact been all over the globe studying, researching and presenting.

She has side stepped into medical data visualisation realm where she is pushing the frontiers of science ever forwards as well as highlighting the issues of accessibility on her various travels.

Rebecca has rubbed shoulders with the top people in both space and planetary science as well as within the deep data computering spheres not to mention the odd science communicator such as Brian Cox! Becca he is highly versatility and extremely dedicated and she is also a hell of a lot of fun to be around 🙂

She was even chosen by Jean for a school project on role models and heros!

Ada Lovelace’s Coding Time (by )

11 am to 1 pm Saturday Oct 14th 2017 I shall be taking Cuddly Science along to the Museum of Gloucester for an Ada Lovelace Day celebration tix £5 - the event is aimed at kids and will contain:

Ada the puppet explaining about herself and the technologies of the victorian era leading to modern day computing.

Ada Lovelace the puppet reading Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Colouring in sheets I have drawn of Ada, computers and other sundries - the photo is of the currently finished ones but there will be more before the weekend 🙂

Ada Lovelace Day Colouring in

Ada's friend Oh Bot Robot - a programmable robot head which the kids can complete programming tasks on including composing poetry!

Oh Bot programmable robot head at the Cheltenham Fun Palace 2017

Robo Robs Jobs - a board game that teaches children about the fundamentals of programming with out any scary numbers or computers 🙂 Very important to help engage all levels of understanding and expertise and the game can get a difficult as the players want!

Robo Rob part of the programming board game designed for Cuddly Science

Other bits and bobs 🙂 We are very excited about this Ada Lovelace day is an annual celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) and has events going on both nationally and internationally. These range from talks to shows to interactive events - check out where your nearest event is on the Ada site.

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