Instagram turns evil; people do care

I just wanted to throw down a quick rant on the Instagram fiasco, for the sake of emotional cleansing if nothing else. Apparently Instagram now owns all your pictures, and there’s no way to opt out. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a backlash going on.

In a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading online about this, there’s a theme of ‘Maybe now people will FINALY care about having control of their online data’. There is also a more cynical flip-side to this theme: ‘Even though Instagram’s behaviour is shocking and preposterous they will probably get away with it because most people are too apathetic to complain’.

Danah Boyd, one of my personal heroes, tweeted:

I have to admit that I’m loving the #instagram backlash. Fingers crossed that it results in users better understanding their rights.

while an article called Instagram Turns Evil, And It’s All Our Fault is doing the rounds on social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s tweet is optimistic while the Dan Lyons article is cynical, but they both have the same core idea: that people don’t care about online privacy or about how their online data is used, and that Facebook and their ilk can basically do what they want to users because no-one cares. In this view, the apathy and laziness of most ordinary people is the reason why we can’t have nice things.

I think this idea is deeply wrong, counterproductive, and dangerous.

I’m arguably unusual in that I’m a techie with a mostly non-techie friends. My friends are smart, thoughtful, politically aware people. When I talk to them about issues like online privacy, walled gardens, and open data formats, they are not apathetic. On the contrary, they are very interested, very concerned, and hungry for information. They want me to tell them which social networking sites are good on issues like privacy, and which are bad.

They’re also utterly confused about the social web. They’re smart people (smarter than me in most cases), they use Ubuntu and know the difference between open source and closed source, they’re interested in these issues and they’ve made an effort to learn about them. But when it comes to social networking websites there is a huge amount of confusion – confusion which Facebook, Twitter, and others have gone to great lengths to create.

The list of dirty tricks is familiar to people who are interested in Internet freedom issues: Facebook started off in 2006 with quite a good set-up where you could fairly easily control who saw your posts, but continually changed the rules without telling people they were doing it. Twitter built an open API, got lots of third-party developers to build apps that made Twitter more popular, then shut that API down once they were big enough that it became more profitable to operate as a walled garden. Google advertised Google+ as a “social network”, and then did an about-face and said it was a real-names-only “identity service”. People signed up for Gmail and didn’t realise that their Gmail account was going to get automatically integrated with ten other services provided by Google. Etc. etc. etc.

All of these dirty tricks are announced as being ‘improvements’, if they are announced at all. Even as a computerally knowledgeable person I found it a hard to understand and keep up with all these shenanigans. Think how much harder it must be to understand this stuff for people who lack the technical vocabulary to describe it.

So people are confused. Not because they are stupid or apathetic, but because some of the most powerful companies on the planet have spent billions to create confusion.

Just to give a few examples what the social web might look like to people without a technical background, in my experience:

– When a website does something the user didn’t want or doesn’t understand, very often what the user thinks is not “They screwed me over, those bastards!”, but “I must be doing the wrong thing” or “maybe it’s supposed to do that”.

– A lot of people vaguely know that Facebook is bad on privacy, but they aren’t clear about why.

– Lots of people know that Facebook makes money from advertising, but don’t realise that the advertising is targeted, and that they can sell your information to third parties.

– People generally don’t know about Facebook’s bait-and-switch trick with promoted posts. When I describe it the response is usually: “Are you serious? They can do that!?”

– A lot of people know about cookies, but are shocked when I tell them that when you go to a website it can read all your cookies, not just the ones originating from that site.

– The concept “federation” is a really hard one to explain. When I tell people is open while Twitter isn’t, their eyes glaze over and I can tell what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to them. Which is fair enough because at present’s federation is mostly theoretical – I mean, just how many StatusNet servers are out there that are open to members of the public? To most people looks like Twitter but with a crappier interface, and none of their friends are on it.

Not only do the big social media companies sow as much confusion as possible, but they keep changing the rules, throwing us off balance. People have been conditioned to feel helpless, and to think that the Internet is too complicated for them to understand.

The idea that people are not willing to pay for social networking is simply untrue, in fact lots of people would jump at the chance to pay £10 per 6 months for a free and open social network – but only if it was really free and open, and definitely not going to turn into the next Big Evil Internet Thing in a year’s time. And it would have to work. It would have to provide the social networking experience that people want to have.

There is an ugly tendency among techies to assume that everyone who isn’t a computery type is unintelligent. This is ridiculous. Of course my friends don’t understand what I mean when I say that exposing a public API isn’t as good as making the source code itself open source. Just like I don’t have a clue what my neuroscientist friend is talking about when she describes her research, and I don’t understand my friend the German Literature scholar when she talks about… whatever it is she does.

More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that the biggest barriers to a free and open social web are not technical, but social. Maybe instead of hacking on Buddycloud or Diaspora, we should be hacking on people, on the way we relate to each-other. What if, instead of jeering at non-technical people for being apathetic or stupid, we reached out to them, made a serious effort to explain these issues to them in their own language, and sincerely and humbly asked them what kind of web services they actually want to use would look like?


What is the Federated Social Web, though?

I was talking to a friend about the federated social web recently, and I realized that my descriptions of it were really vague. After thinking about it, I think I’ve come up with a pretty good, concrete definition: a website or service is part of the federated social web if it’s open-source and provides an RSS or Atom feed that’s relatively easy to find.

Of course this isn’t what most people mean by it; most people for whom ‘federated social web’ means anything at all, would probably think of XMPP or pubsubbub or podservers or freedom boxes or what-have-you. Those are all technologies that might make up the federated social web in the future. But for right now, I reckon any service that doesn’t provide an RSS or Atom feed is either very immature, or else doesn’t really want to be federated.

The nice thing about this definition is that it’s easy to say what websites are part of the federated social web. WordPress, Livejournal, Dreamwidth, and / StatusNet are. Facebook definitely isn’t, Twitter pretends to be, a little bit, sometimes, but isn’t really. Tumblr lets you have RSS feeds which is nice, but the fact that it’s closed-source means you live in fear that those feeds may one day be taken away without warning, which is what happened with Twitter.

By this definition, Buddycloud isn’t on the federated social web yet, although they’ve done some good work in laying the groundwork. Diaspora passes the test, although the atom feeds are not exactly easy to find. Feed addresses look something like this:

How to delete all the posts from your Facebook account

When I first set out to delete all my old posts, I naively thought that Facebook would just let me do that by clicking a button. I expected to have to find my way through a Byzantine array of menus and sub-menus, but I was expecting that eventually I would be able to just click a button. Of course I was mistaken. Facebook didn’t get to be the world’s biggest social network by making it easy for people to delete their data. Facebook does let you delete your old posts – but only by clicking on them, one. by. one.

Actually, it’s worse than that. The little icon you have to click in order to delete a post is invisible until you hover the cursor over that post. So you can’t mouse-swoop directly in for the click, the dynamic is more like: point, hover, wait for the small, not-particularly-visible, light-grey-on-a-white-background icon to appear, move the cursor over it – careful, the ‘edit or remove’ icon is right next to the ‘highlight’ icon, and you don’t want to get the wrong one. Once you manage to click ‘delete of edit’ and wait a second or so you get a little drop-down menu, where you want to select ‘delete’. Don’t bother trying to tab or down-arrow, you have to mouse-click. Then, maddeningly, after another moment’s pause an alert box asking you if you really want to delete the post. This one you can either click or press enter. I ended up keeping my left hand over the enter button just for this, with my right hand working the mouse. Success, you’ve deleted a post! Don’t be too eager to get on to the next one though. The post you’ve just deleted has left an empty space, and it will take the other posts a few moments to rearrange themselves accordingly.

As you can probably tell, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to contemplate this workflow. And, as a hobbyist web developer who generally writes javascript by pasting in random bits of code from the web until something works, I can tell you that this workflow is utter crap even by my not-particularly-high standards. In fact, the whole time I was deleting my old posts, I had a vision of a team of Facebook software engineers in an office somewhere far away, laughing at me.

But I digress.

When I set out on this task I naturally Googled “how to delete all the posts from your Facebook account”, and turned up a couple of possibilities. I tried out running a script via Firefox Add-on Greasemonkey, and when that didn’t work I added another Firefox Add-on called iOpus iMacros, which records your mouse clicks and then attempts to re-play them. It was fun to play with but alas, it didn’t work.

So this blog post is a different sort of how-to guide. It’s a guide to deleting your Facebook posts the slow way. The only way that’s (probably) guaranteed to work.

How to delete all the posts from your Facebook account:

Don’t try to delete everything in one go, as quickly as possible – that’s just setting yourself up for failure. Instead, try to do a little bit each day. If you manage to delete 3 months’ worth of posts a night, you’ll be done within a few weeks, even if you joined Facebook back in 2006.

Stop at the first sign of carpal tunnel.

Don’t delete posts early in the day when you’re full of energy. Do it when you’ve used up most of your creative energy for the day, when you need some downtime, when you’re tired by not tired enough to go to sleep.

Put on some music, or listen to the radio, or a TED presentation. Maybe you have an album you haven’t managed to listen to all the way through yet. If you’ve got a big screen you can even delete old Facebook posts in one window while watching a film in another. Stop deleting posts when you start to get sick of it – you can always come back to it later.

Above all, don’t forget to have fun!