I got elected as treasurer of the newly founded Creative Commons Chapter Netherlands. Could not make the founding meeting this afternoon but thankful for the trust of the participants in the meeting. Looking forward to working with the other newly elected board members Maarten Zeinstra (chair), Hessel van Oorschot (secretary), Sebastiaan ter Burg (general board member), and Lisette Kalshoven (representative in the CC Global Network Council). The newly formed Chapter is the result of the changing structure of Creative Commons globally.
Last week the 2nd annual Techfestival took place in Copenhagen. As part of this there was a 48 hour think tank of 150 people (the ‘Copenhagen 150‘), looking to build the Copenhagen Catalogue, as a follow-up of last year’s Copenhagen Letter of which I am a signee. Thomas, initiator of the Techfestival had invited me to join the CPH150 but I had to decline the invitation, because of previous commitments I could not reschedule. I’d have loved to contribute however, as the event’s and even more the think tank’s concerns are right at the heart of my own. My concept of networked agency and the way I think about how we should shape technology to empower people in different ways runs in parallel to how Thomas described the purpose of the CPH150 48 hour think tank at its start last week.
For me the unit of agency is the individual and a group of meaningful relationships in a specific context, a networked agency. The power to act towards meaningful results and change lies in that group, not in the individual. The technology and methods that such a group deploys need to be chosen deliberately. And those tools need to be fully within scope of the group itself. To control, alter, extend, tinker, maintain, share etc. Such tools therefore need very low adoption thresholds. Tools also need to be useful on their own, but great when federated with other instances of those tools. So that knowledge and information, learning and experimentation can flow freely, yet still can take place locally in the (temporary) absence of such wider (global) connections. Our current internet silos such as Facebook and Twitter clearly do not match this description. But most other technologies aren’t shaped along those lines either.
As Heinz remarked earlier musing about our unconference, effective practices cannot be separated from the relationships in which you live. I added that the tools (both technology and methods) likewise cannot be meaningfully separated from the practices. Just like in the relationships you cannot fully separate between the hyperlocal, the local, regional and global, due to the many interdependencies and complexity involved: what you do has wider impact, what others do and global issues express themselves in your local context too.
So the CPH150 think tank effort to create a list of principles that takes a human and her relationships as the starting point to think about how to design tools, how to create structures, institutions, networks fits right with that.
Our friend Lee Bryant has a good description of how he perceived the CPH150 think tank, and what he shared there. Read the whole thing.
Meanwhile the results are up: 150 principles called the Copenhagen Catalogue, beautifully presented. You can become signatory to those principles you deem most valuable to stick to.
Heinz Wittenbrink, who teaches content strategy at the FH Joanneum in Graz, reflected extensively on his participation in our recent Smart Stuff That Matters unconference.
We go back since 2006 (although I think we read each others blog before), when we first met at a BarCamp in Vienna. Later Heinz kindly invited me to Graz at several occasions such as the 2008 Politcamp (a barcamp on web 2.0 and political communication), and the 2012 annual conference of the Austrian association for trainers in basic education for adults.
He writes in German, and his blogpost contains a lot to unpack (also as it weaves the history of our interaction into his observations), so I thought I’d highlight and translate some quotes here. This as I find it rather compelling to read how someone, who’s been involved in and thinking about online interaction for a long time, views the event we did in the context of his and my work. And that some of what I’m trying to convey as fundamental to thinking about tools and interaction is actually coming across to others. Even if I feel that I’ve not yet hit on the most compelling way to formulate my ideas.
Heinz starts with saying he sees my approach as a very practice oriented one.
“Ton engages on a very practical level with the possibilities of combining the personal and personal relationships with the wider contexts in which one lives, from the local community to global developments. He has a technical, pragmatic and practice oriented approach. Also he can explain to others who are not part of a digital avantgarde what he does.”
And then places the birthday unconferences we did in that context, as an extension of that practice oriented approach. Something I realise I didn’t fully do myself.
“The unconference of last week is an example of how one can do things from a highly personal motivation – like meeting friends, talking about topics you’re interested in, conversing about how you shape your new daily routines after a move – and make it easy for others to connect to that. What you find or develop you don’t keep for yourself, but is made useful for others, and in turn builds on what those others do. So it’s not about developing an overarching moral claim in a small context , but about shaping and networking one’s personal life in such a way that you collectively expand your capabilities to act. Ton speaks of networked agency. Digital networking is a component of these capabilities to act, but only embedded in networks that combine people, as well as locations and technical objects.”
Speaking about the unconference he says something that really jumps out at me.
To list the themes [….of the sessions I attended…] fails to express what was special about the unconference: that you meet people or meet them again, for whom these themes are personal themes, so that they are actually talking about their lives when they talk about them. At an unconference like this one does not try to create results that can be broadcast in abstracted formulations, but through learning about different practices and discussing them, extend your own living practice and view it from new perspectives. These practices or ways of living cannot be separated from the relationships in which and with which you live, and the relationships you create or change at such an event like this.
Seeing it worded like that, that the topics we discussed, theorised about, experimented around, are very much personal topics, and in the context of personal relationships, hits me as very true. I hadn’t worded it in quite that way myself yet. This is however exactly why to me digital networks and human networks are so similar and overlapping, and why I see your immediate context of an issue, you and your meaningful relationships as the key unit of agency. That’s why you can’t separate how you act from your relationships. And why the layeredness of household, neighbourhood, city, earth is interwoven by default, just often not taken into account, especially not in the design phase of technology and projects.
Heinz then talks about blogging, and our earlier silent assumptions that novel technology would as per default create the right results. Frank’s phrasing and Heinz’s mention of the ‘original inspiration’ to blog resonate with me.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the people I had the most intensive conversations with have been blogging for a long time. They all stuck with the original inspiration to blog. Frank in his presentation called it “to publish your own unedited voice”. The openness but also the individuality expressed in this formulation was clearly visible in the entire unconference.
For me blogging was a way of thinking out loud, making a life long habit of note taking more public. The result was a huge growth in my professional peer network, and I found that learning in this networked manner accelerated enormously. Even if my imagined audience when I write is just 4 or 5 of people, and I started blogging as a personal archive/reflection tool, I kept doing it because of the relationships it helped create.
Continuing on about the early techno-optimism Heinz says about the unconference
The atmosphere at the unconference was very different. Of the certainties of the years shortly after 2000 nothing much remains. The impulses behind the fascination of yesteryear do remain however. It’s not about, or even less about technology as it was then, it’s about smart actions in themselves, and life under current conditions. It’s about challenging what is presented as unavoidable more than producing unavoidability yourself.
Only slowly I understand that technologies are much deeper embedded in social practices and can’t be separated from them. Back then I took over Ton’s concept of ‘people centered navigation’. Through the event last week it became clearer to me what this concept means: not just a ‘right’ efficient way to use tools, but a practice that for specific needs deliberately selects tools and in doing so adapts them.
People centered navigation is not a component of better more efficient mass media, but navigating information in reference to needs and capabilities of people in localised networks. Where above all the production of media and content in dialogue with a limited number of others is relevant, not its reception by the masses. Network literacies are capabilities to productively contribute to these localised networks.
Just like practice is inseparable from our relationships, our tools are inseparable from our practices. In networked agency, the selection of tools (both technology and methods) is fully determined by the context of the issue at hand and the group of relationships doing it. As I tried to convey in 2010 in my Maker Households keynote at SHiFT and indeed at the earlier mentioned keynote I gave at Heinz’s university on basic literacy in adult learning, networked literacies are tied to your personal networks. And he’s right, the original fascination is as strong as before.
Heinz finishes with adding the work of Latour to my reading list, by his last remark.
“The attempt to shape your local surroundings intelligently and to consider how you can connect them in various dimensions of networks, reminds me of the localised politics in fragile networks that Bruno Latour describes in his terrestrial manifest as an alternative to the utopies and dystopies of globalisation and closed national societies. Latour describes earth as a thin layer where one can live, because one creates the right connections and maintains them. The unconference was an experiment to discover and develop such connections.”
Thank you Heinz for your reflection, I’m glad you participated in this edition.
Elmine says this about the difficulty to describe her feelings about having almost 70 guests, friends, family, clients, peers, neighbours, spend two days in our home. Where the youngest was 8 weeks, the oldest 80 years. Where the shortest trip made was from right next door, and the furthest from Canada and Indonesia, and the rest from somewhere in between:
I try to find words to describe what happened the past few days, but everything I write down feels incomplete and abstract. How do you put into words how much it means to you that friends travel across the world to attend your birthday party? That you can celebrate a new year in life with friends you haven’t been able to meet for four years (or longer)? Who’s lives have changed so drastically in those years, including my own, but still pick up where you left the conversation all those years before? How can I describe how much it means to me to be able to connect all those people Ton and I collected in our lives, bring them together in the same space and for all of them to hit it off? That they all openly exchanged life stories, inspired each other, geeked out together, built robots together?
It was an experience beyond words. It was, yet again, an epic birthday party.
It also extends to the interaction we had with those who could not attend, because the invitation and response also trigger conversations about how other people are doing and what is going on in their lives.
I completely share Elmine’s sense of awe.
Do You Have Any Diodes? ….. …. Is probably the most unlikely question I got ever asked out of the blue at a birthday party. However the answer turned out to be yes, I did have two diodes. I didn’t think I did, but taking a look in the one box I suspected might have some electronic components in them, proved me wrong.
The diodes were needed to increase the strength of the scary noises an evil robot was emitting. This evil robot was being created just outside our front door where the enormous Frysklab truck, containing a mobile FabLab, was completely filling the courtyard. Representing everything that is wrong and evil about some of the devices that are marketed as necessary for a ‘smart home’, the evil robot then got ritually smashed into pieces by Elmine, wielding a gigantic hammer, named ‘The Unmaker’ that a colleague brought with him. That was the official closing act of our unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters“.
Around all this our 40 or so guests, friends, family members, clients, colleagues, peers, were weaving a rich tapestry of conversations and deepening connections. Something that our friend Peter put into words extremely well. Elmine and I are in awe of the effort and time all who joined us have put into coming to our home and participate in our slightly peculiar way of celebrating birthdays. Birthday parties where evil robots, a hyperloop to send messages from the courtyard to the garden, mythical German bbq-sausages, friendship, philosophy, web technology, new encounters and yes diodes, are all key ingredients to help create a heady mix of fun, inspiration, connection, and lasting memories.
Thank you all so much for making it so.
August 31st Elmine and I host the 4th Birthday Unconference and BBQ-Party in our home in Amersfoort. The unconference is titled “Smart Stuff that Matters”.
So what is Smart, and what Matters?
A year ago we moved to Amersfoort. A different house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. The city where our daughter will grow up.
A new environment means lots of exploration. What makes a house a home? How can you smartly adapt your house to your needs? Who lives in the neighbourhood, how do you settle in it? What makes a city your city? Which existing initiatives appeal to you, and in what ways can you contribute to them?
Whether it’s a new habit, a new device in your home, your contacts and networks, or your approach: what are smart ways to act and contribute to your residence and environment so it supports you and the others in it? In the context of much wider developments and global issues, that is. Both social and technological, at home, in your neighbourhood, your city. It’s important to approach things in ways that create meaning, enable the important things, both for you and others. Smart Stuff That Matters therefore.
A full day long we’ll explore ‘smart’ in all its facets.
Smart homes (and around the home), smart neighbourhoods, smart cities.
Socially, how do we learn, communicate, organise and share? How do we act, how do we contribute? How do we find the power of collaborative agency.
And also technologically, which technologies help us, which only pretend to do so, and are these technologies sufficiently ours?
We will have the Frysklab Team joining us again with their mobile FabLab, and have plenty of space to experiment with technology that way. Such as sensors, internet of things and programming. Or to build non-digital hacks for around the home.
Together we’ll explore what smart means to you and us.
Bring your small and big experiences and skills, but above all bring your curiosity, and let yourself be surprised with what the others bring.
Do you have ideas about what you’d like to show, discuss, present or do?
Have ideas about what you would like to hear from others about? Let us know! We’ll build the program together!
When I talk about Networked Agency, I talk about reducing the barrier to entry for all kinds of technology as well as working methods, that we know work well in a fully networked situation. Reducing those barriers allows others to adopt these tools more easily and find power in refound ability to act. Networked agency needs tech and methods that can be easily deployed by groups, and that work even better when federated across groups and the globe-spanning digital human network.
The IndieWeb’s principles (own your own data, use tools that work well on their own, and better when federated, avoid silos as the primary place of where you post content) fit well with that notion.
Recently I said that I was coming back to a lot of my material on information strategies and metablogging from 2003-2006, but now with more urgency and a change in scope. Frank asked what I meant, and I answered
“that the principles of the open web (free to use, alter, tinker, control, trust by you/your group) also apply to other techs (for instance energy production, blockchain, biohacking, open source hardware, cheap computing hardware, algorithms, IoT sensors and actuators) and methods (p2p, community building, social media usage/production, group facilitation etc.). Only then are they truly empowering, otherwise you’re just the person it is ‘done to’.”
Blockchain isn’t empowering you to run your own local currency if you can only run it on de-facto centralised infrastructure, where you’re exposed to propagating negative externalities. Whether it is sudden Ethereum forks, or the majority of BTC transactions being run on opaque Chinese computing clusters. It is empowering only if it is yours to deploy for a specific use. Until you can e.g. run a block chain based LETS easily for your neighbourhood or home town on nodes that are Raspberry Pi’s attached to the LETS-members’ routers, there is no reliable agency in blockchain.
IoT is not empowering if it means Amazon is listening into all your conversations, or your fire alarm sensors run through centralised infrastructure run by a telco. It is empowering if you can easily deploy your own sensors and have them communicate to an open infrastructure for which you can run your own gateway or trust your neighbour’s gateway. And on top of which your group does their own data crunching.
Community building methods are not empowering if it is only used to purposefully draw you closer to a clothing brand or football club so they can sell your more of their stuff. Where tribalism is used to drive sales. It is empowering if you can, with your own direct environment, use those methods to strengthen local community relationships, learn how to collectively accommodate differences in opinions, needs, strengths and weaknesses, and timely reorient yourself as a group to keep momentum. Dave Winer spoke about working together at State of the Net, and 3 years ago wrote about working together in the context of the open web. To work together there are all kinds of methods, but like community building, those methods aren’t widely known or adopted.
So, what applies to the open web, IndieWeb, I see applies to any technology and method we think help increase the agency of groups in our networked world. More so as technologies and methods often need to be used in tandem. All these tools need to be ‘smaller’ than us, be ours. This is a key element of Networked Agency, next to seeing the group, you and a set of meaningful relationships, as the unit of agency.
Not just IndieWeb. More IndieTech. More IndieMethods.
More on this in the coming months I think, and in the runup to ‘Smart Stuff That Matters‘ late August.
Triggered by some of the previous postings on RSS, I started thinking about what my ideal set-up for RSS reading would be. Because maybe there’s a way to create that for myself.
A description of how I approach my feeds, and what I would ideally like to be able to do, I already penned a decade ago, and it hasn’t really changed much.
The basic outline is:
- I think of feed subscriptions as subscribing to people. I don’t follow your blog, but I follow and interact with you. I used to have a blogroll that reflected that by showing the faces of people whose writing I read. Basically the web is my social network always, In my feed reader every feed title is the name of the author, not the blog’s title.
my blogroll in 2005, people’s faces, not site names
- The feeds I subscribe to, I group in folders by subjective social distance, roughly following Dunbar-style group sizes. The dozen closest to me, the 50, the 150, the 500 beyond that, and above that 999 for people I don’t have a direct connection with at all. So my wife’s blog feed is in folder a12, and if I’ve just come across your blog this week and we never met, your feed will be in e999. The Keep Track folder are my own content feeds from various platforms.
the folders in my current feedreader by social distance
- There are three reading styles I’d like my reader to support, of which it only does one.
- I read to see what is going on with people I know, by browsing through their writing from closer to further away, so from the a12 folder towards the e999 folder. This my reader supports, by way of allowing a folder structure for it
- I read outside-in, looking at the general patterns in all the new postings of a day: what topics come up, what are people working on, what do they care about. This is not supported yet, other than scrolling through the whole thing. A quick overview of topics versus social distance would be useful here.
- I read inside-out, where I have specific questions, ideas or topics on my mind and want to see if some of the people in my reader have been wrting about it recently. This is not supported yet. A good way to search my feeds would be needed.
- I would like to be able to tag feeds. So I can contextualise the author (coder, lives in Portugal, interested in privacy by design, works independently). This allows me to look at different groups of people across the social distance related folders. E.g. “what are the people I follow in Berlin up to this week, as I will be visiting in a few days?” “What are the current concerns in the IndieWeb community?” Ten years ago I visualised that as below
Social distances with community and multi-faceted contexts plotted on them
- I would like to be able to pull in tags of postings and have full content search functionality. This would support my inside-out reading. “What is being said today in my feeds about that conference I didn’t go to?” “Any postings today on privacy by design?”
- I think I’d like visual representations of which communities are currently most active, and for topics, like heat maps. Alerts on when the level of activity for a feed or a community or subsets of people changes would be nice too.
- From the reader follow actions, such as saving an article, creating a todo from it, bookmarking it, or sharing it in some channel. An ideal reader should support all those actions, or let me configure actions
- [UPDATED OCTOBER 2018] From reading a posting by Peter Rukavina I realised I’d also like to have built-in machine translation.
From the whole IndieWeb exploration of late, I realized that while no feedreader does all the above, it might be possible to build something myself. TinyTiny RSS seems a good starting point. It’s an open source tool you can run as your own instance. It comes with features such as filtering and auto-tagging that might fit my needs. It can be hosted on my own domain, and it has a database I then have back-end access to, to build features it doesn’t have itself (such as visualisations and specific sharing actions). It can also produce RSS feeds. It seems with TinyTiny RSS I could do all kinds of things to the RSS feeds I pull in on my server, and push the results out again as RSS feeds themselves. Those I could load into my regular reader, or republish etc.
Now need to find a bit of time to set it up and to play with it.
Slate saw their traffic from Facebook drop by 87% in a year after changes in how FB prioritises news and personal messages in your timeline. Talking Points Memo reflects on it and doing so formulates a few things I find of interest.
“Facebook is a highly unreliable company. We’ve seen this pattern repeat itself a number of times over the course of company’s history: its scale allows it to create whole industries around it depending on its latest plan or product or gambit. But again and again, with little warning it abandons and destroys those businesses.” …”Google operates very, very differently.”..”Yet TPM gets a mid-low 5-figure check from Google every month for the ads we run on TPM through their advertising services. We get nothing from Facebook.”..”Despite being one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world Facebook still has a lot of the personality of a college student run operation, with short attention spans, erratic course corrections and an almost total indifference to the externalities of its behavior.”
This first point I think is very much about networks and ecosystems, do you see others as part of your ecosystem or merely as a temporary leg-up until you can ditch them or dump externalities on.
The second point TPM makes is about visitors versus ‘true audience’.
“we are also seeing a shift from a digital media age of scale to one based on audience. As with most things in life, bigger is, all things being equal, better. But the size of a publication has no necessary connection to its profitability or viability.” It’s a path to get to a monopoly that works for tech (like FB) but not for media, the author Josh Marshall says. “…the audience era is vastly better for us than the scale era”
Audience, or ‘true audience’ as TPM has it, are the people who have a long time connection to you, who return regularly to read articles. The ones you’re building a connection with, for which TPM, or any newsy site, is an important node in their network. Scaling there isn’t about the numbers, although numbers still help, but the quality of those numbers and the quality of what flows through the connections between you and readers. The invisible hand of networks more than trying to get ever more eye-balls.
Scale thinking would make blogging like I do useless, network thinking makes it valuable, even if there are just 3 readers, myself included. It’s ‘small b’ blogging as Tom Critchlow wrote a few months ago. “Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network“. Or as I usually describe it: thinking out loud, and having distributed conversations around it. Big B blogging, Tom writes, in contrast “is written for large audiences. Too much content on the web is designed for scale” and pageviews, where individual bloggers seem to mimick mass media companies. Because that is the only example they encounter.
Dave Winer, one of, if not the, earliest bloggers asks what became of the blogosphere? It was a topic of the conversations in Trieste 2 weeks ago at State of the Net, where we both were on the program.
I get what he says about losing the center, and seeing that center as a corporation back then. This much in the way Tantek Celik talked about the silos first being friendly and made by the people we knew, but then got sold, which I wrote about yesterday. Creating a new center, or centers, is worthwile I concur with Dave, and if it can’t be a company at the center, then maybe it should be a network or an organisational manifestation thereof, such as a cooperative. An expression of networked agency.
Because of that I wonder about Dave’s last point “There used to be a communication network among bloggers, but that’s gone now.”
I asked (on Facebook), “What to you was that previous communications network, and what was it built on? What type of communications would you like to see re-emerge?” The answer is about being able to discover other bloggers, like Dave’s Weblogs.com platform used to do (and still does, but most updates are spam).
Blogs to me are distributed conversations. Look at the unbridled enthusiasm I expressed 11 years ago when I wrote about 5 years of blogging in this space, and the list of people I then regarded as my regular group of people I had blogged conversations with. It is currently harder to create those, and it has become harder for me to notice when something I write is reacted to as well. Much of the IndieWeb discussion is about at least being able to discover all online facets of someone from their own domain, and pulling responses to it back there too. Something I need to explore more how to do in a way that fits me.
In terms of communication and connecting, it would be great if I could explore the blogosphere much as in the picture below. Created by Anjo Anjewierden and presented at the AOIR conference in Chicago in 2005 by Lilia Efimova, it shows a representation of my blog network based on text analysis of my and other people’s blogs. It’s a pretty good picture of what my blog ‘neighbourhood’ looked like then.
Or this one also by Anjo Anjewierden from 2008, titled “the big one”. It shows conversations between my and other’s blogs. Grey boxes are conversations across blogs (the bigger the box, the more blogpostings), the other dots are postings that refer to such a conversation but aren’t part of it. Top-left a box is ‘opened up’ to show there are different postings (colored dots) inside it.
Makes me want to have a personal crawler that maps out connections between blogs! Are there any ‘personalised’ crawlers out there?
Elmine and I are happy to ‘officially’ announce the Smart Stuff That Matters (STM18) unconference!
Friday August 31st (conference), and Saturday September 1st (BBQ party) are the dates. Our home in Amersfoort is the location.
This 4th ‘Stuff That Matters’ conference will be in honor of Elmine’s 40th birthday. Let’s throw her and yourself a party to remember. It’s the smart thing to do 😉
Smart Stuff That Matters will be about us, the things we care about, and the tools and behaviour we think we need to shape our lives in a complex world and to respond locally to global challenges.
Smartness isn’t limited to technology, or to your ‘smart home’ filled with gadgets. What is smart in the context of your community, your family, and how you relate to your city, or the country you live in? What is the smartest way to tap into the global networks and knowledge we now have access to? Yet shield yourself against some of the cascading problems too?
What provides you and the people around you with meaningful ways to decide, learn, act and organise together? (the thing I call networked agency) What skills and digital literacies are needed for you to consider yourself a ‘smart citizen’?
How do we need to (re-)shape tools so they become active extensions of ourselves, within our own scope of control?
Some of the smartest technologies are actually ‘dumb’ in the sense that they are passive technologies. Other technologies billed as smart aren’t so much in practice, such as the eternal internet-connected fridge or sticking Amazon dash buttons all over your house.
The stuff that matters is not just technology but how we ourselves take action, as part of our communities and networks. Technology and different ways of doing things can help us and make us smarter.
Invitations will be coming soon
Smart Stuff That Matters is a by invitation only event. There is no attendance fee, but a donation box will be present. We will start sending out invitations in the coming week, so watch your inboxes! If you’d like to receive an invitation feel free to get in touch and let me know.
Find more info in the menu above under STM18.
Although objectively speaking we were just in an overcrowded family home,
it felt like we were in a huge and spacious conference centre. …
The buzz of all those exciting and excited people
expressing and comparing their multitude of opinions,
made us literally forget where we were.
(Aldo about the 2010 event)
It’s never been a secret that Facebook is a data hungry monster, and I have always acted in that knowledge. There are reasons why FB is valuable as a tool for me, there are a range of others why FB is all wrong. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, it is time to create a path for myself away from it. I am not leaving, at least not completely for reasons following towards the end of this post. I did however deactivate my account last night. This means my data is still available within FB but invisible, and logging in will reactivate it all.
In short, I am not going cold turkey on FB, but merely semifreddo, half cold.
I expect that removing myself from FB for now creates the space for me to figure out what to do and not do with FB.
My FB history
I joined FB in the first week of October 2006, shortly after it became available for non-US non-academic e-mail accounts in September. Until the winter of 2013 I posted virtually nothing, except automatic links to my blogposts. Only from November 2013, nudged by Gerrit Eicker, I started interacting with FB more, and from early 2014 the number of postings slowly grew. It turned into an addictive habit, that you really want to quit but don’t really seem to be able to. A tool I use to track my own software and web-usage has been brutally direct in showing me how much of a time sink FB became. I removed the FB app from my phone at some point in the last year, mostly to cut away the noise and disconnect from the here and now that doing a quick FB check during ‘empty’ moments creates.
The constructive effects of FB
FB has been both helpful, as well as damaging on a personal level. In the positive sense,
- it allows me to stay in touch with a wide variety of people that I otherwise wouldn’t be in touch with. Because they are distant in terms of geography, because the context we once shared is a long time ago, the current overlap in context is small, or any combination thereof.
- It makes keeping a sense of what’s going on in their lives pretty effortless, and even if actual interaction may be low, it serves as a low threshold channel to emphatise.
- It allowed me to share things in a much less public place than my blog when in 2015 and 2016 personal events were dominant, without the need to reach out directly to anyone. This allowed others to respond as they see fit.
- In some instances FB is the only way I can easily connect to people and groups I am professionally connected with, such as for instance colleagues in Central Asia, or the Serbian open data community.
There’s also a destructive side to FB
FB has had a huge impact over time on my regular information strategies. This was of course helped along by the demise of many other tools and platforms such as Google Reader, Dopplr, and the erosion of what makes the web work, such as Twitter doing away with RSS. For these tools lost behind the event horizon of the black hole that FB and other walled gardens are, me and many of my network used FB as a replacement. For instance, Dopplr was a good way to inform the traveling part of my professional network of upcoming trips and therefore potential opportunities to meet, should some of our travel coincide. Posting a travel update on FB has replaced it, albeit with loss of visibility and functional value. The large majority of RSS feeds I followed have dried up. The disappearance of RSS from many platforms which allowed me to aggregate information about my network myself, meant I had to go to a place where that aggregation was done for me, and FB is such a place with the most people in it. Again at a significant loss of functional value (influence, filtering, tagging, making on the fly cross-sections etc.)
Over time it became clear to me that the endless FB timeline has de facto replaced my carefully calibrated rss-based information diet. What were my intentional and purposeful acts of keeping in touch, learning and informing myself, got replaced by a steady stream of distraction and procrastination. Starting from a question, and then seeking out what might be relevant mostly disappeared, at best responsive but often passive consumption replacing it. There’s a distracting quality to FB as a gateway to material even when interacting with the same content: I follow some thinkers/authors in my FB network, but end up engaging with whatever they posted today, rather then diving deeply into their actual work available on their own sites. It’s almost as if I have to remind myself that doing online deskresearch or literature review isn’t checking out the FB timelines of the people in that field.
The nefarious asymmetry of FB
To large swathes of the global population FB serves as a facsimile of the internet, hiding the potent agency-inducing qualities the internet actually has, and merely presenting the passive and consumer side of the net. As long as you keep scrolling down your timeline you’re not taking action (even if changing your avatar to show sympathy with one plight or another gives you that feeling).
Although I’ve succeeded in preserving a certain variety in my FB network, so that regularly I get presented with viewpoints or articles which clash with my sense of what is common (not: common sense), FB has been busily building my own bubble around me. This is readily apparent whenever I venture into other places, darker places, following links on the profiles of friends of friends of friends further and further outside my ‘regular’ network. The resulting suggested articles and ads that fill my timeline for days afterwards are a shocking view on what others apparently get presented as their day to day diet.
At issue here is the enormous asymmetry. It is infinitely easier to automatically feed me dross, aim to manipulate my choices in a myriad of ways, then it is for me to purposefully individually and manually resist that (if at all psychologically possible). FB, or actually anyone paying them, can without effort suggest 100s of articles and ads, an individual will get fed up manually hitting ‘show me less of this’ after less than a dozen times. A second layer of asymmetry is that none of the pattern matching or categorising you and I are subject to are in any meaningful way available to us ourselves. This isn’t about the personal data we consciously share (e.g. dates of birth, phone numbers, postings), but about our actual behaviour on the platform, the things I and my connections hit like for, the links we click, the time we spend engaged with those links, the comments we typed in and ultimately decided not to post, the frequency with which we yet again open up the timeline to see if we get a little bit of endorphins from being ‘liked’, our responses to the A/B testing done on us unawares ,etc. etc.
On top of all that, similar to the tobacco industry, FB really likes to keep you hooked. Over the years I’ve deleted accounts from dozens if not hundreds of services. Some will say “we’re really sorry to see you go”, or ask you to reconsider, or make you type a confirmation manually (“DELETE”). FB however appeals to your emotions like no other, saying ‘oh but this or that person will miss you so much!’ and force you to provide a reason to leave, and even then ask for another confirmation after all that. That’s just for de-activating the account, leaving everything still there. Re-activating merely requires logging in, yet another designed asymmetry. I wonder what they will do when I actually would to delete the account.
Aldo will miss me, Jeroen will miss me, Baden will miss me, all 660 of my FB friends will miss me,……please stay! Yes, I’m sure.
So, what to do?
- FB has to be removed as a time sink and obstacle to purposeful interaction.
- In terms of information intake it means going through my network list (I downloaded my FB data), and find other ways to keep track.
- In terms of sharing, my blog (which is fully public, so very different questions apply concerning what to post or not there) will need to have prevalence, likely augmented with some other tools. I can see running my own Diaspora-pod (or another distributed FB simile), and inviting selected groups into specific instances. This replaces the single humongous space that is used for all group interaction in FB, with more group and community specific ‘town squares’. Having the right spaces for interaction is an important aspect in community health, and FB is not designed like that.
- In terms of interacting it means looking at my network list and more frequently purposefully reach out. Yes, that’s more time consuming, but more rewarding as well. Since my friend Peter left FB, the frequency of being in touch has risen I feel, and the quality and awareness of it has definitely increased. Although it won’t scale to all other connections.
- Ensuring using FB more deliberately is another element. There are those I’m only connected with there. There are those I’m only professionally connected with there. So for them I will likely retain my account. For some Messenger is the only tool we share, and that too requires keeping the FB account. But like going to the pub, visiting FB will need to be a planned and time-boxed thing, and no longer the ‘filler’ of small periods of time. This is the ‘quitting smoking’ part of FB, all the ‘quick ciggies’ during the day. Any return to FB will be like a none-smoker entering a venue where smoking is allowed.
- For that more purposeful and limited interaction, my entire FB history is of no importance, so deleting that is a logical step.
A little over 2 years ago I backed a Kickstarter project The Things Network. It’s an order of magnitude cheaper version of a gateway for a LoRa (long range) network, for internet of things sensors etc. The fascinating thing about this The Things Network gateway is that it provides an infrastructure for very little money. With just 2 or 3 of these your entire city becomes your sandbox for IoT experiments. Usually it’s the other way around: you have cheap prototypes but to scale you need expensive infrastructure (a prototype car is fun, but also having to roll out a road system isn’t.) Now you are just as easy rolling out the infrastructure, as well as your prototypes.
It took a long time to arrive. The original team I think learned the hard way that setting up production and supply chains for hardware from scratch has a quite different dynamic compared to software development. This is not a new lesson for Kickstarter projects either. So the hardware which should have been delivered in June 2016 took until January 2018, some 18 months of delay. But now it’s here.
In the mean time I’ve co-initiated an IoT community in Enschede (community site here), before moving house to Amersfoort where another group is active. Here in Amersfoort I participated in the Measure Your City project, by placing a IoT sensor hub in my garden. With the hardware now arrived, I can’t wait to start experimenting. My gateway will come on-line as soon as I have run up a Cat 6 cable to our attic space, and can then help support the Measure Your City network, and any other projects that might take place in the vicinity.
The Things Network goodies arriving today: a gateway (shown), 4 uno’s (sensor platforms) and 2 nodes (prototyping platforms)
Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March
That’s when I received some awesome feedback.
“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.
He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.
The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.
That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.