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From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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They really are tracking you. It’s not just the information that you knowingly put on the internet. It’s also the information that your friends knowingly put there; and all the other embedded information that neither you nor your friends realise is being shared. See this video (sorry about the advert…)

The simplest example, which I had no idea about, is the global positioning info that is automatically uploaded from a digital camera with some photographs. So if you are tagged by someone else on a photo, your time (to the second) at a particular location (to within three metres) is there for everyone to see. Then it just needs the analytics to bring all this data together, and work out what it says about known past behaviour and probable future behaviour. Put this together with your Tesco Club-Card and Amazon buying history and the Google analytics on your recent searches, and they know more about you than you know about yourself.

I’m not exaggerating. When did you ever really reflect on what your movements and searches and purchases say about yourself? Do you even remember what you bought or searched for last month or last year? Well Tesco and Amazon and Google and now apparently Raytheon certainly do.

Ryan Gallagher explains:

A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

A video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare…

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

In the video obtained by the Guardian, it is explained by Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch that photographs users post on social networks sometimes contain latitude and longitude details – automatically embedded by smartphones within “exif header data.”

Riot pulls out this information, showing not only the photographs posted onto social networks by individuals, but also the location at which the photographs were taken…

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.

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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
- The Light Project
- Christian Medical Comment
- Busbridge and Hambledon Church
- CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
- Missing Generation
- Threads
- What You Think Matters
- God and Politics in the UK
- EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
- Miriam’s Fusion Blog
- Blogging with Tom
- Arianne Winslow
- Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
- Learning and Growing
- Biblical Preaching
- Bridges and Tangents
- Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
- Believer’s Brain
- Ed’s Slipper
- Blogging with Tom
- God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
- Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
- Restored
- Richard Littledale
- The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
- Wazala
- SGM Lifewords
- Relationship Central
- Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

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I’ve just given a study day about the internet and new media, and it forced me to get my head around some of the jargon and the ideas. Here is my summary of what these terms mean and where the digital world is going.

Web 1.0: The first generation of internet technology. You call up pages of text and images with incredible speed and facility. It’s no different from strolling through a library, only much quicker. The operative verb is I LOOK. I look at pages on the screen just as I look at pages in a book. All content is provided for you – it’s a form of publishing. It may be updated in a way that is impossible when a solid book is sitting on your shelf, but you can’t change the content yourself.

Web 2.0: The second generation of internet technology allows for user-generated content. You don’t just look at the pages, you alter them. You write your own blog; you comment on someone else’s article in the comment boxes; you edit an entry on Wikipedia. And then, by extension, with basically the same technology, you share your thoughts on a social networking site, which means you are commenting not on a static site, but on something that is itself in flux. You have moved from action to interaction; from connection to interconnection. If Web 1.0 is like a digital library, Web 2.0 is like a digital ‘Letter to the Editor’, a digital conference call, a digital group discussion. The verb here is I PARTICIPATE.

Web 3.0: People disagree about the meaning of Web 3.0, about where the web is now going. I like John Smart‘s idea of an emerging Metaverse, where there is a convergence of the virtual and physical world. In the world of Web 2.0, of user-generated content and social networking, you stand in the physical/natural/real world and use the new media to help you around that world – the new media are tools. You talk to friends, you share ideas, you buy things that have been suggested and reviewed by others. But in Web 3.0 the new media become an essential part of the world in which you are living, they help to create the world, and you live within them.

The border between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 is not tidy here, because Web 3.0 is partly about Web 2.0 becoming all-pervasive and continuous, so that your connection with the web and your social network is an essential part of every experience – it doesn’t get switched off. The mobile earpiece is always open to the chatter of others; the texts and status updates of your friends are projected into the corner of your Google Glasses (like those speedometers that are projected onto the car windscreen) so that they accompany what you are doing at every moment – the connection between real and virtual, between here and there, is seamless; the attention you give to every shop or product or street or person is digitally noted, through the head and eye movement sensors built into your glasses and the GPS in your phone, and simultaneously you are fed (into the corner of your glasses, or into your earpiece) layers of information about what is in front of you – reviews of the product, reminders of what you need to buy from the shop, warnings about the crime rate on this street, a note about the birthday and the names of the children of the person you are about to pass, etc. This is augmented reality or enhanced reality or layered reality.

It’s no different, in essence, from going for a stroll in the mid-70s with your first Walkman – creating for the first time your own soundtrack as you wander through the real world; or having the natural landscape around you altered by neon lights and billboards. But it is this experience a thousand times over, so that it is no longer possible to live in a non-virtual world, because every aspect of the real world is already augmented by some aspect of virtual reality. The verb here is I EXIST. I don’t just look at the virtual world, or use it to participate in real relationships; now I exist within this world.

Web 4.0: Some people say this is the Semantic Web (‘semantics’ is the science of meaning), when various programmes, machines, and the web itself becomes ‘intelligent’, and starts to create new meanings that were not programmed into it, and interact with us in ways that were not predicted or predictable beforehand. It doesn’t actually require some strict definition of ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ for the computers; it just means that they start doing new things themselves – whatever the philosophers judge is or is not going on in their ‘minds’.

Another aspect of Web 4.0, or another definition, concerns plugging us directly into the web: when the boundary between us and the virtual world disappears. This is when the virtual world becomes physically/biologically part of us, or when we become physically/biologically part of the virtual world. When, in other words, the data is not communicated by phones or earpieces or glasses, but is implanted into us, so that the virtual data is part of our consciousness directly, and not just part of our visual or aural experience (the films Total Recall, eXistenZ, and the Matrix); and/or, when we control the real and virtual world by some kind of brain or neural interface, so that – in both cases – there really is a seamless integration of the real and the virtual, the personal/biological and the digital.

If this seems like science fiction, remember that it is already happening in smaller ways. See previous posts on Transhumanism, and the MindSpeller project at Leuven which can read the minds of stroke victims, and this MIT review of brain-computer interfaces. In this version of Web 4.0 the verb is not I exist (within a seamless real/virtual world), it is rather I AM this world and this world is me.

Watch this fascinating video of someone’s brainwaves controlling a robotic arm:

And this which has someone controlling first a signal on a screen, and then another robotic arm:

So this is someone making things happen in the real world just by thinking! (Which, come to think of it, is actually the miracle that takes place whenever we doing anything consciously!)

Any comments? Are you already living in Web 3.0 or 3.5? Do you like the idea of your children growing up in Web 4.0? What will Web 5.0 be?

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Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)

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After my talk at St Andrews Catholic Chaplaincy last week we all went to the pub round the corner, and inevitably the conversation turned to the topic of what people could give up for Lent. It goes without saying that Lent is about much more than just ‘giving up something’; but it was interesting to throw around some ideas about what forms of digital fasting and penance could be fruitful over the 40 days of Lent.

Here are the broad categories that came up:

(1) RADICAL DETOX: Just dump it all for the next 40 days. Computers; internet; email; mobile; texting; tweeting; blogging; Facebook; all forms of social media; iPods and mp3 players. Do you include TV in here as well, which is now digital? This is the shock and awe strategy. Total blackout. Everyone said this would be impossible, unrealistic, unwise, not living in the real world, asking for trouble!

(2) SELECTIVE SWITCH-OFF: Choose one form of digital media or communication and let go of that for the whole period of Lent. E.g. No Facebook, or no internet use at all, or no texting. Nearly everyone said this would be impossible, but one or two were open to it.

(3) TARGETED TIME-OUTS: Take all forms of digital media, or choose just one form of digital media, and fast from using them for a pre-determined period. E.g Fridays of Lent; or every day after work, or after 6pm, or after 9pm; or Sundays of Lent. E.g. I need to use the internet at work, but I’ll try not using it in the evenings. E.g. I won’t use Facebook on Fridays, or on Sundays. E.g. one hour a day, perhaps the morning, perhaps the evening, when everything electrical and digital is switched off. E.g. I won’t listen to music on the iPod while travelling but I’ll read instead.

(4) GEOGRAPHICAL SAFE-ZONES: Deciding not to use some or all forms of digital media in certain designated geographical areas; creating ‘safe-zones’, sanctuaries of silence and stillness. E.g. I have enough internet at work, so I don’t need to use it at home. E.g. I’ll use the internet at the desk, but I don’t need to be using it on the mobile constantly. E.g. I switch the phone off for twenty minutes when I sit down to eat at table.

For most people, the third idea of having some kind of digital time-out, on a Friday or a Sunday, will probably be the most realistic – just an hour each week, or an evening or a day, when they are not at the mercy of digital information overload, when they are brave enough to experience being unconnected or just slightly underconnected.

What’s interesting is how much people protest even at the suggestion that one of these options might be possible: the arguments that people throw up, the resistance shown (much of it very rational and reasonable) – it shows how attached we are to this stuff. And just raising the question about how we use digital media, and how they use us, is part of what a prayerful reflection on fasting and penance is meant to cultivate. The important thing is not just to adopt a rule suggested by someone else for the sake of it, but to think of something that could really make a small but significant difference in one’s own life – and see what comes from it.

It’s important to put all the qualifications in here: You don’t take on any of these disciplines because you despise digital media or think they are inherently evil – any more than you fast from food or abstain from meat or chocolate or alcohol because you think these things are bad in themselves.

On the contrary, you recognise that these are good things that can be used for good purposes; but you also recognise that you can become over-attached to them, that they can become idols or addictions, that they can be occasions for sin as well as for good, that their over-use can dull or extinguish the joy they are meant to give, that letting go for a little while can deepen your appreciation for them, that having a discipline and a restriction in place can sometimes make you more free in your approach to something, that there are other good things in life that get crowded out and forgotten in the digital onslaught, that digital noise can make stillness, silence, prayer and even ordinary relationships more difficult, that you are so locked in you don’t know who you really are any more, that it’s important to share in the digital poverty that many people experience as a normal part of life, etc.

All I’m saying is: you don’t need to be anti-digital technology to recognise that there is some value in stepping back and letting go for a while each year – and this is one part of the meaning of fasting and penance for Catholics each Lent.

I like these terms: iFasting, iPenance, and iLent. Of course I thought I invented them, but so far on Google I’ve managed to find this iLent site. I’m still hoping to copyright the first two terms, but you can shatter my illusion of originality by sharing any previous examples of their use you have come across in the comments below.

Or will I get sued by Apple for even mentioning an iWord?

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My original ‘World Youth Day London’ post was three weeks ago, so I thought I’d give you an update.

It started as a very spontaneous idea: to set up a Facebook page to see whether people would be interested in World Youth Day coming to Britain. It’s the first time I have used Facebook for anything other than linking to this blog or posting the odd comment, so I had no idea how it might pan out. I spent a few minutes setting it up, clicked ‘Go’ or ‘Publish’ or whatever, and within about five seconds ‘Michael’ had signed up to come – so it was now officially a party and not just a lonely fantasy; and then within the next few hours we reached a hundred, and there was a minor buzz amongst my small Facebook network.

I think it was Luke Coppen at the Catholic Herald who shifted it up a gear from social networking to mainstream media, just by linking to the blog post on his morning Catholic must reads. Then, after a call from Ed West at the Herald, it became an article in its own right. And the following weekend this article was pasted over the front page of the Catholic Herald, as I was to discover quite by chance when I popped into St Mary Moorfields for a quite moment on the Friday afternoon. More significant, perhaps, was the fact that the lead editorial in the Herald gave the idea a cautious welcome (under the less cautious headline ‘Let’s get ready to bring World Youth Day to Britain’). After outlining some of the objections it concludes:

Such concerns should not be dismissed lightly. But neither should Fr Wang’s initiative. If Rome sees that there is an intense desire to host WYD here then it will take notice and, even if it is Krakow’s turn next, we may move to the front of the queue.

The Tablet called for an interview as well, and ran a short Notebook piece about the idea.

Very quickly, the secularists expressed their outrage at the idea, various blogs were re-posting the story, and the TV news agency Rome Reports was reporting that London was in the running with Krakow to host the post-Rio World Youth Day:

This is when it went global – literally. I think the Rome Reports videos are syndicated, so straight away the idea that London was a contender was appearing as news down-under on the website of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Originally I set up on Facebook a ‘Group’ (which requires the moderator to approve you as a member), a ‘Page’ (which you can ‘like’ and thus promote with a single click), and an ‘Event‘ (which you can publicise and invite friends to and sign up to attend) – you can tell I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was told that the Page would take off quicker, because ‘liking’ doesn’t involve as much commitment as ‘signing up’ – and people hate commitment. But the Page did not really take off, whereas the Event grew very quickly. I’ve now closed the Group and the Page and left the Event, so that there is one main focus for the idea, and all the comments and suggestions are collected in one place. The most significant discussion developing in the comments over the last few days is whether Liverpool rather than London would be a better British host city (you know where my sympathies lie).

By this weekend, about 1600 have said they are coming, and about 9000 have been invited. The interest spread very quickly in the first week, kept growing in the second week, and is now slowing down. Maybe it has peaked already. I’m not sure what level of interest would signify that there is the requisite amount of energy, commitment, faith, passion, desire and sheer enthusiasm for the project for it to be worth thinking about in a more serious way. I joked that if the London numbers overtake the Krakow WYD event page (currently around 3500 signed up) then it would be worth moving to Stage B – whatever Stage B would be. I keep telling people that at this point, Stage A, it is just an idea, a straw-poll, and not a campaign.

I’ve learnt how quickly something can grow on Facebook. I’ve learnt how easily something can morph from a social networking doodle into a global mainstream media news story. I’ve learnt how you cannot control how an idea will be interpreted or where it will go. I’ve learnt, I think, that sometimes (not always, but sometimes) it’s worth acting on an impulse even if you are not sure what the impulse really means.

Here is the present pitch, which has been adapted in response to various suggestions and criticisms. The main shift has been to make it less London-centric (only a little bit less…), and to address the money question and remind people that WYD benefits an economy rather than harming it. You can see the event page here, I think, even if you are not on Facebook.

We believe that the next World Youth Day, after Rio 2013, should take place in Britain in 2016, with the main events and closing Mass in London. And we’ll be there! There will never be a better time: post-Papal Visit, post-Olympics, the faith and energy of young Catholics here, the sense of renewal and hope within the Catholic Church in this country, the pull of the English language, and the attraction of Britain as a destination for visitors. WYD has already been to Poland, France, Italy, German and Spain – it’s time to come to Britain!

We could put on the best WYD there has ever been. It would revitalise the Church and be an incredible witness to the people of this country. It would be a truly national event, bringing together every Catholic diocese, parish, group and movement. It wouldn’t distract from other important pastoral priorities – instead it would provide a focus and stimulus for them. The period of planning and preparation would galvanise the Church at national and local levels. The ‘Days in the Dioceses’, in the week before WYD itself, would be a celebration of faith throughout the regions, with hundreds of thousands of international young pilgrims welcomed into parishes and families across Britain. And there could be an important ecumenical dimension too, with Catholics and other Christian communities cooperating in hospitality, witness and celebration.

London would be the focus for the main WYD events and closing Mass. Why? Not because of some unthinking ‘London-centric’ prejudice in favour of the capital, but simply because of the practical advantages. London has the venues, the infrastructure, the transport, the public spaces – the sheer size; and it will have the experience of dealing with the Olympics. In the three dioceses that converge there (Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood), it has the greatest number of Catholic parishes and movements, the richest concentration of Catholic life, and an incomparable diversity of people and communities. And it has a unique pull in the international imagination – witness the time of the Royal Wedding. It would be ‘London uniting the country and opening out to the world’, rather than ‘London excluding the regions’.

Yes, there would be significant costs. But unlike the recent Papal visit, WYD would pay for itself. If just half a million pilgrims register (a conservative estimate), and the fee is just £50, that’s £25m to start with, even before the serious fundraising has begun. And despite the misgivings of some, no-one seriously doubts that this kind of event brings massive economic benefits to the host country. The Papal visit, for example, brought an £8.5m boost to Glasgow alone; and a £12.5m boost to Birmingham. According to an independent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, WYD Madrid brought 354m Euros to Spain [see links below]. This is one reason why the British Government, and Boris Johnson (as Mayor of London), will surely be interested in it. But there would be deeper reasons are well: the opportunity of hosting what is perhaps the largest youth event in the world, of opening our doors to people from every corner of the earth, and of putting young people at the centre of the national agenda.

At the moment, this is an off-the-cuff, un-thought-out, testing-the-water kind of proposition. It began in the parks and cafes of Madrid at WYD 2011, when thousands of young people from the UK began to think ‘We could do this!’ And this Facebook event itself started as a response to the enthusiasm shown on the Krakow WYD Facebook event page, and the feeling that we in Britain should be just as enthusiastic as the Poles. If we overtake the Krakow WYD event numbers (currently at 3,242 on 15 Jan), then it’s probably time to start thinking and praying about this more seriously.

So if you want to see it move forward, INVITE YOUR FRIENDS – TODAY!! And we’ll see where we are in a couple of weeks. The question is: Do we care as much as the Poles?

What do you think? Post your own comments, suggestions, criticisms, links, etc. in the box below.

You can see the Krakow event page here:
http://www.facebook.com/events/285324498163926/

Report about effects of Papal visit on Glasgow’s economy:
http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/papal-visit-s-8-5m-boost-for-city-1.1043610

Report about the effects of Papal visit on Birmingham’s economy:
http://www.birminghampost.net/news/west-midlands-news/2010/09/08/pope-s-visit-expected-to-be-worth-12-5m-to-birmingham-s-economy-65233-27222221/

Report about the economic benefits of WYD Madrid to Spain:
http://www.rio2013.com/en/noticias/detalhes/144/wyd-madrid-yielded-354-million-euros

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There are lots of these videos floating around that show some aspect of faith or the Christian story through the lens of social media. This is one of my favourites, from Igniter Media. Called ‘Follow’, it shows very simply and very powerfully how the events of Jesus’s life might have been communicated if there had been Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. The immediacy of the messages brought to life for me not just the story itself, but the ordinary humanity of the people involved – people I treat too often as just characters in a book.

It’s not specifically a Christmas video. But anyway: Happy Christmas!

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Sadly I couldn’t afford to fly out to the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this week. One of the social networking themes discussed was the question of whether there are advantages to sharing less rather than more.

Facebook has pioneered the concept of ‘frictionless sharing’ (a term I just learnt): when your personal information, your consumer choices, your likes and dislikes, your moods, your geographical position, etc, are all shared automatically and seamlessly with your online friends. But this ignores the psychological and sociological evidence that a significant part of friendship and social bonding is choosing what not to share, what not to reveal.

There’s a nice quote from Vic Gundotra who is head of the Google+ project, which tries to be a classier and more selective Facebook:

There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth. The core attribute of the human is to curate how others perceive you and what you say. Even something as simple as music – I don’t want all my music shared with everybody. I’m embarrassed I like that one Britney Spears track. I want people to know I like U2. That’s cooler than saying I like Britney Spears. If that’s how I feel about music, how will I feel about things I read? [Quoted in an article by Murad Ahmed, The Times today, p26]

Less is more, not from a sort of reactionary puritanism, but because the way we create ourselves and communicate who we are is always, at some level, through making decisions about what to reveal and what to withhold. This is how we give shape to the person we are, and allow others to come to know us. I like especially that idea that we ‘curate’ ourselves.

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The perfect size for a community (whether a village, a religious congregation, or a military unit) is… 150. How do we know?

An Amish school

Primates live in groups, which allows them to solve problems together and reduce the risks of being caught by predators. You stick together; you stand united against a common enemy. But all the time an implicit calculation is being made to work out whether the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs.

Robin Dunbar explains:

The psychological demands of living in large groups mean that, in primates, species-typical group size correlates rather closely with the species’ brain size. On the primate model, our oversized brain would predict a group size of around 150, the number now known as Dunbar’s Number. We find it in the typical community size of hunter-gatherer societies, in the average village size in county after county in the Domesday book, as well as in 18th-century England; it is the average parish size among the Hutterites and the Amish (fundamentalist Christians who live a communal life in the Dakotas and Pennsylvania, respectively). It is also the average personal network size – the number of people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).

The Hutterites illustrate rather clearly just what’s involved. They deliberately split their communities once they exceed 150 individuals because, they maintain, you cannot run a community of more than 150 people by peer pressure alone: instead, you need a police force.

The same thinking also applies to business, management, and the military:

We see the same principle at work in the management philosophy of the Gore-Tex company, known for its breathable, waterproof fabrics. Instead of expanding factory size as its business grew, the late “Bill” Gore kept this factory size to 150 and simply built a new, completely self-contained factory next door. The result is a work community where everyone knows everyone else, and there is no need for formal line-management systems or name badges; everyone is committed to each other and to the communal vision. Has this been the secret to its unusual success as a business?

Perhaps the best example, however, remains the military. All modern armies have a similar organisational structure, mostly developed over the last 300 years by trial and error on the battlefield. The core to this is the company – typically around 120-180 in size – almost exactly Dunbar’s Number. As anyone who has been in the army will tell you, company is family, far more so than battalion or regiment.

Although wild claims have been made about the number of friends people have on Facebook, the vast majority of us have only 120-130. Yes, you can have 500 or 1,000 friends if you want to sign people up, but this seems to have more to do with competition than with real friendship.

It makes you think about the communities you are involved in.

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There has been a lot of comment about the role of Facebook and other social media in publicising and facilitating the uprisings in the Arab world and beyond. Lawrence Pintak writes about the indispensable role played by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV channel.

As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.

It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.

It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.

Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.

But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera’s feed, foiling the Egyptian regime’s efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.

“We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies,” Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. “Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public.”

And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.

“The genius of Arab satellite TV,” Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, “is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche.”

Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.

If you don’t know the history of the channel, Pintak fills in the gaps here:

Change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula,” named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable — and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process…

That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.

Among many other things, it shows you the continued significance of television, even in an age of digital communication and social media. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the English language 24-hour news channel here. I’m not clued-up enough to know where it sits in terms of politics, bias, etc; but it certainly gives you a different perspective from the usual UK channels.

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No-one doubts, after Egypt, that you can organise a revolution on Facebook. The question for those of us not presently caught up in this kind of political activism is: can you truly socialise there? 

Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and scriptwriter of The Social Network, was asked in a recent interview what he thought of the way Facebook is changing the nature of our relationships.

I’ve copied the full answer below, but let me highlight the thought-provoking analogy he makes, which is reason for a post in itself:

Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality.

Here’s the context:

Q: How to you feel about the way Facebook is changing how people relate?

A: I have a 10-year-old daughter who has never really known a world without Facebook, but we’re going to have to wait a generation or two to find out the results of this experiment. I’m very pessimistic. There’s an insincerity to it. Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality. We’re kind of acting for an audience: we’re creating a pretend version of ourselves. We’re counting the number of friends that we have instead of cultivating the depth of a relationship. I don’t find it appealing. [Playlist, 12-18 Feb, p12]

But aren’t we always acting for an audience? (If you want some thoughts on this go and read Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) And what if the distinctions between reality TV and ‘non-reality’ TV (whatever that was/is) and non-TV reality were lost a long time ago?

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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This is a late plug for Oliver Burkeman’s new year resolutions, which include (with copious references to the scientific research behind the advice): stop looking for your soulmate; reject positive thinking; make something and work with your hands; befriend your friends’ friends; and get a standing desk!

Here is his suggestion for all you internet and social networking addicts:

We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back.

Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.

The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to.

Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.

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Lots of end-of-year internet usage stats are coming in. For the first time, in the US at least, Facebook surpassed Google as the most visited website.

This is from Reuters (by Jennifer Saba):

The social network site edged out Google.com (GOOG.O) with 8.9 percent of all U.S. visits between January and November 2010, while Google.com ranked second with about 7.2 percent of all visits, according to online measurement service Experian Hitwise.

Facebook’s move to the top spot shows just how quickly the site has grown in popularity. Within the span of six years, Facebook has become the world’s largest Web social network with roughly half a billion users worldwide.

Google.com dominated the top spot as the most visited website in the United States in 2009 and 2008. News Corp’s (NWSA.O) MySpace was the No. 1 visited website in 2007. It is ranked No. 7.

However, when all of Google’s properties are considered — such as YouTube and email, for instance — Google still reigns as the most visited site at 9.9 percent between January and November 2010. Facebook follows at 8.9 percent. Yahoo (YHOO.O) and all of its properties ranked third at 8.1 percent.

So connecting with others has become more important than finding things for oneself. In the language of my previous post about basic human needs and self-determination theory, the need for ‘relatedness’ has triumphed over the need for ‘autonomy’. That’s my vastly over-simplified way of looking at these huge cultural shifts!

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The other theme that came out of the film The Social Network was this: Facebook is not just an inevitable consequence of new technology; it’s a result of someone coming up with a really big and really simple idea that no-one had thought of before.

The technology was already there: the internet, the web, a few algorithms that had been used in other situations before. (What are these ‘algorithms’? They always pop up in stories about geeks taking over the world.) All it took was someone like Mark Zuckerberg to think of something new and wonderful to create with these tools.

As is so often the case, it was the cross-fertilization between two worlds that allowed the hybrid idea to emerge – or at least that’s how it was presented. When you combine the exclusivity and shared intimacy of a college ‘frat’ (a social club), with the real-time communication and computational power of the internet – you get Facebook.

The power of a Really Big Idea. This is why Dragons’ Den is such good TV. It’s not the money; it’s whether an ordinary person can convince a team of savvy investors that they really do have the germ of a decent idea.

Ever since watching the film on Friday evening, I’ve been trying to create a Zuckerberg moment for myself, to come up with that Big Idea that’s going to change the world. It hasn’t happened yet. But you will be the first to hear about it when it comes! (Unless I need to talk to my investors first…)

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I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

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The title says it all: social network giant Facebook has just registered its 500 millionth member.

You can see some graphs here about the relative growth and decline of various social networking sites. (Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and Linkedin are growing; MySpace, Flickr, Bebo and Friends Reunited are in decline.)

Matt Warman gives this report:

Yesterday Facebook announced that it now has half a billion users worldwide – if it were a country, it would have the third largest population in the world. One in 14 people around the globe is on the site. It’s as big as the US and Brazil combined, and only India and China – two markets the web has yet to reach en masse – are larger.

Jeff Mann, a vice-president at analysts Gartner, points out that there are “a small number of people who get really angry about the privacy issues – but they’re off. They’ve left. The vast majority continues to stick with it and to find it very useful.”

All of this is a long way from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, where Facebook began. And the strapline for the forthcoming movie about Facebook, called The Social Network, is telling: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”. In the six years since Facebook has been active, there have been numerous lawsuits, concerns about its use to paedophiles, arguments about its potential to compromise its users’ privacy and – perhaps most crucially – doubts about its value, financial and practical.

After all, to those not on Facebook, it’s hard to see the value. The site invites users to create profiles, write regular updates about what they’re doing and then connect their profiles to those of their friends. But our friends are the people we all know already – where’s the utility in discovering what they had for breakfast?

The answer, in the words of the company’s head of European Policy, Richard Allan, is that Facebook has enabled a whole “new depth” to how we connect with people. It encourages all of us to show people photographs of our weekends, to see who likes what. So when a meeting in real life takes place, it’s arguably Facebook that means 500 million people don’t have to bother with silly small talk.

“In real life,” says Allan, “you have enough time to maintain regularly going out with 20 to 30 people. Facebook typically extends your social circle by another 100 people. So you feel connected, in real time, to that wedding of a family member you haven’t seen for a while. But it typically remains an online way of sharing information about real events.”

There’s a darker side to the social network, however: the recent controversy about a number of tribute pages to murderer Raoul Moat; an only recently concluded debacle about how young people using the site should be protected from adults who might seek to groom them; and a series of self-inflicted crises brought about by Facebook’s repeated decisions to tinker with privacy settings which left some people feeling uncomfortably exposed.

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David Bond has an article in yesterday’s Evening Standard about the extent of surveillance in Britain at the moment.

He goes through the usual list of governmental and commercial tracking that goes on, often unacknowledged, from the low-level surveillance of supermarket loyalty cards and freely shared social networking information, through the new NHS database, to the 250 CCTV cameras that populate his neighbourhood in Hoxton, London.

London has been the world’s test bench for a range of tracking gadgets. We have more CCTV than any other city – there are 250 cameras alone within a mile of my house in Hoxton. Again, convenience was at the heart of the sales pitch, this time to the police. Imagine, no more trudging the cold streets. Sit in comfort and watch the crimes unfold. You only need to get out there when there is a problem. And to citizens, the systems are sold by fear. Crime is too widespread to catch on foot, we were told. We need to use the all-seeing eye. So why did the recent House of Lords report conclude that CCTV has had little or no effect in preventing or detecting crime? The massive industry that sells CCTV to government had a ready answer — because it is not really good enough yet. The images are too blurry. There are not enough cameras. Or perhaps they need to be fitted with more advanced software (now being installed in central London stations) that can recognise your face, or even how you walk. Once the technology is perfected, then it will really start to improve our lives. Or will it?

What made the article particular interesting was that he went underground, tried to live a hidden life away from the tracking technology, and hired a firm of private investigators to see how long it would take them to find him from publically available information.

I wanted to know what other people can know about me. What is out there in the public domain? Can it be used to profile me to the extent that a determined investigator, identity thief or stalker, could know what I am likely to do in the future — and catch me?

Within an hour of searching for me (all they had to start with was my name and a recent photo) the private investigators had ordered my wife’s, my own and my daughter’s birth certificates, and my parents’ and my marriage certificates.

They ran my name through a number of profiling systems to give them my credit rating, details of property I owned and my employment history. They also ran a quick profile of me on social networking sites. I had tried to remove myself from Facebook (you can never really remove yourself from Facebook) but they were able to find a good crop of my friends. I am not particularly vulnerable, by the way, anyone could do the same to you.

Before running away, I wanted to find out what data is out there about me as an average Londoner. I compiled a list of 80 organisations — companies, government agencies, social networks — that know about me. I made subject access requests under the Data Protection Act to all of them.

The results were staggering. My desk disappeared under a mountain of paper. It turns out that the DVLA still had records of a driving offence I committed in my late teens. I am 38 and they are supposed to be deleted after 10 years. Amazon provided 120 pages of orders, friends to whom I send presents and even things that I might be interested in, based on my previous browsing.

Transport for London reluctantly sent me a terrifying log of every crossing in and out of the congestion charge zone I have ever made. I had bought a low-emission car to avoid the charge, but they track it anyway. When I called them to ask why, the bemused manager said that the police might need it if I got myself in trouble in the future. “It’s not a police state or anything,” he reassured me.

My bank sent me records of my phone calls. It had lost a cheque in 1997, and the transcript read like a Stasi file. “Mr Bond seems angry. His voice is raised. And he is considering leaving the bank.” Tesco knows what food I like. I suppose that’s not a surprise. But it also has me pegged as, among other things, a new dad, who buys beer on a Friday, and sometimes a little more than average …

In itself, this data was unsettling but what really gave me the fear was when I called these people back and asked them to delete the data. “Do what?” was the standard response. “Delete it, please.” “Oh no, we don’t do that.”

And the penny dropped. Knowledge is power. For governments, this means control, for companies, profit. Once we give this stuff up, we are never getting it back and it sits around forever.

You can see the TV documentary on More4 at 10pm on Tuesday. And look at the website here.

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I still hardly use Facebook. If I remember, I copy these posts onto my homepage. And if someone sends me a message, I try to reply. But being ‘the wrong side of 40′ most of my middle-aged friends still prefer email to social networking.

Nokia e61 smartphone by Ziębol.I used to console myself with the idea that Facebook is the past, and something new will soon step over the digital horizon. It seems I was wrong, and Facebook is actually the face of the future.

It’s not just that Facebook growth is still exponential (I don’t just mean large, I mean exponential: it’s rate of growth is going up; the number of active users doubled from 200 million last summer to this month’s 400 million). It’s that our personal identity, and our commercial identity, is becoming defined not by what we consume (shopping), or watch (TV), or search for (Google), but by what we connect with in real-time.

This is why mobile Facebook and all the new smartphone applications will shape the evolution of culture and human consciousness over the next decade. Blogging, by the way, is almost prehistoric by now.

David Rowan explains the background:

What we are witnessing is the ultimate battle for control of the internet. Google, employing the world’s smartest software engineers, has dominated the desktop-internet era for a decade through its unbeatable algorithm-based computing power. But now we’re into the mobile-internet era, Facebook intends to dominate by knowing what we are thinking, doing and intending to spend — wherever we happen to be. As Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg sees it, this “social graph”, built around our friends, family and colleagues, will determine how hundreds of millions of us decide on everything from holidays to cosmetic surgeons. And with Facebook the proprietary gatekeeper — its mobile-phone applications already attracting extraordinary engagement from members — that’s a potential advertiser proposition that Google can only dream of.

It’s not that Mr Zuckerberg is still only 25 and naively arrogant that annoys Google, nor that his company has enticed swaths of senior Google talent. It’s that Facebook’s fast-growing dominance of the “social” internet threatens its rival’s entire business model. If it can sell advertisers access not just to what you’re thinking, but to where you are, who you’re with and what you plan to do, Facebook’s revenues from individually targeted “behavioural” advertising could increase exponentially. And it knows it.

“Google is not representative of the future of technology in any way,” a Facebook veteran boasted to Wired recently. “Facebook is an advanced communications network enabling myriad communication forms. It almost doesn’t make sense to compare them.”

Mr Zuckerberg’s human-powered view of the internet also taps into our yearning, as social creatures, to climb Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to attain self-actualisation: of the 400 million active Facebook users (up from 200 million last summer), half log on in any given day; they share five billion pieces of content a week and upload more than three billion photos each month. On average, they spend more than 55 minutes a day on Facebook. Those who access it via their mobile devices are “twice as active”. Now do you see why the search gurus in Google’s Mountain View headquarters are so anxious?

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So what if everyone, everywhere, knows everything about you? What’s the big deal? You’re still you – only now you’re you for everyone else too…

Richard Woods writes about privacy in the digital age. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook, has declared (in effect) that privacy is dead: “People have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” He described such lack of privacy as a “social norm”. This comes at the same time as Google is trying to defend its reputation for guarding people’s privacy by pulling away from the tentacles of Chinese hackers.

Yes, it’s an age thing, but there are interviews in the article with people in their teens and 20s who are still wary about what they put online and keen to preserve the distinction between what is private and what is public.

Defining minimum privacy by HORIZON.

I learnt about two new concepts here. ‘Blippy’ is a website that allows everyone to know when, where and how you have spent every penny in your pocket.

Let’s pick a person pretty much at random: Dan Braden of Austin, Texas. I do not know Braden at all, but I can tell you that in the past few days he has spent $373.46 on Louis Vuitton goods, $162.47 at a local grocery store, $20 at a fitness centre and $3.23 on iTunes. He is also a regular at Starbucks, went to a Maudie’s Tex-Mex restaurant last week and spent $717.10 on new tyres.

Is someone spying on Braden or hacking into his bank account? Nope. Instead, he has signed up to Blippy, a new website that puts online every purchase users make with a designated credit card. He is happy to publicise where he goes and what he buys. No privacy worries for him.

If the truth about who you are as a person is revealed above all by what you search for and what you buy (and I think there is much truth in this), then Blippy must be the way forward for those who want to reveal all.

The second concept I came across was that of the ‘spider programme’:

Even if you do try to restrict your profile, the data that remains public can still give away a lot about you. Facebook, for example, has no privacy restrictions on your name, photograph, list of friends and certain other material.

By analysing such data, “spider” programs can draw up social graphs that reveal your sexuality, political beliefs and other characteristics. According to Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, it can be done even if you list as few as eight friends.

So even if you don’t put all your digital pieces together into a tidy personal profile — it’s consoling/terrifying (take your pick) to know that someone else is kindly doing it for you.

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