About 14,5 Random Thoughts on Blogging and Social Media

I have been blogging on WordPress.com since nearly three years, and I noted the following:

Blogs have a half life. Many decay after 2 years. Blogs I had followed had been deleted, or bloggers had suddenly stopped publishing without notice.

There are tons of single-post-blogs. A user-friendly editor motivates people to get started. But blogging does not take more time than HTML editing. We need time for composition, not for typing.

An important change in personal or professional life often triggers the launch of a new blog. If the change had been mastered successfully, the well might run dry.

You can write the articles you want to write, or you can write what you want to read. Perhaps many hobbyist authors go from the former, introspective-therapeutic stage to the latter.

Bloggers running blogs of the same age flock together in groups. Groups consist of less than 10 people; everybody reads and comments on the others’ blogs regularly.

WordPress.com is both publishing platform and social network, and it works well because nearly every user is both contributor and commentator.

Nearly all social media have done away with nested discussion threads, and only the first few lines of comments are visible unless you click More. Will WordPress follow suit?

It is hard to resist popular topics, and the hype might not be obvious. Who knew that all things quantum would enthrall the masses?

At the beginning there was the classical website; then there was the blog – configurable to serve any purpose. Now there is a specific platform for images, for long-form texts, and whatnot.

Optimization for mobile devices can makes sites harder to read on PCs. There is no such thing as the integrity of individual web pages anymore.

Web-logging the diary way messes up structure and categories. But  on static WordPress pages organized via nested menus I always look for that signature date information.

Social media fundamentally recalibrated communications; we go asynchronous. A synchronous phone call  feels like an intrusion unless life-altering.

Blogging and social media have revived the art of rhetorics, and I learned a new word: humblebragging. 

Our online repositories are like the human brain: Content needs to be alive: to be revisited, rearranged, and curated all the time to be useful.

You ought to add an image.

The View, 2015-02

The More Content You Have Created

… the more time you need for curating.

My first ever attempt at tweeting an aphorism. But it is true for me, and it defines the way I use online spaces.

As a contributor of online content, I am operating in different modes:

  • Creator, with emphasis on creating something original – including unintended re-invention of the already existing I had not googled.
  • Researcher, when cross-checking sources or doing calculations.
  • Commentator on the blogs of others.
  • Curator. It is this role I want to dwell upon now.

I started writing online by editing static web pages, and this still determines my netizen’s philosophy. Creating content was always playing with structure versus content, and playing with how to present content in a way it was useful to me – and maybe to others, too.

You cannot pre-define categories, tags, and other structure upfront in my opinion, but you have to revisit them regularly. Social media like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter are primarily determined by the timeline, without giving the user a chance to provide a more timeless structure. Actually the user cannot influence the layout at all. That’s why I consider them secondary channels. Originally I had planned to organize resources useful to me on such sites – but I don’t want to full-text search my own posts or edit hashtags.

What I prefer is what search engines might penalize me for: Long, hand-crafted lists of links. Since a few months I have resumed posting to technical IT security forums. These forums provide automatically compiled lists of my threads, my activity etc. But yet I compile lists of my threads on one of my sites whose domain name accidentally makes for an insider pun: radices, which means roots. I violate database best practices by organizing the same content in redundant fashion – by date or by topic. It is not the final list that is so terribly useful to me, but the act of revisiting all the content, struggling with categorizing, and adding summaries.

I made it a rule to only add links to my collections that I had already used, as I believe the ease of arranging links and downloading documents makes it too simple to just collect and hoard – without actually reading or using. The internet is not too blame here: In the old times, at the university, I was collecting and curating scientific papers – the collecting being a result of my monthly browsing interesting journals, and it was often more extensive than needed.

This year I have created new major categories for these blog by laying out the site map –  the pages making up the main menu. It dawned on me that this more than a navigation menu. It reflects what is important for me, and that I don’t care anymore about explaining how all this goes together. I created these pages at about the same time I stopped trying to explain why my professional playgrounds would complement each other so nicely. I rather say, I work on A and B, as odd as this combination seems. Combining Anything – I Mean It.

I do love playing with different platforms, and I do maintain all of my non-blog websites. My most innovative experiments in Google-Translate-assisted poetry go unnoticed as I published them only on my subversive website.

The reason I have this Anything blog is that I tried to keep things separated originally, but finally all of my sites cover all of my topics anyway. Curation is what makes me aware of it.

But on principle I do know that it makes sense to keep to a topic. On our German blog we focus more on heat pumps; there is a lot of technical information, and we keep to a specific narrative style. I am at a loss how to explain this. We call ourselves the Two Fearless Settlers and Professional Tinkerers who tell stories about renewable energies. We use synonyms for places that are reminiscent of fairy-tales or slightly old-fashioned newspapers. Ironically, there is a game called Settlers Online whose style might quite match our blog, and we only learned about this via search terms on our blog (which have also been turned into search term poetry). Clients find the site both informative and entertaining – some of the unexpected positive feedback left me speechless.

On this blog here the navel-gazing ramblings may still outweigh light entertainment or practically useful information. I am not sure if I want to change this – I am just parsing my content and I am recognizing this. The more I create site maps and categories, the less I use them to plan for future content. It is more about coming to a halt and contemplating. I have also decided that I will go on a literary diet until end of 2014 – so I will not amend my Reading List in the next weeks.

I feel like I have reached a goal I hadn’t defined before.

Vineyards

I Am Too Googleable!

What a letdown.

I wanted to report on near completion of The Website Resurrection Project – but I had a mind-altering experience.

On the upside, I am not afraid of identity theft or surveillance anymore.

My dentist had to cancel an appointment the day before. I showed up some minutes before the appointed time. The practice was empty and dark, except for the assistants who told me:

We have eagerly been waiting for you!! We did not know how to reach you as we didn’t have your phone number!

Have you tried to find my phone number on the web? It’s on my business website!

Yes, we searched the internet – but there were so many search results coming up!!!! And we did not know which is your business page!

(Probably it was more like:
One of *these* pages is for business?!?).

You could have sent me an e-mail – I am usually very responsive! My e-mail address is on all my websites.

There was no e-mail address!

Uhm… sorry… I am very active on the internet … it is maybe difficult to sort all that out …

So it was all in vain.

I have a business page, three personal websites, this blog, and a German blog, and some weird older web projects. Find the canonical overview here. My usual response to an enthusiastic

I have checked out your website ! 🙂 !!

is

Which one?

And each and every of those sites has this overly correct legal information notice our online media law demands of me.

I even add the e-mail address though I might not need to.

As the Subversive Element I note on top of the legal information block:
Adding legal information to a site like this constitutes an act of subversion in its own right

Legal information needs to be accessible in a simple way, via a single click from any page. You then argue at court over the definition of simple and single click and if your visitors could or could not infer from a URL title such as contact that address information is to be found at this URL.

Most German wordpress.com bloggers have a legal info page longer than my most extensive posts. The About page of this blog is, at the time of writing, most likely illegal as the linked legal information is two clicks away from any post.

Tinkering with this was just a tiny part of The Website Resurrection Project – I have re-written loads of content, and didn’t leave any of the code or design untouched. All for the sake of clarity and serving the internet community well – and because I don’t have much other hobbies.

Using a browser I never use to logon to Google, a search for my name brings up a reasonable collection of results – my personal site being in the first place, legal info one click away.

Google has honored my efforts by recognizing my authorship for this website although I did not do take ownership in the Google-technical sense for any site – as my nerdy readers might have noticed on this blog. I wanted to save my pseudonym elkement and not trade it for the real name Google+ forces you to use.

I don’t think there should be any difficulty to spot my contact data. I am happy with the ranking – I am just worried about the subversive stuff is given less weight than the business-y. But that does not prevent clients who are my business social networking contacts from asking me for my contact data again – on Facebook!

So what’ the problem?

The IMP Log The Very First Message Sent on the Internet (6293913865)

How did we get there? How did it get started? This is the log of the first message sent on the internet in 1969 (Wikimedia)

_________________________________________

For German readers: Here is the law(s).

Should This Blog Be Cast in Stone and Live Forever?

In my end-of-year-cleaning-digital-assets procedure I have found an Outlook contact of a user deceased some years ago.

I have just tweaked this blog’s stylesheet – although I know that the layout will revert to the default when I will have died and nobody will pay for the WordPress’ Custom Design feature anymore.

So what will happen to our cloud data and our social media profiles when we eventually die?

Candle Memorial For Deceased Wikipedians

Candle Memorial For Deceased Wikipedians

I tried to find this out for some profiles and networks I use:

Facebook allows for the submission of a Memorialization Request. This request has to include proof of the person’s death. Facebook will try to prevent references to memorialized accounts from appearing on Facebook in ways that may be upsetting to the person’s friends and family. This means you are deprived of the right of shocking your ancestors via the content of your Facebook profile. Your family would also have the right to request the removal of your page.

Thus if you want to live forever through your writing you better write on real paper. However, it is comforting that anyone can send private messages to the deceased person.

It was hard to find related information for Google+ accounts as all searches for ‘Google’ and ‘dead’ yield articles about Google, Google Plus, Google Reader or other Google products  being dead. You should search for digital afterlife instead. Google helps you with Plan[ing] your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager.

You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason. For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity

In contrast to Facebook Google puts you in control.

I have now enabled Inactive Account Manager now for research purposes. You can configure your time-out to 18 months maximum – then Google will process the configured steps, such as contacting your configured trusted persons. This is probably the best way for web 2.0 providers to collect data about the network of persons that really matters to us.

LinkedIn requires a surviving user to fill in and digitally sign the Verification of Death form. Start here.

You might worry about the destiny of those flattering recommendations: Endorsements given by deceased persons are gone then, too. But LinkedIn responds:

Please don’t take it personally!
Recommendations are tied to Accounts,
so if the account is closed, …,
everything goes with it.
It’s just the way the system works.

Twitter allows for a seemingly informal procedure: You can (snail) mail or fax to the address give here – which just includes a fax number. We cannot tweet from the grave as [They] are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.

WordPress like[s] to help the family and/or estate determine what happens with their loved one’s WordPress.com site. This refreshingly casual form allows for transfer of the ownership to next of kin.

Thus summarizing social networks deal with deceased users by allowing for deletion by legitimate heirs, by freezing the site and turning in into a memorial page, or by giving ownership to authorized persons. Google tries to give the mortal users some control upfront.

It seems that none of those networks allow for the user stating his or her will, such as: My page and all that humiliating comments and rants I have published throughout my lifetime should be online forever.

If you have followed my blog for a while you I am attracted – in an odd way – by the creepiness of futuristic visions. I owe Dan Mullin for the pointer to this much too realistic video and for asking Who owns the digital person?

Before our minds are ready to be uploaded to a futuristic cloud we have e.g. the following options:

DeadSocial allows us all to say our final goodbyes on our own terms and for us to extend our digital legacy using the social web.  Your trusted social media will executors will trigger your tweeting and posting from the grave for hundred years to come. Lawyers, it’s your turn to explain to me what will happen of these executors disagree with next of kin.

PasswordBox (that has acquired Legacy Locker) offers what is called in IT lingo a single-sign-on password manager. All your passwords are stored and transferred in encrypted fashion to the service, and you can grant permissions to trusted persons to access your credentials after your death. The security features are impressing – and you are right in worrying about what happens if you forget the master password.

LivesOn is closer to the idea used in the video. According to this article it is not a product but

an artificial intelligence experiment. LivesOn makes a new Twitter account for you while you’re still alive and analyzes your original account for your interests, tastes and syntax. As time goes on, the LivesOn feed will begin posting updates, after learning your style. Users will be able to favorite tweets to give feedback, increasing the system’s intelligence. When the time comes, you can nominate an “executor” to your LivesOn will, and they will decide whether to keep your account live.

LivesOn’s founder says:

“The afterlife is not a new idea, it’s been around for quite a long time with all the different versions of heaven and hell,” Lean Mean Fighting Machine’s Bedwood said. “To me this isn’t any stranger than any one of those. In fact, it might be less strange.”

Using Social Media in Bursts. Is. Just. Normal.

I have seen lots of turkey pictures last week and this has reminded me of an anniversary: When I saw those last time I have just started using Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

So a review is overdue, and I also owe an update to my Time-Out from social networks this summer. (If you don’t have time to read further – the headline says it all.)

I am not at all an internet denier. Actually, I had crafted my first website in 1997 and had pseudo-blogged since 2002. I made these pages – not blogs in the technical sense, but content-wise – the subject of last year’s Website Resurrection Project.

There have been two reasons for my denial of modern interactive platforms, both are weird:

  1. Territory Anxiety: It made me uncomfortable to have my own site entangled with somebody else’s via comments, reshares and the like. I prefer platforms that allow me to make them mine. Facebook and Google+ require you to ‘fill in form’ and put you at the mercy of their designers.
  2. Always-On and Traceability: For many years my job was concerned with firefighting – an inherent feature of working with digital certificates that have their end of validity embedded cryptographically. I considered it odd if panicking clients would see me sharing geeky memes while they are waiting for my more substantial responses. Notifications by corporate online communication tools conditioned me to loath any piece of technology that tried to start a conversation via flashing pop-ups.

These two reasons haven’t been invalidated completely – I think I just care less. Social media is an ongoing experiment in communications.

I am using social media in the following way: (This is not at all advice for using social media properly, but an observation.)

  • If I use a network, I want to use it actively. I don’t use anything as a sole channel for announcements, such as tweeting all new blog postings (only), and I don’t use automation. I don’t replicate all content on different networks or at least there should be enough non-overlap. Each network has its own culture, target group, style of conversation.

A detailed analysis of the unique culture of each network remains maybe subject to a future post. But I cannot resist sharing my recently started collection of articled on the characteristics of the most hated most analyzed network:

How to overcome facebook status anxiety
7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook
Does Facebook CAUSE narcissism?

I became a Google+ fan, actually.

  • The only ‘strategic tool’ I use is a simple text file I paste interesting URLs to – in case I stumble upon too many interesting things which would result in quite a spammy tsunamis of posts or tweets. This is in line with my life-long denial of sophisticated time-management tools and methodologies as Getting Things Done (which is less down-to-earth than it sounds). I don’t believe in the idea of getting mundane things out of your head to free up capacity for the real thing. I want to keep appointments, tasks, the really important items on the to do list, and thing to be posted in my mind.
  • Using social networks must not feel like work – like having to submit your entries to the time-tracking tool. I said often that my so-called business blog, Facebook site, Google+ site can hardly be recognized as such. (Remember, I said this is not perfect marketing advice.)
  • I don’ care about the alleged ideal time for posting and about posting regularly. It is all about game theory: What if everybody adhered to that grand advice that you should, say, tweet funny stuff in the afternoon or business stuff on Tuesday morning? My social media engagement is burst-like, and I think this is natural. This is maybe the most important result of my time-out experiment:
  • Irregularity is key. It is human and normal. I don’t plan to take every summer off from social media. I will rather allow for breaks of arbitrary length when I feel like that.

And I have found scientific confirmation through this scientific paper: The origin of bursts and heavy tails in human dynamics by renowned researcher on network dynamics, Albert-László Barabási.

The abstract reads (highlights mine):

The dynamics of many social, technological and economic phenomena are driven by individual human actions, turning the quantitative understanding of human behaviour into a central question of modern science. Current models of human dynamics, used from risk assessment to communications, assume that human actions are randomly distributed in time and thus well approximated by Poisson processes. In contrast, there is increasing evidence that the timing of many human activities, ranging from communication to entertainment and work patterns, follow non-Poisson statistics, characterized by bursts of rapidly occurring events separated by long periods of inactivity. Here I show that the bursty nature of human behaviour is a consequence of a decision-based queuing process: when individuals execute tasks based on some perceived priority, the timing of the tasks will be heavy tailed, with most tasks being rapidly executed, whereas a few experience very long waiting times. In contrast, random or priority blind execution is well approximated by uniform inter-event statistics.

Poisson statistics is used to describe, for example, radioactive decay. I learned now that it can also be applied to traffic flow or queues of calls in a call center – basically queues handled by unbiased recipients. The probability to measure a certain time between two consecutive decays or phone calls taken decreases exponentially with time elapsed. Thus very long waiting times are extremely unlikely.

The exponential dependence is another way to view the probably familiar exponential law of decay – by finding the probability of no decay in a certain time via the percentage of not yet decayed atoms. Richard Feynman gives the derivation here for collisions of molecules in a gas.

Radioactive Decay Law Decay Constants

Radioactive decay – the number of non-decayed nuclei over time for different decay rates (half-lives). This could also be read as the probability for a specific nucleus not to decay for a certain time (Wikimedia)

Thus plotting probability over measured inter-e-mail time should give you a straight line in a log-linear plot.

However, the distribution of the time interval between e-mails has empirically been determined to follow a power law which can quickly be identified by a straight line in a log-log-plot: In this case probability for a certain time interval goes approximately with 1 over the time elapsed (power of minus 1).

Power-law distribution, showing the yellow heavy or fat tail. This function goes to zero much slower than the exponential function.

A power function allows for much higher probabilities for very long waiting times (‘Fat tails’).

Such patterns were also found…

…in the timing of job submissions on a supercomputer directory listing and file transfers (FTP request) initiated by individual users, or the timing of printing jobs submitted by users were also reported to display non-Poisson features. Similar patterns emerge in economic transactions, describing the time interval distributions between individual trades in currency futures. Finally, heavy-tailed distributions characterize entertainment-related events, such as the time intervals between consecutive online games played by the same user.

We so-called knowledge workers process our task lists, e-mails, or other kinds of queued up input neither in First-In-First-Out-style (FIFO) or randomly, but we assign priorities in this way:

…high-priority tasks will be executed soon after their addition to the list, whereas low-priority items will have to wait until all higher-priority tasks are cleared, forcing them to stay on the list for considerable time intervals. Below, I show that this selection mechanism, practiced by humans on a daily basis, is the probable source of the fat tails observed in human-initiated processes.

Barabási’s model is perfectly in line with what I had observed in deadline-driven environments all the time. When your manager pings you – you will jump through any hoop presented to you, provided it has been tagged as super-urgent:

This simple model ignores the possibility that the agent occasionally selects a low-priority item for execution before all higher-priority items are done common, for example, for tasks with deadlines.

It gets even better as this model is even more suited to dealing with competing tasks – such as your manager pinging your while you ought have to respond to that urgent Facebook post, too:

Although I have illustrated the queuing process for e-mails, in general the model is better suited to capture the competition between different kinds of activities an individual is engaged in; that is, the switching between various work, entertainment and communication events. Indeed, most data sets displaying heavy-tailed inter-event times in a specific activity reflect the outcome of the competition between tasks of different nature.

Poisson processes and the resulting exponential distribution are due to the fact that events occur truly random: The number of particles emitted due to radioactive decays or the number of request served by a web server is proportional to the time interval multiplied by a constant. This constant is characteristic of the system: an average rate of decay or the average number of customers calling. Call center agents just process calls in FIFO mode.

Power-law behavior, on the other hand, is the result of assigning different priorities to tasks using a distribution function. Agents are biased.

Barabási is very cautious is stating the universal validity of the power-law. He also discusses refinements of the model, such as taking into account the size of an e-mail message and required processing time, and he emphasizes the dependence of the calculated probability on the details of the priorities of tasks. Yet, the so-called fat tails in the probabilities of task execution seem to be a universal feature irrespective of the details of the distribution function.

He has also shown that these bursty patterns are not tied to modern technology and e-mail clients: Darwin and Einstein prioritized their replies to letters in the same way that people rate their e-mails today.

Considering a normal (typically crazy) working day you may have wondered why you could model that without taking into account other things that need to be done in addition to responding to e-mail. And indeed Barabási stresses the role of different competing tasks:

Finally, heavy tails have been observed in the foraging patterns of birds as well, raising the intriguing possibility that animals also use some evolutionarily encoded priority-based queuing mechanisms to decide between competing tasks, such as caring for offspring, gathering food, or fighting off predators.

Thus we might even seem evolutionary hard-wired to process challenging tasks in this way.

I am asking myself: Is this the reason why I find automated posts on social media feel staged? Why I find very regular blogging / posting intervals artificial? Why I don’t like the advice (by social media professionals) that you need to prepare posts in advance for the time you will be on vacation? What happens next – program the automation to act in a bursty fashion?

______________________________
I planned to connect my Time-Out experience with Barabási’s Bursts for a long time. But now this burst of my writing it down may finally have been triggered by this conversation on an earlier post of mine.

I enjoyed Barabási’s popular-science book Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life on the dynamics of scale-free networks.

There is also a popular version related to his research on bursts: Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do, from Your E-mail to Bloody Crusades. Bursts is a fascinating book as well, and Barabási illustrates the underlying theories using very diverse examples. But you should better be interested in history in its own right and don’t read the book for the science/modelling part only. Reading Bursts for the first time, I came to similar conclusions as this reviewer. It is probably one of the books you should read more than once, re-calibrating your expectations.

Further reading: Website of Barabási’s research lab.

Barabasi Albert 1000nodes

So-called scale-free networks. The distribution of the number of connections per node also follows a power-law. Scale-free networks are characterized by ongoing growth and ‘winner-take-all’ behavior (Wikimedia, user Keiichiro Ono)

Unplug Myself: First Update

It has been three and a half weeks since I have unplugged myself from social media and suspended blogging temporarily.

I was rather active on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter before since I had started the Connect Myself to the Collective Experiment last November. Now my Klout score is dwindling again.

This is my first update from the void, about the void. What happened?

I spent a short vacation – hiking in the Austrian Alps. If a mountain isn’t a symbol of eternal solitude, I don’t know what is.

elkement-mountain-snow

This is me, trying not to stumble. As the saying goes “Not trying is worse than to stumble and fall.” (c) elkement

I have recovered my ability to read and write long-winded, technical, analytical, wooden prose. My anecdotal evidence confirms the hypotheses put forward by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: Skimming Facebook postings and science news posted on G+ diminished my ability to immerse in books and to dig mind-altering material such as technical standards and laws. The good news is that this deformation can be undone rather quickly due to the plasticity of the brain.

The bad news is that I lost the zest for or the capability of creating social media compatible information snippets (They should be called information-lets or infolets, shouldn’t they?).

I believe the reason is very simple: I have always written, blogged and ‘shared’ in bursts, and after a fireworks of bursts I needed to recharge my creative batteries and gather some experiences or fresh knowledge I could write about.

Having set-up the subversive websites 10 years ago I started penning anything I pondered about another 10 years before. Then I had said anything I had to say about things that mattered to me – and it was time again to just live and and work. In particular, in times of change (personal or career-wise) I felt a need for writing – it remains to be analyzed if writing catalyzes change, if I start writing before I know I want to make a change, or if I write about changes in hindsight.

Currently I am inclined to the latter theory: In the last year I have written about the corporate world and my difficult relationship with it, after I had taken a decision to leave it. This is a recurring pattern I find in texts on my proto-blog websites, too – I post-process painful decisions though a reader who does not know me might conclude that I am mulling on a problem that remains to be resolved.

In any case I write in bursts, and each burst is based on years of experience – with the notable exception of spam poems. I even applied the same ‘logic’ to social media infolets: I tend to share only stuff related to some experience of mine – I don’t want to browse the daily science news to share the coolest stories.

But the trickiest part of social media is the social part, in particular what I would like to call reciprocity. You need to decide on a strategy – and you do so, maybe unknowingly:

Are you going to follow back? Do you handle following (back) in a different way on different networks? What does a like really mean? Are you going to give priority to creating your own new postings / messages / updates, do you process  comments first, or do you read others’ posts first? Do you apply the same twisted way of thinking that got ingrained in your brain after years of corporate e-mail politics (She knows I read her e-mail because I sent a read receipt (accidentally), so now I need to answer her e-mail first before I leave another virtual trace that gives proof of my being online.)  Or do you give up, shout out your message – the same on all channels, that is: using Twitter and Facebook basically for announcing your blog posts?

Believe it or not I had even considered to publish these updates on the void on my non-blog websites only – as I am not sure if I can guarantee reciprocity in terms of reading all your posts during my blogging hiatus.

Social media / online culture sceptics say that on reading online stuff we are overwhelmed by the necessity of taking decisions all the time: Should I click that link? This prevents moving information from the short-term to long-term memory, so Google makes us stupid indeed. Online, decision-loaded reading is very different from the meditative and easy immersion in a single author’s thoughts that you follow over hundreds of pages. On adding the social component (Should I like this?) the load on our decision taking faculties is significantly enhanced, I guess.

lake-mountains

Lake in the mountains. Solitude. The most exhausting part of the hike was still ahead of me – luckily I did not know it. (c) elkement

There is no final conclusion yet, I have no long-term plan concerning social media. Probably there is a way to train your versatile brain to switch between deep reading and decision-loaded reading. Who knows. But it seems the ‘issues’ that made me pull the trigger last month were related to reading, rather than to writing, and they are worse the more snippet-like the so-called content is. So I won’t stop WordPress-ing.

Chances are high that this update will remain the only one for July. I am just finalizing a piece of tech prose (my master thesis). As I tweeted yesterday: Life is great.

Creepy Game of Life

Every undergraduate in a science degree program has to develop some variant of Game of Life – in a programming 101 course. These – not very intelligent – life-forms on a checkerboard evolve by following very simple rules – ‘cell’ live or die, depending on its number of neighbors. The pattern is determined by the initial configuration on the board, so this is a deterministic universe. But this is not going to be a post on determinism or chaos.

Game of Life (Wikimedia)

As Wikipedia says, Game of Life has intrigued computer scientists, physicists, biologists, biochemists, economists, mathematicians, philosophers, generative scientists – so I hope I am addressing all my regular readers – if you are not sure about your tag, consider yourself a generative scientist.

Of course this is a follow-up to our meandering cross-blog thread(s) on education and gamification:
David E. Storey’s initial postEpic discussion on Dan Mullin’s blogMy random rantsDan’s update on ludic fallacy. Parallel universes: Maurice’s series of posts on distant education and Michelle on education and credentials / belonging versus fitting in.

We have discussed the impact of game-like motivation in education and the corporate world – my favorite example is using your Klout score in grading (or in screening job applications). Dan has argued – based on Taleb’s The Black Swan that

“…teaching students that education, corporate culture, and life in general is a big game to be played by a certain set of rules, may impart precisely the wrong lesson. The fact of the matter is that there are few predictable rules, and believing otherwise will make one more vulnerable to the black swan phenomenon.”

I have wholeheartedly agreed with his hypothesis that gamification makes people concentrate on hacking the system. Corporate systems focusing on meeting the numbers can result in the development of a parallel universe: In this world employees are obsessed with (or are forced to) making some traffic light icons in their score cards go green – applying whatever arcane magic. Ironically, this game could be given priority over serving real customers right now even if the score card in theory measures customer-orientation.

This quote from the article on Klout-based grading (in a Social Media for Reporters class) adds a new perspective:

“How is that possibly fair to students who are struggling to raise this arbitrary number that’s contrived inside a black box? It’s fair because it transforms the class from a workshop on button-pushing to an exercise in hypothesis testing, strategy and critical thinking. Students — who often approach grades with calculating economy of effort — don’t know what they have to do to boost their Klout scores, so they are forced to design simple experiments, isolate variables, and generalize their findings.”

So debugging and hacking is the goal, and it is not assumed that the underlying rules are based on simple probabilities. It is probably like grading in a hands-on lab IT security hacker class. As much as I – as a ‘hacker’ –  sympathize with this, I still feel uncomfortable – and I am not primarily concerned about grades; this is just a nice illustration.

David has introduced the archetypes of the Happy American Entrepreneur versus the Euro-Humanist, and I said I take the label Euro-Humanist as a badge of honor. I was reading Blaise Pascal at an age other teens were out to party – so I can’t deny my gloomy roots.

On the other hand I am a happy entrepreneur, at least since I ripped out my Borg implants.

Pondering about this apparent contradiction I came to the conclusion that this duality or tension I feel running through societies is not between happy gamers and gloomy deniers, but between genuine human beings and the systems they are components of. Humans turn to cellular automata. Some social systems have particular powers over individuals – we have discussed the Cult of Academia and the Cult of Corporate often – and systems can show emergent properties even if they are built on simple rules – such as the Game of Life.

I stick with the social media example even if it sounds trivial: The discrete nature of standardized (gamified) interaction on social media makes us act more bot-like:

I argue that what’s happening in Facebook and Twitter is the social production of patterns of discrete states of mind. That is, when we Tweet, fill in a profile, Like something, or comment, we’re contributing to aggregated datasets.

These limitations, coupled with the aggregated actions of millions of social media users, create a highly useful discrete-state machine: a machine I call the “social media confessional machine.”

So I conjecture that the introduction of gamified elements into ‘performance assessments’ is self-consistent with an evolutionary development of our digital society. Which does not mean that I like it.

  • Our digital social interactions become more bot-like and thus easier to predict, measure and aggregate.
  • Our real world becomes the digital world becomes a simplified Game of Life.
  • Hacking the system and understanding its rules becomes the key competence – of students and young professionals.

In Daniel Suarez’s high-tech thrillers (Thanks postmoderndonkey, for the pointer) the real world is transformed and infiltrated by distributed AI. In the beginning the reader is lured into believing this is your typical hack-cybersecurity-thriller. However, the seemingly evil system actually hacks and transforms people. Members of the cult-like social network Darknet use sort of Google glasses on steroids that allow them to overlay virtual dimensions to reality. People get used to judge others on their votes and reputation. The interesting twist in the narrative is related to the blurring distinction  between the good and the evil forces. But it is not a purely philosophical novel: If you don’t enjoy Bruce Willis’ action movies or like to read in detail about a hedge fund manager chipped into pieces by unmanned motor cycles equipped with rotating blades – don’t read it. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

My theory is very simple and it is easy to puncture – I will do that myself.

I have started reading The Black Swan – thanks, Dan – and I will for sure get back to that book in several blog posts. It has hardly ever occurred to me that I wholeheartedly agreed with virtually any single statement in a book. Taleb is able to combine scholarly wisdom, Umberto-Eco-like knowledge of history (no wonder Taleb praises Eco in the first chapter), and slinging the corporate lingo in a virtuosic way while defying the logic of the ‘expert suits’.

Sorry, I digress. Taleb’s main hypothesis is that the history of humankind as well as our personal lives are strongly – if not solely – determined by the highly improbable and unpredictable. Our problem is not so much this uncertainly as the extent we deny it. No-nonsense experts in industrial control systems fully agree with his assessment, applied to so-called risk management methodologies – actually it was this book that pointed me to The Black Swan first.

In 2010 the business world as we know came to a halt in Europe when experts and politicians mitigated the risks of impact of Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic ash cloud on airplane engines. The decisions taken by politicians were based on a computer simulation of the travelling cloud only. We live in a world that aims for perfect safety and security, under the illusion we can hedge all risks and make the probabilities associated with them exactly zero. Anybody who has ever worked under the surveillance, sorry: guidance, of total corporate quality management control [more buzz words] systems knows what I mean.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökul

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull on March 27, 2010 (Wikimedia)

At the heart of gamification is our uneasiness with taking decisions on our on, highly subjective but bold, instead of relaying them to machinery. Better run the job application through the AI-style resumé checker than being accused of bias. Merge this with the superficial fun and the kick a game gives its players and you have a so-called win-win situation.

In a paradoxical way I predict that something unexpected will happen when the real world starts resembling the gamified overlay – and render my petty theory obsolete.

Probably a Cult of Resistance against Pervasive Technology and everyday gamification will arise. I have spotted a trend of people leaving Facebook or abandoning anything internet-y altogether. Or maybe technology itself will finally exhibit emergent characteristics of consciousness – but I think this is too clichéd and too much wished for counting as a Black Swan.

But if too many people like me start mocking gamification – probably the unexpected thing to happen is that the transformation will happen still, in exactly the way I have described it.

I am fully aware of remaining contradictions and unresolved points, but as Nassim Taleb I state that I prefer the opinionated essay, a personal narrative including inconsistencies, over scientific perfection (says me, the ‘scientist’).