Friday, September 30, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I've finally set up my Google+ account. After a day playing with settings, several things occur to me:

Anonymity Abandoned

Since the late 1980s, I've maintained an online presence in one form or another as Psion. Handles have always been common online, perhaps taking a cue from the old citizen's band radio days when folks might identify themselves as “The Rubber Duck”.

But lately I've seen a surge to hold everyone accountable online. Efforts by Facebook and Google+ to eliminate handles and replace them with real names are often justified with a queer rationalization that anonymity is somehow cowardly. Randi Zuckerberg claimed last July that online anonymity should be eliminated in the interests of ending cyber-bullying.

My suspicion is that the true motivation behind the drive for real identities is to make it easier to persecute heretics. Zuckerberg et al don't necessarily want to end cyber-bullying so much as make it easier to out anyone who says or does something with which they don't agree. I note, grimly, that Google's User Content and Conduct Policy limits those with content “... that promotes hatred or violence towards groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, or sexual orientation/gender identity.” This is laudible, so far as it goes, but missing from that list is content that promotes hatred against people based on their political ideals. Or views on global warming. Or any other, similar polarizing issue. You can't hate someone online because they're an atheist, but you can say hateful things about someone because they don't like unions. The policy doesn't limit any hate speech at all except a few, carefully chosen, pet preferences. It's curious that I wouldn't violate Google's policy if I wrote hateful things about a Tea Party candidate, but if I included scandalous details about their sexual preferences, I'd be in trouble.

Anonymity is important. Online, and in the real world. It has been since Hamilton and Madison wrote under the pseudonym “Publius” in the Federalist Papers. In the Supreme Court Case, McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commision, Justice Stevens wrote, “Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” It isn't difficult to see the parallels between pamphleteering and posting online.

Google's and Facebook's policies do nothing to shield from the tyranny of an intolerant majority.

Omniscient Google

I've steadfastly avoided Facebook and MySpace. Trendy and flippant, not only did both services strike me as unnecessary for anyone who maintained their own website, but they also seemed to defend the confidentiality of their users with little rigor.

Throughout this period, though, I've been more forgiving of Google. Maybe I've given them too much credit for their “do no evil” motto. I've certainly enjoyed the generosity of their development projects. “Google's Summer of Code” competitions have rewarded a number of open-source products with useful functionality. Blender, for example, has benefited repeatedly.

But Google knows an awful lot about me. I notice this, for example, when I type in a search for a particular Mexican dish and it returns a list of restaurants near me. Now and then, I try to seed Google with random bits of disinformation by doing prolonged searches on Cricket matches, for example, or checking street names in small French towns, but the effort is only half-hearted, since I don't honestly wish Google ill. I just want to make it a little harder to predict my interests.

Starving my friends.

I built my first website in 1994. “Psion's Other Dimensions” was a quaint blog from which I could pontificate and where I could share simple artwork and entertaining stories. I also rigged the guestbook functions provided by my host network so that every post I made allowed readers to reply. The World Wide Web, I had noticed, was full of single voices shouting to the masses, but curiously lacking a place where the masses could shout back. It was a fun experiment and lasted for about five years. I then upgraded my Internet service and began hosting, where I'd hoped to build on the ideas explored with Psion's Other Dimensions. While Psidonia continues to stand, it wasn't quite as popular as its predecessor, and a friend launched a packaged bulletin-board system that proved more popular with our group.

I'm the second or third-most active participant on his boards, so I don't begrudge him his success. Had I been more diligent with my own site, I wouldn't have lost my audience. And I'm sure my participation in his site made it easier for him to succeed. I just found that in a world with Slashdot and Digg there was little need for the kinds of services I originally wanted to bring to Psidonia, and my early thoughts about a collection of games centered around a virtual world with its own economic system paled in comparison to the work I discovered in Second Life, so I neglected my site to work on other projects. A planned massive upgrade to my hand-coded software stalled years ago, though I continue to think about what I want to do with my domain.

Other friends have their own sites, too. Personal websites from which they, too pontificate and shout from their soapboxes fashioned from HTML (even if they no longer need to know HTML to run a blog). And we share occasional visits and comments and keep in touch and plan with this collection of links.

But lately, even my first friend's hugely successful bulletin-board has seen fewer and fewer posts. I've lamented about this with him and he agrees with me the likely cause is Facebook, which lets folks keep in touch not only with our small circle of friends but with extended family and forgotten school chums scattered around the world. There's no reason all those people couldn't come to and share their thoughts with the rest of us, but in a world already fascinated with Facebook, why would they?

I don't like Facebook. He doesn't like Facebook. But our other friends don't share our dislike/distrust of Zuckerberg's monstrosity. And they're being drawn away. Slowly, my favorite social site (because it's populated only by my close friends and a few of their friends) is withering … a victim of the same fate that silenced Psidonia. Nine years of active, heartfelt argument and camaraderie are archived in a ghost town forum of thousands of old posts.

And now, I'm poking around with Google+. Is this what I want? Or maybe it's time he and I both faced the inevitability of progress. The old models fall to be replaced by new ideas. We'll all still be together in cyberspace, right? Even better, we'll even know each others' real names.

But I'm not convinced the convenience of Facebook and Google+ completely replaces the models we've had before. Psidonia and Ichiban were both products of our own creation. They served the specific purpose of hosting the thoughts and ideas of a small band of friends as they moved from early adulthood through middle-age. Turning that project over to Google just feels lazy.

Proselytizing with Games

Everywhere I look, Google+ is attempting to get me to increase its understanding of my friends. To draw them into the Google web. Having heard of Farmville on Facebook, I discovered a game called Cityville on Google+ and gave it a try. I loved every version of Sim City, and this looked like it could be dangerously addictive. Right away, it wanted to share information about my circles with the game. And in the first few turns, it tried to convince me to share my experiences with my friends dozens of times. I'm not sure what it wanted to share, but it looks like it's some kind of spam-engine to further lure the unwary to their doom. A quick peek around showed the other games had similar sharing features.

Google … I don't want to advertise for you. I want to play a silly game for a few minutes or a few more turns without trying to dodge buttons that launch a thousand notifications.

What Next?

It's the loss of anonymity that worries me most. What would Mark Twain or poor Richard Saunders do if they were forced to write as Sam Clemens or Ben Franklin? Beyond the political necessity for anonymity in a free society, there's the tradition of pen names that has shielded good and bad writers from fans and critics for generations. Google should really understand this and allow a similar function to flourish.

Google+ is clumsy and awkward and new and needs more polish, but even worse, it's proprietary, and runs on only one (albeit universally accessible) domain. I love the free-as-in-speech roots of the open-source movement and the contributions it made to HTML, CSS, and the way the World Wide Web operates. I resisted Flash specifically because it was a proprietary format.

And yet, I find myself fascinated.


Umbriel said...

I can't say there's much of your theme that I disagree with, but I felt compelled to dispute some of your version of your on-line social history:

While Facebook may have contributed to the "quieting down" of, I would point out that, at its peak, it was busiest during working hours. I think that hanges in the work environments of some of the most prolific posters have made a much greater difference to their contributions than any passing internet trends -- I've retired, and much less frequently find myself chained to a desk for hours at a time with my mind wandering. Ich's workplace has effectively blockaded him from accessing outside sites. And you, I suspect, are much busier during the day, between your current employment and parenting responsibilities, than you were seven or eight years ago.

So rather than facing the same fate as Psidonia (which I'd agree was eclipsed by because of technological advantages in its look and feel), I'd say is suffering more from the changing lifestyles (and, God help us all, aging) of its participants. I doubt that anything we see unfold on Facebook or Google will really approach what we so fondly remember, because nothing really will.

Umbriel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Psion said...

I somewhat object to your statement that is superior technologically to Psidonia and Ichiban have different focuses. is a group forum where everyone posts at an equal level. Psidonia encourages members to post articles and supports commentary on those articles.

Both rely on PHP for the underlying code and both keep their content (the posts by users) in a MySQL database. The biggest difference is that Psidonia's code (Psionium) is unique and tailored specifically to the needs of one site, whereas Ichiban is using pre-built code intended for any site. The biggest shortcoming of the Psionium collection of libraries has been the lack of significant development in six years.