We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.

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Sunday Selection 2014-08-17

Around the Internet

Speaking Polish is no different from speaking “Male”

I had the pleasure of meeting MIT graduate student Jean Yang when she came to visit Cornell a few weeks ago. This post is an account of her internship experience at Facebook and is an interesting look at the different cultures that make up the technology industry (and the clashes between them).

Anthony Bourdain’s Theory on the Foodie Revolution

I’m not a big watcher of documentaries, but I’ve always enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s shows. I’ve always found him an interesting personality with surprisingly deep (if quirky) observations of the world around him. If you enjoy his shows, you’ll enjoy his views on American food culture and it’s changing face.

Making remote teams work

One of the best things about being a “knowledge worker” is the ability to work from anywhere, assuming there’s a strong Internet connection (which actually narrows things down quite a lot). Mandy Brown’s rules of thumb for making remote teams work is based on her experience at Editorially and covers both things to do (and not do) and tools to use.

Video

Humans Need Not Apply

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances are you’ve already seen this video. It’s about how technology is making obsolete large classes of skills that we often think require human intelligence and involvement. This includes things like customer service, education and medicine. As automation steadily increases and economic progress remains one of the key forces in modern society, chances are likely that large numbers of otherwise skilled, hard-working people might soon be out of work through no fault of their own. Though we may not see massive unemployment tomorrow (or even within this decade), there is definitely reason to be worried and seriously consider what your skills and corresponding job prospects are in the coming decades.

Google wants your endorsements

Google’s updates to its Terms of Service have been made the rounds of the Internet last week. The particular bit that caught people’s attention was about something called “Shared Endorsements”. What are shared endorsements? From Google’s announcement:

Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising. For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band’s Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google. We call these recommendations shared endorsements and you can learn more about them here.

Essentially, if you +1 a particular product, or write a review, then Google can use your name and picture when it displays ads related to that product. This move has understandably ruffled some feathers and merited a piece in the New York Times. John Gruber says that he is “looking forward to hearing from Google fans how this is acceptable” (as if Apple would do anything different if they had a social network).

Personally, I don’t consider this to be a violation of privacy. I consider social networks to essentially be public spaces. For me, that means I rarely upload personal photos and whatever text I post I would be willing to put on a public blog. Now, I would be peeved if Google took a negative review I wrote about a product and turned it into an endorsement. The examples show that Google shows a snippet of whatever review I write and a star rating. I would prefer there be some textual analysis happening to make sure that reviews are actually positive before using them as an endorsement. Since I don’t see any sign of that happening, I’ve decided to opt out. To be clear, my objection is not to Google using my reviews to sell products — I simply want to know that they use them accurately.

I do wish that we had an enforceable expectation of privacy in social networks, but by and large, we don’t. As users of Facebook, Google+ or any other social network we should be aware that their purpose is to make money for their shareholders. Without a payment option, it would be naive of us to expect that our data would not be monetized in every conceivable fashion.

For what it’s worth, I think Google has handled this move in the proper way. They made a public announcement and detailed in clear, unambiguous language what their plans were. They also provide a clear option to turn off Shared Endorsements. The opt-out page reiterates what Shared Endorsements are and provides a single clear checkbox. In contrast, Facebook has been doing essentially the same form of endorsement for a long time now and I don’t remember seeing a public announcement when they started. Their privacy settings are also infamous for being confusing and hard to navigate.

I would love for there to be a social network that’s free of advertisements and whose goal isn’t to data-mine and sell my data the first chance they get. In absence of such a network, it’s up to us, the users, to make the best of what’s available. I do like the utility that these services provide and I am willing to let them have certain information in order to continue providing that service. However I also make sure that I opt out of measures that I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t think Google+ has done the best job of building a social network (see the debacles relating to real names and identities), but this particular move has been better handled than most.

The cloud is not secure

We’re getting closer and closer to an age where our data is separate from the machines that we use to manipulate and interact with it. A stepping stone to that future is the “cloud” – a remote, server-based repository of your information that can be accessed by a variety of applications and interfaces. In some ways the cloud has been around since the beginning of computing (dumb terminals plugging into mainframes) but the new, shiny, consumer cloud is both similar and indifferent. And there are many incarnations.

Apple’s iCloud is a complex, powerful solution for remotely storing your data and making it accessible to your apps whether on any of your devices. A simpler solution is Dropbox which syncs your files between devices (and offers a decent web interface). In recent weeks Dropbox has become quite controversial. Dropbox had a serious security breach that allowed people to log into any account using any password. It was a very serious flaw and a serious oversight on Dropbox’s part. They’re currently being sued over the matter. More recently they made an important addition to their terms of service which gives them broad-reaching rights over your data. However they have made efforts to make it clear that they have no interests in rights greater than what they need to run the service.

While services like Dropbox are great and convenient (and probably have the user’s best interest at heart) one thing needs to be made very clear: The cloud is not secure. Having a strong password is no guarantee of security. Putting copyright licenses on your work is no guarantee of security if the TOS give the hosting company rights to it. It is safest to assume that at some point in the near future any data you keep on a cloud storage service can and will be compromised. Under “compromise” I include perfectly legal government seizures as well.

The only data that I put in Dropbox is stuff that I will be making public anyways – copies of school projects, essays or reports that I intend for people to see and distribute. I would never put anything I consider even remotely private in the hands of a service like Dropbox. You should only put private, personal data in the cloud if you first encrypt it locally with a proven encryption algorithm and the encryption algorithm is implemented by an open source, trusted piece of software. The open source is important otherwise there is no way to know that there isn’t a backdoor of some sort. To access the data you should download the encrypted version and then decrypt locally. Anything unencrypted that goes over the wire (or the air) is probably wide open to the world to see. For most people this already includes their email and Facebook data.

I keep my online backups in an encrypted Amazon S3 bucket. I also keep some code on a remote server and make sure to connect over SSH. However, I also don’t keep things like passwords, PINs and account numbers in any written form. The only really secure data is data that doesn’t exist. That being said, modern encryption techniques are still a pretty good defense in most cases. In this age of the cloud you should keep in mind that any data you put unencrypted on someone else’s servers (whether they be files in Dropbox or photos on Facebook) is essentially public.

Will Diaspora live up to the hype?

The net is ablaze with Facebook’s privacy disaster and the Diaspora project has already drummed up over $170000 in support. And the question everyone is asking is: Is Diaspora going to be the Facebook that we all want? The answer would be complicated even if there wasn’t  money and so many high hopes involved. Going up against the incumbent is never easy, even if the incumbent is in a tight spot. Even though I love open source, I can’t help having some doubts over the Diaspora project.

An open source, community centric alternative to Facebook would be absolutely awesome, no doubt about that. But there are problems with both the idea in general and the way Diaspora is specifically implementing it. A lot of Facebook’s usefulness comes from the fact that it offers a seamless way to do a number of different things. When it comes to sharing something with friends, Facebook probably has a way to do it. You can share text, links, music, photos and videos all through Facebook. You can also send them in public (via the Wall) or in private with the private message system. An open source solution could work by tying together open protocols to support specific parts of the user experience. However, that integration has to be smooth and very well done. In fact, users should not be able to tell that there are multiple services operating underneath, instead of a single monolithic entity. If people need to sign up with five different services to do what they do with one login on Facebook, the project is dead in the water.

By allowing each user to run their own server, Diaspora is trying to make their system as open as possible. That’s a great idea, but expecting each internet user to operate their own server is not a good way to go. Opera tried that with it’s Unity project which has been pretty much a failure. Users do not want to run a server. They want to talk to their friends. I think what the Diaspora team wants to do is build on the WordPress model: the actual software is fully open source and anyone can put it on their own server and run it. But there is also WordPress.com which offers an easy-to-use setup that you can use without worrying about server administration. Diaspora can go that path, but they will have to live with the fact that the majority of users will be using a hosted solution and not running their own server. And I’m not sure if that is something they are ready to do.

There is also the problem that Jason Fried points to: the team already has a lot of money (a lot for 4 people at least) and have nothing to show for it yet. They also have had a lot of attention turned on to them and are under great pressure to deliver. I’m not saying that is necessarily a problem: I know people who thrive under pressure. But it would probably be easier if they had a smaller amount of money and could concentrate on getting things done instead of worrying about how everyone is looking at them. Without knowing the team personally, I don’t know if this is a valid concern, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind. It’s also a stark contrast to how Facebook grew: from Harvard alum to college students and then to everyone.

No one wants Diaspora to fail. And that by itself could be a problem. If Diaspora does fail, they could take all the other open source efforts down with them. And that would mean handing identity on the web to Facebook on a silver platter. Will Diaspora work? I don’t know. In cases like this I go by Torvalds’ words: Talk is cheap, show me the code. I’m going to reserve judgment until I actually see some code. I hope they succeed, I really want them to. I love how Facebook let’s me stay in touch with friends, but I hate walled gardens. However, there are issues and concerns which must be answered. So until summer ends and the Diaspora team delivers, I’m going to watch and wait. And not delete my Facebook account just yet.