Still Smiley

When we were kids and played on the same Little League team, UJ was known to our teammates as “Smiley.”  He was the kid who always hit doubles and could run like a deer, as opposed to his tubby brother who was afraid that a pitch would hit him on the nose and break his glasses.

10511205_676359375752497_4658884759017098909_nI’m pleased to say that all evidence indicates that UJ remains “Smiley” at heart.  If you look at his Facebook page, it’s full of smiley photos.  UJ is never introspective or contemplative in these photos — he’s usually wearing a bathing suit in blazing sunshine, tanned and squinting and flashing his gleaming white choppers with a lady friend on each arm.  Our family dentist, Dr. King, no doubt thinks UJ is one of the greatest living advertisements for sound dental care and careful toothbrushing and flossing that ever walked the Earth.

It’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed since the Little League days.  Come to think of it, I’m probably still afraid of being hit on the bridge of the nose by a pitched ball.

In The Cage With Facebook Lab Rats

Some people are very upset that Facebook has admitted conducting a psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of randomly selected users.

In the 2012 study, Facebook data scientists decided to test the hypothesis that reading about the great things “Facebook friends” are writing about their lives depresses readers, who feel that their lives kind of suck by comparison.  So, for one week, the data scientists used an algorithm on the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 people to delete posts with words associated with positive, or negative, emotions to see whether it affected the kinds of posts those readers made.  The study ultimately refuted that hypothesis.

A number of people feel that the experiment treated Facebook users as guinea pigs, improperly tried to manipulate their emotions, and was unethical.  I can understand the sentiment, but I think we all need to accept that we are lab rats in a vast media stew in which the overriding goal is to manipulate our emotions and perceptions — whether the active agent is a Facebook post, an email designed to provoke us to make a contribution to a political candidate, or a banner ad that touts the miracle weight-loss qualities of a previously unknown plant.  Face it, folks — it’s all just part of navigating through our media-saturated modern culture.

Knowing about Facebook’s willingness to conduct broad-scale psychological and social experiments has its positive aspects, too — it helps to explain certain otherwise inexplicable realities of Facebook.  From my occasional review of my “news feed,” I’m guessing that Facebook is currently conducting tests on these other hypotheses:

*  What is more likely to cause “de-friending”:  incessant requests to play Facebook games or posting memes that express rote sentiments and demand “click like if you agree!”?

*  Are conservatives or liberals more likely to post ludicrously overheated, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it reactions to current events?

*  Is there any location on a Facebook page where ads can be placed that readers will not be able to successfully ignore them?

*  Does the frequency of posts with pictures of food increase as Facebook users age?

In Search of Internet Anonymity

Some of the most popular new smartphone apps offer users the prospect of anonymity. With names like Secret, Whisper, Confide, and Yik Yak, they employ different methods to allow people to post items, and responded to other posted items, without attribution.

The developers of these apps say that anonymity is a kind of pressure-release valve: people have carefully crafted their on-line personas on social media sites, and anonymity lets them really expose their true natures without risk of blowback. (Wait a minute! Are they saying that what people post on Facebook isn’t a true window to their very souls?) So, the apps supposedly allow people to be more “honest.” Of course, there are dangers — such as bullying and defamation — with any social media outlet that allows posters and commenters to hide their identities, so the app designers have to develop techniques to detect or restrain malicious behavior.

Why is the promise of anonymity attractive? It’s a question almost as old as the human species. The classic form of anonymous comment is graffiti, and that dates back thousands of years. Obviously, there’s something about making public statements, without significant fear of retribution, that some people find attractive. Of course, often those anonymous public statements are cruel and repulsive, and frequently the veil of anonymity produces statements that are consciously designed to inflame. Are the people who use these anonymity apps really being more honest, or just saying things that they know will be provocative?

The story linked above mentions the early days of the internet, when pseudonymous postings were commonplace. Some people apparently enjoyed those early days, but I wasn’t one of them. My first few ventures onto the internet, using a dial-up modem and ridiculously slow connections, suggested that the world was filled with mean-spirited people who would glibly say the most awful things imaginable. It took a while before I found websites where I was comfortable.

I think the internet’s move to attribution — like its move to high-speed connections — has been a definite improvement, and I’m not interested in going back. I won’t be looking to add one of the anonymity apps to my iPhone.

Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

Line-Drawing And Violent Content

If you establish a social media site, and allow the world at large to join and post, you’re running a risk.  Some people will post pictures of kittens, old family photos, or corny but uplifting messages.  Others, however, may want to post other things — things that are disturbing.  So you establish a content policy — but where do you draw the line?  That’s an issue that Facebook is wrestling with these days.

IMG_5117Facebook has an extensive set of “community standards” that address topics like “nudity and pornography,” “violence and threats,” and “hate speech.”  One topic is “graphic content.”  As Facebook puts it, people use the site to share their experiences and thoughts about issues, some of which “involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.”  Facebook distinguishes between sharing such content for purposes of condemnation and sharing “to celebrate or glorify violence.”  Facebook asks users to share content “in a responsible manner” and warn the audience about any graphic video.  If Facebookers report that certain content violates the community standards, Facebook decides whether to remove it. 

The most recent controversy involves a video showing a woman being decapitated.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and others criticized Facebook for not removing the video and for apparently loosening its standards on hyper-violent postings.  Facebook reacted to the criticism, removed the video after determining it improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence, and issued a “fact check” statement to explain its new approach and its decision.  

It’s the right decision, of course — but it shouldn’t have been a hard decision to make in the first place.  There is a big difference between disturbing images of starving children that sharpen an appeal for contributions to a hunger relief charity and a video of a planned execution by beheading.  Line-drawing can be tough, but I would certainly draw the line so that videos showing real people actually being killed, tortured, or horribly injured are excluded, whether their accompanying text purportedly “condemns” such action or not.

Facebook Fake-Outs

If you go on Facebook on any given day, you may see one posted by a Facebook friend.  It’s usually a picture with text, often capitalized and superimposed over the photo.  It might tell a tragic or moving story, or quote statistics about the handgun use, the abuse of animals, or another topic in the national conversation.  It then asks you to repost, or like the post, or take some other action.

How many of the stories are real?  How many of the statistics are accurate?

I’ve wondered about it and thought about it again when I read about Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s tweeting activities in the days after the Boston bombing.  Tsarnaev tweeted about a post of a picture of a man huddled over a prone woman that said the man was going to propose to the woman and instead found her dead.  Tsarnaev tweeted “fake story,”  and the news article reports that the claim wasn’t true.

Why would anyone feel the need to heighten the horrific nature of the Boston bombing by concocting a fake story about the people injured in the blast?  Why would anyone make up phony statistics about some political issue?  How many people are misled by such postings, and how much of the national conversation has been misdirected as a result of the false information?

I hope there aren’t many people who accept these kinds of Facebook posts at face value, without applying some skepticism and fact-checking.  My grandmother used to say “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  That’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to Facebook information.

Striking A Proper Real Life-Virtual Life Balance

Lately lots of people have been talking about Pinterest, another new form of social media and on-line interaction.  Pinterest allows participants to explore and develop their interests in different topics — food, home decorating, body art, and the like — by “pinning” news articles, pictures, video, and other items to their “pinboard” for other people to see and comment upon.  Family members and friends have used Pinterest to plan weddings and vacations, share their views on books and TV shows, and find special articles of clothing.

photo-95My Pinterest friends sound like they become almost obsessed with browsing other people’s “pinboards” and filling up their own with interesting and exciting content that reflects well on them.  Similarly, we’ve all got friends who spend a lot of time posting things to Facebook, or blogging (guilty as charged), or playing fantasy sports, or doing the countless other social networking activities you can do on-line.  This shouldn’t be surprising; the internet is a constantly changing, interesting environment that puts the whole world at your fingertips and allows for all kinds of communication.  All of these nifty on-line interaction websites also can allow you to reconnect with high school and college classmates and faraway friends and keep track of how they are doing.  But when does the attraction of the internet pull your home life out of balance, leaving you tapping out a Facebook message or chuckling at a YouTube video while your spouse or girlfriend or children or friends sit idle for hours?  How do you strike a workable real life-virtual life balance?

People have always engaged in solitary activities, like reading a book or playing a musical instrument or jogging, but obsession with on-line activities seems to have special risks.  Studies suggest that people who spend lots of time on-line often struggle with depression and sleep disorders and tend to neglect their need for physical activity and in-person social interaction.  And, of course, the on-line world, with its anonymity and ability to create weird, fake relationships such as the one that has humiliated Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, involves all kinds of potential personal, financial, and criminal hazards that would never be presented by reading a library book or knitting on the sofa while your spouse watches a basketball game on TV.

We all need to figure out when to step away from the computer.

Three Debates Down, Two Weeks To Go

With all three presidential debates in the books, we can fairly ask:  what is the role of debates in a modern election?  According to the polls, the pundits, and the talk about momentum, the first debate this year was a significant game-changer in favor of Mitt Romney.  Why?  Was it because President Obama turned in a performance generally regarded as desultory, or was it something else?

I didn’t think the President’s performance during the first debate was as bad as it has been depicted to be.  I think, instead, the key point is that people forgot the presidential debates are one of the few political events that are unfiltered.  The candidates get a rare opportunity to speak to a national audience, in an unscripted setting, without any yakking by pundits or talking heads.  And the national TV audience for the debate, moreover, is interested enough to pick a presidential debate from all other programming options in the modern video world, and therefore probably consists mostly of people who are likely to vote.

In this election, President Obama’s campaign strategy had been to run countless attack ads painting Mitt Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch moneybags who was George W. Bush, Jr.  When all you saw was the ads, the strategy worked fine.  But Romney’s debate performance was inconsistent with the ads.  People watching thought:  “Hey, this guy isn’t so bad.  He seems pretty reasonable and knowledgeable.  Maybe he really can get us out of this mess.”  And with that unfiltered realization, millions of dollars in negative ad buy by the President’s campaign went out the window.  In fact, Romney’s performance was so contrary to the ads that it probably not only helped Romney but also had a negative impact on the credibility of the Obama campaign commercials going forward.

Another reality is that the after-debate period is longer and more diffuse.  People get their sense of how the debates went not just from a few talking heads on the major networks, but from countless TV stations, blogs, comedy shows, Twitter snarf, and social media sites.  It may take days, and a few choice “Facebook ads” or Daily Show mocks or heavily reposted blog items, before people settle on what really happened.  People in the spin room immediately after the debate no longer control public opinion, if they ever did.

In this election, we now turn to the “ground game” and the contest of which campaign can do a better job of getting their supporters off their duffs and out to the polls.  Political operatives, however, will no doubt study the debates in the 2012 campaign and draw some significant conclusions.  First, if you are going to go negative on your opponent, make sure you aren’t attacking on character or personality grounds that can be readily disproven in a 90-minute debate; otherwise, you will be flushing your hard-earned campaign contributions down the tubes.  Second, don’t forget the after-debate period.  As those precious undecided voters are trying to decide who did better, they’ll be looking at a lot of things — and if your candidate came across as disinterested and disengaged, or clown-like, or phony, it will eventually be detected and outed . . . and that will ultimately be the prevailing view of the masses.

Trying To Look On the (Automotive Bailout) Bright Side

In the modern world, we tend to focus on the negative a bit more, perhaps, than we should.  Of course, in some areas it’s hard to find much of a silver lining.

Consider the results of the federal government bailout of GM and Chrysler.  Car sales have been off, and GM stock continues to slide downward to new lows.  As a result, the stock the federal government holds in GM continues to decline in value.  Last week the latest Treasury Department report on to Congress on the potential losses on the auto bailouts was released, and it estimates another $3.3 billion increase in likely losses — taking the projected loss on the investment from $21.7 billion to $25.05 billion.

The stated purpose of the bailout was to save jobs and prevent the ripple effect on suppliers that could have occurred if GM and Chrysler had failed.  Defenders of the bailout say a million jobs were saved as a result and that the move kept us from plunging into a serious economic depression.  Opponents of the action say that the jobs wouldn’t have been lost if a standard bankruptcy proceeding had occurred and that such a proceeding would have allowed stronger companies to emerge, without any need for a federal bailout.  We’ll never know, of course, because the standard bankruptcy route wasn’t tried and billions of dollars of federal funds were spent to prop up GM and Chrysler.

But we do know one thing:  it could have been worse.  Rather than investing our tax dollars in GM, the federal government could have bought Facebook shares instead.  Since that company’s ill-fated initial public offering only a few months ago, Facebook shares have gone from a high of $45 per share to a new low of $19.05 at Friday’s close — which is a drop of almost 60 percent.

Facebook Giveth, And Facebook Taketh Away (II)

Facebook often seems like a double-edged sword, and a sharp one at that.

There are some people you wish you hadn’t lost touch with, but — due to laziness or disorganization or the demands of your current life — you did.  Friday night Kish and I got together with an old friend we hadn’t seen him in years and had a wonderful time.  (Thanks, Action!)  It would not have happened without Facebook; that’s where we reconnected and communicated about getting together.

But there are negatives, too.  Sometimes Facebook causes you to learn more about people than you really want to know.  Perhaps their posted political, religious, or social views deeply offend you, and then you have to decide whether the situation merits “de-friending” the person.  People really seem to struggle with that decision — and when you think about it, it’s really a new kind of social decision.

In the past you might never have learned that your co-worker or second cousin harbored beliefs that you find upsetting.  Your interactions may never have gotten beyond superficial talk about sports or TV shows.  Ignorance was bliss!  But now, thanks to their airing of views on Facebook, you know.

To be sure, in days of yore people obviously made decisions not to pursue certain friendships.  That process typically involved just avoiding the offending person and letting time and distance work their magic.  With Facebook, that approach no longer works, because exposure to those offensive views is unaffected by physical distance.

The “de-friending” process also has a formality and finality to it that old-fashioned avoidance did not.  If you were the unlucky object of an avoidance campaign, you could always rationalize that you lost touch with someone purely by happenstance and not because they can’t bear the sight of you.  With “de-friending,” however, you know for certain.  Once you were a “friend,” now you’re not — and if the list of the de-friender’s remaining friends is long, getting cut from the roster has a special sting.

People who announce de-friending decisions seem to treat the decisions as momentous ones.  I don’t blame them.  In the old days, you typically had to make public breaks only with unsuccessful boyfriends and girlfriends, and you had to cope with the hurt feelings only from those people.  Now, the “de-friended” person may be a co-worker or family member, and you’ve got to deal with the fallout from your decision in a totally different context.

Manners and etiquette developed to help people deal in an appropriate way with standardized social situations.  I won’t be surprised if the Facebook generation’s version of Emily Post comes up with the proper etiquette for handling a “de-friending” incident.

There’s a lot of social change rolled up into that one website.

Facebook Giveth, And Facebook Taketh Away

I’m sure that sociologists and psychologists are studying the impact of Facebook and will do so for years to come.  There are big effects — like the stories about so-called “Facebook divorces” — but I think the website also has altered our interactions with family, friends, and acquaintances in less noticeable, but perhaps more profound, ways.

Never before have so many people stayed in regular touch with so many other people.  Isn’t it great to have so many friends, and in such a quantifiable way!

From the perspective of those us who grew up well before Facebook was developed, however, the website seems to have produced a curious phenomenon.  We went to high school and college, moved on, and lost touch with high school and college friends.  We took initial jobs, went to grad school, or lived in a particular place, moved on, and lost touch with people we knew in those contexts.  In short, we have a past, with past friends.

If you grew up with Facebook, you may never have a past in the same sense.  Instead, you’ll just have one long present, with a constantly accumulating list of present friends.  You’ll always be in touch with that kid from eighth grade, or the woman who was on the high school newspaper with you, or that odd guy you worked with at your first job.

There is value in having a past, and leaving behind the people who remember all too well what a jerk you were in high school.  The members of the Facebook generation may never really know the relief of seeing those awkward or embarrassing past incidents recede into life’s rear view mirror.  What does it mean to always be in touch with people whose main connection is that they shared goofy behavior with you when you were a kid?  Are you less likely to really grow up, or will you at some point feel hopelessly weighted down by your long roster of friends and want to sweep the slate clean?  What will that constant, ongoing connectedness mean for the Facebook generation?

Driving Versus Facebook

The Dayton Daily News reports that fewer Ohio teenagers are getting their driver’s licenses these days.

The data shows an almost 10 percent drop in the number of licensed 16- and 17-year-old Ohio drivers, and a nearly 5 percent drop in 18-year-old licensed drivers.  These statistics mirror a national trend — a trend that the auto industry, obviously, finds troubling.  If teens aren’t clamoring to use a car, the demand for cars will fall.

Why have teenagers become less interested in driving?  Some speculate it is attributable to a poor economy and a lack of jobs.  Others suggest that teenagers are simply satisfied to interact within virtual communities via social media like Facebook.

If the latter point is true, America has changed a lot since I was a teenager in the ’70s.  Of course, Facebook didn’t exist back then, but even if it had, it would never have taken the place of a driver’s license and a car.  A driver’s license meant you had passed the first milestone on the road to adulthood.  A driver’s license and car meant you could get a job and start earning your own money.  A driver’s license and car meant you could take a girl on a date without needing your Mom to act as chauffeur.  A driver’s license and car meant you could tool down the road in your own rig and crank up the radio as loud as you wanted when you heard the first riffs of ZZ Top’s La Grange.

Facebook is great, but driving was . . . freedom.

Addictive – Hmmm – Maybe

I had to laugh the other day when I saw the article where Alec Baldwin got kicked off an American Airlines flight because he was supposedly playing the Zynga game Words with Friends.

The game Words with Friends is very similar to the scrabble board game that most families had in the good old days. It’s a world of parallel words, bingo stems, hookers (not the street variety), mystery letters and small words like QI, ZA and JO.

During the game a player needs to decide whether to play long words, short words or play an offensive or defensive game. One famous celebrity called the game the crystal meth of online games. You can play up to twenty games simultaneously and I am currently playing ten games with friends right now.

Words with Friends is available for free from Facebook and I think there is an app you can get if you have an I-phone or an Android (not sure about this). To be honest I have gone a couple of days without playing the game so I am not sure whether or not I would call it addictive. Perhaps I will ask my friends who play Farmville, Mafia Wars and Gardens of time if it is.

Federal Facebook Follies

Does the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs really need to hire someone to manage a Facebook page for the Department of the Interior, to the tune of up to $115,000 a year?  That’s one of more than 1,000 federal government job openings in the Washington, D.C. area that were advertised in March.

My guess is that most Americans would say that, given our current federal budget deficit and debt issues, the Department of Interior can safely do without someone to set up and supervise a Facebook page.  The fact that the opening is even being advertised for filling suggests that the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. really aren’t serious about belt-tightening and holding down spending.  The President should instruct all federal agencies to cut their payrolls and consider carefully whether new hires and replacements really are necessary — and if there is any doubt, the new hire shouldn’t be made.

I recognize that refraining from hiring one Facebook editor isn’t going to solve our spending issues by itself, but as I often tell Kish (to her disdain) every little bit helps.  A big part of our federal budget challenge is changing the culture of spending inside the Beltway.  Telling the bureaucrats that their hiring budget has been cut and that they will be held accountable for unnecessary hires is a good first step.

Caving In And Setting Up A Facebook Page

On several occasions, Richard has suggested that I set up a Facebook page.  I have resisted doing so — until now.

I haven’t joined the Facebook brigade because Facebook just seems weird to me.  The whole concept of “social networking” and having a wall that anyone can write on is odd.  I don’t know how accessible I want to be to people from my past.  I’ve also thought that there is something kind of pathetic about people who aren’t in their teens reaching out to others and asking them to be a “friend.”  It’s like high school all over again!  I’ve been afraid that, if I join Facebook and have to wrestle with awkward social issues like “friending,” I’ll probably suffer some kind of sympathetic acne breakout, too.  And, unlike, say, Bob Dole, I’ve never made a practice of referring to myself in the third person — and Facebook seems to be filled with breathless, third-party references.

Why have I reconsidered?  Many of my contemporaries (i.e., 50-somethings) have Facebook pages and have said it is a good way of keeping in touch with family and friends.  Richard also points out that it may well allow more people to check out the family blog.  So, I am willing to give Facebook a shot, for now.  If it turns out to be too weird, I’ll just end it and retreat back to my prior state of unconnected, aging “friend”lessness.