Keeping Track Of Uncle Mack

10502429_944538671533_2387090454819837848_nFacebook obviously has its faults, but it’s got one huge virtue — it makes it so much easier to keep track of what your friends and family members are doing.  Take Uncle Mack, for example.  What’s the lawyer/saxophonist/actor/occasional Webner House contributor in the family up to?  It turns out he’s been working on a film called The Orangeburg Massacre.  Calhoun ‘da Creator’ Cornwell is the motivating force behind the movie, and his Facebook page has lots of information about it, including the photo above in which Uncle Mack is prominently featured.  A trailer for the film is due in the near future, and I’ll post it when I see it.

The Orangeburg Massacre is the name given to the incident in which South Carolina Highway Patrolmen opened fire on students at South Carolina State College, who had been protesting in an effort to achieve desegregation of a bowling alley.  Three African-American students were killed and and 27 people were wounded in the shooting, which occurred on February 8, 1968 — more than three years before the much more well known Kent State shootings.  Does anyone doubt that the relative notoriety of the two incidents has at least some relationship to the race of the students who were victims?  It is wonderful that a film is being made about the Orangeburg Massacre, 45 years later.

Some people retire and do nothing except work on their tans and frequent Early Bird specials at local restaurants; others use their newfound free time to explore new interests and expand their horizons.  Uncle Mack is squarely in the latter camp, and I think what he is doing is pretty cool. I don’t know anything about the movie or his role, but I am proud of his willingness to tackle it and, we can hope, contribute to greater awareness of a shameful, racist chapter in American history.

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.