May 02, 2017

Traces by Mike Caulfield #3: This Week In Webo-plasmosis

So here's a fact: pregnant women are warned to stay away from kitty litter boxes, and the reason is that cat excrement often has a parasite in it -- toxoplasma -- that can be damaging to developing fetuses.

(I know, here we go, another Mike Caulfield newsletter. But I'll get to the point soon, I promise).

This parasite can infect many animals, but it can only reproduce in the guts of cats. Unfortunately for the parasite, there is no cat-to-cat vector for it to spread. Instead, there's a complex parasitic cycle. First, an infected cat's excrement pollutes the water supply with the parasite, which then gets consumed by mice. The mice then get eaten by other cats, the parasite infects new cat guts, multiplies, gets excreted out, and the cycle repeats.

But here's the neat part. The cycle only works if the infected mouse gets into the cat's stomach. So evolution, not willing to leave well enough alone, makes the mice that are infected more likely to be caught: the side effects of toxoplasmosis include dramatically slower reflexes, a compromised immune system, and loss of fear of cats. After infection, the mice -- no longer seeing the smell of cat urine as a warning sign -- just wander over to cats in their low-reflex stupor and get eaten.

I'm exaggerating a tiny bit, but I am not making this up.

It might be time to start thinking of corporate social media in this way, as a parasitic virus that gets us to offer our private lives up to advertisers, believing all the time that it is our own idea. Instead of making us tolerate the smell of cat urine, webo-plasmosis encourages us to share intimate details of our lives with marketers and cloud databases. It convinces us that we should never delete any information ever, that we should always post under our real name, that we should spend our time online defining for platform capitalism the things we like and the things we don't so that we can be more effectively manipulated by advertising.

This Week In Webo-plasmosis

You scoff, perhaps, but how do you explain the events of this past week without a parasitic infection?

Seriously. Let's start with this: the just-announced Amazon Look camera will take pictures of you and grade your look, while saving every photo of you to build a deep profile of habits and affinities. It's voluntary surveillance in your dressing room!

We also have a report on Facebook which appears to suggest that Facebook has been researching the intersection of teen feelings of self-worth and depression and adtech. There is still some question as to whether Facebook plans to let advertisers target teen feelings of inadequacy, but if not today, then tomorrow: that is how this story runs. There is no other direction.

Feeld for Slack was released, which allows you to hook up with your work crush like so: Merely type the name of your work crush (or object of sexual harassment) into Feeld and if they feel the same way about you you'll get notified. It's depressing that Silicon Valley doesn't see the problem with sexualizing work platforms, of course, but beyond that one might ask how we got to the point where people would actually offer up these secrets to a piece of cloud software.

(Meanwhile, Instagram "influencers" lured millennials to a deserted island where they were systematically starved -- is that the same parasite, or a different one?)

This stuff should spook us, but like the infected mice, we've lost our sense of fear and our reflexes are deadened, replaced by an irrepressible urge to produce and share more personal data on more and more advertiser-accessible platforms.

The parasitic processes can't really target these things with precision, so of course you get some weird untargeted behavior. This week I watched as people played a game where they list nine bands they've seen and one they haven't. While I'm sure it was not started by hackers, it is possible for hackers to use it to answer your security questions, and it follows in the footsteps of older games like "Give us your pornstar name by combining the street you grew up on with the name of your first pet" (two of the most popular bank security questions). And even where giving away answers to your security questions doesn't empty your bank account, it still provides a helpful database for Facebook to market merchandise to you. We're infected, and the cat urine smells sweet now.

Do You Have Webo-Plasmosis?

The hard truth of this matter is that you may not know you are infected. The world, in fact, is filled with humans affected by the related disease toxoplasmosis who don't realize it, even as they take on their 19th cat in a house reeking of urine. It's the same with webo-plasmosis: a sign of being infected is ceasing to realize you have been affected. Here's a partial list of symptoms:

  1. Do you retweet headlines you agree with to help Facebook build a profile of you, while not reading the articles?
  2. Do you take pictures of your food, helpfully labelling your dietary habits, consumption patterns, and common meal ingredients?
  3. Have you become an email hoarder, never bulk deleting old email on fear "you might need it someday", thereby preserving the vast library of documents Google needs to model your affinities, desires, and personal secrets?
  4. When something happens to you of note, do you feel compelled to log it on the web?
  5. Do you join Facebook groups that best express who you are?
  6. Do you use Amazon Alexa's much touted "Shopping List" feature to build a list of things you intend to buy locally, so that Amazon now has a list of things you buy locally?
  7. Do you wince at the thought of taking old tweets offline, because of all the "old memories" stored in tweets you haven't looked at for five years?
  8. Do you authenticate into third-party services using Twitter, Facebook, and Google identity so that they can better track your online behavior?
  9. Do you never use aliases or pseudonyms online, and are you convinced that this "transparency" somehow makes you a "more honest person"?
  10. Do you find yourself posting lists of bands you've seen, or asking friends to share "one memory they have about you"?

It's true that some of these behaviors existed before corporate Web 2.0. Co-evolution often begins with happy accidents.

But that's over now. If you've answered yes to any two of the above questions, seek help.

(P.S. Yes, this is meant more as a provocation than a precise metaphor. Hopefully you've been provoked.)

(P.P.S. Slate Star Codex ran a piece a few years back about rage as toxoplasmosis which makes a very different point about emotions as parasites. Still, that post is better than this newsletter and you should read that.)

Things to Think With

Internet Culture Mediated by Reality. The traditional way to think about the internet is as a mediator of "real" culture. For instance, you may think that the "alt-right" on the web aided a nascent populist movement, electing Donald Trump. But maybe you have it wrong. Maybe, as Reid Cherlin suggests, online alt-right culture had a theory, and the taking down of Eric Cantor and the election of Donald Trump was largely just hypothesis testing to see if that theory could make the jump to the real world.

Maybe current politics is no longer reality mediated by internet culture, but internet culture mediated by reality. Yeah, be very scared, and listen to this episode of This American Life, which features the audio tapes that Cherlin captured in 2014, at a strange Breitbart party featuring Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Sebastian Gorka, and guest of honor Neil Farage. Where are they now, I wonder?

The Delegate Paradox. One of the big questions in the study of political polarization has been why leaders seem to have polarized before the populations they represent. Part of this is explained by followers polarizing based on elite cues -- in many ways polarization is an elite phenomenon that works from the top downward to the general population (think Fox News). A fascinating paper just released, however, shows another dimension  of this -- to best represent the issue positions of constituencies members of congress have to be much more radical than their median voter, based on simple mathematics. If you're reading this and think you understand it, you probably don't. It's based on a "paradox of aggregation", which reminds me a bit of Simpson's paradox (another important concept). Read the article and ignore the more advanced math, but walk through the implications of the early charts. It's a bit mind-blowing, really. 

Quick Hits

Facebook has finally admitted that it was exploited by Russian information operations during the 2016 elections. Does anyone remember the weeks of This-is-Fine-ism in Zuckerberg's comments after the election? 

A reminder that the US ran sockpuppets too.

A reminder to people quoting the "backfire effect" of fact-checking that more recent research shows it is rare at best.

I'm still waiting on more detail to talk about WIkiTibune, but others are talking about it.

I'll be presenting at iAnnotate this Thursday on the Digital Polarization Initiative in two different sessions.The project has really started rolling, with students from everywhere throwing up articles. My favorite ones are from a local (WSU) neuroscience class that went after claims like this.

Speaking of annotation, Audrey Watters wants to go un-annotated. My take (of course) is that annotation works best through a system of copies. Anyone should be able to annotate a copy of your work. But it's not clear to me that people have the right to piggyback on the popularity of an address that you've worked your butt off to promote.It's not cear to me that they should get to annotate the master file. This has always been the problem with comments as well -- they work best on small sites, and go bad when they give users a much larger platform than they have earned. As with everything online, the phenomenon is gendered as well. 

I really should have many more links, but the iAnnotate conference is taking a chunk out of my week, and I'm scrambling to get both personal and professional things done. Next week we'll get back on track. Webo-plasmosis demands more links. 


Mike Caulfield.