Social Media Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Men in business suits boxing in a ring

The latest tragedies grabbing the headlines and especially the ensuing bluster on social media have reinforced for me why I have lately decided to stop engaging in discussions about these things there.1 In fact, I have been using a browser extension called FB Purity to block any updates that contain certain keywords from appearing in my timeline.

It’s not that I’m a heartless ogre who doesn’t care about making our country safer or protecting it from dastardly forces. Nor does it mean I don’t care about the Catholic Church and her doctrines and teachings and whether some of her leaders are undermining them.

It’s that I don’t believe that bluster and acrimony on Facebook and Twitter are going to change a damn thing. No, wait, it will change something: It will make me more bitter and angry and sinful.

Much of what passes for discourse on subjects like gun control or Donald Trump or Pope Francis consists of straw man arguments, emotional venting lacking in rational thought, failures to engage charity or to give the benefit of the doubt, silly memes that usually contain falsehoods and/or that mock others without engaging them. Then the comments on these posts devolve into shouting matches and insults that drown out anyone trying to make rational, intelligent responses.

Shakespeare could have been describing these “antisocial” social media debates when he wrote in “MacBeth”: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

And in the end, no one ever has their mind changed about a single thing. I’ve never seen one of these shouting matches result in someone saying, “You know what? You’re right! I’ve been wrong all this time. I’ve changed my mind.”

So what’s the point of it all?

Now, you may ask me why I haven’t just deleted my social media accounts, like so many other people have. For one thing, social media is part of my job. I need to be there to administer and monitor several social media sites associated with my work. For another thing, once I’ve excised the vitriol from my timelines, I can engage with my family and friends in uplifting and fun discussions and share news of our lives and share articles about interesting or uplifting topics. Social media doesn’t have to be a wasteland. It’s what you make it.

I choose not to make it a place of anger and falsehoods and cheap ideological grandstanding.

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I’m not always successful in staying out of them. But I nearly always regret it.

More Tales of Social Media Marketing Mistakes

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post1 about college students moving to low-tax states. I wanted to illustrate it with an image of a young person house-moving and found one on Flickr on the account of a small moving company that looks to appeal to young people. The photo was available under a Creative Commons license with an attribution requirement. So I used the photo under the terms they had provided.

Fast forward to earlier this month. I get an email from a marketing company. Thank you, they said, for featuring our client on your web site, but we need you to hyperlink the image so that it directs readers to our web site. They didn’t tell me which photo or where it was on my site. My blog has been around for nearly two decades and has thousands of entries. I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Eventually through some sleuthing, I figured out which blog post and photo. First, I wasn’t featuring their client on my site. I was using their photo—in accordance with the usage restrictions they had listed—to illustrate an unrelated story. Second, I had followed the attribution requirements that they selected when making the photo available. Third, that’s not how my site software works. I can’t hyperlink the “hero” image at the top of my blog posts.

I didn’t want the hassle so I just found another image on a different site that was about “moving” and replaced theirs. Then I sent the PR person an email in reply telling her, “Never mind, I’ve replaced the image with one unrelated to your client that doesn’t have special requirements.”

So instead of free advertising for her client (the logo was prominent in the image), they get nothing. Rather than increase her client’s virality and Google-rank, she decreased it by making a silly and annoying request. If they want people to handle their images differently, then they should say so up front in their rights disclosure.

  1. I’m not linking the post or mentioning the mover because it’s not relevant.

A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

Read More and Comment

Complexity

This article discusses Apple’s manufacturing process for nearly all of its products, machining aluminum at a scale unlike any other company in the world. It is a fascinating discussion of Apple’s fanatical attention to detail and the amazing enormity of the scale at which it works.

I bring it to your attention not simply to praise Apple or its products, but to bring up a different point, namely that nearly everything is more complicated than you think it is. You see, the impetus for the linked article was a claim that the iPhone 8 would be made of industrial ceramic, like the new Apple Watch Edition, instead of the current machined aluminum. But the author of the post points out all the reasons why that can’t be so.

Many of those reasons are things that only someone involved in the world of industrial-scale manufacturing would know. But they are very real limitations… or at least challenges. But unless you inhabit that world, you wouldn’t understand.

I’ve found this to be applicable in nearly sphere of life. I’ve been on the inside of a number of organizations, including a few with controversial public faces. And almost invariably I have found that critics and kibitzers think they know what’s going on when they really don’t. They imagine motives and capabilities and options that are mere figments of their own imaginations and wishful thinking.

So the next time you (or I) are tempted to say, “Of course they should do X because this is what they’re thinking,” pause for a moment and consider that may be they shouldn’t because maybe they aren’t because probably you don’t know.

Facebook as Global Censor

The editor of a Norwegian newspaper has written an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook removed a famous documentary photograph from the newspaper’s Facebook page.

The photo in question comes from the Vietnam War and shows a young girl, naked, running in terror from a bombing. It’s horrifying and disturbing and was a key to ending US involvement in that war. Facebook called it child pornography.

The newspaper editor says that Facebook’s standards, written in a California conference room, should not be applied in a blanket way to a global audience.

On the one hand, I can see that there is content that I would find highly objectionable that others would defend posting on the same grounds of diverse opinion and free speech.

On the other hand, I am afraid that a global communications platform used by more than one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing) unilaterally decides what is appropriate and what is not.

Whether it’s deciding that clergy and religious cannot be identified by their titles or declaring certain sensitive topics out of bounds, Facebook as a corporation has too much power.

We used to worry that Google’s control over search results could be used to manipulate the public (and still do). We should worry that Facebook’s censorship could be used to do the same thing.

The iPhone Who Cried AMBER Alert

All the major smart phone manufacturers–Apple, Google, Microsoft–include a feature that was developed in conjunction with the US telephone carriers and the US government to send out emergency alert notifications, including AMBER Alerts and Emergency Alerts. (Android breaks it down even further to Presidential Alerts (war, terrorist attack), Imminent Threat Alerts (natural disasters and weather), and AMBER Alerts.) AMBER Alerts are law enforcement messages aimed at locating a missing and/or endangered child and typically give you a last known location, a car license plate number and make, model, and color.

In theory I support the inclusion of these emergency alert systems, especially as you can’t count on as many people listening to radio or watching TV at a given time of day to hear and see the Emergency Alert System be activated. And all the phone manufacturers give you some control over whether you have some or all of the alerts enabled on your iPhone, Android phone or Windows phone.

Apart from the built-in functions, you can also download other apps that provide emergency notifications. I have a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) app for state-level notices and a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app that provides emergency notices as well. All of them limit notifications to phones within a designated locality, inside some radius with the emergency situation at its center.

However, I think someone needs to do some work to determine when and under what circumstances the alert system is activated. Last night, at about 2am, parts of the Northeast US were awakened from sleep by the piercing tones of an AMBER Alert on their phones. A woman was driving from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire with a child in medical distress and they couldn’t locate her. They eventually found her at the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

I will grant that this is an important alert, but does waking up millions of smart phone owners with the piercing tones of an alert help find this child? Is this the best use of this feature? Because I guarantee you that many of them turned off the AMBER Alert notice on their phone this morning. (I haven’t, but my wife, Melanie, did.)[1]

If there’s a terrorist attack or act of war, I want to be woken up. If there’s a mega-tsunami bearing down on the East Coast, I want to know. But do I need to awakened for a National Weather Service frost warning? For an AMBER Alert on a car that is presumably on the highway and not in my bedroom where I am asleep?

The manufacturers, the carriers, and the government need to go back to the drawing board. They need to draw up new protocols for when to activate the system and under which circumstances. Because if this keeps happening, like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, they will find no one paying attention to them when it really matters.


  1. The Do Not Disturb feature on the iPhone or putting any phone in silenced mode does not save you. The emergency alerts are designed to override all user-controlled attempts to keep the phone silent, except turning off Emergency Alerts all together.  ↩

Thou Shalt Use Secure Passwords

Password security is a problem everywhere. We are constantly reading news stories about yet another breach of a computer system’s security, even among government agencies and businesses that tout their attention to privacy, and many of these security lapses are due to poor password management, meaning they use passwords that are too easily cracked. The sad reality is that Catholic dioceses and parishes are extremely vulnerable to this kind of lapse.

In my experience, employees of Church institutions are just as bad, if not worse than employees anywhere else.[1] I’ve seen passwords on Post-It notes on desks, passwords that were first names, passwords that are names of the parish or town or address or phone number or zip code or a combination. I’ve seen user accounts for databases, web sites, and even donor databases shared by multiple individuals, including volunteers who come and go. And then there are the passwords that are used every place: web site login, the secretary’s email, and the Quickbooks database, not to mention someone’s personal Facebook profile so that if the password is compromised in one place, it’s compromised everywhere.

So what’s the problem? Disgruntled employees, nosy neighbors, cyber crooks are just a few of the potential problems. They could delete donor/parishioner records or snoop into confidential files. If a parish uses online giving or online religious education registration, then it even exposes parishioner credit card and other financial information.

But a solution to this problem is readily available for almost any situation. The place to begin is with password management software. There are several good choices, but my preference is 1Password from AgileBits Software, which is available for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android. The concept behind 1Password is simple: The software has hooks in your web browser and when it detects you are at a password creation screen, it offers to generate a password for you that can be more than 20 characters long, using numbers, letters, and symbols for maximum security. Of course, you’re not going to remember that password off the top of your head, so 1Password saves it in its database, and then for every single place you need a password, you can generate a unique and very secure password because you don’t have to keep track of it. When you need that password to login again later, you activate 1Password in your browser and it fills in the username and password automatically.

And when you’re done with your logins, you lock up 1Password and then you only have to remember the one password that unlocks it again, hence the name “1 password.” Even better, that one password is doubly secure because it never travels over the Internet to lock or unlock anything, just the software on your computer. And if one of your passwords is compromised, only the password for that site will need to be changed because you have created unique passwords for every site. 1Password also has a feature called Vaults, which allow you to share parts of your secure password database with a co-worker or the boss, for example, without exposing all your passwords.

Like I said, this is just one password manager. There are others that work just as well with different features and different models of security, like LastPass and Dashlane, to name two.

I think that secure password management is so vital to good stewardship of parishes and ministries that the cost of a password management utility should just be considered the cost of buying a computer. In this day and age, password management is a part of basic computer skills.

Likewise, good password management software is useless if there aren’t strong workplace policies to back them up. Employees and volunteers alike have to know that they have a duty to secure the virtual front doors and back doors of the Church that is just as real as the duty to lock the doors of the offices. We wouldn’t put the weekly collection in the top drawer of the secretary’s desk in an unlocked office, but that’s what we’re doing in a virtual sense when we use bad and insecure passwords.

For thousands of years the Church has safeguarded the patrimony entrusted to her, whether the world’s great artworks or the sins entrusted to her in the Sacrament of Confession. In that spirit, we should continue to safeguard the more mundane business affairs of the Church and her people as well. An essential ingredient in those best practices is good password management.

Update: Allison Sheridan of the NosillaCast podcast made a video with a good, simplified explanation of the importance of strong unique passwords. If you think your password system is good enough, then watch this video to see why you need to step up your game:

Meanwhile, the Naked Security blog at Sophos.com offers some more information about password practices and how insecure we all really are.

According to a new report from password manager and digital wallet company Dashlane, a survey of 3000 people, evenly distributed between the US, the UK and France, found that 53% of US respondents have shared a password with a colleague.

The younger the employee, the more likely they are to think that the sharing economy includes passwords: 67% of respondents aged 16-24 said they’ve shared passwords; it drops to a still-dismal 59% in the age bracket of 25-34, 52% with 35-44-year-olds, and a still quite lame-o 46% of those 45-54.

That’s just one of several sobering studies they quote. I suggest you read it all and then take action.

Update 2: 1Password has become an even better tool for password management now that they offer 1Password for Teams as well as 1Password for Families. Considering all that you get bundled in, it’s a great deal.


  1. In this, I am not speaking of my current employer, the Catholic parishes of Walpole, Mass. where we are implementing better password policies than most.  ↩
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