Why the SmugMug Flickr cap is bad for the whole Net

When SmugMug bought Flickr from Yahoo earlier this year, many people suspected another shoe was going to drop and now it has: Smug Mug is dropping Flickr’s free tier from 1TB of storage to just 1,000 photos. In addition to being an inconvenience for active users, it has larger implications.

For instance, Melanie​ has long used Flickr to embed photos in her blog posts rather than take up our own previous server space. But once Flickr starts actively killing off any older photos above her 1,000 limit, those embedded photo links will all break. So will we have to start paying $50/year as another expense to keep her blog going?

But there are even wider implications for the web. One of the largest sources of Creative Commons photos online has been Flickr, but many, many of those photos are sitting on old accounts. The internet community is about to lose access to a lot of visual content. Many of the photos you see on Wikipedia, for example, are Flickr photos. The same with many of those public domain stock photos.

Another example is the Archdiocese of Boston’s Flickr page. George Martell and I set that up back in 2009 and it has over 31,000 photos. It is a valuable historical record of the past decade of the Church in Boston. In fact, there are many Catholic sites that rely on Church’s Creative Commons-licensed photos, like Aleteia. They’re going to lose this and I don’t think the folks who are running it at the Archdiocese of Boston now realize what’s about to happen to it.

It’s a shame when invaluable internet resources like this are so dependent on one commercial entity and doubly a shame when they shut down or radically pare back. This is going to be bad for the internet for sure.

Don’t Delete Facebook

Actually, delete Facebook if it will make you feel better, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter at this point and it won’t do any good.1 Here’s the backstory: A big news story broke this week about a British company, Cambridge Analytica, that used data harvested from a Facebook quiz by an academic researcher to compile profiles on millions of people that it then (maybe) used to target political ads. And because those ads may have been for Trump, everyone lost their minds and said they needed to save themselves from Facebook.

The fact is that you’re closing the barn door after the horse is gone, but you can take control of some of what Facebook knows and shares about you.

I say the horse is out of the barn because this harvesting of Facebook data for political purposes is old news. In 2012, the Obama campaign was openly bragging about the Facebook data it collected on the young users of its app. It’s the same data that Cambridge Analytica was seeing. And keep in mind that the data that Obama got six years ago is still very useful and has probably been dispersed into a bunch of successor organizations. They’re also been collecting all this data for however long you’ve been signed up and they don’t delete it when you quit. They’re also not the only one. This kind of Big Data harvesting is happening every day through Google’s ad networks and Amazon’s sales records and your music playlists and your brick-and-mortar purchases. This is the reality of the world we live in. So deleting your Facebook profile is just one drop in the bucket.

However, as I said, you can take back some control. For Facebook, you can limit what data it shares. For one thing, stop using your Facebook or Google profile to create logins on other sites. It is so tempting to do so because it makes life easier not to have to manage more passwords. For that I say, get a password manager.2 But you should know that if you do use your Facebook or Google profiles (it’s often OAuth or Open Authorization login), you are giving both Facebook and the site you’re signing into access to more data about yourself. In fact, that other site can pull in all kinds of data from your FB profile like your friends, your likes and dislikes, contact info, birthdays and more. This is all Big Data gold.

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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.

A Million Little Big Brothers

Perhaps you’ve seen this scenario play out online: Someone says something outrageous on social media or does something that’s just wrong. Not criminal necessarily, but wrong from your point of view. The person usually isn’t famous, just someone whose social outburst has gone viral. They could be from anywhere on the political spectrum, right to left, but whatever they said ticked off everyone on the other side. So someone else does some digging into their background, finds out where they work, and announces, “I wonder how their employer feels about having an employee who says this?”, beginning a pressure campaign to get them fired from their job for the sin of saying something stupid in public.

The practice of finding out personal, real life details about people you have encountered online and then using that information against them in real life is called “doxxing”.1 It’s a form of social punishment, a message that if you anger the online mob, the online mob can reach out to hurt you. It has been used against liberals and conservatives, Christians and anti-Christians, people of all races and sexes and persuasions and ideologies. It has become a way to widen the split in our society that has grown, the division that makes everything about politics and impossible to have polite, civil conversations where we disagree.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Everybody says stupid things occasionally. Our duty, if we want to have a civil society, is to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if (a) we don’t know them personally and (b) this is one statement/incident out of context. Perhaps even if the person has made a habit of saying or doing dumb things.

Most people I know have at least in their lives said something stupid? Would you want everyone at every time now and the future to be able to potentially use that against you?

I have seen Twitter accounts whose reason for existence is to find people who show up in photographs of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer and then try to get them fired for their jobs. No nuance, no understanding. If you were there and you are white, you must be a white supremacist Nazi and you must be stripped of any ability to feed or provide for yourself or your family. And if your employer thinks you have a right to be wrong and to say stupid things on your own time, then his business will be punished.

I’ve seen it used to attack a black woman on Twitter who said white women’s sons should be killed because they are likely to be criminals. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.) Someone figured out she’s a nurse and suggested she should be fired.

Was she actually calling for people to murder others or was she being outrageous for attention’s sake? I don’t know for sure, but I have seen the most upstanding people say some pretty crazy things in private conversations, not because they really believed it, but to elicit reaction from the people they are with. They’re not exactly joking, but exaggerating rhetorically to make a point or eschewing nuance to be more direct in a conversation with someone who knows them so well that the other person can fill in the context. The difference now is that Twitter and Facebook can trick us into thinking we’re having private conversations with a small group of friends … until suddenly we’re not and our post has gone viral and now the whole internet is attacking us.

A Self-Police State

We used to worry about a George Orwell “1984”-style totalitarian oppressive regime, a police state that monitored its people for any and all transgressions of the party line, no matter how small. It turns out that wasn’t what we should have been afraid of after all. Now we need to worry about an oppressive regime of a million supreme leaders.

Can you imagine a country where everyone has to police their every public and private utterance, no matter how dumb or off the cuff, lest the mob of those ideologically opposed to them find out and ruin their lives? Who needs Big Brother government when you have a million little Big Brothers?

Shake your head at the boorish and outrageous. Criticize them strongly. But don’t seek to destroy the lives of perfect strangers. That’s hardly either Christian or conducive to the building of a good society. And it’s a weapon that targets the good and the bad, the right and the left, those of every stripe indiscriminately.

  1. There are other definitions and perhaps a broader usage of the term, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick with this for now.

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.

Backfire on The Oatmeal

I’ve long been a fan of The Oatmeal, the often irreverent web comic drawn and written by Matthew Inman. Once upon a time, the comics were wry discussions of common points of friction in life, like bad grammar or exercising or packing for a trip, or happy excursions on interesting tidbits of wonder or joy, like the love of a pet or the amazing mantis shrimp or the incredible life of Nikolai Tesla. The comic has become so popular that Inman is a veritable one-man viral campaign. His merest suggestion of support for a cause can raise millions of dollars in days.

Sadly, the comic has declined in recent years, in my opinion, because it has succumbed to that disease that has run amok today, namely that everything is political. So now the comics tend toward rants, mostly liberal, against the dangerous others, primarily Donald Trump and his voters.

In the last day or so, another Oatmeal comic has gone viral, this one on the psychological phenomenon of the “backfire effect.”1 It’s a series of panels that are supposed to show that we are evolutionarily hardwired to believe new information that supports our core beliefs and reject new information that challenges them. His conclusion is that it’s okay to let our emotional selves react, but then we should engage our logic and change our minds so we can all be happy agreeing with one another.

I have a few problems with this.2 First, just because you can make a citation doesn’t make new information true. Yes, sometimes we are actually wrong about a basic fact of reality, e.g. That event occurred in 1945, not 1946. But even as Inman points out, those sorts of facts rarely impinge upon core beliefs. Instead core beliefs—those at the very core of self-identity and understanding—are complex. So a citation can never be simple. It’s often an interpretation or hypothesis or a claim that can admit no easy proofs.
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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.

Hacking the Front Door

I’ve been getting deeper into the Internet of Things or smarthome recently with connected lightbulbs and doorknobs and I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a connected door lock. The advantage is being able to get in the house if I leave my keys inside but have my phone (which I always do) or letting Melanie or the kids in if they lock themselves out.

But I think I’ll be waiting a bit longer before going that route.

Gadget makers love the Internet of Things. Just look at connected refrigerators, connected tampons, and connected pregnancy tests as some examples. As I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, the security of these devices is often inadequate. This week at DEF CON, two researchers, Anthony Rose and Ben Ramsey, emphasized this point by demonstrating how they easily compromised 12 different Bluetooth Low Energy smart locks using cheap hardware that cost around $200 altogether.

If a lightbulb gets hacked, that’s annoying, but not consequential. If my front door gets hacked, it can be devastating.1

  1. Although to be fair, there are a lot easier ways to break into a house than hacking the front door, like picking the lock, busting the lock, busting a window, etc.

My Review of the Ring Video Doorbell and Camera

When we bought our house it didn’t have a doorbell and we never installed one. We made the reasonable assumption that with a house this small, you could usually hear a door knock anywhere in the house. But when I saw the Ring Video Doorbell, I realized there are other reasons I might want one.

The Ring Video Doorbell isn’t just a doorbell, as you might imagine from its name. It’s an internet-connected doorbell and video camera with a speaker and microphone built-in that lets me monitor and answer the door wherever I am through a smartphone app.

(Update 1/9/17: Updates and new details throughout the following blog entry.)
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Facebook Wants to Be the internet

The more you hear Mark Zuckerberg talk about the future of Facebook, the more you realize that his vision is not that Facebook become the biggest community on the internet or the biggest web site on the internet, but to become the internet itself.

The key point, and the one thing you really need to accept to understanding where Facebook is going, is that Zuckerberg sees internet access as key to making his company — and society — stronger. The internet creates jobs, brings people together, can educate those in underserved communities, and even allow for things like remote surgery to save lives. It’ll probably also make Facebook some money, too. If you take all of that as his starting point, the rest of Facebook’s initiatives begin to make sense.

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