Oh Facebook, what have you done now?

The Register nails it, once again.

Let’s spin Facebook’s Wheel of Misfortune! Clack-clack-clack… clack… You’ve won ‘100s of millions of passwords stored in plaintext’
Facebook today admitted it stored “some” of its addicts’ account passwords in a plaintext readable format. For “some”, read hundreds of millions.

The antisocial network quietly made the mea culpa in a statement that followed its breathless announcement of the Oculus Rift S Virtual Reality headset. The password snafu confession was, as far as we can tell, forthcoming from the Silicon Valley giant only after investigative journalist Brian Krebs blew the lid off the blunder.

Other news sources are happy to pile in, of course.

Why Facebook waited 3 months to disclose its latest privacy screw-up
We reached out to Facebook in an attempt to answer this question, but unsurprisingly received no response as of press time. Troy Hunt, a security researcher perhaps best known for running the breach disclosure site HaveIBeenPwned, was significantly more willing to chat.

“I suspect Facebook decided not to initially disclose the issue as they had no evidence of the data being used maliciously,” he wrote over Twitter direct message. “I can understand that position insofar as whilst the storage was clearly improper, without a compromise of the stored data the impact on customers would have been zero.”

This, of course, assumes that the passwords weren’t improperly accessed. Facebook claims as much in its blog post, but that requires you to trust Facebook. Which, well, you’d be forgiven for not jumping at the opportunity.

They’re all talking about whether these plaintext passwords were accessed by Facebook staff, whether anything malicious happened, but I think they’re missing a question — how did this happen?

Facebook’s own statement:

Keeping passwords secure

Or rather, not keeping them secure.

As part of a routine security review in January, we found that some user passwords were being stored in a readable format within our internal data storage systems. This caught our attention because our login systems are designed to mask passwords using techniques that make them unreadable.

Obviously not designed well enough, because that didn’t happen this time.

[…] In line with security best practices, Facebook masks people’s passwords when they create an account so that no one at the company can see them.

No it doesn’t.

In security terms, we “hash” and “salt” the passwords, including using a function called “scrypt” as well as a cryptographic key that lets us irreversibly replace your actual password with a random set of characters. With this technique, we can validate that a person is logging in with the correct password without actually having to store the password in plain text.

Yes yes yes, that’s all well and good, but that didn’t happen this time, because …? Who knows, perhaps they’ll tell us the next time this happens?

Happy birthday Bach

I love this Google Doodle, though even Bach can’t rescue my appalling lack of musical ability!

Google’s first AI-powered Doodle is a piano duet with Bach
Starting on March 21st, you’ll be able to play with the interactive Doodle, which will prompt you to compose a two-measure melody or pick one of the pre-existing choices. When you press the “Harmonize” button, it will use machine learning to give you a version of your melody that sounds like it was composed by Bach himself.

happy-birthday-bach-1

Various Google teams were involved in this project, including Google Magenta. There is an incredible amount of detail about the technologies behind the Bach harmonies on their own site.

Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle
Coconet is trained to restore Bach’s music from fragments: we take a piece from Bach, randomly erase some notes, and ask the model to guess the missing notes from context. The result is a versatile model of counterpoint that accepts arbitrarily incomplete scores as input and works out complete scores. This setup covers a wide range of musical tasks, such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions, rewriting and elaborating existing music, and composing from scratch.

happy-birthday-bach-2

I cannot begin to understand what’s going on there, but it sounds good.

MySpace isn’t your space anymore

Rolling Stone reflects on the news that MySpace has deleted all the music, photos and videos uploaded before 2016, seemingly as a result of a dodgy server migration project.

The internet is not your friend: MySpace and the loss of memories
But the loss was also deeply felt by nostalgia-happy millennials who came of age on MySpace, of which there are many: at its peak in 2006, MySpace had about 100 million users, many of whom were adolescents at the time. For those who were in their teens during those heady post-Friendster, pre-Facebook years, MySpace was nothing less than an introductory course in the fledgling field of How to Be Extremely Online — for better or, more likely than not, for worse.

So much of our lives is online now. Or rather, the memories of key events in our lives are tied to images and information kept online, outside of our control.

“There’s no way to recover the information we entrust to third parties,” Sarah Ditum wrote last week in a prophetic op-ed for the New Statesman. “We use Facebook, Gmail and Dropbox in the expectation that whatever we put there today will still exist tomorrow, but that can be a misplaced faith.” And that faith can come with some seriously devastating consequences, as evidenced by the posts from distraught posters on Reddit, one of whom is a father whose son passed away at 20, who now no longer is able to access a guitar demo he recorded at the age of seven. While we may refer to the disappearance of our embarrassing post-sex selfies and Taking Back Sunday-lyric-laden status updates as a “blessing,” it certainly doesn’t feel that way to those of with lost loved ones, whose connections to their online lives, however tenuous they may be, are some of the only connections they still have.

Kottke.org turns twenty

I’ve been a huge fan of Jason Kottke and his blog for as long as I’ve been on the web, I guess. We marked the web turning 30 earlier. It turns out kottke.org turns 20 this week. Time flies. Here he is, reminiscing over those early posts.

Twenty.
But had I not written all those posts, good and bad, I wouldn’t be who I am today, which, hopefully, is a somewhat wiser person vectoring towards a better version of himself. What the site has become in its best moments — a slightly highfalutin description from the about page: “[kottke.org] covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity” — has given me a chance to “try on” hundreds of thousands of ideas, put myself into the shoes of all kinds of different thinkers & creators, meet some wonderful people (some of whom I’m lucky enough to call my friends), and engage with some of the best readers on the web (that’s you!), who regularly challenge me on and improve my understanding of countless topics and viewpoints.

Here he is in conversation with Richard MacManus, who knows a thing or two about blogging himself, about this strange platform some of us insist on continuing with.

Jason Kottke, OG blogger
CI: But what about the cultural significance of blogs now? I mean there are some people like yourself who are still known as bloggers, but I very rarely hear the word ‘blog’ used these days. The younger generation, it seems to me, are not so concerned about having a home online – they’ll just gravitate to whatever tool happens to be popular at the time. So I feel like there’s some sort of a cultural shift that’s happened, that the blog is almost archaic these days.

Jason: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think in the beginning when blogs first came came around, you would tell somebody you had a blog and it would be like…a what? They didn’t know what it was. And then, blogs had their cultural moment and then everybody knew what they were. And like you said, you had a blog and people would be like, oh cool. But now, people are like… oh, that’s kind of quaint, you still have a blog.

Hmm.

happ://y.birthday.www

As I mentioned earlier, the Web turns 30 this year. Let’s reminisce with the Verge.

The World Wide Web turns 30: our favorite memories from A to Z
Over the past 30 years, major portions of the web have come and gone. They’ve made us laugh and cringe, let us waste time and find friends, and reshaped the world in the process.

For its anniversary, we’re looking back at some of our favorite websites, from A to Z, as well as some key people and technologies. Of course, there was far too much good stuff to include, so we had to note some additional favorites along the way.

Yes there are the obvious ones like Flickr and Geocities, but what about these blasts from the past?

JENNICAM
Jennifer Ringley started broadcasting every moment spent in her college dorm, by way of grainy photos uploaded every 15 minutes, in 1996. She was one of the first people to share her life online without a filter, offering a sense of intimacy and relatability that we now take for granted with digital celebrities. She was also one of the first people to discover the pitfalls of internet fame, including burnout after living years of her life in public, which is why she’s stayed mostly offline since 2003 when Jennicam went dark.

[…]

LIVEJOURNAL
Once upon a time (around the turn of the 21st century), there was a social network called LiveJournal where large numbers of people (some with very confusing pseudonyms) hung out, blogged, argued in long comment threads, posted fiction and poetry and art, and had a generally good time. In 2007, LiveJournal was sold to a Russian media company, and many of its original contributors eventually decamped to Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign climes. LiveJournal is still, well, live; its servers (and its user agreement) are now Russian and so are many of its users.

Breaking up is hard to do

The techlash continues.

Elizabeth Warren proposes breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook
At a rally in Long Island City, the neighborhood that was to be home to a major new Amazon campus, Ms. Warren laid out her proposal calling for regulators who would undo some tech mergers, as well as legislation that would prohibit platforms from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace.

“We have these giants corporations — do I have to tell that to people in Long Island City? — that think they can roll over everyone,” Ms. Warren told the crowd, drawing applause. She compared Amazon to the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games,” in which those with power force their wishes on the less fortunate.

“I’m sick of freeloading billionaires,” she said.

She’s far from the lone voice on this issue.

Elizabeth Warren is right – we must break up Facebook, Google and Amazon
The current effort is bipartisan. At a Senate hearing I attended last week, the arch-conservative Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked me, rhetorically: “Is there really any wonder that there is increased pressure for antitrust enforcement activity, for privacy activity when these companies behave in the way that they do?”

Hawley added: “Every day brings some creepy new revelation about these companies’ behaviors. Of course the public is going to want there to be action to defend their rights. It’s only natural.”

House of Lords report calls for digital super-regulator
The chair of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, called on the government to be less reactive in how it responds to digital risks: “The government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles,” he said.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

You can always take matters into your own hands.

Goodbye Big Five
Reporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting my money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Kids and screens

There’s a lot of talk about today’s children oversharing on social media. But what kind of example are the parents setting?

When kids realize their whole life is already online
While many kids may not yet have accounts themselves, their parents, schools, sports teams, and organizations have been curating an online presence for them since birth. The shock of realizing that details about your life—or, in some cases, an entire narrative of it—have been shared online without your consent or knowledge has become a pivotal experience in the lives of many young teens and tweens.

It seems we’re all on our screens, all the time. That plural is key, though, isn’t it? It used to be that there was only the one screen at home — the TV in the living room — but now everyone has their own screen and we sit and watch them all separately.

Here’s a report on research Ofcom carried out on what children are watching, and what they’re watching it on.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why
The evidence gives a sense of what attracts them to online video rather than traditional TV – and just how much has changed in the course of a generation.

We’ve got a couple of teenagers in the house, and so some of these conclusions struck a nerve. Here’s an extract about live TV.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why – A report for Ofcom (pdf)

What role does live TV play in children’s lives?

Key findings

• Most children viewed live TV as a family ritual, often watching programmes routinely every year (e.g. Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!)

• Parents welcomed live TV as an opportunity for “family time”, and were often actively encouraging their children to join them for communal TV watching

• Children were often using live TV as ’background noise’ while doing another task or to fill time while they were waiting for something

• Most live TV viewing was on a communal screen or device and therefore usually it was a compromised choice between those watching (e.g. parents and siblings)

[…]

Conclusions

The children loved being able to find whatever they wanted, whenever they liked. As YouTube responds to demand, it can offer a seemingly limitless choice of content. YouTube offers everything they could possibly want, and then allows them to easily access more of what they like the most. […]

Live TV is explicitly thought of by the children and their parents as an opportunity for “family time”, when they all sit down to watch something together. However, the children tended to feel that they weren’t choosing the content themselves, or it was a compromised choice. At other times children put live TV on for a few minutes as a ‘time filler’ while they were waiting for something or had a few minutes to spare. Overall, children seem most attracted to content that they can view on their own device, over which they can exercise maximum choice, and which directly feeds the things that interest them.

I think I miss that “family time”. It feels less natural now than it did when the kids were little.

Talk it over with an AI

We all need someone to talk to. A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. But is that still true if the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually exist?

Chatbot therapy
Since virtual therapy seems to work, some innovators have started to suspect they could offer patients the same benefits of CBT—without a human on the other end. Services like Replika (an app intended to provide an emotional connection, not necessarily therapy) and Woebot (a therapy service that started in Facebook Messenger before breaking out on its own) allow human patients to interact with artificially intelligent chatbots for the purpose of improving their mental health.

I gave Woebot a go some time back. It felt potentially useful but quite scripted, a little heavy-handed. I’ve just started with Replika and so far the conversations feel more natural, though a little random at times.

This app is trying to replicate you
Replika launched in March. At its core is a messaging app where users spend tens of hours answering questions to build a digital library of information about themselves. That library is run through a neural network to create a bot, that in theory, acts as the user would. Right now, it’s just a fun way for people to see how they sound in messages to others, synthesizing the thousands of messages you’ve sent into a distillate of your tone—rather like an extreme version of listening to recordings of yourself. But its creator, a San Francisco-based startup called Luka, sees a whole bunch of possible uses for it: a digital twin to serve as a companion for the lonely, a living memorial of the dead, created for those left behind, or even, one day, a version of ourselves that can carry out all the mundane tasks that we humans have to do, but never want to.

That line above, “a living memorial for the dead”, is key, as that’s how Replika started, with the story of Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko.

Speak, memory
Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning. In the moment, we tend to view our text messages as ephemeral. But as Kuyda found after Mazurenko’s death, they can also be powerful tools for coping with loss. Maybe, she thought, this “digital estate” could form the building blocks for a new type of memorial.

She’s not the only one wandering down this slightly morbid track.

Eternime and Replika: Giving life to the dead with new technology
At the moment, Eternime takes the form of an app which collects data about you. It does this in two ways: Automatically harvesting heaps of smartphone data, and by asking you questions through a chatbot.

The goal is to collect enough data about you so that when the technology catches up, it will be able to create a chatbot “avatar” of you after you die, which your loved ones can then interact with.

But would they want to? Grief is a very personal thing, I can’t imagine this approach being for everyone.

‘Have a good cry’: Chuckle Brother takes aim at the grief taboo
“It’s like when you are a kid and you fall over and you think it’s all right and then your mum comes and says, ‘Are you all right, love?’ You burst into tears,” he said. “It was the same when Barry died. Everybody was saying sorry about your brother.”

Replika seems less about leaving something behind for your family and friends when you’ve gone, but more about making a new friend whilst you’re still around.

The journey to create a friend
There is no doubt that friendship with a person and with an AI are two very different matters. And yet, they do have one thing in common: in both cases you need to know your soon-to-be friend really well to develop a bond.

But let’s not get carried away, we’re not talking Hal or Samantha yet.

Three myths about Replika
Social media has put forth a number of quite entertaining theories about Replika. Today we are listing some of the ideas that we love … even though they are not exactly true.

Though you never know how these things will progress.

This Y Combinator-backed AI firm trained its chatbot to call you on the phone, and it’s fun but a little creepy
Much like the text version of Replika, my conversation with the bot threw up some odd quirks. “I think you look lovely today,” it said, and when I pointed out that it doesn’t have eyes, it replied: “Are you sure I don’t?”

Strange, funny, and occasionally creepy nonsequiturs are not new to Replika, in fact, there is a whole Subreddit dedicated to weird exchanges with the bot. Overall, however, the bot seemed to follow the train of the conversation reasonably well, and even told me a joke when I asked it to.

Looking back for a better digital future

A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.

Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

[…]

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?

Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “pee ring into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing.

[…]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

Fascinating and horrifying

Thirty years after it all started, the web is a very strange place indeed.

The Communal Mind: Patricia Lockwood travels through the internet
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself. Here’s how it began.

Some parts are much worse than others. Here’s a depressing look into the world of Facebook moderators; what they go through, what they have to put up with, how they are damaged as a result. I can’t help but wonder if the ends justify the means — do we really need all this?

The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America
Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

But the secrecy also insulates Cognizant and Facebook from criticism about their working conditions, moderators told me.

It’s not just a problem with Facebook, of course.

Suicide instructions spliced into kids’ cartoons on YouTube and YouTube Kids
Suicide tips stashed in otherwise benign cartoons are just the latest ghastly twist in the corruption of kids’ content on YouTube and YouTube Kids. For years, the video-sharing company has struggled with a whack-a-mole-style effort to keep a variety of disturbing and potentially scarring content out of videos targeting children.

Web beginnings and endings

It’s hard to believe the web’s thirty years old already. It seems like it’s been around forever in the way it underpins everything we do, from TV watching to banking. But we’re still grappling with the consequences its introduction has had on our societies, and probably will for another thirty years yet.

But let’s step back a little, to how it all began.

CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb rebuild
In December 1990, an application called WorldWideWeb was developed on a NeXT machine at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) just outside of Geneva. This program – WorldWideWeb — is the antecedent of most of what we consider or know of as “the web” today.

In February 2019, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the development of WorldWideWeb, a group of developers and designers convened at CERN to rebuild the original browser within a contemporary browser, allowing users around the world to experience the rather humble origins of this transformative technology.

web-beginnings-and-endings

Their timeline is very interesting, too: “thirty years of influences leading up to (and the thirty years of influence leading out from) the publication of the memo that lead to the development of the first web browser.”

web-beginnings-and-endings-1

But all good things come to an end, and another one of the big players from back in the day is no more.

A eulogy for AltaVista, the Google of its time
You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

web-beginnings-and-endings-3

Who’s next, I wonder.

Here comes nobody

Yesterday there were millions of us, today there’s nobody here at all.

AI fake face website launched
A software developer has created a website that generates fake faces, using artificial intelligence (AI). Thispersondoesnotexist.com generates a new lifelike image each time the page is refreshed, using technology developed by chipmaker Nvidia. Some visitors to the website say they have been amazed by the convincing nature of some of the fakes, although others are more clearly artificial.

here-comes-nobody-1

They look like us, and now they can write like us too.

AI text writing technology too dangerous to release, creators claim
Researchers at OpenAI say they have created an AI writer which “generates coherent paragraphs of text, achieves state-of-the-art performance on many language modeling benchmarks and performs rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering and summarisation — all without task-specific training.”

But they are withholding it from public use “due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology”.

Of course, it’s not just AI that’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

How to catch a catfisher
Last year, I found out someone was using my photos to catfish women. He stole dozens of my online photos – including selfies, family photos, baby photos, photos with my ex – and, pretending to be me, he would then approach women and spew a torrent of abuse at them.

It took me months to track him down, and now I’m about to call him.

Machines pretending to be people, people pretending to be other people. At least we’re truthful with ourselves, right?

Be honest, how much do you edit YOUR selfies?
“It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image,” says Rankin of the project, which is part of a wider initiative to explore the impact of imagery on our mental health.

“Social media has made everyone into their own brand. People are creating a two-dimensional version of themselves at the perfect angle, with the most flattering lighting and with any apparent ‘flaws’ removed. Mix this readily-available technology with the celebrities and influencers flaunting impossible shapes with impossible faces and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

here-comes-nobody-2

Better off without it?

It seems every day there’s a new delete-your-Facebook-account article doing the rounds, but what happens if you did? Would the effects on your wellbeing really be as positive as people suggest? New research would suggest the answer is yes.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off?
Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

That’s better!

The next Marvel film is set in 1990s, and so is its promotional website.

Marvel launched a delightful, retro website to promote Captain Marvel
The result is absolutely delightful. The website taps into the nostalgia for the 1990s that we’ve seen in the film’s trailers, and features a ton of components that were mainstays of the web almost a quarter of a century ago: random animations, zany photo editing, HTML frames, brightly-colored fonts, and of course, a guestbook and hit counter.

Perfect! Now, all we need to do is switch the rest of the web back.

When Facebook’s troubles began

(Or rather, when our troubles with Facebook began.)

Things were very different in 2004.

15 moments that defined Facebook’s first 15 years
At that point, success meant having 250,000 users on the platform. In the decade and a half since, Facebook has added four zeroes to that figure, transforming from a website for poking your college crush to, arguably, the most powerful engine of communication in the world. Zuckerberg’s creation has, for better and for worse, forever changed how people connect, how businesses make money, how politicians seize power, and how information flows across communities and cultures. It’s where grannies share pictures of their grandkids and where state-sponsored trolls wage cyberwar against other countries. It’s how volunteers raise money for hurricane victims and how hate-mongers rally their followers to kill people.

I think this moment is the key one.

2. News Feed launches.
… But News Feed did more than alert users to the privacy risks inherent in all this sharing. It also began the process of consolidating a world of information into one, ceaseless scroll, personalized to every individual user’s interests and beliefs. The News Feed wrested control away from publishers, putting it in the hands of Facebook’s almighty algorithms.

Another take on that, from 2014.

How Facebook’s design has changed over the last 10 years
September 2006, a major development: Mini-Feed and News Feed debuted. These additions shook up the look of Facebook by shifting emphasis away from the profile and towards the actions people took on Facebook, moving the service from a directory to a feed. And people were not happy.

And this one, from 2013.

Facebook news feed changed everything
Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.

But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.

Who would have thought, at the time, that all that would lead us here — fake news and post truth.

Facebook partners with Snopes and Associated Press to tackle fake news
The update will make it easier for users to report hoax stories and also bring in third-party fact checking to investigate and flag reported stories. Facebook will also be looking at how many people share articles after they’ve read them and combine this data with disputed flags to push fake stories to the bottom of news feeds. Fact-checkers at ABC News, FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, Snopes and Politifact will be using a tool created by Facebook to help evaluate the truthfulness of stories that have been flagged as fake news.

That turned out not to be so easy.

Snopes ends their ‘debunking false stuff’ partnership with Facebook. Here’s why.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact checking more practical for publishers — it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook. At some point, we need to put our foot down and say, ‘No. You need to build an API,’” Green said. “The work that fact-checkers are doing doesn’t need to be just for Facebook — we can build things for fact-checkers that benefit the whole web, and that can also help Facebook.”

Sounds like it wasn’t just a ‘bandwidth’ issue, but more a commitment to open systems versus closed. Once again, the people behind Snopes.com have my respect.

And for some further background reading, try these from Roger McNamee, author of Zucked – Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.

How to fix Facebook—before it fixes us
An early investor explains why the social media platform’s business model is such a threat—and what to do about it.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy
The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health.

Social media’s biggest challenge

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has issued a challenge to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others that I think may be beyond them.

Social media urged to take ‘moment to reflect’ after girl’s death
In an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat, Anne Longfield said the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell has highlighted the “horrific” material that children were able to easily access online.

Here’s the letter, on the Children’s Commissioner website.

A public call for online platforms to do more to tackle social media content which is harmful to children
I do not think it is going too far to question whether even you, the owners, any longer have any control over their content. If that is the case, then younger children should not be accessing your services at all, and parents should be aware that the idea of any authority overseeing algorithms and content is a mirage. […]

The potential disruption to all user experiences should no longer be a brake on making the safety and wellbeing of young people a top priority. Neither should hiding behind servers and apparatus in other jurisdictions be an acceptable way of avoiding responsibility.

The recent tragic cases of young people who had accessed and drawn from sites that post deeply troubling content around suicide and self-harm, and who in the end took their own lives, should be a moment of reflection. I would appeal to you to accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them – or admit publicly that you are unable to. […]

It is your responsibility to support measures that give children the information and tools they need growing up in this digital world – or to admit that you cannot control what anyone sees on your platforms.

I really hope something comes of this. The social media companies say they’re working hard to create safe spaces, free from harmful content and disinformation, but where’s the evidence of that? Imagine if they did publicly admit they were unable to “accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them.”

Update 05/02/2019 A response from Instagram.

Instagram to launch ‘sensitivity screens’ after Molly Russell’s death
Adam Mosseri, who took over Instagram after the app’s founders departed suddenly in 2018, has promised a series of changes following the death of the British teenager Molly Russell, whose parents believe she took her own life after being exposed to graphic images of self-harm and suicide on Instagram and Pinterest.

 

Pictures under glass

Following on from yesterday’s post about Joe Clark’s frustrations with various aspects of iPhone interface design (and smartphone design more broadly, I think), here are a few more.

First, Craig Mod on the new iPads — amazing hardware, infuriating software.

Getting the iPad to Pro
The problems begin when you need multiple contexts. For example, you can’t open two documents in the same program side-by-side, allowing you to reference one set of edits, while applying them to a new document. Similarly, it’s frustrating that you can’t open the same document side-by-side. This is a weird use case, but until I couldn’t do it, I didn’t realize how often I did do it on my laptop. The best solution I’ve found is to use two writing apps, copy-and-paste, and open the two apps in split-screen mode.

Daily iPad use is riddled with these sorts of kludgey solutions.

Switching contexts is also cumbersome. If you’re researching in a browser and frequently jumping back and forth between, say, (the actually quite wonderful) Notes.app and Safari, you’ll sometimes find your cursor position lost. The Notes.app document you were just editing fully occasionally resetting to the top of itself. For a long document, this is infuriating and makes every CMD-TAB feel dangerous. It doesn’t always happen, the behavior is unpredictable, making things worse. This interface “brittleness” makes you feel like you’re using an OS in the wrong way.

How we use the OS, the user interface, is key. Here’s Bret Victor on why future visions of interface design are missing a huge trick – our hands are more than just pointy fingers.

A brief rant on the future of interaction design
Go ahead and pick up a book. Open it up to some page. Notice how you know where you are in the book by the distribution of weight in each hand, and the thickness of the page stacks between your fingers. Turn a page, and notice how you would know if you grabbed two pages together, by how they would slip apart when you rub them against each other.

Go ahead and pick up a glass of water. Take a sip. Notice how you know how much water is left, by how the weight shifts in response to you tipping it

Almost every object in the world offers this sort of feedback. It’s so taken for granted that we’re usually not even aware of it. Take a moment to pick up the objects around you. Use them as you normally would, and sense their tactile response — their texture, pliability, temperature; their distribution of weight; their edges, curves, and ridges; how they respond in your hand as you use them.

There’s a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called “work” for millions of years.

Now, take out your favorite Magical And Revolutionary Technology Device. Use it for a bit. What did you feel? Did it feel glassy? Did it have no connection whatsoever with the task you were performing?

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

And that was written in 2011. We’ve not got any further.

The YouTube video he links to isn’t there anymore, but this one from Microsoft works just as well.

Stop neglecting the users

This is a great breakdown from Joe Clark — not quite tipping over into a rant — of all the iPhone user interface issues Apple is happily ignoring.

iPhones are hard to use
Observing what are dismissively called “normal people” (or “users”) for more than a decade, the one thing iPhone owners are proud they know how to do is force-quit apps. They also know how to set a ringtone and choose atrocious wallpaper. And that’s it. But they aren’t to blame.

People kind of don’t know that they can swipe up or down from top or bottom of screen. As an example, I certainly almost never see anybody turn wifi on or off that way (it’s almost always through Settings). They certainly don’t know what Control Center and Notification Center are by name. (They also don’t know what their iSight camera is. They don’t know what Springboard is, and shouldn’t have to. But do they know what the home screen is?)

It’s not just an issue with iPhones, I don’t think. It certainly frustrates me too, when I see people struggle unnecessarily with a task on any smartphone, though no fault of their own.

Seniors love iPads, but seniors and unhealthy people in general have a serious pressing need to fill out the Medical ID section (not obvious) in the Health app (also not obvious). Exactly the people who need this function are the least likely to use it. We cannot, and should not, rely on these seniors’ grandkids or caregivers to do it for them.

Fill out these fields and not only could a paramedic, or just a bystander, learn what medical conditions you have if you’re unconscious, they can phone your emergency contacts (and also call an ambulance via 911 or local equivalent).

Ok, I admit that’s something I hadn’t done until reading this. We’re really not making full use of these devices. And Apple (and I’m sure all the others) aren’t really, either.

You really need to tell the phone, and/or Siri, who you are and who your family members are. This involves creating a contact card (what’s that?) for yourself and linking to it. Then all your family members need their own cards, and you have to laboriously specify their relationships to you.

I insist this is not an optional or nice-to-have feature. If you have chest pain, you have to be able to hold the button down and say “Call Charlie” or “Call my wife.” (God help us if Siri asks which Charlie to call.)

Another friend really did have chest pain in a foreign country and it never occurred to him to call anybody. So in fact, Apple, a trillion-dollar corporation, has to put considerably greater resources into telling people how to set up their phones for emergencies so they will actually use those phones then. Again, this means forcing people to do it upon setup and making it exceedingly clear, in writing and in video, what their phones can do for them when they need their phones the most.

This is obvious, when you think about it. I hope someone from Apple reads Joe’s blog.

I’m still quite reluctant to talk to my phone (rather than talk with) but I gave it a go after reading this article, with mixed results. I just wanted to know what was in my calendar later on.

Doing what?

What? Let’s try again.

Doing what?

OK, never mind.

IT in the dock

Things aren’t going well in the courts at the moment.

HMCTS suffers major IT issues
Significant IT issues at the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) have caused chaos across the UK’s courts as users have been unable to connect to the network and use IT systems that require access to it.

The issues began last week and are mainly affecting devices trying to connect to the main Ministry of Justice (MoJ) network, which is used by the department as well as all its agencies and several arm’s-length bodies.

Law courts in chaos as IT meltdown disrupts thousands of cases
The communication failures, which started last week, are a significant embarrassment for the Ministry of Justice, which is investing £1.2bn in a high-profile programme promoting online hearings which aims to replace the legal profession’s traditional reliance on mountains of paperwork.

The IT breakdown meant that staff at the MoJ were unable to send emails, wireless connections went down, jurors could not be enrolled and barristers could not register for attendance payments. Courts were left unsure of when some defendants were due to appear and some court files could not be retrieved, leading to prosecutions being adjourned.

The Register had reported on this a few days before, when the problem seemed to be restricted to just their CJSM (Criminal Justice Secure eMail) system.

Lawyers’ secure email network goes down, firm says it’ll take 2 weeks to restore
For reasons that were not immediately clear, Egress Technologies, provider of CJSM, said in an emailed update to users seen by The Register that restoring CJSM would involve wiping their mailboxes for up to two weeks.

It’s now more serious than that.

Nationwide UK court IT failure farce ‘not the result of a cyber attack’ – Justice Ministry
The Ministry of Justice has said a data centre outage was responsible for the widespread collapse of the UK’s civil and criminal court IT infrastructure over the past days.

In a statement to Parliament today, justice minister Lucy Frazer pinned the fault on Atos and Microsoft, saying there had been an “infrastructure failure in our suppliers’ data centre”.

Here’s a report from 2016, highlighting the issues the department was facing…

Ministry of Justice IT systems are ‘fragile and precarious’, say MPs
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) must get to grips with its poor IT systems or risk “further demoralising essential staff”, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned. […]

“ICT systems in probation are inefficient, unreliable and hard to use,” the PAC said. “In a service that relies on successful joint working between multiple partners, it is essential that ICT supports, rather than frustrates, effective and efficient collaboration. This is far from the case for probation.”

… which led to the £1,000,000,000 plan to “transform courts with better use of technology”.

UK justice system set for ‘wholesale shift’ to digital
The reform programme foresees “a wholesale shift to accessing justice digitally” and flags up two “significant developments” that will affect the way courts and tribunals operate: “The first is our aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution. The second will be the completion of some cases entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved.”

How was that received? With not much confidence, it seems.

PAC doubts justice system transformation programme will be a success
Public Accounts Committee says it’s difficult to see how the government’s “extremely challenging” £1.2bn project to overhaul courts through use of technology “will ever work”.

I don’t know if that’s related to today’s IT breakdowns there, but it makes you wonder.