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Bread and Games

In the 1st century, political poet Juvenal warned the populace against giving up their votes and civic responsibility for “panem et circenses.” Bread and games, Juvenal wrote, would become the only concern for the content and lazy citizens of Rome. No-one would be able to tell good from evil as long as the sustenance and entertainment flowed freely.

picture of modern re-enactment of ancient games in the parthenonIf Juvenal were alive today, he’d say we are overrun by entertainment. We give up our liberties not for games but for “panem et felicitatem,” bread and happiness. The trendy privacy-vs-security battle won’t bring us to eagerly hand over our votes. It will be our pursuit of happiness. 

In the recent issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Facebook published a study of 689,003 users. For one week in January 2012, the social network filtered posts containing “negative” or “positive” words from users’ News Feeds. Half of the study’s subjects saw only neutral-to-positive posts, while the other half saw only neutral-to-negative posts. According to lead researcher Adam Kramer, Facebook was investigating the rumor that friends’ positive posts evoke jealousy and melancholy. With what is arguably the largest sample size in the history of Psychology, Kramer purports the results show otherwise: The lucky “positive post” receivers tended to subsequently share upbeat updates, while the unfortunate “negative post” users reflected the engineered bad mood. The users continued to post in this way for about a week. 

“The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product,” wrote Kramer on his own Facebook page. “…we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.” Felicitatem, indeed.

A Supply of Happy

The Internet is still reeling. In my 20-year career in research and IT, I’ve never seen anything like it. Professors are debating the result’s significance and picking up their 30-year tiff over the existence of subliminal “priming” (subconsciously evoking behavior). Ethicists are going up against laissez-faire industrialists. Privacy pundits are reiterating their “if the product is free, you’re the product” mantras. Luddites are basking in “I told you so” schadenfreude. But we are missing the big question: What happens when our whole Internet experience is manipulated in this way?

If Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon succeed in squashing Net Neutrality, our interaction with the Internet will be under the control of an unregulated private business. Like Facebook controlling your News Feed, ISPs will control what and who you see when you log on. In the name of “market research,” they’ll run psychological experiments on you for their own political and financial gain. Yet instead of raging against this egregious assault on our freedom, we will welcome it. 

The positive psychology movement has surged in the past decade, despite harsh critique from many academics like Barbara Ehrenreich and Julie Norem. Everyone seems to buy in to positive psychology’s promises of everlasting cheer. We’ll do anything to pep ourselves up. We want Facebook to filter out the fuss. If running experiments on us without our knowledge will get us to the sunnier side of life, then so be it. Just like Juvenal’s early Romans, we’ll happily sacrifice freedom for felicity.

Freedom to Choose

Eventually, though, we will struggle to recognize good from evil. Perhaps we’re already too far gone. Verizon’s attempt to privatize a human (and therefore natural) resource like the Internet demonstrates we have lost our way. The Internet is a public utility. Natural gas providers aren’t permitted to infuse mood-altering scents; Sites and ISPs shouldn’t be permitted to design mood- or thought-altering Internet experiences. Facebook’s study altered the moods of 689,003 people in one week’s time. Verizon could easily sway our thoughts before an election. This isn’t science fiction. This is now. A previous Facebook study published PNAS showed significant results in influencing people’s voting behavior. 

We must regulate ISPs in the way we regulate power and natural gas providers. In research pursuits, ISPs should be given as much scrutiny than academic or medical labs. Our data is our liberty. ISPs should be required to protect that data, therefore ensuring the basic human rights of all customers. 

Write to the FCC using the link at Freepress’s Save The Internet page. The structures for Internet freedom are already in place, we just have to protect them. The Facebook study gives us a concrete example of unrestrained, massive, subconscious human manipulation. We must work as a united citizenship to ensure the basic freedoms of life, liberty, and the (conscious) pursuit of happiness. 


Photo credit: SBA73 on Flickr

Ever feel like somebody's watching you?

Ever feel like somebody’s watching you?

In one of my college Psychology classes, the professor guided us through a mindfulness meditation in attempt to demonstrate a biofeedback process. I closed my eyes as instructed and followed her lead. By the end of the exercise, my pulse felt slower and my shoulders were more relaxed.

When I opened my eyes, I found another student turned completely around in his seat staring at me. Instead of following the professor’s instructions, he’d studied me for the duration of the lesson without my knowledge or permission. He then explained to the class every external detail he observed of my experience. 

Panicked feelings of violation and threat surged up my spine. The professor did nothing to stop this man, nor did she acknowledge my fear. Later, she refused to listen to my outrage. “He probably just likes you,” she said.

Facebook apparently “just likes” us too. It conducted a mood-influence study on almost 700,000 users and published the results in a well-respected scientific journal. Facebook refused to acknowledge the outrage expressed by users worldwide. One week after the results of its “Emotional Contagion” study were made public, Facebook’s 2nd-in-command and Lean-In author Sheryl Sandberg called the “poorly communicated” study “a small experiment.” She didn’t apologize for the study itself. “This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products,” Sandberg said, implying that such testing is routine and should be expected. The lead researcher Adam Kramer said they wanted to make sure people aren’t being turned off by too many happy posts by friends. 

Most people are shocked to learn that certain experiments have been successful in influencing human behavior. “Priming” has been a 30-year debate in the field of Psychology. Some say priming results are impossible to recreate (a requirement for a phenomenon to be considered real), others say results replicate just fine. Results of priming, if they exist, exist in very short bursts. The elicited behavior “extinguishes” (fades away) quite quickly. The Facebook experimenters say their week-long priming effects lasted about as long, after they had stopped their stimuli (in this case, filtering of happy or sad posts).

Facebook considered this as market research, but to anyone with a psychology degree or even cursory knowledge of the field, this experiment was an egregious disregard of international guidelines for human trials. It was invasive and self-serving. We’re all still trying to get over the creepy, violated feeling that comes with this kind of personal manipulation. Just like that jerk in my class, Facebook tore into our sense of personal space. In fact, they manipulated our moods. Just like in the cyberpunk fiction of the 80s – a company got into our heads – purposefully and effectively.

There are 2 types of behavior experiments: Observational and Experimental. In observational studies, a researcher simply looks at existing data. Think crime statistics or SAT scores. In Experimental studies, the researcher changes one or many factors in a participant’s environment in order to generate data. Think drug testing or taste tests. Strict governmental and professional “informed consent” regulations on experimental research dictate participants must be aware they will be studied and participants must be told (at some point before or after) of the study’s purpose. By providing this information and agreeing to the terms, the researcher and the participant share the responsibility for the participant’s well-being. Facebook claims their Terms of Service allows for this type of experimenting, but it is one of those legalese gray areas that no-one is buying.

Pundits have been warning us for decades about giving up our privacy online in exchange for convenience or connection. Indeed, our behavior has shown that we can endure breaches of privacy that would have been considered outrageous just 20 years ago, all in exchange for trivial things like a few extra minutes when boarding a plane or help in locating that long-lost friend from grade school. We’re going to let this Facebook mess slide because of their PR spin – that they want to make sure using Facebook is a joyful and life-enhancing experience. “Facebook makes you happy” could sound, to the masses, as something to strive for. But who decides what “happy” is? And whose “happy” is most important. In the case of Facebook, Facebook’s happiness is most important. If they want to influence your vote so they can continue for their own gain, they will. Now they know they can (Indeed, Facebook previously published a study that demonstrated just that -affecting users’ voting behaviors).

We can’t swallow Facebook’s PR feed. The real reason behind these experiments isn’t to enhance your life. It is to enhance Facebook’s life. They will say it is mutually beneficial. They will continue to fight for the right to do their “market research.” But when humans are the market, then the rules immediately change. Facebook is aware of this, they are just trying to spin it in their favor. They were creepy and sneaky and we should never forget it. We need to expand human trial regulations to social networking sites. Facebook can do their research following the tried-and-true human trial guidelines that the medical and academic communities set up and refined over the last 100 years.

I never went back to that college class with the creepy guy. I dropped it and found another class. Facebook won’t be the only game in town forever. And bad memories never seem to fade.


Photo credit: Casey Fleser on Flickr

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pic of a crowd in a small bar

Some people have phones — couldn’t find their tweets, though…

This week I attended an info session about Philly news mobile startup Brother.ly. My friend Chris Krewson and Brother.ly founder Jim Brady were on hand to present the idea (still very much in the formation stage) to the crowd of traditional news journalists.

When the presenters started talking, I opened up my keyboard and iPad to type out quotes to tweet. I searched the Meetup and other references to the event for a hashtag but found nothing. I didn’t even find a hash for the Pen&Pencil club Philly where the event was hosted. I looked around the room. No-one was tweeting or on cell phones. The woman next to me was taking pen-and-paper notes. I saw a few others doing the same. My confusion grew when a journo asked, half-jokingly, when Brother.ly was going to put out a print version.

Chris Krewson on the left and Jim Brady of Brother.ly on the right

Chris Krewson on the left and Jim Brady of Brother.ly on the right

My utter paralysis at this scene, including missing a hashtag or other way to aggregate knowledge coming out of the event was laughable. It reminded me of that old SNL sketch when morning TV anchors quickly descend into savagery when their Tel-e-prompters cut out. “WHERE ARE THE WORDS?!” they shout. I felt like standing up with arms akimbo, face skyward and yelling, “WHERE IS THE HASHTAG?”

I was out of my element.

My friend John Miller from content creation house Scribewise was there. He and I later discussed the difference between content and journalism. Despite being a reformed old-school newsroomer, John holds steadfast to the notion of a difference between content and journalism. I, of course, disagree. There are levels of quality, naturally, but there is no distinction. Journalism is content and it always was, and content is journalism even if its “yellow” or just plain crappy. If we’d like to speak more specifically, we can say “Investigative” or “creative non-fiction,” etc., but it is all communications work.

My view is not represented in Merriam-Webster’s definition of “journalism.” Online media outlets are not included in the list of journalism’s standard media.

noun plural -s 1 a :  the collection and editing of material of current interest for presentation through the media of newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, or television b :  the editorial or business management of a newspaper, magazine, or other agency engaged in the collection and dissemination of news c :  an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the editorial or business management of a news medium 2 :  journalistic writing: a :  writing designed for publication in a newspaper or popular magazine b :  writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation c :  writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or current public interest 3 :  newspapers and magazines 4 :  the presentation of events or ideas (as in a painting or play) in a manner regarded as similar to that of journalismThe media, though, should not be the defining factor. Media are not people. “The Media” usually refers to people performing journalistic actions, but “media” are just the tools through which The Media distribute their work. That work, called “journalism,” is somehow thought to be “objective” and therefore more legitimate than other work delivered through the exact same media channels.

I’m not advocating “democratization” – that idea is a sham, meant to heighten the uninformed opinion to legitimate levels. Research and expertise are a wonderful thing and it saves humans and humankind. What I’m saying is this: today’s communication landscape is wide and vast. Many forms of media are acceptable and consumable, as well as varied styles of writing and producing. If the newsroomers are too hesitant to accept that, they’ll miss the boat.

Am I missing something? Did I read the room all wrong? Perhaps the majority of people there were new media savvy but without the presence of a hashtag or live-event reporter, I couldn’t locate them. After all, I’m just beginning to infiltrate the world of newsroomer journos and it’s possible my own prejudices and past experiences are getting in the way, but I’m just not getting this crowd.

Or maybe I do, and I don’t want to accept it. I find very little cultural difference between many old school male journalists and the men of IT. In infrastructure support and other code-dependent IT jobs, I ran into the same sexism and elitism. An attitude existed amongst IT professionals that a person like me (a woman who didn’t hold a computer science degree) couldn’t possibly have a skill set of any use. My production in end-user education, documentation, and knowledge-base building was looked down on as barely enough to be considered “IT” work.

After I got my hands dirty on the Unix command lines, designed hub-and-spoke infrastructure, and supported the worldwide grid, I slowly began to win over some of the server room guys. When the company I worked for wanted to build a tiered helpdesk, those other guys were passed over and I was asked to write technical instructions to fill the knowledge base, educate the first tier on how to determine a user’s problem and go through the steps of solving it, and thoroughly examine the measurement and statistics of the helpdesk. The skills my Psychology degrees brought me put me ahead of the traditional IT pack. It didn’t matter, though. The legacy system guys, the mainframers, the MS-DOS folks et al., still viewed me with disgust and resentment. Perhaps to them I symbolized change, and it scared them half to death.

I understand the fear. I’m definitely at a stage in my life where I wish I could coast. I’ve earned the right to coast, haven’t I? It scares me to think I must start over and learn a new field. It’s possible my perception of the newsroomers is influenced by that fear. I know my blanket perception is unfair to my friends like Scribewise’s John Miller, and TechnicallyPhilly’s Christopher Wink and Gun Crisis: Philadelphia‘s Jim Macmillan, local journos who master the online media space. Still, I see similarities between the cultures and I’m not looking forward to “breaking down barriers” or “building bridges” with these staunch men. I had to learn to code and the code to win over mainframers. I can’t cover Iraq to get in good with, or understand, newsroomers. Hopefully I can find a way to be in my element –with my hashtag– in both worlds.






Backdoor into the Journo Club

I didn’t go to J-School. I won’t be going to J-School. Do I still call myself a journalist? ________________________________ backdoorNathanONionsFlickr

Whatchu call me?

Months ago, I was on the phone with the local police. I was talking to the Public Relations sergeant. We were discussing the recently-declared State of Emergency and what it meant for residents. At some point in the conversation, the sergeant made a funny comment and then immediately asked me not to include it. I said, “Of course I’m not going to include it. This post is for you to get information out to people.” He asked, half-jokingly, “What kind of journalist are you?” I was taken aback. No-one had ever referred to me as a journalist.

“Woah,” I said. “I’m not a journalist. I’m a hyperlocal blogger.” “You’re a journalist,” he said.

Who’s a Journalist?

People who went to Journalism school (4-year college majoring in Journalism) and then go on to work in newsrooms are journalists. I’m a writer. Sometimes I’m called a blogger, content writer, or copywriter. I list “writer” on my various social media profiles. I majored in Psychology in college and I have a Masters in Educational Psychology. My career has been in research, tech and online communications. I didn’t go to school for writing, but writing has been a central part of every job I’ve held. Writing fiction, essays and diary entries has been a lifelong pursuit. Writers have long accepted me into their ranks. I doubt any journos would call me one of their own. Yet here I go, deeper into the world of journalism. I’ve been occasionally published in newspapers and news sites before, but lately I’ve jumped in with both feet: I’ve joined the Online News Association; I’ve applied to the Center for Public Interest Journalism (CPIJ) and was granted a fellowship to attend the ONA conference in Chicago in September; and I’m now, mysteriously, a recipient of journalism magazine Nieman Reports (hopefully a side benefit of my ONA membership). These things alone won’t get me the secret knock into the J-Club. But something I read today makes me think my new media skills might get me an in.

D-to-the-I-to-the-G-ITAL SKILLZ

Journalism professor Adam Tinworth writes of the departure of a digitally-savvy journo from a newsroom to academia. Tinworth writes of the very skills which I’ve spent the last decade honing:

“…I remain cautious about the emerging trend of digital change experts being edged out of newsrooms, and resurfacing in education. On the positive side, it means we gets much better educated next generation of journalists coming through – even if some of them actively resist the notion that they need digital skills – which will aid the industry in the long-term. On the negative side, more and more expertise on fighting the battles that need to be fought within publishers is no longer taking part in that war.”

AmandaZamoraKeynote This lack of digital savvy seems to be a theme in the journo world. Amanda Zamora’s keynote at BarcampNewsInnovation Philly this past Spring covered the subject of online social sharing of news content. The audience of traditional journalists was enthralled. I was confused at their intense interest. Ms. Zamora‘s points were definitely astute, but they weren’t exactly groundbreaking. I learned her basic premise – part of your job (nay, your moral obligation) as a reporter is publicizing your content – back in 2008 at PodCampNYC. If a tree falls in the woods and no-one hears it, what does the sound matter? It doesn’t. If you post content and no-one finds it, its relevance is … questionable.

Who you callin’ BIASED?

Another hint into the journo culture is the surprise I received from CPIJ when I asked for a t-shirt to wear to the ONA conference. Apparently journos don’t wear branding, even if that brand is paying their way. I suppose j-school teaches budding reporters to do their best to keep up the appearance of impartiality. In Educational Psychology, we do just the opposite. We read a shitton of learning theory and work extremely hard to not only identify our biases but to reveal these prejudices and do our best despite them. We’re taught that there’s no such thing as objective human observation. I think it’s silly to pretend one doesn’t have a point of view. I can’t divorce point of view from digital communications. Perhaps newsrooms are having a difficult time with the transition to digital worlds because they can’t abide by the obvious slants it requires. I have something valuable to add to this space. Maybe with a little help, I can get in through a digital back door.

Your Secret Knock for My Savvy

So I have a proposition for any of you old school journos: Your journo mojo for my digital dope. I’ll tell you what I know if you tell me what I’m supposed to know. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 Photo credits: B&W doorway Nathan O'Nions on Flickr
screenshot and photo 
of Amanda Zamora of 
ProPublica: Christine Cavalier

Half-heartedly tempting fate

fatemagazinecoverHush, Hush Darling

This is a huge secret but over the past few years, I’ve applied for a dozen or so jobs.

Not applied applied. Not work-my-contacts, pro-résumé, sweat-over-cover-letter applied. More like, send-them-a-résumé-automatically-generated-from-my-LinkedIn-profile applied. I usually add a short note about why I would be interested in whatever job it is.

Shockingly I didn’t get any of those jobs (well, maybe 1 but it’s part-time consulting). Seriously, though, that half-assed strategy may not have landed me full-time positions but it did get me a few interviews. [To be fair, my (extensive) experience probably stood out despite the lack of effort, but still.]

By applying for these jobs, copywriting, server admin, recruiting (???), writer, social media manager, etc., I was tempting the Fates. [click to continue…]

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