Is Facebook Forcing Our Journalists to Make Lazy Generalizations?

This month’s Atlantic cover story is called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonelier?” and features an arresting image of a couple embracing in an electronic glow, while the man looks at his smartphone. It’s unquestionably a great cover, but it’s also a profoundly bad article. In it, Stephen Marche argues that “we have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.” He lays the blame, unsurprisingly, on Facebook. The only problem withwith Marche’s thesis is that it is wholly unsupported even by the studies he cherry-picks for his article. Continue reading

Will Facebook Delete Lou Sarah’s Account?

Facebook has a real name policy that allows it to delete the accounts of users who use pseudonyms. Advocates like Jillian York have pointed out that this endangers activists:

Activists who use pseudonyms often find their accounts deleted. Even folks with well-known and established pen names have been told by Facebook that they must revert to the name on their government-issued identification.

This leaves activists in the difficult position of using their real name on Facebook and leaving themselves vulnerable or using a pseudonym and keeping their fingers crossed that Facebook will not notice and that they will not one day log-in to find their account and contacts deleted. It’s a precarious game.

A new case has arisen that will test Facebook’s commitment to its real name policy, or at least bring greater attention to the issue. It has recently been revealed that right-wing American pundit Sarah Palin has a pseudonymous Facebook account under the name Lou Sarah. Though the page has not been confirmed, the evidence is pretty strong. The account is associated with Palin’s private email address, most of the account’s friends are from Wasilla, AK (including Palin’s father Chuck Heath), and the account holder knows the content of an episode of Palin’s reality show, which has yet to air.

Will Facebook protect the fake account of a ridiculous yet prominent American political figure while continuing to delete the accounts of real political activists around the world? Lou Sarah is anxiously awaiting the answer.

Rethinking Social Media

Today’s web is social, we all know that. But it may be more social than we think. Some platforms, like Facebook, are obviously social: we see the group of peers who are creating our experience through content creation or recommendations. Other platforms, like Google search, are “phantom social” – you don’t see the group of peers that have created your experience, but they are there nonetheless.

Let’s start with the obviously social: Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, blogs, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit, Meetup, 4chan, YouTube…. Whether you are looking at a restaurant review, a photo, a video, or a post, you know who has written or created it. The creator has an identity, even if it is just an online identity. You are constantly aware that your experience is being created by your peers.

Phantom social applications like Google Search or Cleverbot are more tricky. It may seem that you are interacting with a computer, but the responses you receive are still created by your peers, you just don’t see them. In the case of Google Search, the ranking of a search result is determined by the number of incoming links. Who creates those all those links? Other people. Notice how Google can predict possible queries as you type? Again, those suggestions are gleaned from other people’s common searches. And instant search? You get the idea. Each Google Search is made possible by millions of user actions collected and crunched by Google algorithms, yet few of us think of a search as a social activity.

Cleverbot is an application that allows you to carry out a text chat with a computerized personality. It seems the archetypal anti-social online experience: talking to a computer. Yet Cleverbot is also phantom social. According to Wikipedia:

Cleverbot differs from traditional chatterbots in that the user is not holding a conversation with a bot that directly responds to entered text. Instead, when the user enters text, the algorithm selects previously entered phrases from its database of 20 million conversations. It has been claimed that, “talking to Cleverbot is a little like talking with the collective community of the internet.”

Then there are the hybrids, platforms that have some features where peers are visible and some features where peer input is hidden and you seem to be interacting with a machine. The classic example here is online shopping sites like Amazon and, which incorporate user reviews (visible peers) along with product recommendations and star ratings (phantom peers). All three are based on the input, buying, and browsing patterns of other users. All three are social.

What does this mean? It means the web is a lot more social than we think. We know that interacting with hundreds of friends on Facebook or thousands of followers on Twitter is social , but when we are interacting with millions through an algorithm we forget the social aspect. Whether through a email from Mom or a recommendation gleaned from millions of strangers, the web is becoming an ever more elegant medium for meaningful human interaction.

Cartoon Slacktivists, Be Not Afraid!

If you are worried that you are engaging in slacktivism by posting a cartoon as your Facebook profile pic to oppose child abuse, just remember that it’s not slacktivism, it’s broadcasting a cause preference that can be mobilized.

You should only feel guilty if this action represents a decrease in your engagement on this issue (for example, if you changed your pic instead of voluteering at a children’s home). For most people, this will be an incremental increase in their engagement on this issue, and thus a good thing.

New Evidence that Slacktivism Matters

In recent months, referring to much of online activism as ineffectual “slacktivism” has become increasingly popular. According the slacktivist blog (yes, there is one), the word was actually born in the mid-nineties on Usenet and didn’t appear again until 2000 in a discussion about people “whose idea of activism is clicking the ‘forward’ button in their e-mail.” Though the applications have evolved past email – greening a Twitter icon, joining a Facebook cause group – the idea remains the same. As columnist Nancy Lublin wrote in the May issue of Fast Company:

It’s not hard to see where the word comes from (slacker + activism = slacktivism), and obviously, it’s usually not meant as a compliment. Basically, it refers to doing good without having to do much at all. It’s inch-deep activism that you can do from the comfort of your own couch, whether that’s clicking for good or texting to save the world.

Yet, more and more, people are pushing back against the term, arguing that slackitivists are just people taking their first steps into activism. Slacktivism is the shallow end of the digital activism pool. Effective organizers can motivate these newbies into the deep end, and into gradually increasing levels of commitment and action. This was our goal at the Obama campaign with much of Obama’s social media presence: start with an account on MyBarackObama or by joining One Million Strong for Barack Obama on Facebook, then tell a friend, then make a donation, then volunteer for door-to-door canvassing.

It is true that actions in the “shallow end” rarely bring about the desired change, but ignoring these actions and the people who take reflects a misunderstanding of their value. In a post on Mashable, Geoff Livingston of the social media consulting firm Zoetica quotes Randy Paynter, CEO and Founder of the community portal Care2:

What the world needs now is far more engagement by individual citizens, not less, and simple steps such as signing petitions or even sharing opinions/tweeting are steps in the right direction…. Because small steps can lead to bigger steps, being critical of small steps serves no good. It simply disenfranchises folks.

The “slacktivism matters” crowd got a new piece of supporting evidence today from Facebook, where analysis revealed that the simple act of friending a politician was a meaningful measure of their intent to vote for that person:

An early sample of some of the hottest House and Senate races bodes well for the world’s largest social networking site. The Facebook political team’s initial snapshot of 98 House races shows that 74% of candidates with the most Facebook fans won their contests. In the Senate, our initial snapshot of 19 races shows that 81% of candidates with the most Facebook fans won their contests.

This indicates not only that a user who friends a political prefers that person, which is self evident, but also that friending indicates intent to take action based on that preference. In the case of an election, this means that joining a politician’s Facebook group meant that the person cared enough to get out and vote for that candidate.

In the cases of truly dead-end slacktivism, like American Twitter users greening their avatars in support of the post-election protesters in Iran last year, the problem may not have been with the initial action itself, but that there was no clear or credible next step for those concerned people to take to truly influence the outcome they cared about.

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