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(person photographing roses with a phone) Sometimes you just have to stop and Instagram the roses.

A well-earned break

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“Just a note that, over the next while, it may be easier than usual to find me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. I’m doing a social media gorge.”

I’ve often said that the secret to not driving yourself batty online isn’t to focus on annual Internet fasts, but on taking social media and the rest of what the Internet has to offer, and making ruthlessly intentional use of it. Don’t let Facebook’s newsfeed, Instagram’s stream or Twitter’s trending topics tell you what’s important; use lists, hashtags and carefully-honed searches to set your own priorities.

But I’ll admit I’ve sometimes been guilty of underestimating how hard that can be. Because nearly every social media platform out there is doing its damnedest to lure you into their algorithmically-driven (and advertiser-friendly) stream of content. They’re doing it not just by making those streams appealing, but addictive — and by making it harder to shape those streams on your own.

That isn’t likely to change any time soon. So you might well be thinking “Hey, maybe it’s time for a new social network that won’t treat its members’ time and attention the way coal-mining companies treat Appalachian mountaintops.” And if you’re also thinking “And I’m just the visionary to build it!” then you’ll probably want to read this piece by Alexandra Samuel. (Disclosure: I’m her husband and biggest fan.) She discusses some of the daunting obstacles and tough choices any Facebook replacement will have to confront.

Meanwhile, it’s worth every effort we can make to remember that our time and attention are our own, that they have value, and that what matters is the connections we make and deepen with each other and the meaning we create. And don’t feel any shame over doing that online. When you Instagram those roses, do it with your head held high — so long as that’s the angle that works to get the shot you want.

(cave person) Sure, me think fire is cool. But me worry about its impact on our brains.

This is your brain. This is your brain on fire.

This is your brain. This is your brain on fire. published on 2 Comments on This is your brain. This is your brain on fire.Purchase print

It isn’t easy to find the right balance between rah-rah bring-on-the-Bluetooth-brain-implants cheerleading and will nobody think of what it’s doing to the children?! fear-mongering. Certainly science doesn’t exactly offer definitive answers; Wikipedia conveniently gives you lots of evidence to support whichever position you feel like adopting.

(There’s also the argument that we’re pretty unlikely to turn away en masse from our screens, so let’s make the best of it.)

 As a parent, I can see my kids being changed by everything they do, from playing with Lego to taking hikes in the Endowment Lands to learning to read to, yes, surfing the net. And as a guy who insists that the social web is transformational, I have to be open to the likelihood that we’re being changed just as surely as institutions and organizations are. But is there anything especially surprising about the observation that change changes us? Is there something especially insidious, or necessarily bad, about change that’s digitally mediated?

I circle around questions like these pretty often, but here’s where I keep finding myself landing:

At a time when we’re facing urgent civilization-level questions around energy, climate change, food security, massive income disparity and several other issues, we’ve also developed tools that can connect us in ways that were unfeasible one generation ago; fantastical two generations ago; and barely imaginable three generations ago.

We’d be crazy not to ask how they change us, but the idea that we should reject them out of hand because, well, have you seen the way kids congregate staring at their devices? strikes me as even crazier. We have to draw on those tools, and more importantly the connections they make possible, to answer those questions together.

Maybe Nicholas Carr’s right, and it’s turning us into shallow, short-term thinkers. (Attention, people who use tl;dr the way other people use commas: you’re not helping.) I find it easier to believe that maybe there’s some good in there, too, as Dr. Gary Small suggests, and there’s some hope of using the web to improve our thinking – while we apply a little attention to make sure we remain empathetic, decent people.

Please, Not Another Banner Year

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There are times when it seems like the economics of the web seem to boil down to:

  1. Find some white space on your site.
  2. Fill it with an ad.
  3. There is no number three. Check out these great discount air fares!

It starts innocently enough, with a few AdSense text placements. But before you know it, you have one of those Flash-based monstrosities lurking in your sidebar – the kind you don’t dare roll over, because if you do it spawns some demonic window that extends outside the boundaries of your monitor and knocks over furniture in your family room, while playing The Macarena at 130% volume.

It’s kind of nice, then, when a player in the — oh, god, what do we call it nowadays? ah, yes: the content industry — manages to come up with a revenue stream that’s a little more win-win than just hurling ads in readers’ faces. This week I stumbled across The Washington Post’s Master Class series: online courses that put the expertise of Post writers at your disposal.

It launched last month, and the tuition fees aren’t small; they’re along the lines of what you’d pay for a decent continuing ed class at your local college or university. That puts them in a different price bracket from most of the approaches I’ve seen newspapers take to finding a new source of income, like subscriptions or pay-per-article fees.

I wish them luck. Anything to avoid another banner ad.

 

 

Poof! goes the Internet

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Okay, confession time: I don’t really know how the Internet works.

Oh, I’ve got the arm-waving explanation down. In much the same way that I know gasoline goes kaboom inside my car’s engine, causing pistons to move up and down, turning a shaft that then turns the car’s wheels, I can map the intricate ballet between computer and modem, between DNS server and IP address, between router and router and router and server.

But drill down much further, and I start hitting impenetrable black boxes. For instance, what exactly does a router do, and how does it decide the best next step in the path? What whispered conversations happen between my browser and various other servers to decide if a security certificate is valid? And when Facebook serves up an ad, does it use every part of the unicorn, or just the pancreas?

Maybe I don’t need to know these things. But one of the beauties of knowing how a system works – even if it doesn’t affect the way you use it on a day-to-day basis – is that you can begin to understand whether (and why) some big change might be a great idea or a terrible one.

So next time I hit one of those black boxes, I’m going to do a little digging – and I think I’m going to start by trying to get my mind around secure connections like SSH tunnelling (where I start to hyperventilate around para 2 of the Wikipedia entry). If there’s one thing the Internet does spectacularly well, it’s making information about the Internet available.


I’m lucky. For a lot of people, anything and everything about the Internet is baffling. They’d love to know more, but have no idea where to start. This cartoon first appeared on Mark Surman’s blog post yesterday about an approach to helping people develop a higher degree of Internet literacy. (First person to call that “neteracy” gets a bowl of cold spaghetti poured into them while they’re sleeping. Ah, nuts – too late.)

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