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How can we make the web better?

“Cancel Culture” is all the rage, and rage is a currency on Twitter. It’s getting so out of hand that this joke (from Twitter, no less) hits a little too close to home.

I believe many content creators, digital natives, and developers would be willing to admit that web experiences became notably more hostile between 2016 to 2019. In a recent example, Stack Overflow treated one of their most valuable Jewish community members with undeserved hostility, doing so on a Jewish holiday, admitting to it, then dragging their feet to reinstate her. As of October 19th, she is still not reinstated. Other community moderators have now stepped down because they don’t trust the company.

It’s not only hostility (not to mention the outright garbage) that is making web experiences ugly. The economics of social networks are causing frustrating user experiences. Also, companies and developers are imposing system constraints on their Internet products too quickly without first considering basics like security and the necessity to constantly change the system based on ongoing needs. Consequently, privacy leaks, broken trust, and lawsuits abound.

After being in web development in both full time and part time roles for 8 years, in observing both delightful and ugly experiences as both a user and a builder, these are some personal opinions on how we can make the web a better experience for everybody.

Be Nice

Did someone behave offensively on a website or on social media? If you know them, address it personally with them and with grace. If you don’t know them well enough to address the issue well, just stop following them and move on. No need to give them any more of your time, and no need to publicly vent. I’ve made that mistake before and it didn’t serve any redeeming purpose.

Name calling should also have no place on our websites or social feeds. Even if the other person is legitimately wrong. Politically-charged terms such as “libtard”, “nazi”, and “racist” have almost never solved a problem or changed someone’s mind. They have almost always fed unnecessary conflict.

If you are a Christian, then this step is not optional:

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:18, ESV

Increase Decentralization

Web users should ideally have a “home base” for their web presence. That home base must be 100% self-owned. Right now, we’ve become too dependent on social media platforms to own our home bases for us. While social media has its place to be something of a “bullhorn” to market our ideas and products, we should work harder to decentralize the content of the World Wide Web by running our own websites based on personal interests.

Are you not coding-savvy but want to build a digital home base of your own? I recommend either Squarespace or WordPress.com.

Are you coding savvy or at least IT savvy? Try self-hosting WordPress. I currently use Digital Ocean but aspire to host it from a Raspberry Pi at home later next year. Don’t like WordPress’ templates? Roll your own with Gatsby or a custom front-end consuming WordPress’ data. Don’t like WordPress at all? Use another solid Content Management System such as Drupal. For nerds, the possibilities are myriad!

Abandon Truly Bad Digital Products

If a product is truly bad, stop using it. They don’t deserve your business and the majority of the time there are good alternatives. For example, are you done with Twitter but want a microblog? Roll your own by writing short form content on any blog platform of your choice or join a Mastodon server.

Don’t post on social media about how much you hate a product or dislike a product’s CEO. Especially if you intend to still use that product. If you are saying you hate something but still use it (such as Facebook or Uber) then you don’t actually hate it.

Stop virtue signaling. It’s gross.

Simplify and Strengthen Web Engineering

Warning: this section gets a bit nerdy

Businesses tend to focus first on delivering features within unrealistic deadlines and with overly engineered systems. Right now, it is trendy to break apart systems into a bunch of smaller running systems, known as a Microservice Architecture. While there are many excellent uses for this architecture when it comes to scaling systems to meet high demand, there are costs as well. A major data aggregation company has written a blog post about why they have moved away from this architecture in their specific use case. Monolithic systems could become all the rage again for many use cases!

Another trend I’ve encountered is to use a framework for no reason. While frameworks can simplify code and make life easier, I’ve also seen developers adopt a large framework without proper coding conventions. It resulted in a tar-pit of writing more (and buggier) code than if they had adopted no framework! If the team doesn’t know why they’re using something and doesn’t know how to leverage what they’re using, that is not a good sign.

Another key issue to avoid is too much dependence on the individual knowledge of a developer or architect. If your team cannot operate with a key team member missing, including the team lead, your project is already in serious trouble.

Conclusion

The World Wide Web has some excellent and delightful things, and has lowered the barrier to fun and thoughtful creativity. It’s also overdue for an overhaul in many places. Users and developers alike have both the relational means to do this as well as the tools.

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How to avoid posting fake news on social media in 3 easy steps!

If you value truth, then you know as well as I do that it is important to curb sharing lies. Even partial ones! Fake or sensational news is possibly more engaging on social media than clickbait ads used to be. They are usually making money off of you from website ads or else they are trying to manipulate your beliefs.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Exodus 20:16 (ESV)

Here are 3 easy steps to avoid posting fake or sensational news on your social media accounts:

it’s so easy to click that share button or to copy and paste something

  1. STOP. Don’t post something simply because it confirms your personal beliefs. Just stop. The fancy term for this is “confirmation bias”. We all have done this (I’m guilty as charged!) and it’s so easy to click that share button or to copy and paste something. It requires self control to stop ourselves.
  2. VERIFY. Check if you can verify it from a primary source. Then corroborate it by checking for a second primary source that confirms the verified source’s claim. Then do due diligence by checking against any claims made to the contrary.
  3. DISCARD. If you cannot verify the source, discard the post automatically. If you cannot corroborate the source, use careful language to indicate you are quoting a primary source (and not making a statement of fact, since a fact has not been established). There is a difference between saying “he/she says this is X” and saying “this is X”, but even then, if the source is not truthful, you run the risk of spreading something not truthful.

Primary Sources

primary sources can still lie

What is a primary source? News sites and social media posts are not primary sources, unless a primary source directly posts on one of those platforms. For example, a YouTube video saying a politician wasn’t bullied is not a primary source. However, if that politician writes a guest article or a Twitter thread about their experience of being bullied, that is a primary source. At this point, it is up to your discretion of whether or not the primary source is truthful, because primary sources can still lie. This is why corroboration is also important.

Corroboration

What is corroboration? In short, it is someone reputable who was there or who read the information being claimed and is saying “I saw it too.”

For example, a Fox News or CNN article including a video snippet of Donald Trump saying something is not corroboration. Videos can be selectively edited by either of these news outlets to fit their respective agenda. Seeing an unedited video on C-SPAN, however, is a way to personally corroborate something Donald Trump said at a speech.

If a study observes evidence to the contrary, that is not conclusive.

Another example is if a friend or news site says something is or is not healthy for you. There are medical journals that document scientific studies in detail. If the claim has been verified by means of a double-blind study (which means there was an unbiased oversight of the test, thus a primary source plus corroboration) with a large study group, it is possibly a valid observation. If a study observes evidence to the contrary, that is not conclusive. If the study in question was not double blind and/or the study group is small or the study was short term, it is highly likely to be error prone. A library with database access to these studies is your friend.

How about you?

How much do you value the truth? Has a news source tried to fool you before? How about a meme page or a YouTube video? Did you find primary sources to the contrary? How did those you know who fell for Fake News respond when shown evidence to the contrary? Did they dig their heels in? Apologize but keep the fake post up? Remove the post? How much do they value the truth?

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Social Media Outlook

Mark Zuckerberg has made what appears to be an about-face on his stance for user privacy. Given his company’s rather bold project to spy on users, this seems a surprising move to the casual observer. However, not losing more users would be a good reason to ambitiously change your company’s business model.

Regardless, I have several personal predictions about how social media will shift in the next 2-4 years. Many of these predictions assume that Mark is telling the truth:

  • I thought Twitter was going to die by 2016 or 2017. I was wrong. Twitter appears to have a second wind thanks to Donald Trump, artists, and software developers. However, if Twitter doesn’t add an edit button and enforce their own rules, their second wind may not last.
  • Instagram and WhatsApp will continue to grow.
  • Facebook is the new MySpace. It’s messy, convoluted, and low-EQ people have dumped a huge mess into this platform. Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp will be receiving more attention by Facebook going forward and will have cross-network messaging enabled in the next 2 years. WhatsApp users can talk to Instagram users, for example.
  • Social Media ads will become less effective for most vendors on Facebook proper. However, in-line ads and bot suggestions will continue to thrive on Messenger, and may expand to WhatsApp.
  • Ad targeting may become restrictive. I would be surprised if the strategy and algorithms didn’t dramatically change.
  • Blogging software and platforms, such as WordPress, will grow in popularity as people find ways to own their platform and data.
  • Search engine ads may see a resurgence.
  • A blockchain will arrive for rapid international money transfers over social media. It won’t stop there. Hopefully it will build on what the Brave browser is trying to do. It will reward users for seeing ads on social media platforms. Users will use awarded blockchain tokens to buy things and reward content creators directly. These tokens will be convertible to fungible money and/or Bitcoin.
  • Badguys will still find creative ways to do badguy things. Fake news will still spread because low-EQ or low-IQ people will still repost them. Foolish journalists and politicians alike will still blame Facebook for those problems.

What do you think? You think social media will be taking some interesting steps forward, or not? Will we truly see positive changes for privacy on social media?