My Internet AHA! Moment

[Digging through old documents recently, I came across this piece about the moment when the power of the social internet really clicked for me. I can’t remember who or what this was for, but thought I might share it anyway.]

I got an email address when I started university in 1993 – the highly-memorable – and it was a good way to keep in touch with far-flung friends who I’d been to college with in Canada. Email seemed like a miracle – no waiting for international mail delivery, and no guilt about only writing a few lines, rather than feeling obliged to fill up a whole foldable airmail letter.

But even though email powered my first few years online, and the web started creeping in, it wasn’t until 1997 that I had my real AHA! moment about the internet.

It was the first of May 1997, and I was writing one of the final essays of my university career. At that time, I didn’t have my own computer – or at least, not one connected to a printer and the internet – so I headed to the 24 hour computer lab on my university campus.

As the sun went down, I logged on to one of about twenty terminals, and started writing. Or at least, I tried. It was hard work and the words didn’t flow smoothly. I found myself distracted by trying to find something good to listen to on my walkman, flipping through the paltry selection of tapes (tapes!) in my bag. And I wondered what was going on with the election results.

You see, that day, May 1st, had been a general election in the UK. I’d done my civic duty in between visits to the library, and was curious about how the electoral map was looking. After eighteen years of Conservative rule, the tide felt like it was turning. I opened up a web browser – Netscape 3, I think – and tentatively typed in a search term: election results. Nothing -though it took ages for the page to load to tell me that. I logged onto Pegasus mail and checked my email. Nothing of interest. And then I opened up IRC, which I’d dabbled with before, and searched for a UK room – #electionnight, IIRC – which I joined.

Throughout the night, as I typed furiously to get my essay finished, strangers around the country and around the world broke the news of the election results as they came in. They were watching on television, listening to the radio. I was flitting in and out of the chatroom. Strangers reached out across the wires and shared what they knew. They were caustic, and joyful, irreverent and analytical. I didn’t know who they were – still don’t – but through them, with them, I was immersed in the unfolding results of that historic election.

The tories lost. Labour won in a landslide. I finished my essay.

As the sun came up, I walked several miles back home through the gradually-lightening city. From open windows, the sound of laughter came spilling out, and in the streets, celebrating the news of the election result, people were drunk and dancing. With my final essay in my bag, the election result cheers still ringing in the streets, and the sensation of being connected to hundreds of strangers around an event, it felt like the beginning of a bright new day, full of promise and expectation.

And in many ways, it was.

Meg Pickard just published a blog post about frictionless sharing and Facebook

Hey internet!

I see you getting yourselves into a froth about frictionless sharing on Facebook. These are the three things I observe people saying most often:

1. “I hate that [app] shares things WITHOUT MY PERMISSION!”
2. “But I don’t CARE if my friend has just been to a place/listened to a song/watched a movie/read an article. I wish it wouldn’t pollute my newsfeed!”
3. “Ugh! I don’t want to share EVERYTHING with EVERYONE all the time!”

These things are, needless to say, usually expressed in the strongest possible terms on Facebook, Twitter, in comments etc, and almost invariably paint the individual as a victim under the conspiratorial cosh of a big evil megacorp. How very bally dare they?

If these things bother you, gentle netizen, might I offer the following solutions?

1a. Apps need permission to share (post) things on your newsfeed on your behalf. In fact, you have to opt in to use them. Opt IN, not opt out. You may not have paid attention as you whizzed through the screens, but there’s a point at which you usually have to click a box that says ‘Yes, I give my permission for this app to do what it does’ – even if that box is actually labelled ‘install’. And somewhere not too far away, there’ll be a description of what it does.

So before you rant about apps posting ‘without asking your permission’, spare a moment and ponder whether you installed an app without reading what you were signing up for, perhaps.

I know EULAs are a pain and no-one reads them, but this is hardly one of those 193-page epics you get in iTunes, where you may very well be giving up the rights to your first-born on p78 for all you know. It’s a couple of lines, that says quite clearly what’s going to happen, and what’s going to be shared. If you click install, you’re giving permission. If you click cancel, it should set a cookie and not ask you again.

2a. If your friends are bothering you by constantly sharing things they do/read/eat/watch/listen to, you can quiet them down. Next to the thing that they’ve posted – sorry, the thing that has been posted on their behalf by the app they gave permission to – there’s a little down arrow. Click it and then select one of the options to fine-tune the signal you get from your friend. You want all their updates? Just the hand-written ones? Everything apart from music and videos? Nothing from this app at all? No problem. Just highlight your choice.

3a. You can fine-tune your sharing permissions, too. If you are bothering your friends (or you are bothered) by frictionlessly sharing every step you take, every move you make, every video you watch and everything you add to Pinterest, to name but a few possibilities, you can fine-tune your own sharing preferences. You can do this not only where you originally gave permission to the app (see above) but also on the app preferences page.

On the left hand side of your main screen (what you see when you visit there’l be a list of apps you use. Click on the little “more” icon that appears next to the apps header, or on the little pen icon (this means “edit” in Facebook-land) next to the app you want to tweak.

This brings you to a magical place where you can change your preferences about who sees what – choose to share output from this app with the wider public, or just friends, or only yourself.

Or go for “custom” settings, which enable you to share with particular lists of people (which you can set up in your friends settings area) or even *exclude* certain individuals or lists, as illustrated below.

So you don’t mind sharing what you’re listening to, but you don’t want to share it with your boss? No problem. You can tweak that. Or you want to share your Foursquare checkins with everyone apart from your real best friends? Also completely achievable via the same method.

I’m not suggesting that frictionless sharing is always brilliant and Facebook is perfect or anything like that – these are topics for other blog posts, as yet unwritten (at least by me). I’m just pointing out that there are options, and you have agency in this experience.

You are not a sea-slug. You can change things.

So take some damn responsibility for customising your own Facebook experience. If it’s not working for you – or your friends – tweak it. Frictionless sharing is not a massive conspiracy to infringe your privacy at every moment, even though you may not like the implementation or philosophy or even the name. You have choices and options about your publishing and reading experiences. Use them.

If you care enough to publicly moan, please care enough to fiddle with your settings, too.


NB Although I work at The Guardian and was involved with developing the Guardian Facebook app, these thoughts – like all the others on this site – are entirely my own. I’m not speaking on behalf of any other individual or company at this point. This is my purely personal rant encouragement for people to take a bit of responsibility and exercise a bit of choice in their web experience, or STFU.

Missed calls and a travel tip

On the bus earlier today, I overheard a woman on the phone telling someone “I’ll missed-call you when I’m near your place, so you can come and meet me”

I mentioned this on Twitter, and various people responded, sharing their own versions of this little trick.

“My mum says ‘I’ll give you 3 rings'” (@a_williams)

“Brings back familiar sound of a trimphone ringing three times after grandparents got home safely” (@crouchingbadger)

“Even better, in italian, they have a proper word for it: ‘squillino’ which means ‘miss call’ or ‘buzz'” (@dvydra)

“V standard in Italy…they call it giving someone ‘uno squillo'” (@ron_n)

“In Australia, we say ‘I’ll prank you’ referring to a prank call you’re not supposed to pick up” (@lukely78)

“Known as the ‘one-ring’ round my parts” (@genzaichi)

“When I was little, my mum would get ‘three rings’ when I was heading home from a neighbour’s house” (@philgyford)

I’ve known for a while that people in (especially) sub-saharan Africa have used the missed-call functionality – calling someone, letting it ring once, then hanging up before they answer, so they see a missed call from the original caller, and use their mobile credit or account to call back. They call this “Beeping” and there are established social rules for doing it.