Detox your digital life without giving up your digital life

We’re coming out of digital detox season, where newspaper columnists share the incredible insight that you can get a lot of stuff done if you don’t spend all your time dicking about on the internet. But as the developers of the excellent iA Writer app point out, taking a break is good but going offline permanently is hardly desirable or practical.

…you can’t escape digital culture as long as you live in a society that lives on digital fuel. If you block email you’ll have trouble holding onto most jobs. If you have no cellphone people just won’t get in touch with you anymore. Who calls landlines these days? However long your digital Sabbatical, you will inevitably get sucked back in. And so will your kids.

What you can do, they argue, is to make your digital life more meaningful. They use the analogy of being a tourist walking down a busy street in a foreign city: the people yelling to get your attention aren’t generally the people you should be paying attention to. As in life, so online.

The challenge when you are in is to not become passive. To change from consumer to maker, following to self-thinking, quoter to commentator, liker to publisher, but mostly, from getting angry about headlines of articles you haven’t read to reading precisely, asking questions, researching, fact-checking, thinking clearly and writing carefully.

These are the developers of a writing app, so they’re talking primarily to writers. But it’s sensible advice generally. It’s easy to fall into a passive role online, to consume only the content that’s pushed to you. In the era of social media that’s often the lowest quality content.

The article talks about blogs, and the changes to blogging culture that have seen blogs and blogging become very much a niche activity (incidentally, almost 20 years ago I wrote my first ever piece of published journalism about the then-new niche trend of people publishing online “journals”. It’s come full circle and is a niche once more).

One of the reasons blogging has fallen from favour, and there are many others, is that commenting – what used to be the lifeblood of blogging, the conversations that began when your post finished – became poisoned. Drive-by bullshit from complete strangers. Spammers and hackers trying to drive traffic to other websites. And marketing.

God, the marketing.

Even now, there isn’t a single day when I don’t get approached by somebody wanting to publish a guest post to my blog, or asking me to replace a dead link from a post I published in 2005 with a link to their site, or an offer of an infographic, or any of the other things that I say I don’t publish on the sodding contact page of this website.

So the comments had to go.

Comments were the first core function that got gamed. For trolls, PR companies using persona software, SEO blackhats, spammers, and dogs pretending to be humans the comments section was free sex. Commenting costs nothing. Managing comments sections is so expensive that even big media organizations can no longer afford them.

I also stopped blogging here for some time because I felt I was saying what I wanted to say on social media. But whether that was true or not, what I was saying wasn’t being read. Unless you upset somebody famous a tweet is just a drop in Twitter’s Niagara Falls, a Facebook post something that a handful of people will see if Facebook deems your post worthy of their attention.

iA again:

it’s writing as opposed to liking, thinking as opposed to reacting, owning your traffic as opposed to building up your Facebook followers that one day a Zuckerberg will take away from you when it suits his needs.

What I’m finding works best is to mix things up, to continue with short, sharp, knee-jerk stuff on social media and to post more interesting things by others here (as well as to post my own longer, more rambly thoughts). I still share the links on social media, but I don’t hand over the entire content to Facebook or Twitter: it remains here, where it can be discovered long after social media sites’ short attention spans have moved on.

Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters.

A dream in letters. I like that.

“My computer turned into a Nazi.”

The banality of evil: I married a white supremacist. 

As it turned out, becoming a Nazi was not unlike catching a common virus like the flu, and then having it spiral out of control as it hijacked your immune system and ultimately your common sense. As I tried to retrace my ex-husband’s descent into madness, my very Jewish computer became an alt-right conspiracy theorist whose new interests included obsessing over the “fake news” of the far left and praising President Donald Trump’s (then candidate Trump’s) candor and can-do promises which, as of yet, remain largely unfulfilled.

The villain of the peace: how online ads broke the world

Silent movie villain
(Is it me, or does this look like Jeremy Clarkson?)

As I write this there’s a scandal developing at Newsweek with District Attorney raids, all kinds of lurid allegations and staff apparently fired for investigating their own company.

Senior writer Matt Cooper resigned, and in his letter he wrote:

It’s the installation of editors… who relentlessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall.

Clicks at the expense of accuracy is a pretty good way to sum up not just online news sites, but all online media.

As the ever readable Farhad Manjoo writes in the New York Times, the internet’s central villain is the advertising business.

(As a writer for many ad-funded media outlets I’m aware of the irony in posting this.)

As Manjoo puts it:

the online ad machine is also a vast, opaque and dizzyingly complex contraption with underappreciated capacity for misuse — one that collects and constantly profiles data about our behavior, creates incentives to monetize our most private desires and frequently unleashes loopholes that the shadiest of people are only too happy to exploit.

It’s a severely broken and easily manipulated system that prioritises and rewards the worst of us: fake news over facts, scaremongering over science, horror over humanity. It’s a playground for bigots and propagandists, trolls and fraudsters and extremists of all kinds.

And this system, this terrible monster that’s poisoning so much of everyday discourse, is the one we asked for. It’s become the system that drives everything online – which means it drives much of real life too.

“Pay for stuff? Sod that!” we told the internet. “Mine our misery for money!”

It turns out that wasn’t our smartest idea.

As Manjoo concludes:

In 2015, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, warned about the dangers of the online ad business, especially its inherent threat to privacy. I wrote a column in which I took Mr. Cook to task — I argued that he had not acknowledged how ad-supported services improved his own company’s devices.

I stand by that view, but now I also regret dismissing his warning so cavalierly. Socially, politically and culturally, the online ad business is far more dangerous than I appreciated. Mr. Cook was right, and we should have listened to him.

Ooh! I’m being pirated!

JasonW informs me that Coffin Dodgers is actually being pirated (as opposed to being listed on sites that don’t actually have it). It’s here if you’re interested, although the download links try to get you to sign up for things you don’t need and install things you don’t want.

The book is also available legally on Amazon, of course. Only 99p!

“I am sick and tired of sites telling me that I’m doing the internet wrong”

Me, in .net:

I would say that 98 per cent of my time using the mobile web is spent swearing at websites, hurling expletives at interstitials, unleashing angry utterances at URL shorteners and firing f-bombs at Facebook.

The single most fundamental principle of the World Wide Web – the mechanism by which you click on something and something then appears – is being deliberately and widely broken.

Digg-ing a hole

Digg, the social news site formerly valued at around $200 million, was sold this week for a paltry $500,000. It’s been a long time coming, as I wrote in .net last year:

There’s an old saying about websites: if you can’t work out what product the site is selling, then the product is probably you. It’s something website users often forget, which perhaps explains how people can get so angry when you slightly change a logo or layout. “This site, for which I pay nothing, has changed very slightly! I’m angry and demand compensation!”

It can be a pain dealing with such complaints, but it turns out that the alternative is even worse. If you make it too obvious that the punters are your product, that they’re the computerised cows in your online abattoir, they tend to stop mooing and start moving. If enough of them escape, they can bring your entire business crashing down.

Just ask Digg.

“I’d always assumed that my mobile operator’s filter was there to block donkey porn and midget wrestling, but it’s wider than that”

Me, on Techradar:

There is a big difference between blocking pornography and blocking speech, no matter how odious it may be, but filters brought in to block the former inevitably end up blocking the latter. Today it’s the BNP, and extremism, and The Pirate Bay. What will we have to protect our children from tomorrow?

One of the things that depresses me about my job is that dire predictions often come true, so for example when filters for illegal porn were introduced, many of us warned that other things would end up filtered too — and as the linked piece says, that’s exactly what’s happening now. It’s a similar story with the authorities’ use of personal data. Zack Whittaker at ZDNet:

The U.K. government is haemorrhaging data — private and confidential citizen data — from medical records to social security details, and even criminal records, according to figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

Just shy of 1,000 civil servants working at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), were disciplined for accessing personal social security records. The Department for Health (DoH), which operates the U.K.’s National Health Service and more importantly all U.K. medical records, saw more than 150 breaches occur over a 13-month period.

Amazon reviewers: just as reliable as professional critics

Here’s an interesting one: a study that suggests Amazon reviews are just as reliable as newpaper ones, for non-fiction at least. I agree entirely, although I reserve the right to edit this post if people start posting one-star jobs…

Although the study points out that there is “virtually no quality assurance” in Amazon’s consumer reviews, which can also be “gamed” by publishers or competitors submitting false reviews, they found that, nevertheless, experts and consumers agreed in aggregate about the quality of a book.

Amazon reviewers were more likely to give a favourable review to a debut author, which the Harvard academics said suggested that “one drawback of expert reviews is that they may be slower to learn about new and unknown books”.

Professional critics were more positive about prizewinning authors, and “more favourable to authors who have garnered other attention in the press (as measured by number of media mentions outside of the review)”.


Music, books and other media: meet the new boss, worse than the old boss

Most of the debate over digital music business models is about the record companies and their digital successors, but what about the musicians? David Lowery of Cracker argues that for them, things are much worse: at least some pre-digital musicians actually got paid.

The full thing is long but worth your time:

 Things are worse.  This was not really what I was expecting.  I’d be very happy to be proved wrong.  I mean it’s hard for me to sing the praises of the major labels. I’ve been in legal disputes with two of the three remaining major labels.   But sadly I think I’m right.   And the reason is quite unexpected.  It’s seems the Bad Old Major Record Labels “accidentally” shared  too much  revenue and capital through their system of advances.  Also the labels  ”accidentally” assumed most of the risk.   This is contrasted with the new digital distribution system where some of the biggest players assume almost no risk and share zero capital.

I don’t agree with everything he writes, but that bit there makes sense to me – and it’s being replicated in ebooks. What looks like empowerment can also be evisceration: the Apples and Amazons of the world aren’t getting rid of middlemen, but becoming them by getting writers to do all the work (editing, promotion, etc) that traditional publishers do. They still get a cut, but they don’t have to risk any of their money.

In the last few years it’s become apparent the music business, which was once dominated by six large and powerful music conglomerates, MTV, Clear Channel and a handful of other companies, is now dominated by a smaller set of larger even more powerful tech conglomerates.  And their hold on the business seems to be getting stronger.

There’s a wider angle to this too, which I’m sure I’ll come back to in a proper post: the way in which the new titans are organised in such a way that they can destroy their foreign rivals without paying foreign taxes. By routing ebook sales and music downloads through Luxembourg and putting UK earnings through Irish subsidiaries – something that, as public companies, they arguably have to do; their responsibility is to maximise their share prices, not to be good corporate citizens – the new bosses get yet another advantage: not only are they largely free from the need to invest in content creation, but they’re freed from some of the main costs of doing business too.


Taking no risk and paying nothing to the content creators is built into the collective psyche of the Tech industry.  They do not value content.  They only see THEIR services as valuable.  They are the Masters of the Universe.  They bring all that is good. Content magically appears on their blessed networks.

As I say, I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s hard to argue against that one.

“Gun hats? What a brilliant idea!”

Another week, another faintly frightening bit of proposed state surveillance. Me, on Techradar:

What’s happening here is a classic bit of political manoeuvring. What’s supposed to happen is this: the security services ask for the power to do anything they like, plus some satellites with giant lasers and hats that can be used as guns, because that’s what the security services are supposed to do.

The government then tells the security services to get stuffed because we can’t afford gun hats, and because privacy is a fundamental human right.

Like Labour before them, the Tories have forgotten to do their bit. Instead of saying “get stuffed, you power-crazed doom-mongers!” they’ve said “Gun hats? What a brilliant idea!”