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Category: Internet

Social media’s transformation over the years

Social media’s transformation over the years

These days I find myself, somewhat unconsciously, viewing more videos on Facebook than YouTube. This is something that Facebook has been pushing for some time. While my TV time has drastically reduced, this hasn’t meant an overall decline in passive content consumption. In fact, the infinite choice of “channels” on popular social media is a much worse problem than regular TV. In the last few days, I have been viewing snippets of a large number of movies, cooking shows, travel vlogs, sitcoms and other stuff too varied to list.

The algorithm is interesting because it keeps circulating content and tries to serve up videos of the same genre that I was watching earlier. And then suddenly it resets and serves up an entirely new set of videos. There is a strong urge to keep on swiping for more interesting stuff since the recommendation list is bottomless. Oh, and did you notice those sneaky little adverts/“sponsored” videos that keep getting inserted between the regular content? A few years ago my brother wrote on social media’s negative impact on his blog. It’s a somewhat lengthy read but well worth the effort. He specifically notes that social media companies are discovering increasingly ingenious ways to hook users, one of them being “rabbit hole recommendations”.((I’m sure it’s totally unrelated to the fact that advertising has got more intrusive and ubiquitous.😒)) While I rarely use social media for personal updates of late, I must plead guilty to being a passive content consumer.

One thing is clear though: big tech social media has moved from being user-centric to content-centric and finding ingenious ways to grab our time and attention and generate revenue. We are the product after all.

Was spam invented to kill electronic communications?

Was spam invented to kill electronic communications?

This thought has occurred to me more than once and seems that there is some logic to this thinking, namely whether the main purpose of spam((I use this term to denote unsolicited electronic communication of all forms, not just e-mail spam, which is the most ubiquitous form)) is to kill electronic communication.

Take e-mail – one of the oldest forms of electronic communications still around. On my google mail ID, for instance, I have been getting a mountain of “detected” hard spam which get directly sent to the spam folder, but apart from that, I also get “soft” promotional spam from sources that have a legitimate reason to know my identity((the most common instances being, websites where I’ve signed up voluntarily, like e-commerce sites or my bank)) that I am forced to manually delete from the inbox every time because I also get genuine notifications from such sources. This has led to a situation where I judge that out of 100 e-mails I get, I hardly get around 2 or 3 from genuine human beings sending me an e-mail. If you don’t check your mailbox almost every day, you could be left with more than hundreds of unread e-mails, most of which are promotional mails and/or notifications from websites/providers. These days, e-mail is mostly dead as a human-to-human communication medium, except in a corporate context, where at least basic levels of anti-spam is implemented and security policies are periodically reviewed and updated.

Social media, another tool which began as a human-to-human connection and communication platform, has again been taken over by corporate advertising and promotional content, with a huge spam problem to boot. Instant messengers, including their modern avatars like WhatsApp have been taken over by business spammers who keep sending you unsolicited messages. The use of pre-recorded marketing calls for spamming seems to have increased tenfold, despite attempts by the regulatory authorities and governments to ban them, showing that the technology to prevent spamming at a mass level is still catching up. The pre-recorded voice calls are the worst, taking up your valuable attention and forcing you to attend or cut the call, and each such momentary distraction adding up to unproductive time. And of course, SMS spam continues unabated, with spammers increasingly adopting techniques that prevent the recipient from directly blocking the source. With the development of AI technology, I fear this problem of non-genuine electronic communication will only increase and make fighting spam tougher. On this very blog, I have to keep clearing the detected spam comments by the dozens almost every day, while comments from legitimate readers have almost disappeared completely. While I personally keep periodically reviewing my anti-spam measures, I doubt that most people bother beyond a point.

While I searched about this topic online, I found an article on ZDNet from twenty two years ago, highlighting how spam could destroy the internet. Back then, e-mail spam was the major source of the problem. Well, the internet is not destroyed, but it seems that we are still waging a tough battle against spammers who have now infiltrated every single form of electronic communication possible.

Ultimately I almost have to wonder whether spam was invented by folks motivated to destroy electronic communication. Why else would they bother? With so much spam clogging up the electronic bandwidth, increasing noise-to-signal ratio to unacceptable levels, and frustrating recipients everywhere, I fail to see how pure commercial interests lie behind this phenomenon. In fact, when I sometimes read some of the more nonsensical spam I receive I almost think that the main purpose of spam is to to kill electronic communication completely by flooding us with shit.

Are news paywalls still relevant in 2022?

Are news paywalls still relevant in 2022?

Or perhaps the question should be “were they ever relevant at any point of time?”

Recently I was checking for news about the ongoing political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka and came across a couple of articles that were behind paywalls. Needlessly to say I simply went on to click other links. In this day and age, I just don’t understand how this technique will generate revenue. If I don’t get the news from one source, I just click another link. The explosion of alternative media has ensured that there are a wide range of choices to get news and opinions from. It’s long past the era when one got the latest news from traditional newspapers like The Hindu or Times of India. Today you have these traditional media houses begging for subscriptions to keep them alive, appealing to support “free and fearless journalism.” Well, unless you offer really unique or specialized knowledge that is not available elsewhere, such tactics will fall flat.

While I don’t have any stats, I am sure that paywalling isn’t a successful business model. In an era of dwindling attention spans, getting people to read long-form text content is hard enough, while it’s just trivial to get the same news from some other free source. Also opinion pieces aren’t really worth subscribing to, even if they do come up with click-bait titles and clever previews.

I am divided about this: while I don’t necessarily trust traditional media to indulge in ethical journalism, I don’t want a world where Google, Facebook and Twitter have a stranglehold on delivery of digital content, including news, and monopoly on revenue generated from such content. At the same time, traditional media houses cannot simply use emotive tactics to get people to give them money. We’ve seen how this larger conflict between traditional media and tech giants has played out, with some countries such as Australia legislating that tech giants pay for news content and Canada also proposing a law for revenue sharing between tech giants and traditional news houses, with other countries likely to consider such legislation. It seems fair that when tech giants such as Google and Facebook make money from advertising off content they didn’t create, they must be asked to share the revenue generated from such advertising with the content creator. How effective such legislation will be in the long term remains to be seen of course.

I can well understand that online alternate media has made it difficult for traditional print media to survive and subscription is a tempting revenue source, but even so, charging for access to digital news content from end users does not seem the way forward.

Pre social-media online presence and disappearance

Pre social-media online presence and disappearance

A recent blog post from my brother on social media led me to think of online networking before social media giants like FaceBook and Twitter became popular. In those days, the main source of online networking was through blogging, internet forums and sites like Flickr which catered to a fairly niche audience (in Flickr’s case, photography). And those days, people rarely used their real names online. Most people went under a pseudonym, also called a “handle”. While in the case of blogging many chose to blog under their real names, on web-based forums and pre social-media networking sites, people usually chose a pseudonymous handle. There was basically no compulsion to reveal your real name or identity unlike on modern social media which strongly encourages you to link you to identifiable details like mobile number, your first name, middle name and surname and also associate your identity with all mutual friends, friends of friends and so on. All this contributed to something of a mystique around an online identity without any revealed real-world connections.

The point of this post is that pre social-media online identities made it almost impossible to find out why a person suddenly disappeared from an online existence, which is disconcerting especially if you have interacted with that person a lot. I had a lot of blogging friends back in the day who simply stopped blogging and disappeared after a few years, completely removing themselves from any traceable online presence. Even those with real names are near impossible to trace if they have no social media presence. I don’t think a lot of the old-school bloggers and those who were prominent on internet forums have a social media presence these days, at least on the popular mainstream ones. I think I am one of the few rare bloggers who maintain an online presence from 2005 till date. I am not sure of percentages but I would hazard a guess that around 90% of the blogs/forums I used to follow back in 2005 have disappeared, either completely or probably resurfaced on social media without any connection to their earlier online presence. And of the people I knew who stopped blogging, very few recognizably resurfaced on social media.

I am not sure of the reasons for sudden online disappearance, which could be varied. Maybe people chose to remove themselves from the virtual world for privacy reasons, maybe they lost interest, their life situation changed, career pressures took over, family responsibilities came in the way or (sadly) just passed away. Such is life.

In so far as the internet is concerned, the disappearance of a person from online activity does not always mean complete removal of all traces of the person — it’s not rare to find long-dead blogs/websites still preserved on free services like Blogspot or WordPress and in the case of paid domain names which have expired, it’s even possible to retrieve an archived copy from services like the Wayback Machine.

From another angle, it may actually be a good thing to have the option to totally and completely wipe out an online identity and associated content permanently. As of today, I doubt whether this is technologically feasible, what with all the massive archiving of content by different web services and providers. As they say, once it’s on the internet, it’s probably there forever, even if the creator has long since disappeared, mysteriously or otherwise.

Static vs dynamic personal blogs and interacting with readers

Static vs dynamic personal blogs and interacting with readers

In this day and age when the average internet user’s online presence is mostly restricted to social media sites where the main form of interaction is clicking/tapping on “like” and “fave” buttons on a mobile screen, having an online identity like your own website seems like an extravagance, particularly when you choose to own a domain name and pay for hosting. But there are still many of us who remember a time before social media took over the online landscape and personal sites/blogs were still in vogue. There are a surprising number of people who still blog regularly, though the visibility of the blogging landscape has shrunk, mainly due to the focus on big-brand social platforms.

One of the fundamental decisions when you decide to create a website is whether to make it a static content site((pure static content, no server side scripting or interaction with the user)) or a dynamic site((pages are dynamically generated and served on request, and allows user interactivity)). My brother has written a good article on this subject, in which he explains the pros and cons of each approach. He himself chose to create a static website which is generated offline through a website generation tool.

For this website, I chose to use WordPress, a popular dynamic blogging platform rather than create or generate a site with static pages. Why? Because I think interacting with readers is a big deal and having the ability to receive and record comments on-site is a better way to engage with readers than through social media. I understand that the modern approach to user interactivity is to outsource comments and likes to social media and going with the flow, but I feel that there is some value in having comments and interaction on the site itself. Not only is it easier to follow the discussion which is on the same page as the content, but it also preserves and focuses the discussion in a way that social media cannot. And this way, the website or blog owner has full editorial and moderation control which is lost when the discussion is moved off-site.

I know it’s hard to get readers to engage in this way these days and it does feel like an uphill battle having to maintain a commenting system, especially when it comes to fighting spam. But still, for whatever it is worth, I choose to keep that option open and encourage readers to comment on this blog. Good, thoughtful comments add immense value to content and I would prefer such feedback to a hundred likes on FaceBook any day.

The non-content of the Internet

The non-content of the Internet

Beware, this is a bit of a rant.

Today I clicked on “Pocket”, Mozilla’s built-in content aggregator and offline reader which is sneakily advertised in Firefox. Then found this apparently “Pocket-worthy” article among others. From its very title, I knew that it was one of those empty “non-content” articles — where a bunch of inane, rehashed, impracticable, theoretical, unoriginal, insipid and clichéd ideas written in an impersonal, often corporatey style are presented as fresh, thought-provoking, intelligent and original.

This is not about Mozilla Pocket. It’s not even about that particular article that I linked to which seems to be a bit more intelligently written than your average click-bait spam. It’s about that kind of article with that kind of title. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the linked article I’ll leave you with, to illustrate my point:

Everyone is different: not better, not worse, just different. Appreciate the differences instead of the shortcomings and you’ll see people—and yourself—in a better light.

Don’t let your fears hold you back. Whatever you’ve been planning, whatever you’ve imagined, whatever you’ve dreamed of, get started on it today.


So deep, original, thought-provoking and inspirational! 😮 Sarcasm aside, those vacuous sentences tell you nothing about the author’s personal experience, has no unique perspective or viewpoint, nothing that shows that the author cared much about the topic except to make up yet another top ten list. Typical of the kind of non-content I’m talking about.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with low quality content however badly presented provided at least a bit of the author’s personality and originally comes through. I don’t even have a problem with bland generic stuff like the content linked above.

Seriously, what’s annoying is that this kind of rich-on-keyword non-content is still quite popular with search engines and often takes precedence over real worthwhile, quality material. Let’s say for example that I really wanted to research how successful and likeable people behave. Instead of getting linked to actual, objective research on the subject, an expert opinion or even a more thoughtful and original take on the subject, I am forced to wade through several such spammy click-bait links before coming across something of value.

FaceBook and other social media sites are already full of non-content pages, memes, images and videos. But far too often, web pages with click-baity titles looking to generate ad-revenue, sell you an e-book and/or make you subscribe for premium content appear too high on search results.

It’s not a coincidence that such (non-)content is usually created or copied by persons or entities in the business of “making money online” for as long as I can remember. I can well understand why: it is cheap, easy, low effort investment — a website with basic SEO, the right keywords for search engines to pick up and index, click-bait titles and you’ve got a steady stream of traffic and potential ad revenue. If it didn’t work, obviously the Internet wouldn’t be full of them, hogging precious search engine visibility.

Blockchain domains for a censorship resistant Internet?

Blockchain domains for a censorship resistant Internet?

Most of us associate blockchain technology with cryptocurrencies and I guess that’s the most visible use of that technology today. However, while doing some reading on cryptocurrency-related technologies, I found that blockchains can be used for a lot more than that. Wikipedia defines blockchain as

a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data (generally represented as a Merkle tree).

Yes, records that can store any data, including cryptocurrency, so the potential is limitless. Since each record’s hash and timestamp is stored in the subsequent record, this makes tampering with records well nigh impossible. A distributed, public blockchain makes it impossible for any one entity to claim ownership or delete the blockchain. Anyway, a description of the full technology behind blockchain is available in many sources including Wikipedia, and this is not my place to elaborate on that. Do read this brief but non-techie introduction to blockchain for more.

What I did find interesting one extremely interesting application of blockchain technology – effectively permanent domain names that can be associated with a crypto wallet((owned effectively for life by the person possessing the private key – these domains can also be used in place of the Wallet Id in cryptocurrency transactions, and in fact, this application seems to be the primary use case for blockchain domains)) serving websites that are stored permanently on the InterPlanetary File System or similar distributed peer-to-peer file storage protocols, effectively making censorship hard to impossible. Getting started seems to be easy – Unstoppable Domains, one such provider of blockchain domain names (with the .crypto and .zil domain extensions) has reasonably simple instructions on how to get started with hosting such websites. You can also use the Ethereum Name Service to purchase .eth domains((note: I have not been paid for by anybody to post these links or advertise these services)). I don’t claim to understand how all of this works, but I can sense the potential of such technologies.

The biggest downsides, as far I can understand, with this newly emerging technology are:

  1. Blockchain domains are independent of the regular DNS that powers the world wide web. Currently you cannot just type a blockchain domain name in any regular browser and expect it to resolve, the exception being Opera which can resolve .crypto names natively. Naturally your website will be unavailable for discovery on search engines and people will need to install a browser plugin to view your domain, effectively severely limiting your potential audience.
  2. Once you put content on IPFS, it cannot be deleted, ever. By its very nature, IPFS is about permanent storage. On the other hand, normal websites can be deleted from a single location (your web host), though search engines/archivers might have cached (portions of) your website. The legal and ethical challenges of such content permanency((for example you cannot effectively take down websites infringing copyrights or containing illegal content)) is also huge.
  3. With current technology it appears that only static files can be served through the IPFS, and so naturally you cannot host dynamic sites like blogs or CMSes which run on PHP or host any web applications that require any dynamic server-side technologies.
  4. On a more non-technical note, the very legality of cryptocurrencies and cryptographic enabled blockchain technologies in many parts of the world is a huge grey area, especially with regulators keen to assert their authority over all content and transactions on the Internet. Now that is bound to have a more chilling effect on adoption than any technological hurdle. Governments hate strong cryptography because encryption effectively makes it harder to monitor and regulate online activities.

To my mind, the above limitations are quite non-trivial and it appears that, the main use of blockchain domains at present is providing simple human readable alternatives to long cryptocurrency wallet IDs.

There are no real online shopping deals

There are no real online shopping deals

The Indian festive season is here. Online shopping sites offer “up to 40% / 50% off” along with mouth watering credit EMI offers and want you to loosen your purse strings… And all the time, I’m still waiting for that elusive item((with a clearly marked and verifiable current Maximum Retail Price)) that is genuinely discounted at 40%.

Most, if not all, of the online deals even by established players seem to be big scams. To my knowledge any shopping site that offers “up to 40% off” or “up to 50% off” rarely offer any items with even bona fide 25% discounts and only a few items above the 10% range. 5-7% discounts seem more common and if you’re lucky, there’s a bank offer with 10% off((of course, subject to a maximum limit which makes it much less generous for higher priced products)). The actual 40% off used for marketing purposes is mostly on clothing (branded and unbranded) which is grossly overpriced anyway((speaking of clothing, even in physical retail stores, that 40% off item is always something nobody really wants)).

The other big issue with discounts I’ve found is that online stores frequently quote old MRPs to show inflated discounts on items that have already dropped in price. This “oversight” is frequently the case with electronic items, where manufacturers often drop the maximum retail prices of existing models when a newer model is released. A price drop by the manufacturer is not a discount and in any case selling the product above that price is an offence. And I don’t know why, but it’s not trivial to get official information regarding current prices of older models from manufacturers. More often than not, older products are pulled down from the official website, and even if still sold, there is no price information available. Getting this information must be possible((I’ve not tried e-mailing manufacturers yet)), but probably requires quite a bit of digging and persistence. I doubt whether they will make it easy anyway because revealing the price information in black and white will make it easy for consumers to calculate the real discount and not the discount that is marked by the retailer.

My suggestion then: ignore all these deals. Don’t go by the marked discount on the product but consider whether you really need the product and that it’s is worth paying for from your own perspective. Yes, the sweet deal may end in the next 3 hrs 45 mins and 32 seconds, but don’t be surprised to find the same deal still valid for another “12 hrs” the next day.