Anti-social media

I doubt whether this is the only post with this title being written this week.

I have to admit that my usage of twitter has shrunk to just the casual glance at Notifications, and certainly not the eyes-glued on the twitter-stream that it used to be.

Ah! Those were the days. When I used to tweet about my journey on the bus to all and sundry during the early days when I was the self-appointed social media evangelist (or maybe it was even a role I’d been asked to lead on at Cardiff University). As an early adopter of twitter in 2007 I just thought it was wonderful. It complemented the blogposts I wrote, and advised folk of the existence of yet more pearls of wisdom that I felt it necessary to promulgate. I was chatting to an extended circle of friends, family and colleagues who I wasn’t likely to see that day, week, month, or even year. It kept me in touch with like-minded folk. I was also able to laugh with Stephen Fry, and a few others who I didn’t know, but whose views I respected. All was well in the twitterverse.

Things of course changed over time, and I won’t detail those changes, and of course we arrive at the state of play we have today. Quel domage. Things will never be the same again for twitter. I will probably still post notifications of blogposts – perhaps even this one – on my profile, but it will be done with a heavy heart.

Others have written that this could mark the end of twitter, and even the beginning of the end for open public discourse. I’m not going to get into that discussion, but I am going to reflect on the journey of social media and ponder aloud whether there is a way ahead for respectful open discussion on the internet.

Let’s start with Facebook. {Must we, everyone who might read this will know how much I dislike Meta and all it’s done to the pre-advert, pre-tracking, original Fb, then Instagram, and then later still WhatsApp} All that was good about the concept was lost in the need to monetise the platform. And its our fault! If we didn’t want/need to get something for nothing, if we didn’t put a value on software or the service that was being provided, it was inevitable that Fb would go down the path it went. The rest is history. Bye, bye Facebook – for me at least.

Then there was Google+. Great idea; great concept; but again Google was unable to monetise what became a closed social community. Google had been able to get marketing information from its other services – Gmail, Photos, Maps, etc etc, but Google+ wasn’t bringing in any revenue. It had to go, erstwhile under the excuse of security holes that were too difficult/expensive to fix. A lame excuse imho.

I’ve dealt with my worries about WhatsApp previously. Suffice to say that I still don’t trust Meta, and so my stance on using the application is unchanged. I lurk (as I do on Facebook and Instagram by the way), but I don’t contribute and I always Log Out when I’ve finished lurking!

And so we arrive at Social Media 2.0, or perhaps I’ll call it Simple Social Media for Simple Folk, or What you Want is What you’ll Get – remember WYSIWYG. People want segmentation, to be able to communicate with others of a like mind, in a safe, unpolluted space. Whilst in that space they don’t want to be shouted at, trolled, insulted or bullied – for that they can stay on twitter.

I’ve thrown myself into using Signal. I have many groups that I’ve either created, or am a member of. It’s easy to join, or leave, a group, and I use it as a substitute for Messaging apps as well for 1-to-1 chats. Keeping all such communication in the same place. Its an Open Source platform, and the happenings of the past week are making me think I should subscribe to it, to help ensure its survival. I evaluated some alternatives here and here – and plumped on Signal and Discord. The latter got me thinking of whether it was possible to have an open group/channel in Signal that you could join – like twitter; but I have rolled-back on that idea. I rather like the peace and quiet of Signal. If I want noise I can always go on Discord.

So that’s where I am. A bit of a rant, some reflection, and a lot of regret that an old friend is going the way of other old friends.

Perhaps the lesson to be learnt is that if something is worthwhile and important in your life – pay something to use it. Don’t expect to get anything for free without compromising something – and this most probably will be tracking what you do, security concerns and almost certainly a loss of privacy. Subscription services are not really that expensive. You pay for your mobile phone service, why balk at paying for the software that runs on it?

Also, consider using Open Source software wherever possible – the people who contribute to writing it almost universally have their hearts and minds in the right place – so help them with monetary contributions to keep them going. [Did you know that the code that forms the basis of WhatsApp came from the original Signal team.]

Whats up with WhatsApp? [Updated]

What a commotion Facebook (Fb) has caused with the changes to the Privacy Policy for WhatsApp that is being forced upon its users. As a result there are a number of issues that Fb is now scrabbling around to resolve which could have been avoided if they’d approached the change in a better way – I can only imagine a few heads will have rolled at Facebook Inc. as a consequence.

First – it only really affects businesses and how they interact (or might want to interact) with WhatsApp …

“The really significant recent update is that WhatsApp has added new features to allow people to communicate with businesses – and those businesses could be hosted by Facebook. When speaking to those contacts, messages might be stored and managed by Facebook, and so those conversations could be shared with the company more generally.

Users should be informed if that happens, however. When speaking to a business who has decided to have its messages managed by Facebook, a message should appear – and users should stop talking to them if they would prefer that information is not shared.”

The Independent, 10th Jan 2021.

Second – it doesn’t apply to users in the European Region (which includes the UK, even post-Brexit). [But will it include the UK after all Fb data is repatriated to California? This is the company’s intention to avoid legal redress under European GDPR.] If they were prepared to commit to this, why didn’t they say this would be the case … forever! Because they can’t, just as they couldn’t omit all European Country Codes from the message. Everything will be open to further change, going forward. Believe me!!

So there’s an issue of trust involved, isn’t there? This is what I addressed in this article on another of my sites – Why do I dislike Facebook (Fb)? – please read the Comments too. Fb is more insidious than I had thought, and my previous advice of Logging out from the app, and website is now relegated from the status of Advice, to just a Recommendation.

So is there an issue, and should we do anything about it?

There have been lots of articles written, including an earlier one of mine – The new WhatsApp Terms and Conditions of Use, but one I particularly like is this one – Will WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy Make You Look for a New Messaging Service? I urge you to read it.

In the short-term there isn’t an issue, because it doesn’t apply to users in the European Region, and is mainly intended as an incentive to businesses to use the Facebook platform. But perhaps we don’t want the inconvenience of disconnecting from a business online when conducting an online purchase, and just note this wording from the Facebook site – which I wasn’t aware of …

“When you visit a site or app that uses our services, we receive information even if you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account. This is because other apps and sites don’t know who is using Facebook.”

… quite chilling really. It means that if you visit a site that has a connection to Fb, ie uses Facebook services, then Fb will use that information gleaned by that connection and can potentially pass it on to others. Hence the concern for information from WhatsApp users being passed on. It’s the uncertainty, and the lack of trust.

Last year, in July 2020, WhatsApp changed its Privacy Policy and gave existing users in the European Region 30days to exercise their rights …

“If you are an existing user, you can choose not to have your WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook to improve your Facebook ads and products experiences. Existing users who accept our updated Terms and Privacy Policy will have an additional 30 days to make this choice by going to Settings > Account.”

… to not share information with Facebook. I have no idea whether I chose to exercise that right, and I cannot find any way of finding out whether I did or not. If I did, the changes proposed now could not supersede the opt-out, but I don’t know, and I must proceed with the presumption I didn’t opt-out. [The option in Settings > Account has unsurprisingly been removed.]

So it comes down to this. Your decision to continue using WhatsApp, or seeking an alternative instant messaging platform is a personal one. I’ve made my decision albeit one that is grey, rather than black and white. I have kept my accounts with Facebook and Instagram active – I haven’t deleted them. As long as the data is held in Ireland, I will continue to “lurk” but will not be active on these apps. So, I will accept the new WhatsApp Ts&Cs to keep my account, but I will cease to be “active” on that platform. When Facebook repatriates my data to California, I will end my connection with Facebook Inc and at that time I will no longer have a WhatsApp account.

So I must prepare for change if I want to keep using an instant messaging platform. Where to go then?

I’ve made my choice. I could go through a list and state the pros and cons of each, but that would just replicate what others have done. As a result of reading these reviews I’ve decided to move to Signal.

Why Signal?

Quite simply it’s open-source; the author of the end-to-end encryption used by WhatsApp was the founder of the organisation that preceded the formation of the Signal Foundation; and therefore these together mean that the risks of moving are far less than those of staying with WhatsApp. The Foundation cannot be bought out; it is funded privately by donation; it is supported by a community of coders and developers and now it has the founder of WhatsApp onboard as a funder.

Read about the origins and background to Signal.

Moving to Signal

No change is easy, but this one is only difficult in that you may leave people behind who are not willing to move with you. The differences in the user interface between the two platforms is minimal and very easy to pick-up. I haven’t detected any functionality that’s missing, or at least functionality I needed. There might be an issue with video-calls as the platform is probably not scaled up to receive a huge influx of video-calling refugees from WhatsApp – but there’s Facetime, Google Meet, Skype and of course Zoom for that anyway.

So How do you leave WhatsApp without losing all of your data or upsetting your friends (The Independent, 13th Jan, 2021) and How do you start using Signal (Make Use of, 11th Jan, 2021).

In conclusion, again from The Independent, 13th January, just read this article which parallels much of what I’ve already written above …

Leaving WhatsApp will be hard – but it is the right thing to do

… for me, it undoubtedly is, my journey away from WhatsApp (and Facebook Inc) has begun.

UPDATE (Jan 15th)

Further to this post yesterday it appears WhatsApp have realised they have not communicated the reasons for their proposed changes well enough citing “misinformation”, I would say poor communication. So read this …

… you all have more time to make your own personal decisions. I would still advise not AGREEing just yet, you may not be able to change your mind! I will reflect and report back later. Meanwhile Signal is struggling under the pressure of a huge influx of new users – teething problems one hopes.