Note: This post documents my thinking as I am choosing to redefine my relationships with social networks and other digital spaces/places. I dig in a bit to explain what I mean by signals by getting into metadata and advertising. I’m experimenting with this redefinition of my relationships by continuing to experiment with IndieWeb philosophies on a new website I’m building. I get a bit granular in this post…so please bear with me. As always, I’m documenting my thinking, and reflecting over time. Enjoy. 🙂
The signals we share
Across different fields, we often utilize signals, or forms of non-verbal communication to share information with others. This may be in sports where hand gestures or body movements may be used to convey information to teammates. This may be in combat where soldiers remain silent and direct others to move as one. This may be in a classroom where a teacher will silently direct students with a gesture or silent stare.
In a digital space, we also create and share signals. For most people, these signals are very distinct. They include tweets or posts that you share on social networks. They also include your reactions (likes, favorites, love, haha, wow, angry, sad).
Many more of your signals are unseen, or at least unseen to you. These signals include metadata, or “data about data” that tracks you as you move across the web. This metadata could be descriptive, structural, or administrative. A good way to think about this is the card catalog system in a library. You have the actual book, but then you also have information in a system about the title, abstract, author and keywords (descriptive). The card catalog system will also include information about how many pages and chapters are included in the table of contents (structural). The library will also save information about whether the book is checked out, who last checked it out, and where is it located on the stacks if it is still available (administrative).
You may also utilize user-generated metadata as you share and interact online. This includes the use of hashtags or memes shared online. These include information in the photos, videos and text that we share daily. This dynamic data has information, and a deeper level of understanding about you than most of the other metadata combined. This could include collections of items of interest to you, such as lists of books to read, albums to listen to, collections of photos, blog posts, wikis, etc. In our analogy of the card catalog system, this user-generated metadata would be the list of the books you regularly check out, combined with all of the social information shared when you meet with your reading groups to discuss your favorite texts.
As stated earlier, metadata is data about data. It is the obvious, and most times unseen information that flows online. It is the digital residue left behind after we’ve moved on to other spaces and places. Increasingly, this metadata is connected to our offline interactions. That is to say that businesses, governments, and others are connecting the dots between what we read online, and what we buy in the stores. All of this creates a long trail of information about us, and a valuable commodity.
Thanks to all the new followers. "Metadata is a love note to the future" is mine, not a quote from somewhere, and I believe it. And live it!
— Jason Scott (@textfiles) September 29, 2011
The signals I share
Many of my signals are intentional, and overt. For some years I regularly share (via Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN) information about education, technology, and literacy. As I share, I think about my “avatar” or a composite of the type of individual I believe would value the content I’m sharing. This focus allows me to ensure that most of the content that I share would be of value to my audience. This avatar has changed and evolved over the years.
I regularly blog. The format, content, and audience of my blogging habit has changed over the years as well. Currently my main blog includes content as I question, consider, teach, and reflect. Most of this involves more long-form posts. This also includes my video content and photography quotes.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been writing a weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a way for me to weekly share out what I’ve been working on, as well as important news of the week in education, technology, and literacy. Once again, the focus is on that avatar that I briefly discussed earlier. I am focused on my own reflection, but also helping my audience study these spaces, and be a bit more progressive and thoughtful as they use them.
I try to connect all of these together on my main site, and use social networks to push my content out to others. This was loosely informed by IndieWeb philosophies as I was building up my main website to serve as my hub for all online connections. What I wanted was a place to document my thinking and work over time. If/when I met someone for the first time, they could go to my website and see all of my interests and work. The one thing that I was regularly losing in this aggregation of my digital identity was probably the most important…my social streams as I interact and connect with others.
In my earlier analogy about the use of signals and non-verbal communication, sometimes there is concern or challenges when someone intercepts or steals your signals. Your use of signals and these communication streams, signals your membership in a group, and is a part of your identity. Through the use of specific signals, you indicate your membership in a community. You identify whether you’re an athlete, solider, or educator. You may choose to speak and share signals from one environment or identity in a another space, but it may look odd if you’re sharing signals from baseball to students in a classroom.
When these signals are intercepted, collected, co-opted, or stolen, they have the potential to confuse, weaken, or compromise an individual or initiative.
Recently, the public has started to learn what privacy and security experts have been warning for some time. With the advent of television, media signals had the power to study audience demographics, and sell this information to advertisers. By collecting metadata about you, and maximizing on these signals using powerful algorithms, businesses are able to fine tune advertising sales to specific markets.
To make this much simpler, if I search online for a smartwatch to buy for my wife, my browser notices this search in Google. If I then head over to YouTube and search for reviews on a specific device, different services online notice this, and connect the dots to suggest that I’m looking to purchase a smartwatch. Now, I’m a valuable commodity. Algorithms, powerful guidelines for programs, point online ads to follow me wherever I go online. The more ads I see, the more the advertiser pays. When I go on Facebook, I notice ads for the smartwatch in my feed. When I’m on Amazon searching for batteries, I see ads for the smartwatch. When I’m reading a blog post, I see ads for the same smartwatch. I cannot escape these ads…even if I finally buy the smartwatch. 🙂
Bruce Schneier: . “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.”
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 21, 2018
There are also other instances in which my signals are swept up. Some of this involves Google scanning my email and calendar, and connecting this to my search results. Google knows where I am, where I need to go, and what I do while there. I do receive (and value) this use of my data if/when my phone reminds me that I have that meeting coming up in ten minutes. My Internet service provider (ISP) slurps up data about me and connects this to billing and credit history. I have no idea what they’re doing with this metadata and who they’re selling/giving it to. Finally, there are numerous businesses, governments, and unknown other entities that are tracking, buying/selling, using my data for various purposes.
A perfect example of what can right and wrong in this interaction is found in the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook affair.
As an individual that shares a lot (probably too much online) this presents a problem to me as I am considerate of the value that I’m leaving behind. As stated earlier, I intentionally share many signals online, and try to connect all of the dots to my main hub, to build up my digital identity. The one trail that I do not capture involves the 3 to 6 posts/links/videos that I share each day. These shared pieces are being captured and monetized by the systems and processes that inhabit these digital spaces.
Following the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook revelations, many indicated that they were leaving Facebook. I’m not. I don’t agree with what Facebook is doing with my data. I have regularly been warning others (here, here, & my newsletter) about how Facebook has been playing it fast and loose with our data, privacy, and security for some time. I think Facebook is a giant, digital Skinnerian box set up to keep you placated and checking in on your likes, notifications, and feed. But, with all of that, I’m not leaving Facebook. I am choosing to remain and redefine my relationship with Facebook, and these other social, digital networks.
Switching up my signals
As stated earlier, I’m quite intentional in the ways in which I create content and share it online. My blog, newsletter, and various other digital spaces all (somewhat) intersect and document my thinking over time. The 3 to 6 posts/links/videos that I share out daily on the socials also helps define my digital identity…but it is also the set of signals that I instantly lose.
To capture these signals, and redefine my relationship with/in these digital/social spaces, I am building up a separate website that will be experimental, and fully dictated by IndieWeb philosophies. This space will contain a lot of frayed wires and might always be “under construction.” This experimental space will inform development on my main website, and the ways in which I interact with other content. Most importantly, it will inform the students and colleagues that I guide as they enter these digital spaces.
The website will capture and collect the digital breadcrumbs I leave behind as I search, sift, and synthesize online. I am motivated and inspired by the website philosophy & structure developed by Chris Aldrich. This website will serve as my digital commonplace book. As I consume content online, I’ll curate what I find on this website, and use that information to create and share out content in my blog posts, newsletter, and elsewhere.
For now, I’m getting quite good at “reading” content online and documenting what I’m learning in posts on this blog. I save quotes, comments, and questions in my posts and archive for later. I’ve noticed that this intentionality has allowed me to think about bit more deeply about what I’m consuming online. In my previous reading/sharing habits, I would find a link and quickly share it out online to get notifications from followers. For now, I’m not sharing. I’m reading, taking notes, and thinking. For those that think that deeper reading cannot happen online, I don’t think you’re considering what this could/should look like.
My goal is to follow the guidance from Aldrich and others in the IndieWeb community and fully redefine my relationship and use of my signals online through this space for my digital breadcrumbs. I want to build up what Aaron Davis has created as he connects with others and documents this content. I want to continue to find, consume, and archive content on my breadcrumbs website. But, I would like to return to my habits of sharing this content out daily to my audience. I’m still trying to figure out how this process will look/work.
As I review materials daily in my systems, will I bookmark this in my breadcrumbs website, and then share the link from my site out online? Will I share out the original link to the content and only save my commentary and bookmark on my breadcrumbs site? Will this anger others as they have to click through the link to my breadcrumbs site…and then to the original source? Will I instead not share anything on social networks, and instead have people subscribe to my breadcrumbs site if they care to view what I’ve been reading/thinking?
I’m still not sure. I do like the value I’m getting as I slow down the review/reflection process and think more deeply about content I’m finding. I’m also starting to use the space to document conversations with others I have in email or in the comments sections on social networks. I like having this space to document and make transparent my thinking and work over time. For now, I continue to experiment and tinker. My feed, stream, and signals will be in a state of flux for some time.
Connecting the dots
This is not easy. This is not normal. This is a bit challenging as I’m forcing myself to redirect the streams that the social networks have made super simple for me (and others) to use over time. This is not easy as general users are conditioned to the sorts of signals, environments, and features that are rolled out over time. What I’m trying to do here will not make sense to most people who I interact with. This will confuse and possibly anger some f my followers. This may also cause many users to unfollow me, or (better yet) the algorithms on the social networks will just filter me out of the discussions.
Despite these challenges, I believe this is the future. I am choosing not to leave Facebook or other social networks. I am choosing to redefine my relationship with these entities, and see what happens on the other side. I’ll continue to document my thinking over time as I experiment, fail, play, and build. Hopefully others can learn from this experiment. Hopefully others are motivated to start asking questions, and testing out their own solutions. For me, this is the direction I believe I must head. Hopefully you’ll continue to join me along the way.