Updating Again Soon

I realized it’s been two years since I updated this blog, but with the recent events regarding data, privacy, and social media, I feel it’s important to dust this place off and start writing again. Stickied to the top of Robots Nobots is a post I wrote four years ago about the dangers of Social Logins and how your information, along with all your friends, is being bought and sold simply by clicking a small, convenient button. Seems it’s gotten worse since then with the explosion of Apps asking for “permissions” before you get to use them.

These topics are relevant. They will always be relevant. To anyone who happens upon this blog, I hope you enjoy my content.

Buzzword: Clickbait

What is clickbait? It’s a term used to describe sensationalist headlines used specifically for generating traffic. The “bait” part of this Internet portmanteau comes from “bait and switch”: you are promised one thing but given something else after you’ve paid. While on the surface it may seem harmless, the reason clickbait exists is to generate traffic and revenue. More traffic means more ads may be loaded, which in turn generates money for the host site. You might’ve seen something like this all over Facebook:

Untitled

Rather than a simple explanation of what the video is about in the title, it instead uses a hyperbolic statement. Most of these videos are uploaded to Youtube, but take a look at the URL; rather than a direct link, the host site, Distractify, embeds the video link so that it can use its own titling scheme. The actual name of the video is “Natural Pools – Natural Pool selfbuild”. So why do this? Why jump through so many hoops just to get you to visit their site to load ads most people will probably never see or click on? Think back to my earlier post on our insidious little friend, the tracking cookie. Each time your computer loads an ad or website, tracking cookies are used to gather information about you and your activity; this data can include geographical locations, other sites you’ve visited, your email address, and if you choose to log in via your social networks, ANY AND ALL DATA YOU’VE CHOSEN TO LIST AS PUBLIC ON YOUR PROFILES.

So how many tracking cookies can you expect to see from your average site? Usually 1-3, which is the case with popular social sites like Reddit and Youtube. How many are on clickbait sites like Distractify? According to a handy add-on called Ghostery, there are 12 tracking cookies on that page alone. TWELVE!

ghostery

Three of them are overtly advertising, four are social widgets, and the remaining five are analytics trackers – cookies used to study your behavior online. They will gather information that affects what ads are shown to you, what videos are suggested to you at a later date, the types of emails you receive, all with the main purpose of manipulating your behavior. If you think Facebook’s recent psychological “study” was offensive and wrong, trackers and advertisers have been doing it for years, and right under our noses! Here are some browser add-ons that will make your life a lot simpler. If you have any to add, please share:

Adblock Plus: Prevents ads and trackers from loading when you visit a website. Also blocks ads on Youtube so you can enjoy the video without being interrupted. Note: these are indiscriminate, so if you want to support your favorite broadcaster, you’ll have to manually turn it off for them to get ad revenues.

Ghostery: Tracks the trackers attempting to load on a website, blocks them, and gives you a description of what they do and who they are. Highly recommended. Updates frequently.

Lightbeam (Formerly Collusion): Shows you the third party trackers connected to any site you’ve allowed cookies to be installed. Wonderful tool.

The Importance of Media Literacy

What is the world telling you? Every day we are bombarded with an endless stream of advertisements and hidden messages from every corner. Magazines, billboards, radios, smartphones, and computers – these are some of the most common tools of persuasion, and they are tools found in nearly every home. We live a world dominated by media, both print and electronic. It is important that we arm ourselves with skills necessary to deconstruct what’s being placed in front of our eyes and get at the “truth” behind media’s motivations.

When you think about the advertising industry, you start to see that the relationship between corporations and consumers is almost high school in its structure. The corporations are the “in-crowd”, the popular kids who set the status quo and the rules of conformity, and the consumers are eager freshmen itching to be included. They play at your heartstrings, hinting at a need you never knew you had, then provide a solution to fulfill that need. In other words, they tell you, with the utmost confidence, that something is missing from your life, and they have just the thing to fill that void.

In this TED Talk with Andrea Quijada, she explains how you can between the lines of media in order to get at a message hidden beneath the marketing language. A commercial about purchasing a diamond ring for your significant other portrays the message that you can express your love in the form of an expensive piece of jewelry. The underlying message, however, seems to suggest that unless you purchase this expensive piece of jewelry for your significant other, you don’t truly love them, or you can never attain the kind of happiness portrayed in the ad. This diamond is the ultimate expression of love – the mark by which all love will be compared. Unfortunately for us consumers, we don’t always have a full orchestra to supplement our grand gestures. This kind of media bombardment promises you something more than what you have, and it instills a strong, yet temporary sense of urgency. These tactics would not be so effective if they weren’t so constant and pervasive (I’m looking at you, Hulu ads).

GOTHAMIST

Non-Traditional Journalism

I am a huge fan of Gothamist. It provides local news written and reported by the civilian population – local residents dishing out the latest news in their very own neighborhoods. While Gothamist does write articles on stories gleaned from reputable news sources, their original content offers up a very special brand of journalism and flavor. It is written in a language seasoned with inside jokes and references every New Yorker understands. It’s a wonderful system where everybody can be a journalist online! But it also breeds a serious problem: everybody can be a journalist online.

The Internet has the media working at breakneck speed, and unfortunately, Journalism has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Every news site rushes to get the story out first, and more and more often they start to get their facts wrong, or they fail to check their sources. The next time breaking news circulates, see how many typos you can find in their articles In CNN’s case, count the number of redactions they make over the course of reporting. It’s become a culture of “make mistakes first and ask forgiveness later”. We, the people, put our trust in the professionalism and vigilance of journalists. Too much trust. And it is that very trust that brings us to some of the most glaring problems in social media today.

Propaganda

snopesWe are very lucky to have sites like Snopes.com. Unfortunately many people don’t think to use Snopes to find out if latest Internet rumor tells truth or is a bunch of baloney. We’ve all seen it in our feeds: sensationalist titles linking to articles warning the population about spying devices in our pills, radiation leaks from Fukushima contaminating the entire Pacific Ocean and threatening the lives of Californians, or earthworm meat used in McDonald’s hamburgers. Did you believe them? Or did you do a bit of research and find out they’re all half-truths or a complete load of bunk? If you chose the latter, then you can wear your Media Literacy badge proudly. In our media-driven society, we need to question everything and view new information through a lens of skepticism and curiosity. Trust me, you do not want to be the next person to read a article or view a video by The Onion and not only take it seriously, but also announce to everyone on your Facebook page that you cannot tell the difference between journalism and satire.

Things to Remember:

1. Always check your sources. If you cannot find an objective and trustworthy source, take it with a grain of salt.

2. If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

3. Always check your sources.

4. You never knew you needed it until you saw the ad. What does that tell you?

5. Always check your sources.

Digital Natives Part 1

Are you a digital native? No one has agreed on a definite point on where the digital native generation began and where it ended, but in general it describes people who came in regular contact with computers at a young age sometime in the late 80’s and into the 90’s. They are now in the late 20’s to mid-30’s, and they are the pioneers of today’s social media trends.

So what characteristics do all digital natives share? The most important aspect is openness and an enthusiastic reception to new technologies, both hardware and software. While the older generations may view developing tech and trends with suspicion, frustration, and even fear, the digital native cannot wait to take it for a spin, check out its bells and whistles, and in some cases, find out how it can be broken! This behavior comes from their exposure to emerging software that don’t come with safeguards or pop-up warnings that tell them when their actions might be detrimental to the efficiency of their computer. They logged on to the Internet at a time when getting a virus was very nearly the worst possible thing that could happen! Everything was new, and they were thrust into open waters and allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

The Unsafe Internet

Internet services like AOL encouraged online interaction with chatrooms, instant messaging, and fun-sounding e-mail alerts.  Online predators and scammers took advantage of this anonymity, and from there the first chat bots were born. They had simple functions: find a username, send them an instant message with a link, and hope an unwary target clicks it. They often led to pornographic sites promising free access or downloads, and from there a vicious virus called a “Trojan” would be installed on your computer. This program scours your system for personal information, including IP addresses, usernames, and passwords, and it would send them back to the person who programmed the bot. Getting rid of the Trojan was more difficult in the 90’s than it is today because anti-virus programs were still building up their databases. Firewalls did not exist yet. If you wanted to keep your information and computer safe, you had to be vigilant and wary of anything and everything that pops up on your screen. If you find yourself staring at a link and wondering if it’s really your friend who sent it to you, then you might be a digital native.

The Internet and scammers are in a constant state of evolutionary warfare. Software that help protect you become more comprehensive and autonomous every day, and scammers find ways to step up their game to find cracks in the system. Before HTTPS existed, scammers would copy all the HTML on common and popular log in pages and create identical pages to trick unwary users into entering their usernames and passwords. The only way to tell for sure is to check the URL bar. Ingenious, really, and quite effective at the time. If you still check the URL of a log in page before logging in, you might be a digital native.

Personal Responsibility and Problem Solving

One defining characteristic of digital natives is the practice of personal responsibility when it comes to maintaining the optimal functionality of a computer. When something goes wrong, it’s not the computer that’s broken. It’s not a failure on the part of the software and hardware, it was something you did! And it’s up to you to find a fix. After you’ve exhausted every possible idea, that’s when you call tech support. Quite honestly it’s one of the most frustrating and satisfying aspects of being a digital native – frustrating when problems occur (and it’s most likely your fault), and satisfying when you fix it.

They younger generation tends to rely more on tech support or, in most computers today, the ability to fix itself by searching the Internet for a solution. But the moment the internet connection is severed, they’re at a loss. Like Marc Scott of Coding2Learn.org said in his recent article, kids say things like “The Internet is not working”, rather than “I’ve lost my internet connection” or “I can’t access the Internet”. Chances are the Internet is always working and there’s something going on with a) the computer and b) the user. If you check your network or browser settings today, there’s a fancy option of automatically detecting proxy settings and establishing an internet connection without you having to do anything. Back in the 90’s we had to configure these settings manually.

It’s not a matter of intelligence, but rather the baseline habits you’ve developed while using different technologies. Nearly everything comes prepackaged today: your operating system (that’s either Windows [Version Here], OSX, Linux, etc.,  young folks), the default anti-virus software, plug-and-play devices, etc. Think about it. When was the last time you inserted a CD to install a program that isn’t a video game? What about a 3.5″ floppy disk? Do you even know what a 3.5″ floppy disk looks like? Everything can be done with just a few clicks of the mouse, and for the digital native, these features are conveniences, not standards.

I realize this is a huge topic, and it’s going to take more than a single post to get this message across. Stay tuned for the next chapters on Digital Natives!

Anonymity – How to Keep Yourself Safe

Most people act on convenience and habit when it comes to matters of the internet, and that common but flawed philosophy holds true for some of their most vital information. This includes usernames. Sure, it seems harmless enough at first; it’s not your real name, and there’s nothing about it that indicates who you really are or where you live, right? Not necessarily. Taking on a pseudonym does not guarantee anonymity. In fact, it can be used to track you down with great efficiency.

Why did you choose your username? Some will say that they like it, or that it’s easy to remember. Others will say that it’s the username they’ve always used, and they see no reason to add a new bit of information to remember along with passwords and the websites to which they belong. And there you have your first misstep. People often reuse usernames, give or a take a few letters or numbers depending on the availability of the name, and when that username becomes associated with your “main accounts,” your information becomes available to whomever has an interest in finding you. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

Say name is Susie Michaels, and your username is kittybird999. It’s a name you’ve always had, and you’ve used it in multiple places. Nobody has to know Susie is kittybird999, and she’s never told anyone, so her information is safe…or so you can assume. What if Susie Michaels has a Facebook account, and listed as her Skype name is kittybird999? Or that she went for a custom FB URL that ended in kittybird999? If Susie never thought to set her profile on Private, any and all information on her Facebook account, including pictures and wall posts, would be available for anyone to see. It doesn’t end there. What if Susie has been on the internet for many years, and her accounts and username date trail back to that long-forgotten Myspace page? How about Livejournal? Yes, they still exist and will continue to exist, and their contents are searchable on Google. Any place you’ve ever shared private or intimate details about yourself and your life becomes an open book, and that’s a very scary thought. Can you imagine anyone looking back at what you were like as a teenager?

Always be wary about where you want different aspects of your life mix. Personally I have at least three personae: work, personal, and internet. The second two sometimes intersect – an inevitable part of our evolving social structure – but my work life is completely separate. This allows me to control what I want potential employers to see; in essence, it allows me to create a work/personal persona: one that highlights my strengths as a candidate while keeping possible “red flags” from my personal life hidden.

First, it helps to have a nickname by which your friends know you. That way you can keep your personal online accounts open and candid while your real name can stay immaculate. It’s understandable that you may not want to maintain more than just a single account for convenience’s sake, but it’s a very small price to pay to keep your identity safe from prying eyes. Next, keep your usernames and account information separate. Duplicate data will practically destroy any attempt to stay hidden. And finally, Privacy Settings are your best friend. Keep your personal accounts private and viewable only by those who have your permission. It takes 10 minutes to change and customize your settings, so you have no excuse not to do it.