BB #51: Web Bubbles

BrainFireIt has become self-evident that the interweb is a game-changer in human society. It is generally welcomed — rightfully so — as a big step forward in terms of access to information. More crucially, it’s a giant step forward in sharing information, which is what Tim Berners-Lee originally intended.

But, as with any powerful tool, there’s a Yang to the Yin, and something as extraordinarily powerful as the web is bound to have a strong Yang balancing that Yin.

If we consider the web as we know it as beginning in 2001, we’ve had 15 years to study the effects.

Perhaps more interestingly, a growing crop of young people have never known a world other than one with a thriving interweb. We’re starting to see the ‘before and after’ picture of the world with web.

Which is all by way of saying: This bottle of bubbly is labeled Interweb!


Dr. Mary Aiken, the cyberpsychologist inspiration for CSI:Cyber, has a new book out, The Cyber Effect. Catherine Steiner-Adair reviewed the book in her Washington Post review and writes:

They all lurk out there in the cyber-world: perverts, predators, bullies. But the scariest threat may lie within ourselves. Author Mary Aiken warns that as the Internet increasingly dominates our world, our life online is fundamentally changing the way we behave as humans. We can look away, we can deny it, but the more we’re online, the more compulsive, more secretive, more cruel and more disconnected from our better selves we are liable to become. This cyber-effect not only threatens adults but also is influencing our children and the kind of grown-ups they will be.

We may debate nature versus nurture, but I’m sure we all agree nurture does affect people. A child reflects its environment.

The consequences of the anonymity of the keyboard are well-known to anyone who’s spent much time on the internet. The same phenomenon that lets drivers feel okay about flipping someone the bird from the safety of their car (but would never do it face-to-face) operates big time when hidden behind an internet alias.


For a bit of comic relief, I caught an article in The Verge about two bat lickers:

Two kids entered a bat cave (sounds like the opening to a joke), licked a hibernating bat (why? because why not), took photos for their Facebook page (share that shit, bra!), and spray-painted their names on the wall.

It was that last item that got them caught when other hikers saw it. That let authorities search the web and find the Facebook posts. Both received fines for their actions.

The article quoted part of their Facebook conversation:

Gill: Bad ass time bro (1:44pm)
Name withheld: Oh the things you do to make me soooo [sic] proud? Touching a bat with your tongue…ummm not so much lol (3:15pm)
Gill: Lol it was soooooo [sic] worth it. (5:04pm)
Name withheld: Bet that was fun Lmao (7:48pm)
Gill: Yes it was we both licked a bat haha (8:21pm)

For a more public and notable case of such infantile, idiotic behavior, two words: Ryan Lockte.


I mentioned yesterday that NPR is removing the comment section from their articles due to nasty behavior (The Cyber Effect!). Chris Cillizza applauded their action in his Washington Post article.

He writes about his own efforts to moderate The Fix in 2006:

Then I gave up. Because none of the tactics or strategies we tried had any real effect on the quality of the dialogue happening on The Fix. No matter what the original post was about, a handful of the loudest — or most committed — voices in the room hijacked the comments thread to push their own agendas. Anyone trying to urge the conversation back to the topic at hand — or even something approximating the topic at hand — was shouted down and shamed.

Shit wins, and the web seems to tap into our ability to embrace our inner shithead.


Negative behavior aside, the web affects our day-to-day behavior in myriad ways. In his article The tyranny of messaging and notifications, The Verge, July, Walt Mossberg writes how messaging and notifications interrupt us constantly in ways that seem to demand immediate attention.

He writes:

Sometimes, I yearn for the old days of email dominance (I can’t believe I typed those words). Why? Because despite the spam, you could be pretty sure you were good if you just checked it a few times a day, since most people used it as their primary means of written communication and they usually didn’t expect an immediate response.

A text, or short internet message, on the other hand, seems to demand instant attention, and may even lead to a whole thread of conversation. This can sometimes be delightful or enlightening, but it takes you away from the moment — from your thinking, reading, working. It steals your attention at a time of the sender’s choosing.

The web is a young but growing beast that we’re still learning how to live with. There’s no questioning its upside. It’s just that we tend to open Pandora’s Box first and worry about the downside later.


Several articles have gotten into the Internet of Shit aspect of IoT (the Internet of Things), but none more than the actual Internet of Shit, which is both a Twitter account and a website of its own.

The founder of Internet of Shit wrote an article in The Verge about the absurdity — and pitfalls — of using an app to control your thermostat. Biggest on that list, and a definite no-go for me, is that it requires the server to actually make the change! You talk to a server, the server talks to your thermostat.

Assuming it all works.


I’ll leave you with this:


Yep. A toaster that toasts in (rather large) individually controlled pixels. Not a commercial product yet; there’s a Kickstarter campaign to fund it.

Printing messages on toast. The mind boggles.  Wouldn’t show up on the kind of breads I toast anyway.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “BB #51: Web Bubbles

  • Lisa

    What boggles me is the expectation that people will read my texts immediately and respond any quicker than with email. It is a profound choice, do you check it constantly or a couple of times a day. I see my son with his phone in his hand almost constantly, but if I text him he may not respond, because he is screening and deciding who to talk to. So I don’t buy it when people talk about how disruptive it is, people are choosing this. What I would like is advice from Ms. Manners on what to do when you are meeting with someone and they “take a text” then ask you to repeat yourself because they have lost the thread of the conversation. I think it is because reading is so instantly into your mind, it is more difficult to switch between reading comprehension and verbal comprehension without losing the thread of one of the conversations. Most of you are not true multi taskers, you are just good at switching from task to task rapidly. SQUIRREL!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, texts and messages seem closer to being actual phone calls whereas emails seem closer to snail mail. As you say, different expectations. And people do screen calls, or even just ignore them all (I know I do).

      As for etiquette, I think that’s part of what’s shaking out, although in some regards cell phones have been around long enough to have a protocol. I suspect general rudeness, ignorance, and self-entitlement, all lead people to think it’s okay to interrupt a real-time conversation to take a call or message.

      Personally, I think they couldn’t be more wrong.

      And I think Ms. Manners and others have weighed in on this already with regard to taking a phone call while interacting with someone face-to-face. Real time always takes precedence. Callers can wait; there should be no real expectation your interruption demands an immediate response.

      In the case of a business person speaking to a customer, sure, answer the phone, and put the caller on hold, until you finish the real time conversation. In less formal circumstances, let voice mail handle it. I’m certain I’ve read that advice from one of the etiquette experts.

      And you’re right about multi-tasking. Studies have shown there’s really no such thing. Just switching tasks a lot, and it’s generally an ineffective way to get stuff done.

  • Steve Morris

    As a parent of a 16- and 12-year old, I can say that the internet (or interweb, if you prefer) is a defining force in their lives. For good or ill? Well, both, obviously. They derive enormous benefits from it, both educationally and in a generally life-enriching way. It’s far more interesting than what I did as a teenager – watch boring TV shows, sit in my bedroom listening to depressing music and hang out on street corners with equally bored friends. On the other hand, I used to do some more creative things too, and also connect with the real world more – the physical world and direct social contact with other people. But again, they use it to interact with their friends in entirely new ways, and also to interact with strangers, in a way that was never possible when I was a kid.

    The internet has mostly enriched their lives, but has also made them dependent on it. In that sense, I think it is much like all major technological developments in human history.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      That’s a pretty good summation, I think. There’s no question it’s made society different, and I think there’s also no question there’s plenty of both Yin and Yang to it. We’re in a transition time, and still figuring out how to live with it… as we have had to do with other big technological developments.

      I do place a value on deliberately learning to live without that technology and I place an even higher value on being very aware and thoughtful about it. To me that seems the best way to handle the Yang aspects of anything: awareness and thought.

  • Steve Morris

    On the subject of comments sections, it depends very much on how they are run. Most blogs operate very effectively with minimal intervention. Large public forums require moderation, and fail when their owners choose not to moderate them. I run a commercial website which has an active forum, and I moderate it closely. I delete or edit a significant percentage of contributions – without that it would degenerate into chaos.

    Imagine gathering together a large mob of people and inviting them to shout their opinions at each other. A disaster. Why expect otherwise on the web?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think, perhaps, that this is the key phrase: “I delete or edit a significant percentage of contributions – without that it would degenerate into chaos.”

      Cilliza makes the point that, for a large high-volume website, that moderation task becomes, at the least, a full-time job for someone and, at worst, physically impossible to keep up with. It also forces a lot of choices on the moderator as far as what goes too far.

      My question is: Why does allowing people to comment on an article translate as “inviting them to shout their opinions at each other”?

      That seems like taking a mile after being offered an inch. Why do we not live in a world where the expectation is for a certain level of public discourse? Why have we so thoroughly lost the knack of being polite and respectful? That’s another change seemingly wrought by modern thinking.

      • Steve Morris

        On my forum there is very little verbal abuse, and any that is submitted is deleted before it ever appears on the site, so I am setting an expectation for polite behaviour. If I didn’t actively moderate it, abusive comments would appear, which would encourage further abuse.

        It is a moderately high volume website and requires significant resources to maintain. AI systems do some of the work automatically, but I have nevertheless personally read close to a quarter of a million comments. I do it because I care about the quality of my website.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not sure I follow the point you’re making. I get the impression you’re suggesting these sites should all moderate their comment sections as you do… is that it?

        Let me ask: Does your site have the volume of traffic that sites like NPR, New York Times, or Washington Post? Does it post dozens of articles every day, each of which requires comment moderation?

        Major online sites — we’re talking about “newspaper” and “magazine” sites — already suffer from low profit margin (hence all the ads); having to pay moderators just to vet comments isn’t attractive, especially when the comments themselves really aren’t a clear value-add. (Remains to be seen: will the inability to comment drive away visitors?)

        And, really, why should they bother? Why does every article or news item require an attached list of comments? It’s rare that any of them actually add to the content. Those who want to express their feelings publicly can always do that in the social media of their choice.

        Like on their blog! 😀

        I think the deeper issue is that we’ve begun to conflate blogging (which is social media) with journalism (which is about the dissemination of information and analysis).

        Journalism has become much more informal (which doesn’t thrill me) while blogging has become more respectable (which is fine). Some blogs have become “official” sources of information (Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer blog, for example).

        (Ironically, long-form blogging seems to be in decline. An interesting question is whether journalism, as we knew it, will go down with it.)

      • Steve Morris

        My point is that if a website wishes to keep quality high, then it needs to moderate forums. If they don’t wish to invest the effort required, then either don’t allow comments, or be prepared to suffer the consequences. If a website enables *anyone* to publish *anything*, then they shouldn’t be surprised by the result. My site is not high volume, but is medium volume. We don’t have big resources, but medium resources. I made a conscious decision to allow user comments, but to moderate them carefully.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, well yes, that was rather the point I made in the post. What’s not clear is whether you understand how the economics involved in attempting to moderate a high-volume site, compared to the lack of any value-add in doing so, really only allows the one option.

        And, of course, there’s the deeper point about what that says about humanity and social media.

      • Steve Morris

        Wyrd, as someone who has made my living from running an internet company for the past 18 years, I think I understand the economics rather well! The idea that there is no added value in moderating a forum is wrong. It adds immense value. Many site owners either don’t understand the value, or choose not to invest in their own platform.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And what, exactly, do you perceive the immense value to be for sites like NPR, Time, or Washington Post?

      • Steve Morris

        The value of a well-moderated forum? An active forum community is a huge asset, as it creates an enormous increase in user engagement, thereby generating more advertising revenue.

        It’s equally true of a non-commercial site. Imagine what your blog would be like if there were no way for readers to comment. Or imagine if your comments were constantly hijacked by spammers or trolls.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        But my blog is a social site intended as a discussion forum. (But that is not to say it’s an invitation to “shout their opinions at each other.”) The question being raised here is whether that necessarily applies to journalism sites. Specifically, whether every article published needs an attached chain of comments.

        Newspapers, magazines, and books, somehow thrived all these centuries without comment sections. Are you suggesting people’s behavior has changed so much they have no interest in information they can’t directly comment on? (They can always link to the piece and use the social media of their choice if they need to express themselves so badly.)

        It’s even possible for such sites to offer separate forums if they want reader engagement. That’s usually a win-win since it decouples the requirement for every article to involve a comment section as part of the automatic machinery of the site. There are usually far fewer forum threads than articles, and forums are easier to moderate. And most forum engines allow “sticky” posts — often used for posting the forum rules.

        To be clear, this isn’t saying all comment sections are bad. It’s very specific to journalism sites and the articles they post in large volume. Sites like that are really too large and too diverse to have user communities as such, anyway.

        (I just now realized I’m actually kind of a test case now that I’m reading news in my Apple feed. What’s nice about that feed is that I only get the articles and none of the other stuff a given site offers. Sometimes the embedded ads come through, but that’s about it. Definitely no comment sections! I hadn’t even noticed the lack until writing this just now. Reading the news feed is much more like reading a newspaper. I love it!)

  • Steve Morris

    Newspapers and magazines have always had comment sections. They used to be called “Readers’ letters”.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Or “Letters to the Editor” — that’s a good point. (In fact, I’ve written a few of those, myself.)

      Obviously those are selected by the editors and (as I can personally attest) often edited. That is a far cry from how comment sections generally work.

      The technology magnifies the scope enormously. A newspaper or magazine might receive, what, hundreds, perhaps many hundreds, of letters each day, and those apply to all content generated. A single online article can have many hundreds of comments, even thousands in some cases, and that is magnified by the number of articles posted every day.

      Moderating all that boils down to two options: Have the content generator moderate their own articles. Hire and train people to do it.

      The former takes considerable time away from authorship duty, a duty that often requires hours of research in addition to the writing. The latter involves finding, training, and trusting, others to do the job. Either way, it’s a cost in a business with very low cost margins. (Ad-blockers cut down on what is often their only source of revenue.)

      I completely agree with the three options you stated earlier. The reality is that the economics of the situation make the investment unattractive. And there is a good question to be asked about the real value of going along with the social media flow (comment sections on everything) versus an older model of just publishing content.

      Given that people have their own social media platforms for expression, and given that a journalism site can always offer a separate forum space if they want to foster a user community, it seems like a good choice to eliminate the comment sections attached to every piece of content generated.

      And seeing as how neither of us seems to be convincing the other, perhaps we’ve reached a point of basic disagreement. I think NPR is making a very intelligent choice. As I’ve said, I’m not comfortable with the conflation of blogging and journalism. The elevation of the former, fine, but the growing casualness of the latter disturbs me.

      (Wither true investigative journalism, but that’s another topic.)

      So, bottom line, I think it’s good to separate social media and journalism. Clearly you like them melded, and more power to ya! 😀

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