A Teenager’s View on Social media

A Teenager’s View on Social Media – January 2, 2015

Andrew Watts, a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas, published this article on Medium. It’s one guy’s take on today’s various social media platforms, what they’re good for, and how teens use them. I imagine it reflects the feelings of a lot of young people. I also suspect the picture would have been rather different if it had been written a couple of years ago. And the scene will probably be quite different again a couple of years in the future. It’s a snapshot of the present moment.

Very abbreviated summaries of Watts’ evaluations:

Facebook: Annoying, but you have to have it, because everyone does. The Newsfeed sucks. Mainly used for groups, messaging, and searching for friends online.

Instagram:  Where the most people post the most stuff. The stuff that’s posted is higher quality, and the quantity is a lot more manageable and less commercialized than Facebook. It’s still a cool place because the older generation hasn’t flooded it.

Twitter: Some use it religiously, but many don’t understand the point of it. Not easy to find friends. It’s a place to follow and be followed by a bunch of random strangers.

Snapchat: Quickly becoming the most used social network, especially with the advent of My Story. A place to be the “real you,” free of social pressure to accumulate “likes” and comments. Most don’t really believe that Snapchat actually deletes everything after a few seconds.

Tumblr:  A place to be followed by random strangers, but not have your identity attached to it, so snooping parents can’t find you there. It’s a judgement-free zone. Can find people with similar interests but you don’t necessarily know their real identities.

Yik Yak: A new contender that’s growing fast. Addicting because it focuses solely on the content of posts – it’s completely anonymous, no profiles or followers. Posts only reach a geographical 10-mile radius around you so it’s not much use outside of population centers.

Medium: Great place to publish a blog. The “recommend” and “follow” functions are what make it so good. Not widely known yet by teens.

LinkedIn: Not really for this demographic, but they know they’ll have to get into it eventually.

Pinterest: Dominated by females and artsy/hipster types. Not many people talk about it.

Kik: Kind of a mystery.

WhatsApp: You download it when you go abroad, use it there, then delete it and go back to iMessage and Facebook Messenger when you’re home. Important for international students, not so much for others.

GroupMe: By far the most used group messaging app in college. Everyone has it and loves it for its GIF support and ability to “like” messages. Works for any device or phone, even dumb phones (via text message).

Google+: Watts doesn’t even mention it. I find this quite telling.

Andrew Watts published a followup piece 10 days later to discuss some other social media sites that people had asked him about.

YouTube: Everyone uses it and has their own favorite channels. It’s entertaining, but also useful for students who need extra help with class material.

Vine: Not many teens make Vines but everyone comes across them on other social networks.

Reddit: Used heavily to find the hottest news. The upvote/downvote system makes the best comments most visible, so discussion is more useful than on Facebook.

Google+: Useful for photos and Hangouts, but not much else. Sorting people into “circles” and keeping track of them is tiring.

Plague: Simple to use, might be on the way to popularity.

Ello: People came, saw, and left. Not much going on.

Tinder: Romantic matching network, huge among college students.

Swarm: Not used much. Seems redundant with location-based posting built into so many other apps.

Quora: As a curious guy, Watts loves it, but knows only a few others who use it.

MySpace: A has-been; will never again be anything but a joke.

Watts then mentions a couple of examples of innovative social media marketing that have managed to get a lot of students excited about an app or product: ThreadTaco Bell’s use of Twitter and the social media blackout it used to draw attention to the Taco Bell app.

Brian Dear has written a counterpoint to Andrew Watts’ original article, A 1980 Teenager’s View on Social Media. It’s a bit one-sided in that it discusses only the PLATO online community, even though by 1980 there were other social media sites such as CompuServe, The Source, and lots of dial-up bulletin board systems run by hobbyists out of their homes. But Brian’s piece provides a great description of what the actual experience of being on PLATO in 1980 was like.

The Dark Side of Free Will

Gregg Caruso calls himself a free will skeptic. In his words, he believes that “who we are and what we do are ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.”

As for myself, free will is one of those things that I neither believe nor disbelieve. I’ll say more about that later. But convincing us that free will does not exist is not the point of Caruso’s talk. Instead, he asks the question, what would be the effect on our society if we stopped believing in free will? Or perhaps, if we acted as if free will does not exist, whether or not we believe it. Caruso’s position is that it would lead to a more humane society.

He makes his case in this TEDx talk. I think he makes some very interesting points, particularly as he discusses the implications for how we deal with criminal behavior. Briefly, Caruso advocates dealing with criminality similarly to how we deal with dangerous infectious diseases:  by quarantining the infected so the rest of us are safe, rehabilitating (or curing) them, and taking steps to address the causes.

Watch his talk:


Now, back to the question of whether free will exists:

I think it is entirely a question of perspective, and not something that can ever be determined objectively.

Scientists using fMRI on the brains of experimental subjects have found that brain activity can be observed that reliably predicts a person’s decision before the person is aware that they have made a decision.  (See this article at Nature.com) This caused quite a stir, but to me it seems not at all surprising. By self-observation – and common sense – it seems obvious to me that decision-making is not an instantaneous process. Even a decision that’s made very quickly, like where to move your arm to catch a ball, is a physiological process that has to take some non-zero amount of time. It must be the case that brain activity builds over time toward a decision, and at some point reaches the threshold of having made a decision. That close inspection of brain activity while this process is going on can often predict what the outcome will be, perhaps before the person themselves would say they’ve decided, is not too surprising. So I don’t believe such experiments demolish the idea of free will.

On the other hand, what does it really mean to say that we have free will? If you’re looking for some essence outside of our physical, chemical, biological makeup that makes choices for what our bodies end up doing, I don’t think you’ll ever find it. We are our bodies; our physical brains make decisions based on immediate sensory input, our present mental and emotional state, past experiences stored in our memory (both conscious and unconscious), our genetic makeup, etc. Philosophically, you could view this as meaning that we are automatons merely responding automatically to stimuli, or that we are free-thinking beings. I don’t see any clear logical or scientific reason to choose one interpretation over the other.

But it feels to me like I have free will and make my own decisions (whatever that means.) And I like to think I should get credit for all the good decisions I make. But what about times when I choose to do things that I know are ultimately not in my (or anyone else’s) best interest, like spending time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook instead of applying myself to the creative and productive work that I need to get done? Who’s in charge, anyway?

Recipes from the Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook


I came across the following conversation between philosopher Daniel Dennett and Nigel Warburton at Salon.com (here). It’s an excerpt from the book “Philosophy Bites Again” by Warburton and David Edmonds. I have further abridged Salon’s excerpt below.

I think the perspective Dennett takes on free will makes a lot of sense.

NW: The classic description of the problem is this: ‘If we can explain every action through a series of causal precedents, there is no space for free will.’ What’s wrong with that description?

DD: It’s completely wrong. There’s plenty of space for free will: determinism and free will are not incompatible at all. The problem is that philosophers have a very simplistic idea of causation. They think that if you give the lowest-level atomic explanation, then you have given a complete account of the causation: that’s all the causation there is. In fact, that isn’t even causation in an interesting sense.

If I want to know why you pulled the trigger, I won’t learn that by having an atom-by-atom account of what went on in your brain. I’d have to go to a higher level: I’d have to go to the intentional stance in psychology.

When discussing the ‘intentional stance’, the word ‘intention’ refers to states that have content. Beliefs, desires, and intentions are among the states that have content. To adopt the intentional stance towards a person – it’s usually a person, but it could be towards a cat, or even a computer, playing chess – is to adopt the perspective that you’re dealing with an agent who has beliefs and desires, and decides what to do, and what inten­tions to form, on the basis of a rational assessment of those beliefs and desires. It’s the stance that dominates Game Theory. When John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern invented the theory of games, they pointed out that game theory reflects something fundamental in strategy. If there’s something in the environment that’s like an agent – that you can treat as an agent – this changes the game. You have to start worrying about feedback loops. If you plan activities, you have to think: ‘If I do this, this agent might think of doing that in response, and what would be my response to that?’ Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have to be sneaky and tiptoe around in his garden worrying about what the cabbages will do when they see him coming. But if you’ve got another agent there, you do.

What’s special about us is that we don’t just do things for reasons. Trees do things for reasons. But we represent the reasons and we reflect on them, and the idea of reflecting on reasons and representing reasons and justifying our reasons to each other informs us and governs the intentional stance. We grow up learning to trade reasons with our friends and family. Until you get the level of perspective where you can see reasons, you’re not going to see free will. The difference between an organism that has free will and an organism that doesn’t has nothing to do with the atoms: you’ll never see it at the atomic level, ever. You have to go to the appropriate design level, and then it sticks out like a sore thumb.

NW: So we can adopt the intentional stance towards a chess-playing computer, and we probably ought to if we want to beat it at chess, but it doesn’t follow from that that it’s got free will, or agency?

DD: Exactly. Those beings with free will are a sub-set of intentional systems. We say ‘free as a bird’, and birds have a certain sort of free will. But the free will of a bird is nothing compared to our free will, because the bird doesn’t have the cognitive system to anticipate and reflect on its anticipations. It doesn’t have the same sort of projectable future that we have; nor does it engage in the business of persuasion. One bird never talks another bird out of doing something. It may threaten it, but it won’t talk it out of something.

NW: So let’s go back to the original topic. What is the kind of free will worth wanting?

DD: It’s the kind of free will that gives us the political freedom to move about in a state governed by law and do what we want to do. One thing we require of moral agents is that they are not somebody else’s puppet. If you want the buck to stop with you, then you have to protect yourself from other agents who might be trying to control you. In order to fend off manipulation, you should be a little bit unpredictable. So having a poker face is a very big part of being a moral agent. If you can’t help but reveal your state to the antique dealer when you walk into the store, then you’re going to be taken for a ride. If you can’t help but reveal your beliefs and desires to everybody that comes along, you will be a defective, a disabled agent. In order to maximize getting what you want in life, don’t tell people exactly what you want.

NW: That’s a very cynical view of human nature! There’s an alternative account, surely, in which being open about what you feel allows people to take you for what you really are, not for some kind of avatar of yourself.

DD: Well, yes, there is that. But think about courtship. You see a woman and you fall head over heels in love with her. What’s about the worst thing you can do? Run panting up to her showing her that you’ve fallen head over heels in love. First of all, you’ll probably scare her away, or she’ll be tempted by your very display of abject adoration to wrap you around her little finger. You don’t want that, so you keep something in reserve. Talleyrand once said that God gave men language so that they could conceal their thoughts from each other. I think that’s a deep observation about the role of language in communication. It”s essential to the understanding of communication that it’s an intentional act, where you decide which aspects of your world you want to inform people about and which you don’t.

NW: So freedom, of the important kind, of the kind worth wanting, is freedom from being manipulated. It’s about being in control of your life, you choosing to do things, rather than these things being chosen by somebody else?

DD: Yes. In order for us to be self-controllers, to be autono­mous in a strong sense, we have to make sure that we’re not being controlled by others. Now, the environment in general is not an agent, it’s not trying to control us. It’s only other agents that try to control us. And it’s important that we keep them at bay so that we can be autonomous. In order to do that, we have to have the capacity to surprise.

Struggling with Simplicity

This is a talk I gave at Minneapolis Friends Meeting on November 30, 2014

What should I be doing here?

I suspect most of us ask ourselves this question from time to time. It’s a question I’m confronted with on a very practical level every day, often many times in a day. In my case it’s because I don’t have what most people would recognize as a regular job. Instead, I’m always busy with an ever-changing jumble of consulting work for clients, pro bono work for nonprofits, and my own personal projects. At any given moment there are at least a dozen different things I could usefully devote my attention to.

With so many irons in the fire, managing time and maintaining focus feels complicated and difficult. It doesn’t help that most of my projects involve the internet, which itself is a giant distraction engine. I can easily be pulled off into random meandering if I’m not careful.

Of all the Quaker testimonies, the testimony of simplicity is the one I struggle with the most. In a way, that’s paradoxical. My work involves designing software and websites, and communicating in writing. In those endeavors, simplicity and clarity are virtues. And I’m pretty good at designing and communicating simply and clearly.

So why does living a life of simplicity feel so out of reach?

I’ve heard it said that simplicity is the most complicated of the testimonies. It certainly seems that way to me.

We live in a society that seems ever more complex and that changes at an ever faster pace. We are all bombarded with far more messages and information than we can pay attention to. Most of us here probably have more possessions than we can keep track of. And some of us, myself included, are involved in more projects and activities than we can manage well. Most of us could benefit from more time for quiet reflection.

The German artist Hans Hofmann once said, “To simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary can speak.”

Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary can speak.

My house faces the east, and overlooks a large park with a lot of open space. If I wake up early enough, my bedroom window provides a good vantage point to see the sun rise. I love watching the sunrise because when the sun is coming over the horizon I can actually perceive its motion. That sight gives me a visceral awareness that I am HERE, on this particular spot on this particular planet at this particular moment. And the ground beneath my feet is turning at 700 miles per hour toward that immense ball of fire that is our sun, 93 million miles away. No matter how many times I experience this awareness, it is always awe-inspiring.

But that awareness comes down to this: I am here, now. And that is as simple as it gets.

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Ray Ozzie’s Talko

The first thing I saw when I sat down at my desk this morning was this email from Ray Ozzie. And then the blizzard of news stories about the launch of his product, Talko. This comes just six months after Doug Brown and I launched our reincarnation of Talkomatic, the original PLATO chat room that Ray named his product after.

Ray Ozzie
talko fyi
David Woolley, Doug Brown
Don Bitzer, Carol Stiglic, John Hollar
Mon, 22 Sep 2014 22:20:11 -0600

David & Doug, FYI only, just now we’ve released a new communications product – something a small team and I have been working on for several years now.

Back in the day, I found talkomatic (and term-talk) to be by far the lightest-weight, most dynamic way for people and teams to communicate on PLATO. To see thoughts pop up, one character at a time, was magical.

And I don’t actually think that people understand how different it really was.

To see people backspace and retype their thoughts was more ‘naked real-time expression’ than the line-at-a-time that we’ve now grown accustomed to with messaging. You didn’t have time to think; you didn’t have time to compose your thoughts. You could see someone burst out a thought. You could see a pregnant pause during someone’s reaction. In understanding what was on the mind of the person you were talking with, it was more like real-time voice than like line-at-a-time messaging.

In building this new product it was my specific aspiration to do the same. Whereas in that era the communications platform was PLATO, in my case the platform is the phone. Whereas in that case the medium was text, in my case the medium is voice. What we’ve built is a very, very voice-centric product. I’m trying to build something that conveys emotion in a way that is completely unvarnished, in a way that can only be done in real-time.

As I did when naming Lotus Notes in ‘84, when I started to work on this project in ’11 I decided to use the name Talko as an homage to what you’d built in that era. In my own way I hoped to use it as a platform to yet again shine a light on the impact you had on me and on so many of us as users.

In any case, FWIW, thank you again for the impact your work had on all of us in that era.



Steven Levy’s account of Ozzie’s bid to reinvent the phone call.

Wall Street Journal article about Talko

Getting circular: New Yorker article about Talko that mentions this blog post

Simon Bisson on Why we are all standing on the shoulders of tech’s giants

Matt Krebs’ analysis of Talko on nojitter.com