Last weekend I, like many others, read the New York Times story about the troubles with Healthcare.gov with great interest. The project was marred with things that any of us who have developed on the web have experienced working on a digital project with a launch date: Moving deadlines, late specs, different parties with different interests, and an ever-expanding scope.
The thing that was most surprising wasn’t that any of these things are at all odd, it was in fact how familiar they all sound. Take this, for instance:
Deadline after deadline was missed. The biggest contractor, CGI Federal, was awarded its $94 million contract in December 2011. But the government was so slow in issuing specifications that the firm did not start writing software code until this spring, according to people familiar with the process. As late as the last week of September, officials were still changing features of the Web site, HealthCare.gov, and debating whether consumers should be required to register and create password-protected accounts before they could shop for health plans.
As I was walking down Broadway a few days later I had a conversation with another Percolator
about why it was taking so long to finish construction on the street. If you’ve spent any time in New York (or just about anywhere else) you’ve wondered how a public works project could drag on for the seemingly endless amount of time it does. But then I started to think about Healthcare.gov and how easy it is, relatively, to build digital things instead of physical things. Assuming those same issues happen on the group (scope creep, competing interest groups, etc.), for the first time I felt like I could understand what was going on. Then when you start to layer on physical accessibility laws (ramps, etc.) and the fact that you can’t launch an alpha staircase (three stairs instead of ten), it all became pretty clear.
Now this isn’t to say there’s an excuse and we shouldn’t be able to complete these projects more efficiently, but at least I could see where the time goes (and feel grateful that I a) don’t make things that involve digging up the street and b) work in a world where we don’t have to deal with the nonsense).
Mother Jones has a short piece about the effects of “negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science” (aka comment trolling):
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
Because I can’t really let anything get away without being some sort of McLuhan reference, the conclusion pretty clearly lays out the fact that the medium is shaping the message we receive:
The upshot of this research? This is not your father’s media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it’s like “reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it.”
AllThingsD has an interesting little story about some recent Forrester research on internet usage. The gist is that Forrester asked people how much time they spend online and the number went down from 2011 instead of up. This would be shocking if it were true, but it’s not, and presents an interesting case of the problem with self-reporting in research. The article sums it up like this:
“Despite the fact that they always have connected devices and are always online, they don’t really realize they’re online,” said Forrester analyst Gina Sverdlov. “They’re using Google Maps or checking in on Facebook, but that’s not considered online because it has become such a part of everyday life.”
It’s actually amazing to me we don’t spend more time talking about the issues with self-reporting because this stuff happens all the time. People classically overreport the good things about themselves and underreport the bad stuff (if you compared the number of New Yorkers who say they read the times with the traffic/newspaper sales something doesn’t add up). On top of that, though, we ask seemingly innocuous questions that actually turn out to be confusing for regular folks (I don’t know how I’d answer how much time I spend “using” the internet either).
There is something important here as the web continues to shift to an ambient medium that is just tied into our lives. I think for those of us that have been living online for awhile now it’s no surprise, but it’s interesting to see others catching up to that way of thinking.
A few years ago I had a story written about me. The premise was a journalist went and did a bunch of research about me and then approached me with all she had collected to get my reaction. Unfortunately, the publication she wrote it in is now defunct and so she reposted it over at Forbes today with the following intro:
I wrote this magazine piece back in 2009 when I was first delving into privacy issues in the digital age. It was published in 2010 in the Assembly Journal. However, a Twitter user recently pointed out to me that the piece is no longer online… which is rather sad for a piece about online privacy. “Confessions of an Online Stalker” was the headline my editors chose. I would have named it “Confessions of a Digital Lurker.” Here it is in all of its dated glory.
At the time I actually wrote a response to her piece which was also published in the magazine, and thus is also now missing from the web. Since Kashmir, the author, has reposted her piece I thought it might also be a good idea to repost my response:
The last issue of the magazine featured a piece titled Confessions of an Online Stalker. Its author, Kashmir Hill, “stalked” me, collecting all the information publicly available on the web about my life and presenting me with my dossier over a cup of coffee in Soho. Included were some basic facts (age and address), interests (most-listened to songs and books on my Amazon wish-list) and the occasional tidbit that was unknown to me (the value of my parents’ house, for instance).
When I was asked to write a response, I wasn’t sure one was warranted. The article actually captures my reaction fairly well. I wasn’t all that surprised about any of the information the author dug up, as I could identify the source of almost all her data points. And while it certainly is a bit uncomfortable to see them (or hear them) together, given the motive of the exercise, it was not all that frightening. But there is a bit of context I’d like to add: it’s the sort of story that raw data doesn’t always tell.
I work and live on the web. I play with just about every new site I can get my hands on and post a fair amount of information that I don’t consider to be particularly personal about myself. I started a blog six years ago because I was writing for a magazine and found I had more to say than could fit in my 2,500-word monthly limit. I explored the medium and posted things that I now look back on and smack myself in the head over because of their asininity. But back then, as well as now, my job was to understand, or at least to have an opinion on, the state of digital media, on how and why people use the web.
But all of that sounds much more clinical than the reality of the situation. It’s been my opinion for some time that by putting things out into the world for public view, I’ve made my life more interesting (mostly by the friends that content has connected me to). In fact, I met my wife because of my blog. Let me explain.
On July 12, 2006 I wrote an entry asking if anyone from my blog world wanted to meet up in New York and have coffee. I got one response from a guy named Piers who ran (and still runs) a trend blog called PSFK. From there we developed an idea for a coffee meetup we decided to call likemind. About a month later, after holding two likeminds, a blogger in London named Russell Davies wrote a post praising the idea. In the comments to that post, a woman named Johanna mentioned that she was moving to New York City and was excited to go to likemind. Attached to her comment was her url, which I followed to an email address that I used to welcome her to the city and invite her to likemind. Three months later, when I was on the hunt for a new job, I mentioned it to Johanna, who had since moved north, attended a few likeminds and become a friend. She suggested that I come speak to the folks at the company she worked for: Naked Communications, a marketing strategy firm that was started in London. I went for it and two months later (it’s February, 2007 at this point) I announced I was joining the company as a strategist. I became friends with, and later started dating, Leila Fernandes, another strategist at the company. Two months ago we were married in Queens. Johanna helped us celebrate.
All of that is a long way of saying I see a lot of value in the sharing of information online. I am not in the camp that believes technology is pulling us apart, but rather that it offers us never-before-possible opportunities to come together and meet people you’d otherwise never have a chance to meet. I also don’t reside on the side that argues privacy is dead. While the author was able to collect a lot of information on me, there wasn’t much in there I hadn’t chosen to post myself with an understanding of the implications (not to mention the vast majority of it could have been collected in the pre-web days, albeit in a much more time-consuming manner).
One of my favorite digital thinkers, Danah Boyd, recently had this to say on the subject:
Privacy isn’t a technological binary that you turn off and on. Privacy is about having control of a situation. It’s about controlling what information flows where and adjusting measures of trust when things flow in unexpected ways. It’s about creating certainty so that we can act appropriately. People still care about privacy because they care about control. Sure, many teens repeatedly tell me “public by default, private when necessary” but this doesn’t suggest that privacy is declining; it suggests that publicity has value and, more importantly, that folks are very conscious about when something is private and want it to remain so. When the default is private, you have to think about making something public. When the default is public, you become very aware of privacy. And thus, I would suspect, people are more conscious of privacy now than ever. Because not everyone wants to share everything to everyone else all the time.
The control Boyd was referring to is probably slightly easier for me than most. When something happens like Facebook’s latest changes to their privacy settings, about thirty of the hundreds of blogs and other new sources I subscribe to write in-depth stories on the implications. Within hours of the changes I had been to the new settings page and tweaked everything to my liking, including deciding to keep certain information out of the public eye. I recognize this is not the norm, but it’s this kind of awareness that shapes my views on the sharing of information.
At the end of the day a breach of privacy requires some reasonable expectation that something would be kept private. Not only did I not have that expectation, but for much of the information I put on the web I hope for exactly the opposite.
This whole article about the issues with saving data over long periods of time is good, but I especially liked the nugget at the end of this paragraph from Bruce Sterling:
LAST spring, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired the papers of Bruce Sterling, a renowned science fiction writer and futurist. But not a single floppy disk or CD-ROM was included among his notes and manuscripts. When pressed to explain why, the prophet of high-tech said digital preservation was doomed to fail. “There are forms of media which are just inherently unstable,” he said, “and the attempt to stabilize them is like the attempt to go out and stabilize the corkboard at the laundromat.”