Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is the Social Network Sociopathic?

Chris Matyszczyk had a field day today with his Technically Incorrect blog for CNET news. The title of his post was "Does Facebook prolong heartbreak?;" and, as might be expected, the post was all about an affirmative answer to that question. The basic argument is that Facebook has a tendency to remind you of things you would prefer to neglect, one reason being that it has no way of marking certain links in a social network as leading to an emotional minefield for someone at one end of that link. To be fair, there is probably a good chance that any function capable of making such marks is not Turing-computable; but I think that just makes the point stronger. Those of us who continue to caution against unintended consequences continue to be in the minority, even when those consequences may be sociopathic.

However, while Matyszcyk's post may add fuel to one of my favorite fires, I have to be skeptical about its conclusions. The problem is that Matyszczyk's source for this post happens to be an article on Mail Online, the online service provided by the London Daily Mail. While the Daily Mail may have better claims to legitimacy that, say, the National Enquirer, I am not convinced it is that all much better. This particular story was filed by "DAILY MAIL REPORTER," which strikes me as a red flag that protects any particular individual from taking the rap for bad (or, worse yet, libelous) information.

The primary source then turns out to be Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who has never had any problems in accepting the burden of authority by publishing under his own name. The fact that he spends much of his time drinking Semantic Web Kool-Aid is his own affair. The point is that, because I know about his professional reputation, I am in a better position to assess my skepticism of his assertions than I am when confronted with an anonymous source.

I would, however, observe that Shadbolt is one of the co-founders of the Web Science Research Initiative. His co-founders are Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dame Wendy Hall, and Daniel Weitzner. Having voice criticism about the IBM "service science" initiative in the past, my reaction to "Web science" is basically "more of the same." Just as "service science" tried to factor the social dimension out of acts of providing service, I fear that "Web science" may have a similar objective. This is likely to have no effect on any general awareness of unintended consequences and may even reinforce those determined to believe that such consequences do not signify.

Fortunately, since my own presence on Facebook is kept to a bare minimum (and that only because it is required for some communications), I do not think I need worry about any new threats to my own sense of psychological well-being.

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