Sincerest form of flattery?


This morning I received a message from my friend Rafael in Paris that some guy was using my pictures to represent himself on a gay dating site there.  The two photos in question are 6 and 3 years old, respectively. One in a swimsuit on a boat (and publicly on the internet anyway in my vacation photo albums) and the other shirtless but otherwise quite tame as well. While this can be a little upsetting to some people, I am not sure I care all that much. I mean, I feel bad for the people that agree to meet up with him, because they are in for a rude surprise, but I am not sure how it affects me all that much unless he starts doing horrible things and trying to pin the blame on me. I do wonder what motivates someone on such a site to use other people’s pictures. What are they hoping to gain? Are they just there to flirt (and collect other guys’ pictures), never planning to actually meet? Are they so closeted or insecure in some way that they fear being truthful on the internet? Are they just playing a game?

My friend Boris was actually the victim of a much more vicious case of someone using his pics, they were actively trying to defame him. They created twisted profile descriptions using his pics and then harassed people and misrepresented Boris in a direct attack on him, and in the same city to boot. So it was inevitable that people would see him out and think that he was some twisted angry internet whore. And really, what can one do about such things on the internet? Not much. Even if you get a particular site operator to shut down one false ad or profile, it is ridiculously easy for it to pop back up again. Everything is suspect, nothing is authentic until verified repeatedly and in several different ways. And while this is true with almost all internet content, people tend to believe their first impression, and not bother to verify most things. This is the danger of the age we live in, where information (and forgery) is cheap indeed. It is always why I think the best thing we can teach young people is to be critical of all information they receive, and to question sources and authority in many ways. We can only really have a working theory of what is true at any given time, anyway. And while a constant questioning of our data, sources, and facts can be tiring, it also results in a clearer picture of the world.

Moved to Chicago (virtually)


This morning I awoke to find myself in Chicago. How did I get here, you might want to know? I woke up in my bed in Manhattan as usual, and went to wake up my computer from its sleep and check my email. I noticed I didn’t have any internet connectivity, so I rebooted my router. That fixed the problem of connecting, but something was off. I now had been assigned a new IP address (the unique identifying network address that every computer connected to the internet has) by my cable company, after a full year of it never changing. And this new address was from their Chicago block of addresses, and so everything from facebook to google to geolocation apps were telling me that I was now in Chicago. Without getting too technical or geeky, let me try to explain it to you in layman’s terms. Every IP address on the internet can be looked up by any number of databases that tie that IP to a geographic location somewhere in the real world. This is useful for all sorts of reasons. For example, if you have ever traveled with a laptop and noticed how google will change your default maps location when making suggestions, this is why. And there are many, many other sites and services that are much more useful when they know where you are coming from. Hulu (and a lot of network streaming shows) won’t work, for example, if it detects an address that is coming from outside the country. Many bandwidth speed testing tools use this info to locate servers near you for testing. Google will change your search engine version and language if you are in another country as well. All of these things are based on a looked up location for you based on your IP. Sometimes these databases agree with each other, sometimes they don’t, and they have to be updated constantly as blocks of addresses can be reassigned anywhere at any time. So although I don’t have anything against Chicago per se, it is kind of annoying that the internet now thinks I am there. I called my cable company to report the problem, and they are looking into it. Worst of all, it doesn’t even think I am in one of the nicer neighborhoods (say, by the lakefront). It put me in some lumber supply warehouse at the end of a dead end street in some place called Pilsen. Hmmf.

Being Evil


“Don’t be evil.”

This was long Google’s motto, and one I quite admired in a large company. This meant that every potential action taken by the company should be considered against whether this was something that would cause harm or not. And for the most part, despite some privacy concerns, I have felt that on balance what Google has given the world was indeed on the side of the good, and sometimes even the amazing. This was a company that I felt by and large deserved their great profit. But if this New York Times article is to be believed, Google has abandoned that motto and their own previously stated positions.  Google has abandoned the idea of net neutrality, a cornerstone of the Internet. In a nutshell, net neutrality says that any content on the internet, whether produced by you or I or the White House or Google or Apple, will be on a level playing field with regard to the connections to it. Think about how important this principle is. It is what makes a great democracy of the internet. It is what allows anyone, anywhere to publish a web page that can be viewed by the entire world. According to The NY Times, this agreement will allow Verizon to play traffic cop with the content, and deliver it more reliably and faster for those willing to pay more (or less reliably and slower to those who pay less). When companies as large as Google and Verizon collude in this way, it becomes fait accompli across the spectrum. Other companies will follow suit, and because a Bush era court has struck down the FCC’s power to enforce net neutrality, only Congress could pass legislation to ensure fairness. And that doesn’t seem very likely since so many there are in the pockets of their major corporate sponsors.

Imagine if your phone service calling worked better if you paid more, that for a certain price companies would connect you first or without dropping calls. Or that by charging more you could call more numbers instead of dialing anyone you like? How about electricity that comes to your home? How about for a greater fee you could guarantee that when power had to be cut to the system, that yours would not be, or would be cut last? How about police and fire protection? How about, for a fee police and fire services would give you priority over other victims? How about voting? If you paid a greater amount of taxes, you would get more votes or your vote would have more weight, how does that sound?

The internet ushered in a world where everyone is a potential publisher, everyone has a chance to be heard. The idea that at a company’s whim or by what they charge you they can decide who gets to see your content and how fast, is anathema to democratic ideals, poison to the idea of free speech. It puts control of the internet in private hands, where it was never meant to be. The internet is a public resource in the public sphere, and it must remain equal access.

Can’t we all try just a little harder not to be evil?

UPDATE: I hope reports like these contradicting the NYT are correct.

The comfort of strangers


In the internet era, we are defining all kinds of new relationships with other people. These relationships are filtered through the online communities we subscribe to, and these  color the kinds of connections we have. Whether through a dating site, a Twitter subscription, following a newsgroup, or immersing oneself and exposing one’s life on a site like Facebook, these are fundamentally new ways of connecting with people and the rules and etiquette are still being worked out.

One has all kinds of friends on Facebook, and people will use the site differently depending on who they are. Some people will say yes to any friend request (often resulting in ridiculously long lists of “friends” in the thousands), some will keep their profile private to all but a few close and trusted friends that they know well in the “real” world. Most of us are somewhere in between, having a wider circle of friends (acquaintances, really) on our lists than those that we see all the time.

Some of these are people who you start to get a sense of from the way they interact with your profile.  It is interesting how you get to know people, get a better sense of them over time in the virtual world, when for whatever reasons you didn’t have the time or opportunity in the real one.

I have a couple of examples to share. The first is Judith, a woman I know in the real world and used to work with at the LA Weekly. Well, work “with” wasn’t exactly true. I was in IT and she was in Editorial and our paths would cross from time to time for work reasons, but we rarely had any meaningful contact. I always thought she was nice, but never really had a clear sense of who she was. This is normal, you can’t know everyone in an office of hundreds. We became friends on Facebook the same way so many people do; we had friends in common and shared email addresses in our address books. Over time, watching and responding to her postings and seeing her respond to mine, I have gotten a much better sense of who she is and what she believes, as I am sure she has of me and my beliefs. Although I don’t have day to day contact with her or know much about her quotidian habits, I know that I have found a rather like-minded person in many ways, and I appreciate her comments and discourse.

In a similar way, there is a guy named Aman who I friended only for the most vague of business contact reasons, suggested to me by mutual friends in India. We don’t have much direct contact at all, but politically, I notice we are somewhat similar and sometimes exchange comments and “likes” on our various postings. Over time, even never having met the guy and him being from a very different background from me, I feel a small kinship and trust. And this trust is built entirely in the online world.

These are new kinds of friendships, only made possible by our interconnectedness online. In a sense you could say that the internet has lowered our barriers to entry in the publishing world, and that many many more people can have a voice now (not just the owners of presses and TV stations), but that is only half the story. The internet has given us a way to talk back, directly, to these publishers and talkers. And we are all much more likely to be part of the conversation instead of passive watchers basking in the glow of our sets.