VR for Humans, Empathy in Messaging, More Facebook

Thoughtful Net #34. Interesting links from the past few weeks.

I’m writing this from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport as I wait for a delayed flight. I mention this not to try to impress you with stories of my life as an international traveller or world citizen, but because being around many people allows me to observe them and the way they use technology.

There’s a pair of teenagers watching YouTube together on a laptop. A young girl, perhaps four years old, talking to her mother on FaceTime. In the electronics shop, a middle-aged man is checking out virtual reality headsets.

I’m not drawing any conclusions. It’s just interesting to watch.

The Best

In VR — Your Portal to the Real World, Branko Lukic explores virtual and mixed reality in terms that are less about the technology and more about providing genuinely new experiences. Some of the possibilities he posits are really exciting, and made me reconsider the impact and limits of VR.

We are exploring what virtual and mixed reality content wants to organically become, through the hypothetical scenario that people, not just corporations, are the ones creating this transformed world.


A Giant That May Eat Us, by Jemima Kiss, looks at the warping effect of Facebook on journalism. The company desires to be a platform, not a publisher, and that affects its liability for the content it shares.

Without debate and healthy alternative perspectives, how can there really be a meaningful discussion about issues of immense national interest?

In How Internet Trolls Won the 2016 Presidential Election, Jesse Singal addresses the media’s inability to deal with the (usually racist) memes that are empowering the ‘alt-right’ in the US election.

Normies don’t get it, and that’s why they’re so easily upset all the time. Triggering normies is a fundamental good in the chanverse.

Andy Greenberg’s Inside Google’s Internet Justice League and Its AI-Powered War on Trolls is about… what the title says. Soberly assesses the risks of censorship and sanitisation.

Throwing out well-intentioned speech that resembles harassment could be a blow to exactly the open civil society Jigsaw has vowed to protect.

Nilay Patel of the technology journalism company, The Verge, is thinking out loud about how they build their new publishing platform, fit for the current and future landscape. In Facebook video, Google AMP, and the (non)future of the web he shows how the open web is diminishing in importance for publishers on mobile.

Mobile web article pages are quickly becoming the least important thing we make, even though they’re currently a huge part of what most people think of as The Verge.

Social Communication

It’s fairly plain that messaging is a huge growth area in technology at the moment, but one thing I’ve overlooked is the importance of stickers. Probably because I’m old, I feel faintly embarrassed to be using stickers in messages to friends.

But I changed my mind after reading Simon Kemp’s 10 Social Trends You Need To Know, where he argues that emoji, stickers and GIFs re-introduce empathy and non-verbal (or, non-written) communication into text conversation. There’s useful insight about messaging, platforms and integration in the article too.

Emoji add a significant amount more meaning than words alone.

Connie Chan’s The Elements of Stickers dives into the subject in more depth, looking at their cultural context in Asian messaging apps, and the business and brand opportunities they offer.

“Storytelling” types of stickers embed entire moments in a single image — making them more of a complete, even self-contained communication medium.

In iOS 10, Apple launched a new version of iMessage that allows users to send stickers, but also allows apps to extend their functionality into the messaging interface — reducing the need for URL sharing. David McIntosh describes this as The “Secret Browser” Inside iOS 10.

As more people take their conversations from the public web into private conversations, there’s a threat to products that rely on public sharing and the web.

Data and Privacy

Deep Fried Data is yet another brilliant piece by Maciej Cegłowski, this time on machine learning as a deep fat fryer (sounds like a duff metaphor, but he makes it work) and the value of growing communities in curating data.

In any deep frying situation, a good question to ask is: what is this stuff being fried in?

Facebook and Google: Most Powerful and Secretive Empires We’ve Ever Known. Ellen P. Goodman and Julia Powles argue that our lack of understanding of these mediums is limiting our ability to control them, or even use them safely.

A medium is not merely something that feeds us content. It is a condition like air or water, through which we move without noticing.

Hal Hodson’s How to Profit from Your Data and Beat Facebook at its Own Game tallies with my view of data: it has value, and we should have control over it. We should be able to choose who gains the benefit of it and what we receive in return.

The best outcome for personal data is that we all naturally think of data as we think of money.

One More Thing

Yelling at Amazon’s Alexa, by Sarah Larson, is a great technology review. Larson actually lived with Alexa for a while, finding the spaces it fits and doesn’t fit, before writing about it. Not a review of specs, but a review of impact. Just great.

Part of living with Alexa involves learning what she’s good at. She’s bad at being a person; get cute and things will backfire.

The Thoughtful Net is an occasional (less than weekly, more than monthly) publication collecting great writing about the internet and technology, culture, information, soci­ety, science, and philo­sophy. If you prefer to receive it in your inbox you can follow this publication or or subscribe to the email newsletter.

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