The Golden Cage of Personalization

As we sign up for any new website, we often click “I Agree” on a long list of fine-print terms and conditions. Some websites try to be a little ‘ethical’ and tell you that they are recording your information – either to improve their product or to improve your life.

Initially, this was great thing for most of us middle class citizens across the world. After decades of being relegated to obscurity, it was great to have something ‘tailor-made’ for us – something we thought was the privilege of the rich. Of course, it was only online but it was still something.

Except, we failed to realise that personalized experiences are nothing more than traps, locking us in a gilded well, giving the illusion of marginally new experiences that never take us out of your comfort zone.

We are circling within the same walls, with minor twists that make us believe that we are discovering something new, while never really allowing us to see the other side.

Videos are recommended based on what we have previously watched. We’re happy we are watching new content, but really, it is just slightly different words on the same context. We believe we are discovering something new, but when it is similar to what we’ve already seen, how is it a new experience?

Travel sites throw up offers and resorts based on what I’ve searched for. I get a million experiences ‘tailor-made’ for me, discovering places without ever really seeing them. We get sanitised experiences that make us believe we’ve seen the real thing. Sort of like how the white tourist comes to India, lives in a 5-star hotel, travels in an air-conditioned car, is shown a little bit of Dharavi to show the ‘other’ side and goes back believing that they’ve seen the real India. We rarely interact with the locals beyond what has been chosen for you. We rarely hear the narrative beyond what has been designed for you.

So where, tell me, do we create free-thinking, enterprising souls? Where is the innovation that is sparked by a new idea? Where is the thrill of discovering something absolutely miraculously new?

I recently decided to wipe my history on YouTube. I did have to score through horrific videos ‘trending’ in India, but I discovered some really cool comedians from Malaysia. Of course, now my YouTube is flooded with more such people.

Google kept throwing up information about a particular kind of phone that I almost missed the innovations happening elsewhere.

Let’s not even talk about Facebook and Twitter.

And this will be the future – a world of puppets.

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Remember MySpace? Many Don’t.

I’ve know that I’ve actually lived about 50% of my life (at this point) in the age when there was no public internet. There were no mobile phones. Hell, home computers weren’t even a thing when I was a kid. Infact, ours was one of the first families to have a computer at home and even an internet connection. A black and white monitor, running of DOS (I think). It took quite a while to boot. And even longer to connect to a sporadic internet connection, which hit as often as it missed. And disconnected when some moron called the landline. I played Wolf 3D and Max Payne on those computers. Pacman was one of the coolest things we could play. And Prince.

It often used to give me a jolt when half the people I encounter today wouldn’t even know about what I’m talking about. Well, I am old. Sorta.

Today’s generation is all about Facebook and Farmville and Candy Crush. They were born in the era of great phone connections, and by the time they stepped into teenage, there were mobile phones with internet connections. Anything you want to do at your fingertips.

But today I met a group of people who had no idea of what MySpace was. Remember MySpace? The big daddy of social media. Before there was a Hi5, Orkut and Facebook and all that?

Looking back, MySpace was a cluttered, rough ecosystem of what is today and what is possible. But it established the idea of an internet community before anyone else began to think of it. Perhaps Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook today without Tom’s MySpace.

Actually, on second thoughts, MySpace was perhaps cooler than Facebook is today. It was truly a community for like-minded people. Great music featured on the original ‘pages’. Blogs. A mix of everything. And that little personal touch with Tom sending you a message the moment you created an account. And a little creepiness by friending you. At least, you’d always have Tom as your friend if no one else.

But it is forgotten in the deep dark space of internet. Maybe someday Facebook, Twitter and all these will disappear into the same hole, leaving behind a closer community oriented, more data-rich (if that’s even possible) mine of people in the landscape of internet.

Growth of an Idiot

It was perhaps 5 years ago… I was still a reporter, I read voraciously, I wrote a lot about big topics and used a lot of big words.

I talked about the economic recession and how the US should have seen it coming. I talked about India and how we were a miracle and I wondered how long we would be able to keep the miracle going. I spoke strongly against caste/religion-based politics. I voted against the BJP and thought Congress was the lesser of the two evils. I wondered how much could Rahul Gandhi contribute to Indian politics considering the man had never really spent much time with the aam junta to understand what the Indian mindset needed. Yet I cheered the entry of young blood into Indian politics, something that I thought was sorely needed.

I participated in rallies, I signed petitions to save the whales, the dolphins, the tigers, the women, the children, the leaf. I believed that journalists were actually the watchdogs of the country. Any country. I was inspired by journalists like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tarun Tejpal, Vinod Jose, Aniruddha Bahal and several others whom I knew personally. I strongly believed in what I wrote, and I believed that I wrote a fair story – giving both sides equal importance and allowing the reader to judge what was true and what wasn’t.

I really did believe that.

What a naive idiot I was.

5 years can be quite a short period. But sitting in front of the computer screen as flashes of today’s news pass me, I wondered if the world really changed in the five years or I was just a blind, naive idiot.

True, somethings I knew, if not the extent of it. The corruption in the country would have serious ramifications, I knew. I did know the extent of it. Rahul Gandhi would not really be useful in everyday politics, I knew. I did not know he was a puppet who couldn’t string two intelligent words together. I knew that the field of journalism was getting more corporate and commercial. I never realised the extent of it.

The reporters of yesteryears have faded away into photographs hanging on the walls and journalism textbooks. The key word today to be a journalist is how fast you can get the story and how long the story can stay in the headlines.

True, this could have made for such awesome news and policing. But when that turns into sheer greed for news, you begin creating news. No news stays long enough for people to absorb it. Now, it is about the girl who got raped, tomorrow it is about a child who got raped, day after it is about the politician who stole some money, and after that, some building that caught fire due to some issues in construction.

The world moves at a much faster pace. The capacity to absorb news and care about has also shrunk.

Scams, allegations of corruption and rape have become so routine that I nearly missed the whole Asaram Babu case. And perhaps I would have let it slide as “yet another religious guy” if someone on Twitter had not pointed out that this was the same guy who said the Nirbhaya, the woman who was raped in Delhi in Dec 2012 could have saved herself by calling her attackers “brother”. I would have perhaps forgotten about it if an old photograph with “tips” to keep women safe at night did not make the rounds again.

I would not have been no pissed if I did not get a message saying “It is Breast Cancer Awareness” time again and asking me to post a silly status message on Facebook.

All these social platforms have scrambled our brains into thinking only in form of “status messages”. You go to a restaurant and you think of posting “Awesome restaurant serving kebabs in blah blah blah”. I decided I would not post every little action of mine on Facebook about 4 years ago. My entire friends’ list of 500 and whatever people did not need to know where I was, what I was eating and what I thought of something. They were subject to that anyway when they met me.

There was a time when I read interesting articles through my friends on Facebook and had good debates which made me think. These days, I turn to 140 characters for that – Twitter and interactions with Twitter Handles. I do not know these people and that makes me think harder about the composition of this world.

I know how articles are written, I know how PR releases are made. I know why reporters choose the articles they do, I know why some of them choose the ones they do. I know the ones that are lazy, I know the ones that write articles to further their own agenda. The percentage of Vinod Jose and Tarun Tejpals in the world of reporting, I realised, are very very very less. The ones who became reporters in a journey of searching for the truth. The ones who do their research and are suspicious about all information.

My first disillusionment with reporting came when a senior editor asked me to withdraw my story because the PR of the company claimed it was wrong. The PR provided no proof, but was backed by a multi billion dollar giant. And the editor wanted to oblige. Why? I’ll never know. He wouldn’t get any favours from the company, so maybe he was just scared of his job. We fought and reached an agreement, making the story more balanced. But perhaps that was the beginning of the journey where I wondered if what we were doing was really free of bias, of favours and fear. If what I was doing was actually making a difference at all.

They say that reporters like a particular kind of place… a little shady, a little cheap. It was attributed to our poor pay packets. But it was just that we liked no-nonsense, simple stuff. Where a glass of rum was charged for what it was and not for the crystal container it was poured into. We were supposed to tear into pretense.

Last week, several reporters were fired due to ‘budget’ issues from a major network. I wonder if even a percentage of them would rethink their career stands, or just jump headlong into another company that offers better packages. Would any of them think of all the hours they poured into making stories and telling stories, shaping them to suit corporate requirements? Of how many people would be doing the same to their story now?

It is a dog eat dog world.

Five years ago, I argued for punishment for all wrong-doers, especially celebrities. One of them ended up in jail. Several more probably never will. This is a country that rewards dishonesty. This is a country that feeds on apathy and ignorance. Somewhere, I thought, we need to begin to change that. We cannot go back to the past and change much of what happened. We perhaps cannot even punish the ones responsible for some horrendous deeds. But we could start here, from our generation.

But tonight, even that thought seems futile. It seems we are fast headed towards a precipice, and everyone on the bus just woke up and know to do nothing else but to shout and wring their hands.

I am an idiot.

Is Facebook Hiding Your Posts?

For the past several weeks, I had not been receiving posts from some of my favorite pages. 

Someone suggested that I need to go back to these pages and click on “Add to Interest” tab under the “Like” tab to get these feeds. I found this a little irrelevant. Isn’t it is obvious that I want more information from these pages since I have chosen to like them? 

Being the owner of some such pages, I wondered why some of my pages were getting more responses than the others. The responses are from the same set of people who have liked my page and I interact with regularly. The best posts were getting far less responses, when much more mediocre ones had a better hit rate in the past few months. Shouldn’t the page be reaching at least 30 percent of the total number of people on my list? After all, these were people who signed up for the information, instead of being spammed with irrelevant ads simply because they visited a site. 

It turns out that Facebook’s new “Newsfeed” system shows you news based on “what would be most relevant to you”. 

Facebook defence – it isn’t ‘hiding’ anyone’s news feeds, but their ‘algorithm’ picks certain news feed pieces that it thinks might be more relevant to you, based on various things like interest level among your friends etc. 

This, as an individual and an artist, is disturbing. This  means someone or an obscure algorithm decides what I get to see, and it decides it based on what my friends are reading / seeing. So if one of my friends thinks a crappy photographs or video is awesome and shares it, I would get it see that and miss out on a better piece that probably not as many people have seen it.

There are also allegations that Facebook is suppressing information (algorithms again?) to get more ad sales. Which means if you pay for a post to promote it, it obviously gets more visibility. And Facebook’s ad systems have changed as well. The same ad that I did about 6 months ago, with the same target group, now costs much more for the same duration. Why? They would probably give you generic answers that don’t really answer anything.

My Facebook time was because of the variety of articles and debates that we could indulge in over several issues. I got to read content that I would not have found otherwise. I discovered various photographers and projects because of sharing on Facebook. But when they begin to decide who I get to see and what I get to see, it isn’t just a infringement of privacy, it also violates my freedom.

Who is to say that they will completely shut out positive comments about Chavez? Or Julian Assange? Or something else… They are in the strongest position to shape perception and they are very aware of it. 

The changes in the past few months about Facebook’s policy, and their control over my usage and personal information is making me wish for an alternative for Facebook. A site that respects people’s privacy a lot more than Facebook does. A site that doesn’t force me to reveal where I am, who I am with, where I studied, what language I speak, where I went to school, who I went to school with, where I have my dinner, what my relationship status is; and if I don’t want to reveal it, they get my unsuspecting friend to reveal it. 

Perhaps it will soon be time to say adieu to Facebook. Why spend an entire day reading a company’s agenda instead of following my friends.

Alone In Cyber Space

It was perhaps 10 years ago. I got a mail saying I have an invite from something called ‘Gmail’ to open a new account. These invites were treasured. There were only a 100 given to each person and you had to be a real close pal before the person would accede to sending you one.

Of course, we didn’t know about test groups, collecting personal data and marketing strategies then. The world of internet was in its nascent stages. It was simply cool to have this.

I’m trying hard to remember how Gmail looked then. I simply cannot remember, or gmail hasn’t changed that much. Of course, they integrated their chat into the mail, leaving its competitors Yahoo and Hotmail in the dust. And there was that awesome search feature, with a conversation style mail chain that drove me nuts.

Being used to mailboxes with limited space, you felt compelled to clean out your inbox everyday.  The inbox figure had to read (0) with no bold items. There would probably be two mails on your screen on any given day. And then comes Gmail, with all the mails, right there in your face. People like me suffered. But like everything else, we got used to it. We even got used to the ads that were being thrown up every now and then, even if we did have strong discussions about how someone was reading our mail.

Then came Facebook, who prodded you to share more information and photographs and slowly made us think it was okay to share our crazy birthday photos with the entire world. Privacy was a word they did not want you to hear.

It was about then that I began thinking about the word ‘privacy’. Who were these people who would post ads for that book I was thinking about reading? They claimed Amazon was offering a discount on it. Who were these people who were suggesting I read about the French President’s latest antics? Were they reading my mail? Were they listening to my chats? Were they following me?

Yes, this was a wonderful time for paranoid people and the ones with OCD to be alive.

But we got used to that too. We got used to seeing 150 mails in our spam folder every day. We learnt not to break open a bottle of champagne anytime we got a mail from Nigeria.

Today, when I look at my multiple email IDs, where much of the mail is all about newsletters I’ve signed up for and offers from a site I visited months ago, I wonder about the state of communication.

It is perhaps understandable that one gets overwhelmed by the sheer amount of junk in our lives. If we unsubscribed from all those newsletters we never read, if we mark everything else as spam except for official and personal mails, what do we have left? 5 emails a day?

Even as a person who needs to be constantly connected, I get overwhelmed with the number of platforms we are juggling. Facebook, Gmail, Skype, Whatsapp, Calls and text messages. I’m sure I’ve forgotten… oh yes, LinkedIn, Twitter.

And perhaps there is someone sitting out there thinking of how to ‘integrate’ all this into one platform. Except, that is no longer simple due to registered corporations, shareholders, advertisers and revenue policies.

Somehow, this is supposed to be making my life easier. Supposed to be helping me connect better. Instead, all it does is create the image of little green men running around in my head muttering about things I couldn’t care less about.

And now I hear there are more things coming up.

A friend asked me to sign up for 500px. Flickr is dying and this is the new future, he claimed.

Another asked me to sign up for Pinterest. Forget about del.i.cious and all those things. This is where you find everything you want, she said.

Another asked me to log into FourSquare. We can catch up if we are ever in the same area.

But maybe my curiosity is dying or I’m getting old.

I absolutely do not want to remember one more password.

Interpreting the Like-o-Mania

Recently, a well meaning friend began researching some other photographers online. The criteria was Indian and female. He was trying to figure out how they became so popular and was hoping that I could emulate some of their tricks to get more business.

He came across one profile that had over 50,000 likes. He did his bit of research and asked me if I had heard of the photographer in question and I wasn’t following the same ideas.

I had heard of the photographer in question and despite the huge number of likes on FB (which I thought to be suspect), I was not particularly inspired by the photographer. And I said as much.

“True… her photographer is a little boring but then she does have so many people following her.” the friend said.

Is the number of likes on your FB page any indication of how popular, or more importantly, how good you are? At the cost of sound snobbish, should I consider ONE like a success?

Every other person who owns a camera has their own FB pages. You can easily churn up a certain amount of likes if you have a decent friend list and well connected friends. Is that actually even relevant to your skills?

There is a current like-o-mania affecting the social world. They like a status message, something sounds funny, something looks interesting… they click on like and move on. The average time spent on an actual post – about 3 seconds or less. I’ve done it myself.

When it comes to inspiration in photographers, I have a different set of names. Of course, even if I go beyond the the Steve McCurrys and Vivian Maiers of the world, there is a beautiful long list in my own neighbourhood.

Be it wedding photography, documentary or food… there are people on my own friends list who are quite accomplished and I know they will be featured in the best lists someday. I absolutely adore their work and wish I could be as good. When any of these people like my photographs, I get a sense of accomplishments.

To me, it has always been the approval of my work from the people I respect. They do not have to know the technicalities of photography. But I trust their opinion and judgement of the world. And quite often, these people have turned out to be right and given me a different perspective on things.

So given these factors, how does 5,000 likes or 50,000 likes matter?

But then the question does arise – how does someone rack up 50,000 likes in 2 years?

2 Good Photographs

“They take 1000s of photographs and then post some 2 good photographs from that on Facebook. All their friends like it and tell them they are an awesome photographer. Even my 8 year old can do that!” a fellow photographer said to me.

We were talking about the new trend of software engineers turning photographers. Or well, everyone turning into a photographer.

The reason I say software engineers is because I’ve met a ton of them in the past few months who have enough money to buy the latest equipment, shoot inanimate objects or some portraits and hence, are photographers.

But this isn’t restricted to only the engineers. More people are doing this… and the statement by my fellow photographer seemed to nail the problem.

It isn’t that there aren’t some awesome photographers out there. But 2 photos out of a 1000 does not make you one either, and that isn’t being bitchy.

4 days at a mega event, hobnobbing with some truly amazing photographers –  both professional and amateurs and even hobbyists – got me thinking about why exactly we do this.

We had to shoot  fashion shows… elaborate ones over the course of 4 days. At some point, I got jaded… there are only so many ways that you can shoot a fashion show. Is that showing less creativity as a photographer?

I saw people trying to gatecrash the show, desperate to get passes to shoot the event. I was wondering why there was such a fuss… I go back and see the images from the event and mostly, they are similar. Perhaps there is that one photograph that is different… but on a ramp, the same poses, the same looks and clothes. The only difference being the distance and the angle at which we shoot it.

Some photographers said they just want to make money, some enjoyed shooting beautiful and leggy women, some were there because they just like photography.

Everyone has a facebook page. Everyone has a 100 likes on their page. They process the photographs, they photoshop it to beyond recognition. One cannot be blamed for the desire to make money.

But from an artist’s perspective, it seems that art for the sake of art is being lost to commercialism.