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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Did Twitter kill Blogging?

Okay… I know that bloggers are the “in” things of today. There are plenty more people writing blogs about all sorts of things. But I think back to some blogs I used to follow in the “blogspot” days… about 8-10 years ago, and I realise that they were so much more fun, interesting blogs.

And ALL of those people today post ‘micro blogs’ or have turned to Twitter entirely to express their funny but short viewpoints. And the blogs that were awesome then have gone a little commercial, such that it feels like reading a popular newspaper on the Diwali weekend.

I dug back into my memory and found vague names of the blogs I used to read quite often. Half of them were dead and most of them had migrated to tumblr or some  micro blog site. And most of them were just giving a 240-line explanation of their 140-character tweet.

Now, it is definitely more challenging to be intelligent, funny and good within 140 characters, that too without offending too many people or getting misunderstood. But there is something about scrolling through a nice blog on your computer on a lazy day, sort of like reading a novel but more of a real person’s thoughts.

And then of course, there are the photo blogs. I like photoblogs. I own one of them but as someone pointed out, it sometimes get boring looking at just photographs on a blog. Pages and pages of awesome photographs – how long are you going to see that? Unless, of course, they are all photo essays.

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.

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.

How Facebook stole your info

For people who are not aware of this yet, Facebook made a tiny change (like they keep doing) a little while ago.

It was in the privacy settings where, like everything else, they wanted you to open up your life to anyone with an internet connection. This one – called “Instant Personalization” – allows your data to be shared with Pandora, Microsoft Docs and Yelp. Which in simple english meant that when I logged onto any of these sites from the same computer I was logged onto FB on, they could automatically access my profile – yes, the one with the personal information about my school, workplace, status messages, all those photos and videos, friends’ lists and whatever else – and then create a “personalized” list of things to browse from.

Of course, they don’t tell you what any of those sites are going to use the data for. Or how long that data is going to be there.

Facebook’s Gone Rogue. (The title of an article on Wired.com – check it out.)

What was once this private little thing where I could share some instant communication with friends miles away, is now a free-for-all buffet for internet users. I applauded when FB came up with some settings to restrict who could see what exactly. That meant there were certain links and messages that my boss couldn’t see. Or those pictures could be hidden from those people who know of me professionally only.

Though most of these settings were set by default to “everyone” (which in FB speak means everyone in the world literally), you could still tweak it. Then FB realised that there were way too many people tweaking it. So now, if you want to tell the world what your interests are, you have to share it with a public link.

In advertising terms, this is a gold mine. With a few clicks, I can access the exact demographic for my product.

But the little idea with which Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook is as extinct as dinosaurs. It was about connection people, sharing information. Then Mr.Zuckerberg got famous.

Privacy is a thin line now. Strangers swap the most intimate conversations. Most communication occurs electronically and you have no idea who is reading your mail. You co-exist with the world with flimsy curtains between people. And now Facebook is even taking the choice away from people – the choice to pick what you want to share with the world.

Yes, you could easily say that don’t put it up there if you don’t want someone to see it. But the whole point of Facebook was to share. The photos you took on your vacation, the little stupid things you did, the venting space, the notes you write, the links you think are interesting… and you mean that to be shared with the people you know. Not with any guy who has an internet connection. If that were the case, I would sign up with… what’s that new video chat thing?

Facebook is apparently competing with Twitter. Seriously? Twitter is chaotic. Twitter was never meant to be personal. Twitter was 140 characters of a second. It wasn’t personal pictures, videos, memories and conversations. Nobody has a conversation on Twitter like they have on Facebook walls or messages. And Facebook still is the second most popular way of spreading news. People read the links their friends have posted.

But pushing them all into the slaughter house and expecting them to go along, particularly in a world where privacy is the last illusion left, is suicidal. True… from a business point of view, it does net them several millions in revenue. But long term? With such massive violations? And would the regulators just watch?

If a company can sue you for stealing their data – be it simple data, movies, music or whatever else as copyright infringement – why cannot I sue Facebook? Or anyone do that? Because no matter what clause they put in their terms of service, if they do not give you a choice to disagree or opt out of certain things, then perhaps it isn’t binding.

Unless the choice they give is – go all the way or get out. I wonder how long before we start getting out.

Song of the day: To love a woman – Enrique Iglasias

A Sci-Fi Movie

A green dot of light. Flanked by two red, slightly larger, blurry lights. The green light comes closer and closer. The red lights merge into the green light till everything is a blur. Then you hear a faint whirring noise. Then everything disappears into a whtie light. Or blindness. I am not sure which. The whirring stops and you recover a little to see the lights again.

Not kidnapped by aliens. Just eye surgery. Painful. Conscious. And as I have to bit in front of a computer today, I figured I might as well put this on paper.

I had a lot of time to think the past two days. Random thoughts that flittered away as soon as they flowed in. It is hard to sit without doing anything.  No television, computers or books. Conversations wane after a point, particularly when you are trying to avoid controversial topics.

The one little outlet was Facebook. Mobile technology is super cool eh? Can you emember the time when cell phones were used to connect people on the ove and we thought that was cool? And then there was SMS, and we thought that was cooler. And then we got a little jaded o just didn’t have the money to indulge in anything else like MMS. All that was still reserved for the richer people who could afford to shell out 50 bucks to send one picture of someone sitting somewhere. And then the person you were sending it to had to have an ‘updated’ mobile, which was more often than not.

And now, can you remember the time before cell phones. yes yes… cast your minds to that dark far-off times when people used these fixed gadgets to make calls. How did we live then? How did we deal with those urges to contact people right now! What did we do when we’d to message something silly to a friend? Or did those urges develop only after we got cell phones? I saw this movie some time ago about these 3 students who develop a way for a cell phone chip to be embedded in your brain so that you can answer and make calls with a combination of a voice command plus mind control. That could happen. But it will never perhaps replace cell phones. Maybe people will come up with cell pockets in your skin. Cell grafts. Instant communication and minimal communication.

Anyway… so Facebook… someone combined internet with cell phones and found a cheaper way to make cell phones. And boom! I already complain if i cannot access internet on my phone. And FB. I complain about the invasion of privacy. I complain about shady marketeers taking my data and using it for their nefarious reasons. And I complain about nothing remaining a surprise anymore – even if i’ve voluntarily posted a message on FB. And yet, i cannot get off it. It is a great way to kill time, sometimes also a source of knowledge.

Some people talk about Twitter. Perhaps it is cool.  But it’ll never be Facebook. Because Twitter is about 140 characters. It isn’t juicy pictures, crazy videos and silly games. That is Facebook. And as much as I like to know what you are doing at this moment, gossip with visual aids is always more attractive. Twitter is fantastic to get your questions answered. For information. But a ‘social’ network is FB. it changed the way we think about ‘keeping in touch’. I find it so much more convienient to send a ‘what’s up’ msg on FB to an acquaintance… imagine a two word mail. or the trouble to find other relevant words to fill that mail when you don’t have much to say to them. Unless you find both of you coinciding on a point of interest at a point and you can just comment. or snigger in private.

Anyway… this wasn’t about Twitter vs Facebook. This was about FB and the great time pass… with arguments about Avatar and links.

And mobile internet where I could read funny blogs on NYTimes like a newspaper.

***

Did you also put up the color of your bra on FB?

What was the Fuss? Was it breast cancer awareness really? The first mail I got about it just said “it was a fun thing meant for girls”. Only later did a mail about breast cancer thing spring up. And yeah I put it up and I think the message did bloom out there. You all are talking about breast cancer and the bra fiasco right?

Some people said it was TMI. my bra color… yeah probably. But there have been far more private postings as status msgs (not from me!). And yeah those women who refused to say what it was about and acted coy have to be shot. I agree with that. As do the men who found the whole thing disgustingly funny. It wasn’t perhaps the best way to raise awareness but it reached some people…

One friend of mine posted a reply to my status as “next week there is a prostate cancer awareness program”. Really? Are you in high school that they find something funny about prostate cancer? It is cancer for heaven’s sake! Be it in boobs or prostate. And if men start putting up the colors of their underwear, so be it. Maybe they should also be forced to put up the cleanliness state of it – that would be funny. Grow up people!

Song of the Day: Avatar