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Programmatic identity

The programmed public square has been a terrible place to live our lockdown lives, showing each of us exactly and only what it thinks we want the world to look like.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
3 min read
Programmatic identity
(Andre Mouton / Unsplash)

When I first started blogging at Gizmodo, we had comments. Comments were a huge part of building community on niche news outlets at the time, and eventually almost all shut off the comments because… the trolls won.

The switch-off had some concurrency with the rise of social media, so outlets knew the conversation could continue around a story without needing to manage the problems that come with moderating the assholes.

The point being – comments suck.

Telling everyone their half-baked opinion is worthy of publication right alongside a piece of writing that took hours, at least, and sometimes months of research, was a terrible idea. It brought to life everything Terry Pratchett feared in his infamous exchange with Bill Gates.

“There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up.”

That “parity of esteem” is now at the heart of not just the way we treat comments and replies on social media, but also the algorithms that drive the way these platforms show us what they think is important to us.

What it shows us is now an attempted reflection of ourselves, or what they think we want to see in the world, or what they think we want to leave more comments and replies about.

They attempt to raise our desire to say things to that level where we think the chance to type a few more words and feel like we’re part of the public debate will keep us coming back for more.

Aside from the victory of keeping us ‘engaged’ (the dirty word of the decade), there’s something about this that makes everything feel like it’s about ourselves. As long as we spend time in the spaces where we’re encouraged to rattle off a quip or a comment, it’s pushing the idea that the next sentence we type is just as valuable as the previous sentence someone else typed, regardless of who they are and what they actually know.

And in lockdown life, this de facto public sphere is making it all so much worse. This programmed public square, showing each of us exactly and only what it thinks we want the world to look like, and build that personal armour that we are right and everyone else is wrong.

I already hate Facebook, you know that already, but I’ve taken a few weeks of vastly reduced time on Twitter lately. It feels weird, and increasingly valuable, to let my ideas sit in my own head a while longer instead of just blurting them out on Twitter as soon as I have them.

I think this is related to the above, but I’m not 100% sure, so I’ve split it out as its own added thought in case it is a separate idea.

Brain food

Researchers Create 'Master Faces' to Bypass Facial Recognition

According to the paper, their findings imply that facial recognition systems are “extremely vulnerable.”

NYU researchers speak out after Facebook disables their accounts

Facebook disabled the accounts of researchers behind tools that collect information on political ads running on Facebook.

Apple’s New ‘Child Safety’ Initiatives, and the Slippery Slope

The stakes are incredibly high, and Apple knows it. Whatever you think of Apple’s decision to implement these features, they’re not doing so lightly.

Leo Messi’s Twitch Interview Shows How Social Media Is Conquering Sport

An app used mostly for watching video games just clinched the sports interview of the year in another blow to the traditional world of broadcasting.


145km/h VR: Brendan Doyle's skeleton racing edge

We talk to the Irish skeleton racer about using a VR headset to improve his chances in one of the fastest sports on the planet.

SteelSeries Rival 5 review: nine buttons are great – if you can reach them

Extra buttons are great for so many games, but we’re not quite sure who has hands that can use them all effectively.


Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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