The 7 easy steps TIME VAMPIRES hope you won’t use. #6 changed my life!

Vampire Kitty

Picture by Faris Algosaibi, under CC by 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/). Cropped from original.

You sit down after dinner to research a few home improvement ideas on the web. A funny picture with a link catches your eye and… when bed time rolls around you’ve read fourteen motivational stories, watched a series of skateboarding turkey videos, grumbled on Facebook about obviously corrupt politicians in another state, shared some really pretty pictures of Antarctica you found, and not done any research! How did this happen? How does this keep happening?

How well you adapt for the rest of the 21st century will depend mainly on how well you defend against the distractions and outright manipulation in the increasing stream of available information. With the rise of social media, the voices screaming “look at me!” have shifted tactics – not only are they trying to get your attention, they’re trying to hijack your friends list. It didn’t take long to discover how to push our buttons; the psychological techniques are becoming well-known and ubiquitous. Every social media whore dreams of “going viral” and will post any outrageous thing if it gets a few million hits to their crappy ad farm.

“Go viral” is a good term for it; these are attention viruses spread via social media, using your resources as a host body to spread themselves. In addition to wasting your time, they tend to be inflammatory, misleading, and low in information. They make the internet a worse place. And I, for one, have gotten sick of seeing the same kinds of headlines trying to suck me in, the same kind of misdirection and manipulation stirring the internet’s collective psyche.

The good news is that you can fight back. The enemy may have your number, but you can learn to recognize the manipulation and avoid it. Here are some current ways – but rest assured that their bag of tricks will continue to adapt (you might want to run a search every so often for the latest).

1. Avoid posts with numbers in the title

Perhaps it’s the sense of accomplishment we feel as we tick through the list. Perhaps it’s the curiosity to see “are there *really* (only) that many?” Perhaps it’s just to see if we’re already smart enough to know the whole list. Maybe numbers are inherently more credible. Whatever the reason, social media experts have figured out that we will pretty much click on (and share) any damn thing presented as a numbered list. Even if you know it will probably tell you nothing new. (Numbered lists aren’t the only offenders; consider, for example, the trend of “99% will fail this simple test!” articles.)

Actual news is not presented as “25 things you didn’t know about XYZ”. Useful advice is not presented as “4 easy steps”. In fact, it’s incredibly rare for it to have any number at all in the title. So if it does, that’s a red flag: you can feel simultaneously smug and smarter about skipping this link because it is undoubtedly an attention virus.

Especially with an addendum like “Number X blew my mind!”

2. Avoid titles with emotionally charged words

“Shocking!” “Amazing!” “You won’t believe…” “Blown away” “Can’t stop laughing/crying” “Epic” ALL CAPS!

These and other attention-seeking techniques are used exclusively by attention-desperate social media whores. Not by actually informative articles. Not by people who have a purpose for writing other than maximizing clicks and shares. It is manipulation, pure and simple. The more prevalent this sort of thing becomes, the more it drowns out balanced, informative writing on the internet. And the more you read it, the more often your blood pressure and cortisol levels will rise needlessly. Don’t click that link! Don’t do it!

3. Avoid posts that you react to with “no way!” or “oh yeah?”

If you can feel your eyebrows rising just from reading the headline (police brutality, stupid politician tricks, “you’ll never guess”), you can bet it’s deliberately misleading in order to shock you and draw you in. Resist. And for the love of Bog, don’t get drawn into threads 100 comments long by people who didn’t even read the article. You will accomplish nothing but making yourself and perhaps a few others angry. Don’t bother unless you’re a troll and that’s how you get your lulz.

4. If you find yourself reading an attention virus, at least avoid sharing it

So you might enjoy following Facebook links for some meaningless entertainment from time to time. I get it. But… do you have to infect your friends too? Do you have to reward these time vampires?

No. You don’t. In fact, with the Information Deluge unfolding this century, it’s your responsibility not to.

If (perhaps by accident) you find yourself visiting one of these, at least keep it to yourself. You cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, right? Have the same courtesy for your readers’ brains. Or are you one of those people still forwarding stupid chain letters?

5. Use ad-blocking browser plugins

The push for sensationalizing the internet is all about displaying ads. More clicks mean more ad views and more revenue. If you kill the ad revenue, you stop rewarding the behavior.

Also, you don’t need to waste your attention on ads. I have basically never seen an ad on Facebook. I don’t really see any ads on the web other than the occasional text ad or YouTube intro. How? I’ve been using ad-blocking software since it was an esoteric art requiring running a local proxy and manually tweaking browser settings and blacklist entries.

It’s a lot easier now. For years it’s been as easy as searching for browser plugins and clicking a few buttons to install them. I know about AdBlock+ for FireFox and AdBlock+ for Chrome. If you’re using something else there’s probably a plugin for that too (even for mobile).

Personally, I think advertising funding is a blight on the internet (“you won’t believe” I once worked for an advertising startup) and would like to see it destroyed in favor of other models. If you disagree and feel morally obliged to allow websites to manipulate your mind in return for the benefit they bring you (or even find targeted ads actually – choke! – informative), you can usually configure an ad-blocker to allow ads selectively, and still starve the time vampires you stumble upon.

6. Use site-blocking browser plugins

Self-restraint is a great thing to cultivate, but most of us would admit to needing a little help. And the wonderful thing about the information age is that there are tools to help you… automatically.

You can use site-blocker plugins to block whole sites that you know are full of trash, or just to restrict the amount of time that you waste at them. For example, BlockSite for Chrome and BlockSite for Firefox can block sites at specified times and days of the week. Also consider StayFocusd for Chrome, which tracks and limits the time you waste as well as providing a “nuclear option” to block all “bad” sites or allow only “good” sites for a few hours to help you concentrate. LeechBlock for Firefox appears similar. These double as procrastination-blockers, useful beyond simple avoidance of attention viruses.

Consider blocking all of the most addictive sites on the internet or pretty much anything linked from Buzzfeed (they recommend blocking themselves!). Or just look through your browser history to see where the time goes.

7. Filter your news sources

The easiest way to save money is to have it automatically deducted from your paycheck. You don’t miss the money you never see. Similarly, the easiest way to reserve your attention for worthy topics is to block ones you know tend to be trash. You don’t have to decide to ignore the tripe you never see.

Spam, trolls, and general “noise” have all been with us since the dawn of the internet. News-readers on usenet used killfiles to automatically ignore posts. Once email became a cesspool of spam and phishing, filtering became a standard tool there too (some services automating it with great sophistication). Social networking may take a little longer because frankly, Facebook’s profits are built on sucking you in and using your friends list and interests to advertise to you. It’s unlikely they’ll be providing useful automated filters of any variety soon.

Sick of the clutter on Facebook? Try F.B. Purity. It’s a browser plugin that essentially rewrites the Facebook interface, allowing you to filter out what you don’t want (hopefully this post has given you some good ideas). It’s pretty easy to install; just be aware that Facebook’s interface is changing all the time, and when it does you may experience bizarre glitches due to a mismatch between what Facebook provides and what F.B. Purity expects, at which point you’ll need to (1) recognize what’s going on (2) possibly wait for an update from FBP or just disable it for a while, and (3) update FBP. So this isn’t for everyone, but it’s what’s available right now. Perhaps other social networks that aren’t as invested in cramming junk in your face will lead the way in enabling filtering, forcing Facebook to do the same. Or perhaps Facebook will become irrelevant. I don’t know what will happen, but if users don’t start valuing the ability, it won’t appear of its own accord. I suggest taking matters into your own hands.

Other sources often do provide methods of filtering, or there may be a browser plugin to enable it. Search for these and use them.

Irony

Am I aware of the irony/hypocrisy inherent in this post at multiple levels? Yes; yes, I am.

But now you know. If you make this post the last time you’re ever roped in by these tactics, I can die happy.

Now share this with all your friends, and leave some comments below!

What’s the point of Twitter? My answer

A friend of mine asked on Facebook who had a Twitter account and what the point was. Most had an account but found it pointless. I thought my answer was kind of interesting:
I do (@sosiouxm3). It’s probably most useful for discussing niche topics and live events. For general social interaction… not so much.
The main point of it is that it’s a real-time stream of public comments that’s easy to search and see as it progresses. If we had Twitter on Sept. 11, 2001, a continuously updating search for #WTC or the like would have been very interesting to watch. Now, you can hear directly from the horse’s mouth about protests in progress, or natural disasters, or even Burnie Sanders’s filibuster the other day. All in brief blips, of course – most contain a tiny link to more info or an image/video.
I like to use it to toss off quick thoughts that occur to me or pass on little tidbits (it’s helpful to have my phone nearby). It’s sort of like an extremely large chat room that way. Sometimes I get quick feedback from people I don’t even have any contact with, like company/organization reps. I also just like to occasionally dip into the stream of thoughts by people I find interesting – wind up with a lot of odd bits of information that way. I have to be careful not to get sucked in too often.

Twitter-turfing? Astro-Twurfing? Need a good name

I often post a link to my blog entries via my Twitter account, and I’m getting a number of “comments” on the posts from automated services that apparently track tweets (so far, all mine) linking blog posts and try to submit them as comments back to the post, linking to themselves of course. This could be a useful service maybe, if someone wanted to see who was Tweeting about their post. But it strikes me that it’s more an attempt to get lots of posts linking to their service and increase their rank in search engines, basically little different from the more obvious spam comments. Is there a name for this?

customization

Been fiddling with Twitter today. I used twitbacks to create a background picture so my profile isn’t quite so mundane. I finally started using lists (now if echofon would just let me see tweets from a list that would be something). I looked around for other #androiddev folks – not too many active at the moment, but then it is the holidays. I see some of the value of twitter but at this point it still seems like more of a time sink for me than a value. I have a feeling I shouldn’t miss out, though, ought to expand my usage, link everything I’m doing together and promote it. Because I do feel like I can add a lot of value to a corner of this internet.

I thought I’d take a crack at subclassing AlertDialog like I wanted. The goal is this: customize the view to include a text entry field linked to the positive button such that there has to be some content in the text entry field before the button is enabled. Simple enough for a single custom dialog – just set a key listener on the entry field and enable/disable the button accordingly. But I want to do this in several places so it seemed like a good idea to make a custom dialog class that could be configured a little differently each time but with the same general behavior. I thought all I need is AlertDialog with a custom view (it doesn’t allow any sort of text input) and some added behavior, right?

Subclassing AlertDialog turns out to be tricky. I mean, a simple subclass is trivial, of course, but the problem is the actual building of the dialog, which is normally accomplished by the AlertDialog.Builder inner class. This in turn relies on AlertController.AlertParams to hold the parameters that will be applied to the dialog when finally it’s built. Unless I’m mistaken, I’d have to recreate all that behavior in my builder. Suck! Forget it! I think what I’ll do instead is just have the custom dialog I already almost finished expect to be given a view with certain element IDs and wire them up. Well – even that is sucky because getting at the elements inside the dialog from outside the dialog pretty much sucks – which is why an AlertDialog would have been nice in the first place. Ok. I’ll make a fairly stupid class that just supplies the button-wiring behavior and let specific dialogs subclass from that and specify what gets wired. That works.

RTFMing some more. Defining preferences from XML isn’t described anywhere in the dev guide – but “Hello, Android” is helpful here. However, I had to use a little trial and error to figure out how to use a ListPreference (well – probably there are examples in the sample programs, but I figured it out). Here’s what a ListPreference definition looks like:

<ListPreference android:title=”Tracker click”
 android:summary=”What should happen when you click on a tracker?”
 android:key=”trackerClickBehavior”
 android:entries=”@array/trackerClickBehaviorVisible”
 android:entryValues=”@array/trackerClickBehaviorStored”
 android:defaultValue=”view”
 />

Of course the arrays are defined in values resources like so:

<string-array name=”trackerClickBehaviorVisible”>
    <item>Create instant log</item>
    <item>Create detailed log</item>
    <item>View tracker details</item>
</string-array>

Simple enough.

It’s good to know that you can create a custom toast layout if you so desire.