Old MacDonald had a like-farm?

Social media are unquestionably a big hit and one of the biggest out there is Facebook with over a billion users worldwide. And one of the most successful features of Facebook is the so-called ‘like-button’, which is so great a phenomenon by itself that it even has its own wikipedia page. Such is the impact of the like button that I’m almost certain that at some point in the near future the dictionary definition of the word ‘liking’ will also include the very act of  clicking on that classic blue ‘thumbs-up’ icon.

Now while most uses for the like-button are entirely innocuous, I have been noticing a trend of some individuals posting a photograph accompanied by a message in the caption and some request to ‘like and share’ the item in question. Usually such photographs will depict a tragic scene, or some self-proclaimed ‘miracle’, or perhaps simply a ‘beautiful message’ either by some random swami guru from Timbuktu or Albert Einstein—the latter sometimes entirely misquoted, by the way. Then the strategy appears to involve playing on the emotional response the message may evoke in people to elicit a ‘like’ action from the viewers.

Here’s how it seems to work as I see it. Someone just uploads a dramatic image, such as say that of an intubated child, wearing a sad expression, apparently bedridden in a hospital and surrounded by life support machines. The poster then adds a lengthy caption with a touching explanation, such as that it’s someone’s son lying there and that he has a rare heart condition, that he is still on the waiting list for a heart transplant and that he would love nothing more than to play baseball with his friends again. This is then followed by a dedication, like for everyone whose life has been affected by heart-transplant waiting lists or whatever.  It could be real, or just invented… who knows? The main thing is that in the end it concludes with what I would consider to be a form of emotional blackmail. Because not only does it end with a request to ‘like and share’ the post, but then also invariably includes the condition that you should only do so if you care.

If I care? What is this nonsense? And other varieties on this theme also exist. For example sometimes such concluding remarks are phrased in the form of a cynical premonition, such as ‘I know some of you won’t share this, but those who care will’. And on occasion the caption will even bluntly state outright that if you ignore the message and don’t click on the like button right away, then you really don’t care. But whatever the exact wording, the emotional blackmail always operates by exploiting the false assertion that not liking is equal to not caring. Of course I care! Who wouldn’t? But excuse me all over the place if that doesn’t mean I’m going to spam all my friends with pseudo-philosophical or quasi philanthropic mumbo jumbo just because I get some kind of guilt trip laid on me if I don’t.

So what is up with these kind of messages on facebook? What is really behind them? It would appear that in some cases the motivation to post such messages are actually driven less by raising awareness for a particular issue or a desire to impart some words of wisdom unto the world, and more by economic factors. In fact there seems to be a whole business revolving around liking stuff on facebook and it’s called ‘Like Farming‘. Like Farming is essentially a scam that works by first creating a facebook page and then trying to get posts on that page to go viral by any means. This in turn generates more ‘likes’ for that page, and as subsequent posts on pages that you’ve liked will also show up in your news feed things start to get interesting. Because having access to so many news feeds means that when a page has been liked a lot, it becomes very attractive for businesses to advertise on it, or for one company buy it and then use it for marketing purposes. So how do you discriminate between innocent posts and the ones with financial motives in mind? I suppose just by realizing that no message worth liking or sharing should require any encouragement to do so.

A rose by any other name

I am Dutch and being Dutch I have been given Dutch names. A first name, a middle name and a last name, to be more precise. Now the last time I went to the USA, I frequented Starbucks establishments—a well known ‘java’ dispensing chain of cafes that appears to be ubiquitous, or at least so it seemed in the state of California. Now the funny thing is that with every order they ask for your name and then write that on the cup that will get filled with your coffee. So when your order comes up, they’ll be able to call out your name so you know your coffee is ready. Very convenient… in theory. But my names being Dutch, they kept misspelling it and mispronouncing it. Annoying, but what to do?

Initially I just made up names. It’s not like they’re going to ask for an identification card, right? I think at one point I may have called myself ‘Bob’ or ‘Jack’ because I reasoned those would likely be rather popular names and therefore less likely to invite spelling errors. On the other hand, very common names increase the risk of confusion: there might be another ‘Bob’ or ‘Jack’ waiting for his order. Now I could use more obscure names, like ‘Ferdinand Ignatius the 3rd Count Von Schtockhausen zu Lieberwurst’, but that might blow my cover as it sort-of sounds like I made that up (which would not be an unfair assessment). Also I fear it would be a bit of challenge to fit all that on a coffee cup, even the humongous specimens found in the US. So I recently decided to search the internet for a source of information that might tell me the etymology of my Dutch surnames, and whether I might be able to find a decent English version for either of them. That would be the best solution, I think.

After a bit of searching I came across the site “Behind the Name” where I was able to look up my first name. Apparently, the English equivalent would be ‘Maynard’. Cool. So then I continued with my second name. That was a bit trickier. As it turns out it’s Laurence, but in the US the more common spelling is ‘Lawrence’. Hence my comment on it being trickier. However, as both versions sound the same when called out it won’t make any difference which one I use. As a matter of fact, I’ve used ‘Lawrence’ in a Starbucks on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles at one time. Although they misspelled the name, I still got my coffee just fine as you can see in the picture. So I’ll go with Laurence here.

The way 'Laurence' is spelled at Starbucks.

The way ‘Lawrence’ is spelled at Starbucks.

As for my last name (‘Voogt’), well that really is a bit trickier as there is no English version for that one. There is however an English way of pronouncing ‘Vogt’, a name related to mine. Thus I imagine the correct way to say my name would be to pronounce it just as ‘Vogt’ but instead with the ‘oo’ sound as in ‘root’. With a silent ‘g’ it would therefore sound something like ‘voote’ instead of ‘vote’. One snag though: that would make my name sound like ‘voet’ which is Dutch for ‘foot’. And I can’t accept that because I support the metric system, so I guess I’ll just have to go with ‘Vogt’. The extra ‘o’ in ‘Voogt’ is probably a typo anyway.

Ok, nearly there, but ‘Maynard Laurence’ doesn’t sound quite right. To my ear ‘Laurence Maynard’ sounds better and that’s what I’ll use. So here is my full name in English: Laurence Maynard Vogt. Starbucks, here I come!

A critique of the terrorism/bathtub analogy

I’m feeling a bit like playing the role of Devil’s advocate today, my apologies for ranting on about this PRISM thing by the by. In a recent blog article on The Economist (Foiled plots and bathtub falls) a case is made that the loss of life in the USA due to terrorist attacks (around 3,000 in 2001) is so small compared to other causes—such as 29,573 gun related deaths—that the measures taken by the government to prevent terrorism are currently to extreme and ought to be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. In the end the main question put forward is this: If the same number of people died in slippery bathtub incidents, would we want to give the NSA this much snooping power to prevent those deaths? I’m going to argue that this point is non-sensical.

An important source for the arguments in The Economist were taken from another article in The Atlantic (The irrationality of giving up this much liberty to fight terror). In this article the author gives an idiosyncratic and consequently rather introspective account of why the threat of terrorism hasn’t affected the lives of Americans in general. But his account stands in stark contrast with the facts of the repercussions of the September 11 attacks. The stockmarkets dropped sharply all over the world and trading was even halted for a time, tourism in New York plummeted, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, the New York economy suffered losses in the order of magnitude of tens of billions of dollars and the attacks started two wars that in total have cost five trillion dollars to date. That’s a five followed by twelve zeroes, or roughly twenty times the number of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. Psychologists also noted an increase in fear of flying and feelings of distress immediately after the attacks. And then to think that the death-toll from the attacks on the World Trade Center could have been far higher—some 50,000 people used to work in the twin towers on an average weekday, not including the visitors who numbered 200,000 per day.

Let’s also not forget terrorist are unfortunately not all stupid and sometimes have quite ambitious plans. There have been signals that terrorist have tried and are still trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons, such as from Russia for example. Maybe I’m just a bit suspicous by nature, but in this context I think it’s interesting that Obama is suddenly urging Poetin to cut back on the nuclear arsenal, in particular since the PRISM system has now been exposed and come under scrutiny. If a terrorist group ever get their hands on a loose nuke, an attack might cost the lives of 500,000 citizens in a major US city. Slippery bathtub, my foot!

And then there is the fact that the PRISM program is there to thwart plots. So I cannot help but ask what degree of plotting is involved in the thousands of diabetics who die each year. Or what about the thousands of drunk driving accidents? Where are the inebriated drivers gathering to plot the next fatal freeway pile-up? What deadly bathtub conspiracies are currently being scemed? And are they twittering about it? The point is of course that the NSA only works with communications, thus making all these analogies ridiculous. The slippery bathtub analogy—which I am almost certain was selected for half-humorous reasons—back-fires on itself. Another, better example should have been used such as the 12,664 murders commited in the USA during 2011. But suppose we could use a PRISM system to help uncover plots of US citizens to commit murder. Does that analogy still fall short of convincing people that the PRISM project might be an acceptable compromize after all? I wonder…