Is Dave Eggers right about the risks of social media?

eggers the circle

I have to admit, though Egger’s is a pretty famous author, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I do however read AVC regularly, the writing of renowned VC & Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson. So when one of the commenters pointed to the book as a great read I grabbed a copy on my Kindle.

Flipping through to the back of the book, the further reading section is telling. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, DeLillo’s White Noise, Huxley’s Brave New World & Orwell’s 1984 are just a few on the list. All books that I’d read & enjoyed not only for their story, but for their cautious warning of a dystopian future.

The Circle story takes place at a fictional Silicon Valley company “The Circle”, whose campus includes wings such as Old West, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Machine Age & Industrial Revolution. The main character Mae, has just been hired in customer experience. Employees at the circle are all but *required* to socialize together. There everything is ranked, from customer satisfaction, to employee participation, comments, likes, posts & shares.

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I came away with five major themes from the book. As the characters march through the pages, watch them sacrifice their morality, free will & eventually human rights too.

1. social media is like snack food

What I loved most about the story, was how extreme the social media use had become. It was as though every moment had to be captured, every interaction “shared”. And with that, others then comment, favorite, and interact.

But as we found later, social media became something of lesser value. It was like eating snack food, a simulation of real food, missing in nutrients, but masquerading as the real thing. The metaphor holds together well, as we see people become fatigued with Facebook in the real world, and the constant sharing of everything.

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2. Egger’s fictional technologies are close at hand

At one point in the story, Mae does a search to find out about her family history. What turns up is more than she bargained for. It turns out that her parents had a rather odd affinity for yearly baccanalian partying, and the photos shock & embarrass Mae.

Turns out some neighbor had scanned a whole shoebox full of photos, and from there the internet crawlers took care of the rest, indexing the photos complete with facial recognition & identification. Once that was complete, a simple search revealed pictures even her parents didn’t know exist.

Facial recognition technologies in fact already exist, though are not widely used quite yet. Governments are obviously beginning to use them for law enforcement, but facebook & google are certainly getting into the act too. What’s more the SeeChange cameras described in the story, parallel Google Glass for example, which is maturing quickly.

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3. secrets are a real human need

After Mae begins wearing the SeeChange monocle, everything she does is streamed to an online audience. It begins as an exercise in transparency, but we quickly see the trouble it brings as Mae has no moments of privacy.

In this world, moments of intimacy become shorter & harder to find. And we see then how Mae begins to crave those moments, and they become more precious too.

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4. monitoring changes our behavior

Much of the monitoring and transparency in the Circle story comes from a new technology called SeeChange, a camera monocle worn around the neck, perhaps paralleling Google Glass that we have all heard of.

Surveillance can surely help prevent crime, or provide evidence after the fact. But one other affect of the technology is in warping people’s natural behavior, as though we are all on a stage, all on camera all the time. In Mae’s case she begins to act for the camera, and those around her do too.

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5. how social media warps our sense of time & human scale

Another interesting scene occurs when Mae follows up with a friend via text. Her friend doesn’t respond back, so she sends along another text a few minutes later asking if “everything is ok”. By Mae’s fourth & fifth message, she’s sure she’s been kidnapped, and by the tenth message she’s just angry and declares their friendship is over! All this in the span of 25 minutes.

I think Eggers uses a sort of extreme example, but really to illustrate an important point. In the world of always on communication, these types of misunderstandings are more and more common. Our sense of time changes, and we may feel that others are in slow motion.

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If you use MySQL in the Amazon cloud, you need to ask yourself this question

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Are you serious about backups?

If you’re just using Amazon EBS snapshots, that may not be sufficient. There’s a good chance it won’t protect you against your next data loss.

That’s why I like to have a few different types of backups

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Protect against operator error

mysqldump is a tool every DBA is familiar with. Same as a hotbackup or snapshot you say? Just more labor? Not true.

A dump allows you to restore one table, or one schema. That’s why they’re also known as logical backups. What’s more you can edit the file, remove indexes, change object names, or datatypes. All these can be essential in the screwy and unpredictable event of a real world outage.

Expect the unexpected!

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Test those backups regularly

If you haven’t actually tried to restore, you really don’t know if you have everything. Did you backup stored procedures & database code? How about grants? Database events? How about cronjobs? What about the my.cnf file? And your replication configuration?

Yes there are a lot of little pieces, and testing your backups by rebuilding everything is an attempt to poke holes in your plan, and hit issues before d-day!

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Replication isn’t a backup

Replication is getting better and better in MySQL. It used to fail regularly. MyiSAM was very unpredictable. But even in the comfortable realm of Innodb, there can still be data drift. If you’re on MySQL 5.0 or 5.1, you should consider performing regular checksums. These test the integrity of data and compare what’s actually in master & slave. Bulletproofing MySQL replication with checksums.

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Have you considered security around your backup files?

While you’re thinking about backups, make sure the files themselves are secure. Remember they contain your crown jewels. Hopefully individual data that’s sensitive is encrypted, but still you should secure their final resting place as well.

If you’re using S3, consider encrypting the file before shipping it up to the bucket.

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How to increase newsletter signup conversions with nifty iphone trick

If you’re like me & spending a lot of time on twitter, I hope you’re also seeing the traffic growth I’m seeing. I’m sharing a stream of posts using hootsuite, then actively engaging with journalists, VCs, startups & technology experts.

That’s all great, and I’m finding more and more it’s a good use of my time.

Recently I started using a cool iphone feature to let followers know about my newsletter. It’s called a shortcut.

Have you ever mistyped a word on iOS? It then offers up the correct spelling. Through this same mechanism, there is an awesome way to quickly type anything. Use a two or three character shortcut to type a paragraph.

Take a look, here’s what I mean.

1. Click through to Settings->General->Keyboard

Open your iphone settings, and navigate through General, and then Keyboard.

keyboard tab

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2. Find the Shortcuts tab

Navigate until you find shortcuts. It should look like this:

shortcuts tab

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3. Create a shortcut

Add a new shortcut with the plus button.

create shortcut

Phrase: “u may also like my newsletter http://iheavy.com/signup-scalable-startups-newsletter”

Shortcut: mytest

edit shortcut

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4. Use your new shortcut on twitter

Responding to a new follower, or in a dialog with a journalist? In a response somewhere along the way, type “dyo”. Just like a typo correction, you’ll see iOS offer you a completion, the full text you want to use. Click (space) to accept it.

use shortcut

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5. Post it periodically using trending hashtags

Open twitter & click timelines->discover

Click View more trending…

Scroll through for related topics. For me anything technology, startup, scalability, devops, venture, founder, database related, I’ll use that word, hashtag of phrase.

(BONUS) Create four or five shortcut variations

Nobody wants to see the same thing repeated over and over. So create a few variations. Mix it up a bit.

I’m seeing huge conversion rate on these. I haven’t measured yet (not sure how), but anecdotally I’d say in the 30-50% range. In other words if I mentioned my newsletter to 10 people during the day on twitter, I get about 3-5 new signups. This compared to one newsletter signup per day, passively through my blog.

By directly imploring people to signup, you bring it front and center to their already busy & distracted attention. It works!

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