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technology, education, other sundries

Thoughts On Technology (February 2021)

Technology 100DaysToOffload

The Internet has been buzzing with some wonderful buzzwords lately. Of particular interest to me are some of the words associated with technology and social networks. I do not work in any technological field, and most of my students will not either, but as a professor who teaches (mostly) French students in English I need to point out these words at different times to make sure they understand. Two of these words can be found in a single article, “WhatsApp and the domestication of users” by Rohan Kumar [1]. They are “User Domestication” and “Network Effect”.

“User domestication,” in the context of the article, is a form of vendor lock-in where the users become dependent on the masters, and therefore unable to return to their previous lifestyles. “Network Effect” has a Wikipedia entry to descibe it:

“[…] a network effect […] is the phenomenon by which the value or utility a user derives from a good or service depends on the number of users of compatible products.”

Those two buzzwords are exactly the type of thing my students, who study business, want to hear. In fact, I would say they need to know them because they are currently victims of both phenomena and future masters of it.

I work for an international business school in France. This type of school is a “Grande École” and there are two criteria for entry: money and passing the “concours”. The concours is a competitive exam. Part of the exam is an interview. Every year I sit across the table from (on average) 200 to 300 students and have a chat with them to see if their level of English is decent enough. As this is meant to be a semi-formal talk, I take advantage of the moment to ask about how they use technology.

How do young people in France use technology? Well, it is exactly what you might expect. They use it a lot, with one little exception. You see, they love Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. They use different messaging clients, like WhatsApp (my Chinese students, obviously, use WeChat). The do not, however, have a great interest in Facebook. I specifically ask them if they use Facebook a lot, and 95% of those students say they do not.

All of that changes very quickly when the students begin studying here. They are essentially instructed by the school to get on Facebook. Some students resist, but when your school and your friends go full Borg, resistance is futile. Student associations are on Facebook. All parties are organised on Facebook. They do their damn group work on Facebook!

ASIDE: seriously, they do their work on Facebook and it is probably one of the most ridiculous things to watch. They have Google Drive and OneDrive and all that, but they have been assimilated. They create a group. One of them starts a file, like a PowerPoint, he sends it to the others, they each add to that, then they send their slides back to the first student who copies and pastes everything into a final presentation. Fonts and formatting be damned, they don’t care. Obviously, there are more students using online collaborative software right now, but if one of the students in a group decides they are the leader, Facebook it is. Then comes presentation day, and the students get in front of the class, log into Facebook, open up their chat (in front of everyone) and download the file to present. The entire process is…ridiculous!)

Throughout the year I watch the students lose energy and focus and I ask them why. Many students, not a majority, express the same concern: Facebook. They hate it, but they need it. If they don’t use it they don’t know what is going on. FOMO achieved. It is an integral part of their lives. Facebook should be paying my school for recruiting users.

Having words to describe to the students their predicament is powerful. When I tell them they have become victims of something that should be beneficial to them, they even smile. Not because it is funny, but because they see what has happened. They are not as addicted as they thought, it is not their fault that they are distracted by the mundane goings on of 30 odd Facebook groups. The business model is to blame.

Another element of the business model used by technology companies is the “Default Effect” (yes, another buzzword). My students enjoy hearing about this one and realising how much, and how blatantly, it is used.

Among the set of options that agents choose from, the default option is the option the chooser will obtain if he or she does nothing. Broader interpretations of default options include options that are normative or suggested. Experiments and observational studies show that making an option a default increases the likelihood that it is chosen; this is called the default effect.

My students guess where I am going when I introduce this topic. They give me examples: Big Mac at McDonald’s, Safari on Mac, Chrome on Android, Google’s search engine, and Facebook at school.

On a much smaller scale, I have seen the same thing happening on Mastodon. Over the past two weeks I have been playing around with the polling function and enjoying it. You can look it up if you use Mastodon, just search for the #TournamentOfBrowsers2021 hashtag. Clearly, this is extremely small scale. Some of the polls maxed out at 70 respondants. The polls do give us the faintest hint of a default effect, perhaps a lesser form of domestication, and look a little further on Wikipedia and we find this:

Although customers’ motivation for choosing software is related to the product itself, media interaction and word-of-mouth recommendations from purchased customers can still increase the possibility of software being applied to other customers who have not purchased it, thereby resulting in network effects.

Look at the polls and remember that Firefox is the default browser of choice for different groups of people on the Internet:

  • people who don’t like Google,
  • people who care about privacy,
  • people that used Netscape and later the first versions of Firefox,
  • people that want a slightly lighter browser,
  • people that don’t want to be sheep,
  • etc..

Firefox is also the most recommended browser in terms of privacy and the favourite among the technologically-inclined because you can get under the hood and tinker a little. Linux users are generally presented with Chromium when they install their distribution, or Firefox. If you are just starting out with Linux, chances are you will stick to the default.

Looking at my little polls again, you can see it. Firefox should not have been part of the poll. The poll should have been every browser except Firefox in a tournament to face off against Firefox. Firefox is Shao Kahn, or maybe Goro. Firefox has known weaknesses but cannot be taken down every time you try. You cannot just crouch in the corner and leg-sweep.

The interest in de-googling and deleting online social accounts rises and falls depending on the morning news. Did Firefox offend some people with that blog post? Did Google anger the sheeple by removing a function from Chromium? The less savvy turn to their friends who “know stuff about computers” and say, “should I change browsers?” There savvy friend will ponder a fraction of a second. The path of least resistance is Firefox. They will proclaim, much like Musk did with Signal, to “just use Firefox, they did nothing wrong and are still better than Google,” further strengthening a two-party system.

Facebook and students; Firefox and FOSS-fans. Apples and oranges, but still both fruit.