How Facebook is killing language

Lots of things are accused of killing language. Texting, for example. Or, to give its more common name, txtng. It’s quite easy to find articles in the popular media complaining that schoolchildren are using abbreviations such as ‘ur’, ‘gr8’ and ‘b4’ in their essays.

Twitter gets a bashing, too. Its 140 character limit means that it’s all too common to find yourself in the position of composing a witty and intelligent tweet, only to find yourself with -1 characters left and having to choose which spelling or grammar solecism to commit.

But no. Text and Twitter are not the worst offenders against language. Txtspk arises from the sheer awkwardness of using a phone keyboard as much as anything else. In many ways, Twitter’s limit forces you to think carefully about what you are writing. Neither of those are bad, even if they can sometimes accidentally give rise to bad habits in other contexts. The worst offender is different. The worst offender is Facebook.

That may seem a strange assertion. After all, Facebook imposes no overly-restrictive limit on message length. You don’t find yourself having to cut out words or abbreviate others. And, if you’re using it on a real computer, it doesn’t have the awkward keyboard problem of SMS. So what’s the problem?

The problem, quite simply, was Facebook’s decision to remove the “post” button and make the Enter key post instead. That may seem innocuous, but what it also did was remove the ability to insert newlines and paragraph breaks the way you normally do – by pressing the Enter key.

Facebook does still allow you to insert newlines by pressing Shift-Enter. But that’s non-intuitive and it isn’t well documented, and I’d hazard a guess that most people aren’t aware of it. It’s certainly true that most people don’t use it.

I’m not really sure why Facebook did this. Comments from elsewhere on the web suggest that Facebook were trying to encourage short posts, in order to make the news feed more Twitter-like. If so, it hasn’t really worked.

To be sure, a lot of posts are simple one-liners or single sentences. But they always have been. There doesn’t seem to have been any noticeable reduction in average post length since the change.

What has happened is that most people no longer craft lengthier comments, possibly going back over them and checking for typos and maybe reformatting them, before posting them. Instead, Facebook’s newsfeed and comments under a post often read more like a stream of consciousness. Instead of well-formatted text with paragraphs where appropriate, people just keep on typing until they’ve finished and then just hit Enter.

I don’t know about you, but I find this really irritating. It makes it a lot harder to read longer posts and comments. Facebook’s rather small and closely spaced regular font size (a fixed 12 pixels) doesn’t help here, either – both Twitter and Google Plus have larger, easier to read text.

The reason why this is particularly bad, though, is that unlike Twitter and SMS, Facebook’s lack of a short text limit means that habits learned on Facebook do transfer to other situations far more easily. People who write 140 character comments on Twitter don’t restrict themselves to 140 characters elsewhere. But people who write long screeds of unformatted text on Facebook do write long screeds of unformatted text elsewhere.

I’ve been on the Internet a long time – nearly twenty years, now – and I’ve been involved in a lot of online discussion forums, including mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, web forums and now social media, in that time. I’m not a net-Luddite; I don’t think that everything was necessarily better back in the early days and I’m very much a fan of social media in general. But, over the past few years, I have noticed a distinct decline in the quality of writing on many of the online discussion forums I inhabit. And, in most of those cases, the decline is specifically into the type of unformatted, un-crafted text encouraged by Facebook.

So, what can be done about this? I don’t really know. I do make a point of using paragraphs in any longer content that I post on Facebook, in the (possibly vain) hope that it might encourage others to do the same. But what I’d really like is for Facebook to reverse this particular change. Maybe I should start a Facebook page about it.

Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-O2

It’s Christmas day and I’m blogging about porn and censorship on the Internet. How sad is that? Anyway, there have been a lot of comments on social media about how various websites have been blocked by O2, including those by prominent campaigners in favour of filters.

Now, I’m not in favour of compulsory filtering either, for all sorts of reasons, as I’ve made abundantly clear in the past. But O2 is not the villain here, and the supposed over-blocking is nothing of the sort.

All the blocks that I’ve seen reported are blocked under O2’s “Parental Controls” setting. That is a whitelist-only setting, with all but a handful of specially selected sites blocked by default. Customers who use it have to explicitly add all other sites that they want to be able to access. The fact that a site is blocked by this setting does not in any way imply that it has been judged unsuitable for children, and in particular it does not imply at all that it contains porn or other unsavoury material. All it means is that it hasn’t been added to the whitelist.

As far as O2’s system is concerned, the setting which matters is “Default Safety”. That’s what you get if you enable filters and allow O2 to make the choice for you of what’s accessible. And the sites which are blocked by that are mostly the ones you’d expect: porn, gambling, alcohol, etc. I’m sure there are some sites which have been wrongly classified in that setting, but so far nobody has reported any.

O2 are also doing one important thing absolutely correctly, and I applaud them for it. Their unfiltered option is labelled “Open Access”. It’s not “Adult”, or “Explicit Material”, or anything which gives the impression that the only reason you’d choose it is because you want to look at dodgy stuff on the Internet. Instead, it’s labelled precisely as it is: “open”. Which is the normal state of the Internet, and what a large number of customers will prefer even if they have no desire to look at porn.

So, by all means, campaign against compulsory filtering. But don’t blame O2 for doing their best to meet customer demand at both ends of the scale, by offering a whitelist setting for those who want it, a basic filtered option for others and a properly labelled unfiltered option for everyone else.

Anyway, I’m off to watch Doctor Who. Happy Christmas, everyone!

Think of the children

The spectre of Internet censorship has reared its head again recently, with reports that the government is planning to hold talks with ISPs over the creation of an “opt in” system for allowing customers to access pornographic material on the web rather than requiring them to take steps to avoid it if they don’t want their children to see it. The claim is that this will protect children in households where the parents either don’t care about them seeing porn or do care but don’t have the skill to take effective measures themselves to prevent it. It’s been in a few newspapers, but this report in the Daily Mail is pretty typical.

Before discussing whether or not this is a good idea, I want to make it clear that I entirely agree that there is a real problem here. There is a very large body of research which supports the claim that early exposure to inappropriate sexual material can be very damaging to children. The ready availability of porn on the Internet is a major factor in this. I’m certainly no defender of the porn industry, which – even if you think there’s nothing wrong with porn itself – is unarguably one of the most corrupt and amoral sectors of business around today. And there’s no significant civil liberties angle here; while it’s generally true that adults should have the freedom to do things which are harmful to themselves, the same does not apply to those – such as children – who are incapable of making an informed decision on the matter. As the parent of two pre-school children myself, the need to protect them from seeing inappropriate material on the Internet is something that concerns me greatly. And I wouldn’t have wanted them watching the XXX-factor edition of Simon’s Karaoke Show, either.

So the argument isn’t over whether there is a problem. The fact that there is a problem is accepted by all of the major players in the debate – the campaigners, the ISPs, and the government. The argument is about how best to tackle it.

So, is a compulsory opt-in system for viewing porn the solution? I think not. The rest of this article will be about why I think it isn’t. But, just in case anyone thinks that my opposition to these proposals makes me somehow “pro-porn”, or that I’m not “thinking of the children”, I’ll refer you back to the second paragraph and ask you to re-read it. If, after that, you still think that my opposition  to these plans amounts to my going soft on the porn industry or being heedless of the harm it causes, then, frankly, you’re probably too stupid to understand my arguments anyway. If that’s you, then stop reading now as all you’ll do is waste your time.

Having got that minor rant out of my system (and if you’re still with me, thanks for approaching the matter rationally even if you ultimately disagree with my conclusions), why don’t I think this is the way forward? My main objection is simply one of practicality – I don’t think that the technical proposals will be anywhere near as effective as their supporters think, and even if they are they won’t do all that much to protect children.

Starting with the technical flaws in the proposals, it seems pretty clear that many of them are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t work, of course – you don’t need to understand the aerodynamics of powered flight to be able to make a valid case for regulating the airline industry – but it does mean that they’re likely to leave people with a false impression of what’s actually possible. For example, most of the media reports of the proposals use wording similar to this, from the Mail article linked to earlier:

The plan is to allow parents to ‘opt out’ of the sites and they will then be blocked at the source, rather than using conventional parental controls.

The problem with that is that the ISPs are not the source of pornography, and have no ability to block it at source. The same mistake is made by Claire Perry MP, one of the leading lights of the campaign, when  she compares it to regulating TV channels:

We already successfully regulate British TV channels, cinema screens, High Street hoardings and newsagent shelves to stop children seeing inappropriate images

This is the fallacy of the inappropriate analogy. Just because we can, and do, do something in one situation doesn’t mean it will necessarily work in another. In this case, the differences between the Internet and broadcast or print media are not only significant but are a key to why we have the problem in the first place.

The reality is that ISPs have virtually no control whatsoever over the sources of pornography on the Internet. In many cases, the source isn’t even in the same country as the ISPs. So, far from doing something different to conventional parental controls, any ISP-level blocking is doing exactly the same thing: blocking it in transmission (or preventing its reception).

That’s not necessarily a huge problem, of course. There’s no reason why ISPs shouldn’t offer a filtered Internet feed for customers who want it, rather than requiring them to do their own filtering. Let’s just not pretend that it’s qualitatively different from installing Net Nanny or similar on your own PC.

The downside of a centralised version, though, is that it will be less effective. And, again, the reason why it will be less effective is due to factors that don’t seem to have been appreciated by the campaigners. A comparison is often drawn with the Cleanfeed and WebMinder systems used by ISPs to filter child pornography identified by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). These work reasonably well, most of the time, but the reason they do so is because of three specific factors which do not apply to pornography in general:

  • Child porn is illegal almost everywhere in the world
  • There isn’t all that much of it on the web
  • Not many people want to view it

Taken together, those three factors make it relatively easy to combat. Its illegal nature makes it a risky business to publish, which means that there isn’t very much at all that’s readily accessible, and that in turn means that a relatively small and lightly-funded organisation can keep track of what little there is without too much difficulty. And, since its illegal to view in the UK, no-one is going to be complaining to their ISP that they can’t get it.

By contrast, porn in general isn’t illegal, and there is a humongous amount of it on the web. That’s part of the problem, of course, and the reason why we’re having this debate, but it’s also part of the reason why an IWF-style watchlist simply won’t work. Keeping track of every pornographic website in the world requires resources way beyond those currently available to the IWF. That’s why the likes of Net Nanny, for example, aren’t free – the price you pay for them goes towards creating the filter list. Even so, they aren’t 100% reliable – websites change by the minute, and any list-based system will always lag behind. And that’s the other problem with a list-based system. Even the relatively small IWF list gets it wrong sometimes and ends up blocking sites that it shouldn’t – as evidenced by the time it blocked Wikipedia, until eventually reversing that decision. The bigger the list, the greater the probability of errors. With a system that I run on my own PC, I can override it if I decide it’s made a mistake, but if the blocking is controlled by my ISP then that’s much harder. In any case, who decides which sites should be on it? It may be fairly easy to conclude that the likes of PornTube (not linked, I’m sure you can guess the URL if you really want to) should be blocked, but what about the aforementioned Wikipedia? There’s porn on Wikipedia, if you know where to look – or even if you don’t, since it’s all linked in as a mesh and it’s quite easy to stumble across some unsavoury images on Wikipedia without meaning to if you’re researching some otherwise quite innocuous subjects.

The other big difference, though, is that an awful lot of people do actually want to view legal porn. And a lot of them are parents. If I wanted to browse porn on the Internet myself, but don’t want my daughters to see it, then I can install software on my PC which will allow me to do so while at the same time minimising the probability that they’ll see it accidentally. If I’m relying on my ISP for the filtering, though, then it’s all or none – if I can see it, then so can anyone else on my home network, as my ISP can’t tell the difference between my use of the computer and anyone else’s. It’s all very well to say that the default should be no porn, with customers having to opt in to see it, but what if the customers who do opt in are parents? Is the ISP supposed to refuse to allow them to opt in? Or do we trust the parents not to, even if they fancy viewing a bit of horizontal action on their laptop?

There’s another aspect to this, too. The campaigners talk in terms of “no porn” or “with porn” options, but in reality it’s not that simple. What we’ll actually have is a choice between filtered and unfiltered web access; the filtered access will minimise (but not eliminate) the availability of porn but it will also filter out some sites that many people – even those who don’t want porn – will want access to. It will also, due to the way it functions at a technical level, cause problems for some people who work from home and need to access company intranets, for example. So a lot of people (who would include myself) who seemingly “opt in” to porn are actually opting out of having their Internet access filtered by their ISP, with porn having nothing to do with it. Many of these people, too, will be parents.

So, when it comes down to it, what will mandatory default filtering actually achieve? It won’t do anything to protect the children of those who want or need unfiltered access for reasons which have nothing to do with porn. It won’t protect the children of those who actually want to be able to get porn at home, and don’t have the self-discipline to refrain from opting in just because there are children in the household. It will reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of porn available to the children of those who don’t opt out, but at the cost of increasing their monthly bills – because someone is going to have to pay for maintaining the pornsite list, and I very much doubt it’s going to be the government. In fact, if it was proposed that it be the government, that would be an even stronger reason to oppose it – there are better things to spend taxpayers’ money on than compiling a directory of pornographic websites (and just imagine what would happen if that list ended up on Wikileaks). But it will also generate a false sense of security among those who come to rely on it, especially if it doesn’t occur to them that their children might be getting access to porn elsewhere.

Ultimately, therefore, I think these proposals fall into the category of “well meaning, but misguided”. The cost and complexity of implementing them will be disproportionate to any benefit they may provide. There is even some danger that they will make things worse, by discouraging parents from taking responsibility themselves for what their children see on the Internet.

So, what is the solution to the problem of porn on the Internet being accessed too easily by children? I don’t think there is a simple, single answer, and I think that the biggest mistake being made by many of the campaigners is that they think there is. But there are some things we can do, and these are some of them.

Firstly, I think it’s entirely appropriate for ISPs to offer an opt-in filtering system for customers who want it. As I’ve said, I don’t think it will be as effective as a user-installed system, but it will provide some benefit to those who choose to use it. But a secondary benefit of such systems – which will need to be widely publicised by the ISPs if they’re to be of any value – will be that it will draw people’s attention to the need to take some steps themselves to protect their children. Because the second, but in my opinion the most important, issue is the lack of user awareness of the issue. I’m sure that most parents would, if they were aware of the issue and had the ability, take some precautions to prevent their children accessing inappropriate material. A big problem, though, is that too few of them are aware. A campaign by the ISPs to improve take-up of their opt-in centralised filtering systems, together with a wider publicity campaign by the government and issue groups to raise awareness of the need to protect children, could make a big difference. In fact, if any of the people and organisations currently campaigning for mandatory default filtering were to change their focus to campaign for raised awareness of the problem and encourage parents to take greater responsibility, then I’d happily support them.

Also, as far as action by the Internet companies is concerned, I think that the ISPs are the wrong target. If the problem is children accidentally encountering porn on the Internet (as opposed to children who deliberately seek it out, which is an entirely different issue), then it’s important to look at how that happens. And one of the major causes of accidental porn exposure is the inclusion of links to porn sites in otherwise innocuous search results. If Google, Bing, Yahoo et al were to insist that “safe search” can only be turned off if you’re logged in to an account which requires you to state your age, then that alone would significantly reduce the amount of porn which is readily accessible by children. That’s a simple change which could easily be made, and one which the search engines would probably agree to if pressed (particularly if the USA and the EU were to make a similar request).

Finally, though, there really is no substitute for parental responsibility. I won’t be signing up for ISP-level filtering, not because I want my children to see porn but because I don’t trust anyone else to protect them from it. I want every parent on the Internet to share my attitude. And I will oppose any campaign which seeks to reduce it. Ultimately, we all need to think of the children.