Free Speech vs. “Terms Of Use”

Everybody practices censorship on some level. Whether it’s self-censorship (a la keeping things professional) or just trying to get others to tone it down, we all know that a certain amount of censorship is needed when it comes to public interactions of any kind.

Of course, in many cases it’s better to just keep your mouth shut rather than offend sensibilities—if you have a tendency to do so. While most would agree that this is a “given,” a lot of companies and businesses are being proactive, and shutting your mouth for you. One can raise a hue and cry that such behavior is “unconstitutional.” And yet, it’s actually not.

In today’s social media landscape, “Terms of Use” map out the terrain. We have to keep in mind that many of these companies (e.g., Facebook and Google) have significant business interests overseas. Many of the shareholders of these companies are not American-based at all. So why would they care about your constitution?

Rather, they care more about protecting the integrity of their product. In a case like Facebook v. Joe Ranter (the wannabe political expert), the decision to delete his rant is often based on standards that transcend any national concern. In this context, “Terms of Use” become a nation unto themselves, with their own laws and regulations and ethics.

Frankly, I don’t use social media anymore. I feel it’s an unhealthy way to interact with one’s peers. Most of it is based on false advertisement anyway. But if you’re that concerned that Big Tech is censoring you, it’s still a free country. You have every right to stop using their services, delete your profile, and go your own way. But who does that?

The more we learn to get comfortable with a platform’s “Terms of Use,” the better we’ll behave. True, stepping on people’s toes is not the unforgivable sin that some make it out to be, but only a troll would do it again and again. And it is Big Tech’s mission to relegate trolls to the prehistoric era where they belong.

While proponents of unbridled free speech may balk at the restrictions placed upon them, it is impossible to deny that “Terms of Use” are helping to shape internet ethics and etiquette. This is a positive thing. As mother always said, if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say it at all.

After all, maybe “ranting” is not the best way to communicate with each other. In an environment where words are weighed and measured, thinking before speaking becomes necessary. Yes, you will have to actually consider what you say before you say it.

Some may have a different view. But I believe that, in time, the fuller benefits of a stern-but-motherly “censorship” must be felt by all, rather than merely its drawbacks. The silver lining is just starting to show.

How Social Media Killed Intelligent Dialogue

In an age long ago, when internet discussion forums were a dime a dozen, and before sites like Facebook and Twitter took off, you could actually find intelligent discussions on the internet. People would generally “network” by joining a discussion group that matched their interests, and take off from there.

Back then, the narcissism was of a very low calibre. You didn’t have to constantly sift through people’s vacation photos or re-postings from other sites to find relevant content. In those days, relevance was only a few clicks away. Granted, admins could often be jerks—as they still are today. But those jerks would at least give you a reason why they moderated your content.

Incidentally, even engine results were better, because they would let you actually find what you were looking for. Remember the “Cache” feature that Google used to have? The internet of 15-20 years ago may have had its limitations. But content was a lot more user-controlled than it is nowadays, when everything is managed by algorithms.

When social media took off around 2008-2009, the large discussion boards hunkered down and still did their thing nonchalantly. But by 2011 and 2012 they were in trouble. Intriguing user “walls” and ‘likeable’ photo galleries had replaced the pert avatars of the Yahoo chat era, and made them obsolescent.

At some point during the last decade, the public’s content preferences shifted from impersonal & data-based to opinion-based & personal. For users, the net result wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Now someone could have all of their interests consolidated under one big blue banner. And the discussion groups seemed a lot more dynamic. The limitations could be lived with because the benefits in other areas were greater.

But at that time, few who had lived through internet’s Golden Era could have reckoned on the toll that social media would ultimately take on content relevance. As things became more personalized, users insidiously lost their ability to customize content. This was effected chiefly through algorithms and the progressive streamlining of user controls and content settings.

The impossibility of locating that thing that you are looking for is now an accepted condition of the internet world in which we live, move, and breathe. But did it have to be? Users can still create content ad infinitum. But they can only manage content within very narrow parameters. The walls are closing in every day. As the interface gets more and more streamlined, users lose more control over data.

The worst factor of social media’s takeover of content, is that it cheapened the public’s definitions of “discussion.” It took everything from the Phil Donahue level to that of Jerry Springer. Sensationalism, emotionalism, name calling, and harmful stereotyping are now the norms within social media. Some of this is fueled by “press-driven” media. But a lot of it is fueled by how we approach information.

With the decline of the big, user-friendly, faceless, but well-regulated discussion boards, users have been re-programmed to approach data and discuss things only a certain way. Fact-checking is not done as much as it should be. Whereas thoughtful response is a relic of past ages. Knee-jerk reactionism is the preferred method; and the more spastically you react, the more your wheels will get greased.

Obviously, this defeats the whole purpose of social networking. But it is what it is. Social Media still has its selling points. But more users are becoming disenchanted with the environment in which they now find themselves. They sense that all is not as it should be. Not to even mention the selling of personal data, but REAL content is getting harder to come by. And REAL discussion is a thing of the past.

Where will it all end? We do not know. However, sometimes we long for old finger-tapping days of dialup delays and annoying McAfee updates. It was a time when people we spoke to were often usernames and handles. But it was also a time when content reigned supreme. It was a time when you had to think before you responded. Unfortunately, it was a time that is gone forever.

The High Cost Of Social Media

Now that popular trends are starting to backlash against the big social media platforms, one begins to wonder where it all will end. I mean, it seems that social media, as we know it, is living on borrowed time. There is something to be said for the almost-outmoded concept of “consumer trust.” When your users start distrusting you, it’s time for an effort to bring them back to the fold. But will that happen?

Of course, the big guns of the social networking world know that retention is the key goal. And that means that they must keep their services free. Back in 2008-2009, when the has-been “Ning” platform took off, there was a huge wave of interest, and tens of thousands flocked over and began joining and launching “Ning social networks.” Facebook was just beginning to tap the market. Had Ning played it smart, one can only imagine where they would have been now. Instead, they got greedy, began charging for their services, and the platform quickly fizzled out.

Facebook and Twitter have kept it smart because they’ve kept it free. But think of what that has cost the consumer. With more and more invasive advertising, and constantly evolving “changes of terms” to the already-Draconian privacy policy, users are in for a very bumpy ride as social networking adjusts itself to shifts in public perception and increasing legislative review of their policies and practices. Besides the need to better sugarcoat what they are offering their users, there is a financial drain which must be counter-weighed. The cost of all this hoopla is skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, the social media giants are doing their very best to make the user experience as unfriendly as possible, with ugly and confusing changes of layout, constantly juggling algorithms which hide content, and ads that seem to know exactly what you’ve been up when you’re not on their platform. But because of the innate vanity of us all, people refuse to close their accounts and move on. Well, I did. But I am an exception, and not the rule.

Judging by what is happening within the social networking jungle, one longs for an inhalation of clean mountain air; and one may well look wistfully back on the days of an ad-free, drama free internet, when users didn’t feel like they were being herded into an e-slaughterhouse for eventual disembowelment. True, the internet was slower back then. But was it really that much slower? There was less adware, less junkware, and less spyware, and social media was a mere dot on the horizon. But as it loomed larger, things changed for the worse.

Now there is a burgeoning cost that must be paid by you the consumer. How that cost will be levied is uncertain. But it won’t take long before you find out. We think that more aggressive advertising, and possibly subscription or “premium membership” services, will play a part. But the end result will be bad for the consumer. And it’s already bad enough.

Why People Stay On Social Media

It can be arguably postulated that anything that acts in a mind-altering manner and ends in addiction can be classified as a drug. We tend to think of drugs as physical substances which are physically ingested. But few of us stop to consider the fact that a drug does not need to be material in nature. A drug is something that makes you feel good about yourself, but which ultimately creates a dependency which is hard to get rid of. Within certain limits, food can be a drug. Or religion. Or love. Or social media.

Social media is not essentially negative in nature. I mean, it is not a bad thing to connect with old classmates, see what your co-workers are doing, or share pictures of your latest excursion with a select group of people. It’s how social media comes to be used that makes it toxic.

The tendency to foster narcissism is always latent within the purlieus of social media. And that is definitely worrisome. I understand, of course, that people have ideas, opinions, and observations that they like to share with the rest of the world. This is a free country, right? But most of us feel, at some point or another, that it was wrong to give a platform to Joe Stupid. And that is exactly what social media does.

From the has-been hottie who lives vicariously through pictures of the past, to the nutball who endlessly posts political rants, there is something within social media that sets people slightly askew. Besides the addictive element, it more or less fosters exhibitionism. Even though that exhibitionism is of the ‘lite’ variety, and does not involve anything illicit, it reeks of the worst of high-school histrionics.

It encourages play-acting. Let’s face it. People don’t put their real selves forward on social media. They carefully tailor their public images to meet their ideal conceptions of themselves. That ideal may be far removed from reality. But who’s to know the truth? One never really gets to know who a person really is on social media, because SM encourages one to cherry-pick his/her best traits and hold them forth as a representation of who they actually are. The ranting may be real enough. But the avatar isn’t.

On sites like Facebook and Twitter, social competition is also rife. As games can be addictive, so we feel that the level of competitive interest engendered by social media contributes to dependency. It may be one thing to post pictures of your latest outing. It is another thing to make sure you are outdoing every one else. That takes a level of time-investment and energy that is a bit morbid (or at least misplaced) when one considers how make-believe social media really is.

Despite the fact that SM platforms are selling your personal information; despite the fact that they control what content you see and what you don’t; despite the fact that many spend untold hours each week sifting through social media while more important things get left undone: still so few refuse to delete their accounts and move to healthier, saner activities. The reason is pretty obvious. They are addicted.

The desire to be relevant is, of course, inherent in us all. We want to feel that we are not just a grain of sand in the midst of millions of grains of sand. We want to have a voice. We want to have a platform. We want to have lots of friends and feel their beaming approval with everything we do. But that isn’t how life really works, is it?

To a certain extent, all of us are selfish. All of us put ourselves first. We listen to others not so that we may hear, but so that we may respond. We don’t CARE what other people are saying. We just want to have OUR say. What we need to do is mortify our pride a little, and realize that we don’t always have to be saying something. We don’t always have to be on display. Sometimes it’s nicer to just sit in the bleachers and take notes. For that is how we learn the real nuances of life.

Humility can be an excellent trait to have, because it helps one get a real sense of perspective. Unfortunately, it’s not found on social media. The humble person on SM is really a non-entity, and may as well not exist at all. But in real life, the humble individual is often one who decided to take acting lesson first before hitting the stage. I mean, we all act. But we need to make sure that our acting is relevant and true-to-nature, so that our lives don’t play out like a B-movie.

But you say, “I can’t leave SM. That is where all my friends and family and co-workers and classmates are.” Well, it is admittedly difficult to leave it all behind. But addiction is always a hard thing to beat. The good news is that it can be done. Only when it’s done does one realize what a wise move it was weaning oneself off of the drug.

How To Rescue Your Money From The E-Commerce Dragon

So you’ve just gone online and purchased that gadget you’ve had your eye on for months. But now you realize that you needed the one with the built-in accessory. Not a problem, right? You call the 1-800 number in hopes that the order can be updated. But you are told that it cannot. What’s more, you are also advised that canceling the order is not even an option, because there’s no way to do it.

Or you ordered some designer clothing. But when it showed up it didn’t quite fit as you had hoped. Now you must return it. After getting your return shipped back to the company, you patiently wait for the refund to be processed. A couple weeks later you are dismayed to find that your refund amount is considerably less than you expected due to a “restocking fee.”

Or perhaps you returned the product too late, and never got a refund at all. When you called customer service, you were brazenly told that you had received a “store credit” instead, and that you must be content with that.

If you’ve been around e-commerce for any amount of time, you’ll know that these are realistic scenarios. Although the play-out may differ slightly depending on whom or what company you are dealing with, one guiding principle must be kept in mind to make everything clear.

E-commerce isn’t about you the customer. It’s about the company. It is carefully structured to draw in as much profit as possible at minimal risk to the seller. By “risk,” I mean situations where the sale is lost due to order cancellations or returns. An online business’s goal is to get your money as efficiently at it can, and to keep it at all costs. They lay out the traps. Your function is to fall into them.

Most e-commerce platforms do not let CSR’s (Customer service reps) cancel orders. And if you’ve asked to speak to a manager, that probably won’t help either. The company’s finance or e-commerce department (closely related) typically sets the parameters as to whether or not an order can be canceled; what modifications (if any) can be made to an order already submitted; and what the forecast looks like for your credit card statement should you decide to return the product. Systems are generally set up so that orders cannot be canceled. And even when they can, there is often a ridiculously short time-window in which it can be done. So if you need an order nixed, you had better call immediately.

“Store credit” is just a fancy system set up to keep your money. I am aware of some sellers that will only give you 30 days from date of purchase to return a product. If it isn’t back at the warehouse within that time frame, or if the warehouse is slow in processing the return, you could end up with store credit instead of your money back. And most consumers already know enough about “restocking fees,” so there is no need to comment on that.

Is there a way to fight back and retrieve your money? There certainly are ways to break through the circle of enchantment cast by the e-commerce dragon. Some of them are more effective than others.

A BBB (Better Business Bureau) complaint is usually quite effective. However, the drawback is that it often takes more time than is feasible. After submitting your complaint, it can take upwards of 10 business days or longer (depending on the rate of response) to get any reply to your complaint, let alone a resolution. Keep in mind that the complaints are sent to the respondent by email. So if they are using a third-party organization to field their customer service communications, this could cause additional delays.

A faster way would be to reach out via public comment on the company’s Facebook or Twitter pages. I know that most companies will do everything they can to avoid adverse public-facing comments on their social media portals, because that is where customers go to get updates or leave feedback on a business’s product. Nuking their Facebook page with a few comments about how poor their product and service is, and warning others not to buy from them, will get you the fastest results. Most reps will try to get you into a private discussion once this happens. However, if you can talk it over via PM, the issue typically gets quickly resolved.

Making phone calls up the chain of command can also be fruitful. However, that requires some knowledge of the business’s organizational structure, which in most instances isn’t made public. I alluded to the fact that many companies use third-party e-commerce solutions firms to handle their customer service communications. So you likely won’t know whether you are dealing with an actual employee of the brand, or a hired gun. Nevertheless, if the issue escalates and you still get no resolution, you can ask to be put in touch with the company’s finance or legal department.

Disputing a credit card transaction should always be a last resort, and should only be done if all other avenues have failed. Generally speaking, if you have tried the above recommendations, you will not need to take it that far.

Granted, these are just a few ways you can beat e-commerce at its game. It is always better to settle things amicably if you can. But we know that there are times when we must go to war. Again, e-commerce is all about the company and its profits. It is driven by metrics. As businesses get increasingly predacious, quality of products and services suffer in the balance. Which is why it is important to insist on proper closure. This means satisfaction, or your money back. And when satisfaction fails, green is the color you ought to see the dragon cough up.

Quitting Facebook.. This Time For Good

Big Tech lied to us years ago when they predicted that the online experience would be as smooth as silk by 2020. With predictions of lightning-speed internet and and a mind-boggling array of customization and user-friendly controls, one would have thought that by now navigating the internet would have been been as easy as walking to the fridge and grabbing a coke.

But alas.. we did not count on the obfuscation factor. Obfuscation is when someone deliberately ruins a good thing through an excess of control, which equates to paranoiac micro-management of details that should be left to the consumer. If a consumer buys, or ‘buys into,’ a product, it is assumed (at least from an advertising perspective) that he or she will be allowed to use it. It is upon that basis that remote controls become the natural and obvious corollary of the television set. There is probably an equation that could be worked out affirming that the value of a product increases in direct proportion to its usability.

But in reality, there is no such thing. For whatever reason, computers have become slower while more complex, and systems have become more convoluted while less transparent.

In the case of Facebook, the final straw for me was when it finally forced users to opt for a new layout, which made it harder to navigate. We needed an instruction book, but all we got was boiler-plate. Instead of Facebook inventing a remote control and then handing it to the user, it created a complex labyrinth which plays out like an 80’s Nintendo game in which one must aimlessly wander in search of a way out. When you think you’ve finally found it, the door disappears. And then you usually end up giving up anyway, because.. well, you’ve got things to do.

What really peeves me about Facebook is the fact that one cannot control one’s own content. In other words, given my settings and preferences (which seem customizable enough), I am still unable to control what is considered ‘relevant.’ Not that I ever used Facebook a great deal. Some days I didn’t even sign on. But the reason for my lack of use was likely due to the progression of the app’s un-usability. Or maybe it was my not being tech-savvy enough.

I don’t mind ‘unfollowing’ people who hammer on about politics, their tailored-to-awe social lives, or even their baby pictures which they share profusely every day and which all look exactly the same. What I mind is that when I wanted to view something, I could never find it. Or when I did find it, and inadvertently clicked away for a moment, I couldn’t get back to it again. This is especially frustrating when one is trying to find relevant material in a discussion forum. If you find something that is relevant, you can’t just bookmark it and come back to it later. It may disappear, due to the shifting sands of algorithm-generated content.

Apart from obvious privacy concerns (which would require another article to discuss), the main drawback of Facebook, and which will finally prove their own undoing, is the continued obfuscation of the user experience. Many of us are busier today than we were ten or fifteen years ago. Life is proceeding at a faster pace, and communication outlets have increased and are constantly jockeying for a position in the world of spin. We are being absolutely bombarded with information. Filtration may sometimes be necessary.. but the controls need to be delegated back to consumers if you want them to go on using your product. If the companies keeps the controls, or dole them out too sparingly, we are back to square one again and must get off our butts every time we want to change the channel. If the trend continues, consumers will soon hit a brick wall of unilateralism. And that is a big word which means Tech is making all the decisions for you. No thanks, I’ll take my time and thought-investment elsewhere.