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The decline of social media in the 2010s: A status report

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How infrastructure remade our world since 2010
Scott Fulton tells Karen Roby that people ask new and more complex questions of Siri, Alexa, and Google every day. How accurate and useful their responses are speaks to the massive fundamental changes behind the devices we use. Scott Fulton, who covered epic changes in 1990 and 2000, shines a spotlight backward on the under-appreciated platforms that made these changes possible, and the people who created them. Read more: https://zd.net/2Sg4yVJ

If the striving for social status is to be used as a major explanatory variable for social behavior then it becomes particularly important to reach clearer understanding of the nature of social status itself. We need a theory of social status explaining how the various members’ relative rank and status is determined in social groups: a theory explaining what makes social groups grant higher social status to some of their members, and what makes these members themselves seek higher social status within the group.

  -John C. Harsanyi, University of California at Berkeley
  A Bargaining Model for Social Status in Informal Groups and Formal Organizations, 1966

“We don’t have the strongest reputation on privacy right now,” admitted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at his company’s conference last April, as he was rolling out yet another new vision for Facebook’s infrastructure.

Typically, social media has been the world’s most effective system of disseminating hyperbole, so Zuckerberg’s statement on stage that day was comparably extraordinary. Facebook’s privacy incidents over the years have been so numerous and so severe, ZDNet has already established a kind of hall of fame for them. At the summit of this list is an incident that may literally have changed the world, covered in depth by ZDNet’s Charlie Osborne: the policy-breaking sharing of at least 87 million personal records of Facebook users worldwide, with the political operations group Cambridge Analytica.  As ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker reported, this firm has been linked with disinformation campaigns responsible for stirring political activism favoring the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, and favoring the Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Last February, a UK Parliament select committee laid much of the blame for this illicit connection, and the extraordinary aftermaths that have followed, at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg. As the committee’s report found [PDF]:

The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests.

Facebook, according to recent statistics compiled by Web analytics firm StatCounter, remains responsible for generating about two-thirds of the world’s social media-related web activity. Its millions of users (many of them real), find themselves in a situation that would have astounded Ray Bradbury. The powers that would resuscitate the Soviet Empire were found by intelligence services to have conducted a disinformation scheme targeting the Western world, especially the United Kingdom and United States. The scheme’s primary tools were Facebook, Instagram (part of Facebook), Twitter, Google Plus (now defunct), and YouTube (part of Google).

The apparent aims of these powers, directed by Russia, did indeed come to fruition, and spectacularly so. Citizens of the UK voted in favor of their country exiting the European Union. A reality show host with no public service experience was elected President of the United States. And a comedian who had the good fortune of portraying on television the President of Ukraine — an adjacent country whose territory these powers would like to see annexed — was elected President of Ukraine. There is no evidence that disinformation campaigns were directly responsible for any of these events — that agitation by social media changed people’s votes, or that these trends are directly correlated. But that has always been the case with disinformation: It masks its own evidence trail.

All this may explain the serenity and self-confidence, if indeed his emotions can be read so clearly, with which Mark Zuckerberg wrote off this incident, along with all the other in the growing mountain, as a glitch.

Reward center

mark-zuckerberg-facebook-f8-2019.jpg

“As our world has expanded,” Zuckerberg told his conference audience at one point, “we face a new challenge: We all need to find our place in this much bigger world, and it can be hard to find and feel like you have a unique sense of purpose when you’re connected to billions of people at the same time. Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves. It’s easier to feel like you belong when you’re part of smaller communities, and amongst your closest friends.

“So it’s no surprise,” the CEO continued, “that the fastest ways that we’re all communicating online are private messaging, in small groups, and in stories. As the world gets bigger and more connected, we need that sense of intimacy more than ever.”

Anyone who’s written or outlined public speeches for a living can detect when a paragraph or a passage has been specially constructed to move the listener’s attention past a glaring mistake. Zuckerberg’s is the kind of language defense attorneys use to plea with juries. It wraps us in the warm blanket of an altruistic society, and casts his platform as the source of that warmth. It invites us to make judgment calls that relocate the focus of our deliberations to how we feel, and whether we’re happy.

Happiness is a chemical reaction. The neurochemical considered primarily responsible for the feeling of pleasure, is dopamine. Human beings often choose behavioral patterns that streamline, or even hard-wire, the reception of dopamine. Addiction is often the result of hard-wiring the brain’s dopamine-consuming reward centers in such a way that the behaviors triggering these rewards seem unavoidable.

Dopamine enters our story of the decline of social media at this point for a non-coincidental reason: Facebook’s entire premise, some researchers and psychologists believe, is as a system geared to trigger the reward centers of its users’ brains, as a means of continuing and ensuring their usage patterns.

Anxiety attack

The notion that social media can become the object of an addiction is by no means new, especially to this publication. Almost nine years ago, ZDNet contributor Zack Whittaker shared his personal story of the similarities he noticed in his life, between when he gave up Facebook for a week and when he gave up smoking. Later, Zack shared his observations about the conditions one should recognize, both in one’s life and mindset, that should serve as signals of being addicted to using social media platforms.

As ZDNet reported, researchers developed a quantitative means of rating one’s interactivity levels with Facebook, to determine whether one officially crossed the threshold into obsession. Quickly, someone designated an appropriate acronym for the catalyst of this obsession: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary officially adopted the term as a legitimate word. ZDNet’s Eileen Brown reported on a survey claimed to present evidence that everyone suffers from FOMO to one degree or another. Which turned out to be a good thing, as marketers discovered clients could leverage FOMO to their advantage in attracting and retaining customers.

As with any substance that loses its rewarding effects over time, marketers should be warned that leveraging FOMO as a customer attraction tool, has its limits. As Harvard Medical School summarizes it, “Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences.”

According to the Rand Corporation, results of a 2018 survey published by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health found a correlation among people aged 14 to 24 between use of Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook and negative mental health symptoms. This correlation, argue the authors of King University’s report “The Psychology of Social Media” [PDF] is a physical one that, with the right equipment, can actually be seen:  “The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is one of the primary parts responsible for determining the rewards system in people’s bodies,” King U. explains.  “When social media users receive positive feedback (likes), their brains fire off dopamine receptors, which is facilitated in part by the VTA.”

Around the same time, a University of Pittsburgh study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior examined the social media behavior patterns of 1,730 individuals ranging in age from 19 to 32. Participants in this study used social media to varying degrees, and were clustered into categories based on their usage patterns. What concerned these researchers most was an apparent correlation between the high-usage “Wired” group’s online behavior, and their other personal traits which are already associated with anxiety and depression:

It may be that this particular pattern of SMU [social media use] is indicative of a preoccupation with, and hyper-vigilant surveillance of, one’s social media.  For example, Wired individuals may routinely engage in attention seeking behaviors, reflected in high volume SMU, such as frequent status updates and subsequent checking for “likes.” This preoccupation may lead to depression if the individual does not receive the desired feedback from his or her social media audience.  Similarly, “fear of missing out” (FOMO), characterized by the desire to stay continually connected, and “Snapstreaks,” metrics of consecutive daily “Snaps” between friends on Snapchat, may contribute to a hyper-vigilant social media surveillance.  These social media-derived behaviors may mimic and contribute to symptoms of anxiety.

A subsequent project, this time not by psychiatrists but by the business school of South Korea’s Sangji University [PDF], attempted to draw relationships between these and other, similar studies being conducted at the time. This project used statistical analysis to correlate what psychiatrists were seeing with the phenomena that social media users themselves were reporting in their survey results.

In fairness, the Sangji report ostensibly casts its own conclusions as “hypotheses.” Yet it makes some bold, stark propositions: High social media use, particularly with Facebook, may initially be driven by people’s need to belong. This need is especially intense among people prone to narcissistic personality disorder, whose dopamine centers are triggered by the needs for self-presentation and for admiration. Once the cycle of social media use begins, users who exhibit the traits of addicts also display traits of voyeurism, observing other people’s lives as a substitute for the human relationships they have been unable to build for themselves.

False positive

That feeling of belonging and intimacy to which Zuckerberg referred — of not missing out, of not just being part of something but being admired for it — can be substantiated artificially in two ways. One is through the systematic, measured dispensation of status. This is the variable that was the focus of Nobel laureate economist John C. Harsanyi’s career. In Harsanyi’s time, there was no means — scientific or automatic — to quantify one’s social status among a group, or in society at large. But this is exactly the currency of internet-based social networking; the quantification of social status is precisely why Facebook was created. Social networks use status as a reward for participation; what’s more, as the Sangji University study stated, they punish lack of participation with the removal of status, which triggers feelings of exclusion and anxiety.

The second method of artificial substantiation comes by means of the ad hoc generation of common belief systems — worlds of arbitrarily assembled information that can masquerade as fact. In the absence of true interpersonal exchange, a social media environment can use belief in a common conceit as a placebo. The feeling — perhaps the illusion — of these items’ factuality and relevance may be compounded by the feeling users have of what Zuckerberg called “intimacy,” that despite their wide propagation, these items were tailored or filtered or expressly delivered just for them. These phenomena were validated not just by the psychiatric and business school studies, but by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in its report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections [PDF].

Among the research the Committee entered into evidence was an MIT investigation into Twitter’s analytics [PDF], which concluded that a false news story, or a false item masquerading as a news story, was 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than a true one, especially in circumstances where the story had a political context. It also cited a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts [PDF], which in tracked a sea of political tweets about the 2016 elections, produced by both humans and automated response systems (“bots”). In horrific graphic detail, the NBER report revealed how intensely human Twitter users responded with opposition or contrary positions (for example, argumentatively) to tweets from bots (blue lines, below) versus from other humans (grey lines).

191222-nber-time-series-graph-tp-vs-clinton-tweets.jpg

National Bureau of Economic Research

Senators looking into the now overwhelming evidence of Russia’s effort to disrupt US democracy, saw these charts. This is the actual disruption: a scientific measurement of compulsive reactions to political agitation. The need to belong, these time-series charts indicate, can be satiated by artificial entities to which no one can belong.

If anyone believes that the neo-Soviet disruptors behind this scheme were oblivious to how they leverage an internet communications system to mount an attack on the psychology of democracy itself, they need to run a Google search on Vladimir Putin.

Or perhaps that’s the wrong tack, because the relevance of whatever that search may reveal could be a random variable. The web, of which social media is a large chunk, is capable of substantiating whatever information that we believe to be, or that we wish to be, facts. If a reputable publication presents a fact or makes an assertion, its reputation does not have to be called into question for that assertion to be disputed. Someone, or something, on social media can simply deny that such reputation exists. If the validity, or even the authenticity, of the denier is in doubt, then someone, or something, can corroborate that doubt. Then if the corroborator is a false entity, a “sock puppet,” the entire argument becomes moot. Nothing is real, to borrow a Beatles phrase, and nothing to get hung about.

During Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony in April 2018, in the last few seconds of his allotted time, Sen. Ben Sasse (R – Neb.) tossed out what he might have supposed to be a throwaway question:  “Do social media companies hire consulting firms to help them figure out how to get more dopamine feedback loops, so that people don’t want to leave the platform?”

“No, Senator. That’s not how we talk about this,” responded Zuckerberg, with a sentence begging to be parsed, “or how we set up our product teams. We want our products to be valuable to people. And if they’re valuable, then people choose to use them.”

It may literally be that simple to the man: Value, in his mind, is whatever makes one happy.

Learn more — From the CBS Interactive Network

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Fisker and Foxconn team on new EV with outsized ambitions

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Fisker and Foxconn are teaming up on an an electric vehicle, with the EV-company and the manufacturing heavyweight aiming for go far beyond the niche production in the automaker’s past. Codenamed Project PEAR – or “Personal Electric Automotive Revolution” – the goal is to make a more affordable EV that can hit the sort of sales numbers more commonplace among mainstream gas models.

Fisker is probably best known for its role in the style-forward Karma hybrid sedan, a project now being run independently by Karma Automotive. Plans rebooted, Fisker first unveiled the EMotion EV back in 2018, a striking luxury electric sedan with double-gullwing doors.

Production for that, though, was put on the back-burner, as Fisker turned instead to more affordable, mainstream fare. The Fisker Ocean is promised to be a sub-$40k electric SUV, with the car company inking a deal with auto parts behemoth Magna to build the plug-in. Manufacturing is expected to begin in Q4 2022, and even without a production-ready prototype shown – something Fisker says will happen later this year – there are apparently upwards of 12k paid reservations for the car.

One vehicle does not an automaker make, though, and so Fisker is looking to its next model. That’ll be jointly developed by it and Foxconn, sold under the Fisker brand, and included as part of Fisker’s Flexee Lease program. Foxconn will be responsible for manufacturing, bringing the same heft that powers iPhone production to automotive.

Project PEAR – details on which are scant, currently – will be “destined for multiple global markets” Fisker said today. Production is currently earmarked for Q4 2023, and it’ll be the second EV in Fisker’s range.

Fisker’s ambitions aren’t exactly low. The expectation is that it’ll take just 24 months to develop the car, including research and development, and becoming production-ready. That’s about half the time most automakers would expect to take. Foxconn hasn’t been shy about its EV hopes in the past, either, already cutting deals with Byton and Fiat Chrysler in the past on electric vehicle technology.

“The key success elements of electric vehicle development include the electric motor, electric control module and battery,” Young-way Liu, Foxconn Technology Group Chairman, said today in a statement. “We have two major advantages in this regard, with an exceptional vertically integrated global supply chain and the best supply chain management team in our industry.”

Discussions are underway between the firms, with a formal partnership expected to be signed in Q2 2021. The two firms are aiming high, too, with projected 250,000 annual volume of the vehicle. Exactly what it will look like, cost, how much range it might pack, where it will launch, and other details are still in short supply: Fisker’s design inspiration sketch would seem to imply a crossover of some sort, a sensible choice given the skew of sales right now toward that category.

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2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV has more range, more power, and a lower base price

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That’s right. Mitsubishi will continue selling the 2021 Outlander PHEV alongside the all-new, Rogue-based 2022 Outlander. The Japanese carmaker is burning the midnight oil in conceptualizing a new plug-in hybrid (PHEV) based on the new model, but Mitsubishi is not leaving anything to chance.

The carmaker is making sure it has a crossover PHEV in its lineup for customers, and is the reason why you’ll find the 2021 Outlander PHEV together with the new 2022 Outlander in Mitsubishi showrooms.

Nevertheless, Mitsubishi’s making sure you get the most bang for your buck in the 2021 Outlander PHEV. It starts with a more robust and fuel-efficient 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine producing 126 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. Next, the previous 60 kW rear-mounted electric motor makes way for a more potent 70 kW unit.

As expected, the power figures are quite generous for a midsize crossover. The 2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV’s advanced hybrid powertrain pumps out 221 horsepower, 31 more horses than the outgoing model. It also has a more significant 13.8 kWh battery pack (the old model had a 12.0 kWh battery), boosting the all-electric range from 22 to 24 miles.

Admittedly, the 2-miles range boost is small by modern EV standards. But for most people, it’s enough to cover a trip to a grocery or convenience store without burning a drop of fuel. And since the new Outlander PHEV has a better range, it now qualifies for larger tax incentives depending on where you live.

Sold in three trim models, the base 2021 Outlander PHEV SEL-AWC starts at $37,490 (including $1,195 destination fees). It now qualifies for up to $6,587 in federal incentives, increasing around $750 over the old model, further lowering the MSRP.

Meanwhile, the Outlander PHEV LE S-AWC has base prices starting at $39,190, while the range-topping GT S-AWC model starts at $43,190 before federal and state credits. The former adds a blacked-out grille, a sunroof, bespoke 18-inch alloy wheels, and blacked-out bumpers. The good news? Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV is available to order now.

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Oshkosh Defense wins USPS contract to modernize postal delivery vehicle fleet

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The United States Postal Service has announced that it has awarded a contract to Oshkosh Defense worth multiple billions of dollars to modernize the postal delivery vehicle fleet. We’ve all seen the vehicles that the USPS uses currently as they deliver mail around cities all over the country. Under the contract award, Oshkosh Defense will finalize the Next Generation Delivery Vehicle (NGDV) design.

The U.S. Postal Service announced this week that it had awarded the 10-year contract to Oshkosh Defense, marking a move to make the most dramatic modernization of the USPS fleet in over 30 years. The massive investment in new vehicles is part of a new plan the Postal Service has developed to transform its financial performance and customer service over the next decade. In addition to massive investments in vehicles, the plan also includes investments in people, technology, and infrastructure.

Oshkosh Defense will see an initial $482 million investment to finalize the production design of the NGDV, which is a purpose-built right-hand-driving vehicle for mail and package delivery. Oshkosh Defense will build between 50,000 and 165,000 vehicles over the next decade. All vehicles will feature either a fuel-efficient internal combustion engine or battery-electric powertrain.

In models that use a battery-electric powertrain, they will be able to be retrofitted to keep pace with advances in electric vehicle technology. That means the vehicles can be upgraded as technology improves rather than replaced. Money from the initial investment is allotted for plant tooling and build-out for the US manufacturing facility where final vehicle assembly will happen.

Currently, the Postal Service fleet has more than 230,000 vehicles in every class, including purpose-build and commercial-off-the-shelf vehicles. About 190,000 of those vehicles deliver mail between six and seven days per week in every US community around the country. Many of the vehicles in the USPS fleet have been in service for 30 years. The Postal Service expects the first NGDV vehicles to appear on routes in 2023.

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