Sunday, August 06, 2017

the day that moodgym went behind a paywall

Every two years, or so the joke went, I needed to go into the moodgym. Ever since a bad sequence, first with depression with cause, then with a trainee counsellor, and then with a very slow sequence of learning emotional management, I stumbled across the moodgym. It's possible that I was just in a receptive phase when I found it; or maybe it is actually better than the other tools, but it proved useful. Whenever the wobbles started to become a steady veering off the road, back into the moodgym I would go and get back in shape. I especially appreciated the opportunity to do without the counsellor; who needs a little additional social anxiety chucked into the mix?

I'd suggest it to people, from time to time. Although you had to role-play being an Australian university student, that in itself was weirdly soothing; the online equivalent of the disassociative finger-wiggle. The anonymous web-forms kept your secrets. You decided when you'd done enough, how deep to go, and what to explore.

The UK versions all charge. Most of these things charge, in fact, and I wondered if they were better. As someone with mild to moderate depression I can sign up for the right sort of studies to try them out, and I kept and eye out and applied for one. I was assigned to the control group, though, which got Moodgym (hey ho). Going in with a critical, reviewer's eye though, was interesting. It was relatively simple, but then so is emotional regulation. Like the old joke about healthy eating being communicable in a single sentence (eat moderately, not too much meat) healthy thinking is almost as straightforward (think positively, be kind, solve or set aside problems). The difficulty lies as ever with habits and habituation. The gentle repetitions of moodgym help deconstruct and reconstruct these. The simple, undistracting design was a relaxing retreat from the hyperstimulation of online activity. It was good, I said in my feedback. It helped.

So to 2017 and I suggest it, again, and later get a gentle email enquiry sent through. "Free?" it says. I go check and discover that this product developed with public money has been spun out into a commercial enterprise and that moodgym now sits behind a paywall. Bah. Over a million users worldwide, it boasts. Well. I bet that's gone down a bit from its peak years. It's still way cheaper than the UK's finest, the Big White Wall, and has the added benefit that at least we know what's inside it; Big White Wall's description could as easily describe Youthnet's The Mix, an online information website with peer support forums moderated by, well, youth workers for the Mix and health workers for Big White Wall. For the amount they're charging I'm assuming there's more to it than that, but for £24/month I'm not going to be finding out any time soon. In fact, for AU$39/year I'm not going to be finding out how Moodgym's revamp went.

Not to worry, though. There's an American charity (yes, sorry, you're still roleplaying) called Anxiety BC which is making effective self-help tools available freely online, and you can build up a pretty good programme using their tools. There is content for all manner of different individual situations (check tools from the adults section too) but here are three things that are basically useful for everyone:
No online forms, sadly. You have to use an app (Mindshift) or print out sheets of paper. So yes, I do miss the simple, low stimulation web-forms of Moodgym (athough redesign, so that may have changed) and its closed, tidy structure. But similar tools are still out there, and still outside the paywalls. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

searching for yoga mats, sorted by price

I was trying to find a yoga mat on a leading online everything store (birthday present rather than for personal use) and after the usual frustrating first five minutes of trying to hone the search to actually include yoga mats my intended gift victim would enjoy, set the sorting to price high to low. Yoga mats topped out at a relatively modest £5K+, which shows how much the algorithm price wars have dropped off in recent years. In fact, a lot of the ads were for legitimately expensive items like inflatable and ultra-padded cheerleading mats, giant yoga mats to cover an entire room, and  yoga mat trolleys. Still a few people kicking it old-school though, with the list topped by three identical and utterly ordinary products priced in the thousands.

But it was when I set the pricing low to high (looking for carry straps I think) that the real surprise occurred. There were two or three yoga mat carry straps, but everything else was, I kid you not, teeny tiny tacky lacy strappy undies illustrated by all manner of pictures of professionally pleased to see you ladies. I was in the grip of a big EEEK already (mainly at the thought of the ads that would now be chasing me across the internet) when I spotted that adult items had been excluded from the search. Well, thank heavens for that, I suppose.

But what the heck is happening here? Time for five minute's thought:
  • Hypothesis #1: Some SEO scamp has tagged all the products in the store (it is all one store)  with Yoga Mat, presumably on the grounds that ladies who like yoga may also like skimpy pants.
  • Hypothesis #2: It is common practice to massively multiply tag penny items, on the assumption that people just go into a click-buy haze when they see such bargains.
  • Hypothesis #3: There is some alternative use for yoga mats of which I am not aware.

I clicked through to one of the more innocuous items to check it out, and what's been done is either sort of clever, in an annoying sort of way, or a result of automatic categorisation having gone wrong. It's also possible it's an exploitation of a known weakness, so essentially both.

Under special offers, possibly because there is no-where else to go when most of what you're selling is retailing at £0.01+ p+p, the seller has simply linked back to some site search pages, including best rated yoga mat reviews among  other outdoor and fitness categories. The category assigned, Sports > Outdoors > Fitness > Yoga > Mats, appears to have been lifted from this non-information in the special offer category.

While the seller is a mere # 69,166 in the Sports > Outdoors category, they are a surprisingly high #384 in Sports > Outdoors > Fitness > Yoga > Mats, suggesting that for some yoga fans at least, hypothesis #1 (or potentially, for some lingerie fans, hypothesis #3) does hold.

Hypothesis #2 I discarded by running a few more searches (shoe stretchers, pepper grinders, sugar mice, yoga bricks, door mats, watch straps, exhaustive search run fans). No other search terms had suffered this mass lingerie invasion.

Right then, onto the incorrect product information feedback forms.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

once upon a twitter and the snapchat map

Once upon a Twitter I bullied a crowd of friends into installing it for a festival. This was in the heady days when it was text message only and there were no carrier charges in the UK. I sold it to them as selective telepathy - you can let your friends know what you're doing/thinking/saying at a distance in brief form. We realised that some other people at the festival were tweeting too. The experience was diffused and intensified by the multiple viewpoints. We set off into the new festival fields, virtual and actual, and later, like good SF fans, debated the ethics of seeing strangers' thoughts into the night.

That bright summer of scattered thoughts didn't last for long, but it was long enough to polarise my friends into haters and embracers of this new communication form, to struggle through some of its early problems, and form a sadly doomed attachment myself. When lower data charges and faster phone speeds brought Twitter back to me, hashtags were in place as a way of finding the other people doing or seeing what you are doing or seeing, and nowadays doing a quick flicker across to look at what strangers are doing/thinking/saying when I'm at an event is pretty much second nature.

So, when people starting sending me through clickbait links about the new Snapchat feature that will destroy privacy and put our children at risk™ I was naturally intrigued. I had resisted the lure of Snapping (mostly because the people asking me if I was on Snapchat were usually relatives aged eight to ten) but as so often happens, the feature arrives that will crack you, and maybe even the app, into a new space. Enter the Snapmap, at which point I absolutely had to download Snapchat and check out in order to explore the privacy and safety concerns.

You can tap on a hotspot on a map and tap though a bunch of snaps that have been shared to public in that area. You're visible (or rather a daft looking cartoon version of yourself is visible) on the map to your friends, or maybe just a select group, or no-one if you're feeling ghooooostly. Heh.

My assessment of it: interesting.

  • It might create problems in poorly-curated friend groups
    When I was asked to add my contacts there were a bunch of people I'd drifted out of touch with, including a few who shouldn't be on my contacts at all. People who shortcut their settings may end up telling people they stopped talking to some time ago where they are.
  • It'll enable including and excluding people in plans
    Inner cliques and outer circles just got defined. You can hide yourself completely and cut other people out from being able to see you on the map. Friendship tensions ahoy.
  • Think before you post just got a whole lot bigger
    The public snaps on the map are being shared as "Our Story", a public post, and you have to consciously choose to do that. It doesn't remember if your last snap was public, so each public snap represents a positive (if perhaps not very well thought out) decision to share. 
  • You could use it to surprise a friend for good or bad reasons
    People started describing the Snapmap as stalky, freaky and creepy almost immediately, and I see their point; assuming they're visible to you, arranging to accidentally bump into X or hide from Y is a doddle. Of course if everyone goes into ghost mode right away and only pops out when they're at a loose end and fancy seeing if anyone else is around (and the system enables this quite well) it'll only be an issue for the risky oversharers, which brings me to...
  • It will increase the risk of risky oversharing
    Everyone knows a few risky oversharers, who like to live the open online life, Many people go through risky oversharing stages, often for good reasons like establishing yourself in a new social group, meeting new people, or attending an event. During this phase, Snapchat might now amplify the risk of a hairy post by depositing you tidily on a very precise map. If anyone happens to care and be looking, of course.
  • It may be prophylactic against stalking - or it may find or reinforce more stalkers
    Time was, technologically-enabled stalking took a bunch of effort. You had to find specialist software, you had to suborn the other person's hardware. By the time the nuisance effects began to crest into the stalked person's sphere of notice, the stalking person had knocked down so many acceptable behaviour barriers that they were very dangerous, and irreparably fixated on the stalked person, and on the activity of stalking. Now everyone can stalk a person with very little technological effort, it becomes something everyone has to think about. Acceptable behaviour can be discussed and set within peer groups. Of course, a rotten peer group can set a deviant norm; and individuals without the facility to do complex online actions may find themselves suddenly in a moral position they may otherwise have never encountered.
  • Group games, flashmobs ... bank heists?
    It's too early to tell exactly what being able to put a bunch of your friends onto a map accurately might be good for, but I'm guessing that there will be a few innovative uses, some negative. After all, there are a few situations I can think of right away where being able to locate ten friends and assemble them to your location might be very useful. Potluck picnics, demos, spur-of-the-moment lunches. Pokémon Go raids, of course.
It's tempting to think that Pokémon Go and Snapchat somehow coordinated this, but it's more likely to be the case that super-accurate location services and find my [friends, car, cat, whatever] are emergent in the field of technological human facility augmentation right now and these are simply the most obvious inflorescences of this immanence visible from my individual perspective.  

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

botherware, blue whale and outsourcing of decision-making

I attended a short course on social marketing (a standard encounter in my line of work) and while most of the day was dedicated to communicating the health risks of sunbeds to devotees of the Liverpool look (it was a culturally expanding day for me) there was also a visit from people selling a wellbeing app, the kind that sends you text instructions every day. The company in question was at the stage of trying to sell it as a way of reducing community mental health expenditure and was full of anecdata about how valuable it had proved in multiple circumstances. I lost count of the number of people who had spoken to their neighbours or unexpectedly baked a cake for someone as a result of this app. Naturally I signed up on the spot. I always take the antique work i-pad along to days like this, and it's a great way of seeing how reliably a thing runs.

I managed to sign up. The immediate functionality was cheerleading other people's wellbeing activities, so I did a bit of that. Then I forgot about it, like you do.

A few days later, I started getting the texts. Go screen free this evening! Take a different route home! Compliment a colleague! Spot ten things you don't normally see! Watch someone talk for ten minutes on Youtube about wellbeing!

Hmmm. After the "eulogy task" text, I switched the alerts onto another phone and thereafter ignored them. Chalk it up under "inexplicably popular, but not for me"? Or is there something more going on?

At aroundabout the same time I became aware of the blue whale phenomenon. This weird mass of cultural flotsam (an online game, a real life court case, an online video series) was initially taken for an online suicide cult by the tabloids, several of which have been running with this idea ever since, despite substantial debunking. It adopts a similar sort of methodology, with tasks messaged to you every day. Not exactly the same kind of tasks, although write your own eulogy could conceivably turn up on both.

Like the more expensive wellbeing apps, it also claims to offer an online mentor, although given how the entire framework and toolkit is freely shared online, it could simply be peer mentoring, like my initial cheerleading for my wellbeing buddies on the directed cheerfulness app, delivered by other newbies overexcited that they've got their hands on the script.

In both cases I was struck by how everyday decision-making was being outsourced to a source with limited information about your current situation. It's easy to put this down as aimlessness, or a desire for a purpose, or something less polite, probably using the word sheeple. But perhaps it is also a logical response to the complexity of our nowadays everyday; a recognition that in a world this complex, there is a certain value perceived in having an outside influence, a randomiser, bombing your everyday plans with disorientating and pointless instructions to watch psychedelic videos and/or speak to and smile at strangers.

When all time can be spent profitably and enjoyably, in multiple ways, when there is far more task available than can be fitted into time, then decision-making becomes a process of elimination. The known good can displace unknown activities of uncertain reward, and the joy of happenstance, exploration, and participation in the unknown and extraordinary can fade unless actively cultivated or curiously pursued,

In this densely packed world of infinite entertainment, the desire to switch off from the current curators of our cultural life and try something different taps directly into our fears of missing out or being left behind. Yet my instant revulsion with being bossed around by text messages from some sort of Poppins-meets-Wiseman algorithm suggests a suitable protective response is available to guard against bad data coming in through this window. It can be summarised very briefly:

You what? This is bullshit. No.