Breaking News: Edward Snowden Is a PR Manager for Google & Facebook

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

Amid all the outrage over the Edward Snowden, government-is-spying-on-us drama, something uncomfortably strange is getting overlooked. Sure people are angry that the US Government is secretly1 accessing our digital data. What I find fascinating is that no one seems to mind that all this data exists. Think about it: if governments can collect all sorts of personally identifiable data from the Googles and Facebooks and Verizons of the world, that means the Googles and Facebooks and Verizons of the world have that data. What do you think they’re doing with it? Do you think it’s digitally decaying on some remote server that no one ever accesses?

By being outraged at the US Government for looking at our data, but not being outraged at the companies collecting that data, as a society we’re essentially agreeing to the following statements:

It’s acceptable for Google to use my data to sell me this:


But it’s not acceptable for the government to use my data to sell me this:


We don’t mind if Facebook violates our privacy so they can sell our data to these companies:

But we do mind if the government violates our privacy to sell our data to these companies:

Verizon can track my phone usage to up-sell me on these devices:

But the government can’t use my phone records to protect me from dangerous devices:

Don’t mistake my heavy-handed photomontage as me condoning government data aggregation. I’m not. I’m trying to remind all the people outraged at the government to remember that governments are big businesses. Big businesses are obsessive about collecting as much customer data as they can in order to optimize their services and increase sales of their products.2

Because one of the most important services governments provide is protection, the best-selling product of a government is usually safety. By accessing user data, the government is doing what big companies do: its trying to maintain a product that satisfies customer expectations. As outraged as people might be to discover how the government is collecting its data, perhaps we can all take mild comfort in knowing that data collection efforts aren’t being hampered by government’s notorious bureaucratic slowness. The fact that government agencies know they should be looking at Google instead of the phonebook means they’re at least as tech savvy as my parents.

I bring up my parents not just because I enjoy any opportunity to poke fun at older generations (as I’m sure my some-day kids will), but also because people like my parents are the people I’m most worried about. As someone who has been in the web marketing industry for a decade, and as someone who has built custom data analytics engines, I’m fully aware of the Internet’s seedy data collection tactics.3 Are my parents? Are your parents? Are you?4

By focusing all the PRISM-related outrage on the US Government, Edward Snowden has orchestrated an amazing PR Coup. He’s made Google, Facebook, Verizon, and every other tech titan’s aggregation, storage, and sale of vast amounts of private user data an incredibly public practice. But no one cares because that’s not the story.

Apparently, no one cares that big companies track our every digital move so they can sell us more products and services in order to increase profits for owners and investors. We only care that governments are tracking our every move in the public interest of safety and security. How strange is that?

I’m not trying to convince you that we shouldn’t (or should) be mad at the government. I’m reminding you that, if we are going to be mad at the government for invading our privacy, we also need to be pissed at the companies who are collecting, storing, processing, and making money off our data. Otherwise, we should stop complaining. Or — option number three — we should be happy there’s an Orwellian government watching everything we do since, clearly, we can’t be trusted to make rational decisions on our own.

Want to Know Why SOPA Will Succeed? Ask Paula Deen

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

As a person who has made his living on the Internet for nearly a decade, I, as much as anyone, have had reason to keep my eye on congress’s SOPA and PIPA legislation. Even though people were screaming about its terribleness months ago, I was never worried. “It’s never going to pass,” I argued. “It violates not only some of the founding principles of our country, it also violates the very logic of how the global Internet works.” Even as discussions and arguments about SOPA heated up, my belief of its certain failure never wavered — I knew it wouldn’t succeed. I was sure of it. But after yesterday’s Internet blackout to raise awareness, I’m not so sure anymore, and it’s all because of Paula Deen.

Before you start Googling “Paula Deen” to see if there’s some Paula Deen you’ve never heard of who actually has something to do with the Internet, don’t bother. The Paula Deen who changed my mind about SOPA is the same Paula Deen whose polished southern charm and deliciously fried southern foods fatten up Food Network audiences around the world. Even though, on the surface, Paula’s butter-filled recipes wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with regulating the Internet, it took an appearance by her on NBC’s Today Show for me to realize she has everything to do with it.

Let me start by explaining why I watch The Today Show. When life’s necessities — wife, family, house, job, etc. — finally forced me to become a morning person, as I sat down for breakfast, I would turn on the TV. Before settling on The Today Show, I decided I’d try to educate myself about world events, so I started watching the big cable news networks. I needed only a few days to remind myself of why I never watched 24-hour news networks in the first place. I got so mad at all the editorializing and sensationalizing that I actually found myself getting angry, and I carried pieces of that anger with me throughout the day. So I tried to switch to something lighter: sports. At first, ESPN seemed like a good morning dose of information about something that didn’t take itself too seriously, but I quickly felt like I was being brainwashed by a culture that already prioritizes sports far more than it probably should. I couldn’t respect myself for believing things like a Duke-UNC rivalry game was the most important thing happening in the world while I knew wars were being fought, people were starving, and new iPhones could be coming out any day.

I finally placed The Today Show firmly in my morning routine not because it necessarily fulfilled the requirement of educating me about world events, but because it didn’t make me think I was entirely neglecting them. While I’d still have to get my actual news from somewhere else, the light-hearted morning lifestyle pieces mixed with sometimes-serious interviews, combined with the occasional celebrity catch-up, were enough to keep me entertained while making me feel like I wouldn’t be completely oblivious if something important was happening in the world. I knew Matt, Ann, Al, and Natalie would entertain me, but I also trusted them to at least clue me in if I needed to pay attention to a significant event. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only person with that belief.

Last Friday, The Today Show celebrated its 60th anniversary, meaning for 60 years it’s been providing folks like me that same mix of entertainment and important-enough-to-bring-to-your-attention news tidbits. The show paraded past anchors across the screen, and I admit I even got a little choked up during some of the montages about the world-changing events they’d covered: the Kennedy assassination; the moon landing; the fall of the Berlin wall; September 11th. During these moments, the cast continued to refer to themselves proudly as journalists. I remember those references because it seemed like a curious word. Were Today Show hosts actually journalists? “Sure,” I decided, “I guess I can see that.” Journalism isn’t limited to presenting only political and technological events. It’s about investigating all sorts of important issues, and reporting to their fellow citizens the ones we should be most concerned with.

The following Tuesday, the day before the Internet blackout, I was watching The Today Show again, and they were reporting on Paula Deen. More precisely, they were interviewing the Butter Queen herself, and she was revealing to the world, in a Today Show exclusive, that she has — pause to establish dramatic suspense — Type II diabetes. That feeling of shock you’re in no way experiencing right now is the same non-existent feeling shared by me and probably every other viewer. Finding out Paula Deen has Type II diabetes is less of shock than the discovering that cigarette smoke is harmful. It’s less of a shock than when it eventually becomes official that long-term exposure to cell phones causes cancer. A Paula Deen recipe is clearly one of those things where we all know how terrible it is for our health, but we enjoy it so much we choose to ignore the obvious truth. Paula, in the highly unlikely event you’re reading this blog post, I’m terribly sorry for you, but let’s not pretend this was a surprise, OK? Don’t you worry, you won’t lose a penny of my money. I’ll keep eating your delicious fried everything and sugar-filled everything-else until I have less feeling in my feet than I do shock at your announcement. Deal?

The next day, the Wednesday of the Internet blackout, I was watching my morning dose of the Today Show when, at 8:01, Matt sent us inside for our morning news update with Natalie Morales. There Natalie was, as perfectly made-up as always, listing the top stories. She said nothing about the Internet blackout. To be fair, I can’t say I was surprised. While the Internet blackout certainly seems like big news, I admit it might not be bigger than car bombs, or murders, or campaigns, or whatever else Natalie highlighted.

However, recently, at the end of the top stories, The Today Show has introduced a brief segment where the news anchor highlights the things being “talked about most online.” I realize the general silliness of the concept, but surely, on a day when some of the Internet’s biggest websites are very visibly protesting (so much so that I couldn’t write this article until today because (a) I couldn’t fully research it without Wikipedia, and (b) couldn’t get anyone to read it because the social news services were either blacked out or filled with people talking about the blackout), it was reasonable for me to expect some mention of the Internet Blackout, especially in a segment about “What’s being talked about most online.” How could it not be mentioned? SOMETHING. IS. TERRIBLY. WRONG.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I wasn’t worried about SOPA and PIPA before the Internet Blackout. After the Blackout? I’m terrified it might actually succeed. And to understand why, I need look no further than Paula Deen. There it was, replacing the Internet Blackout in Natalie’s report about what’s being talked about most online: Paula Deen’s revelation about her diabetes.

Don’t worry, I’m not worried about SOPA succeeding because I think Paula Deen’s diabetes was actually being discussed more online than the Internet Blackout. I know she was featured because NBC clearly has a deal in place with Food Network, which is why The Today Show always features Food Network personalities. They needed to address Paula Deen’s illness, so they did what they thought was best for her brand: put her in a light-hearted interview sitting across the table from happy-as-ever “journalist” Al Roker, and spin it however they could to stop people from thinking, “I’d better stop eating Paula Deen recipes before they kill me.”

Has anyone ever seen a Paula Deen recipe and not thought that?

What people aren’t thinking about is SOPA, and that’s why I’m worried SOPA could actually succeed. If self-proclaimed “journalists” don’t have the integrity — or worse, the actual knowledge — to at least present perhaps the most significant display of online unity in the young history of the Internet, can we reasonably expect mainstream Americans to care about it? Seeing Paula Deen’s sugary-white smile presented as the most talked about story on the Internet made me think maybe I care a lot more about this Internet thing than the rest of the country. If the majority of this country isn’t as invested in the Internet as I am, will they stand up to defend it against the folks who give them things like Paula Deen and The Today Show? Will they even realize what’s happening if the entertainment industry doesn’t tell them?

This morning I had two choices. I could turn my television back to ESPN and watch stories about things like how incredible Tim Tebow is for playing a game until I’m eventually numb enough to actually accept Paula Deen’s diabetes as a more important story than congress’s attempt to bastardize the Internet. Or, I could write this blog post, which no one’s likely to read, and feel like I at least tried to make a difference.

You’re reading this post, so you know the choice I made. Now we need to see if the power of this Internet thing is actually worth saving. Do you see that row of social media share buttons a few inches below? Click any of them, or click all of them, and let’s try to tell the country about more important things than Paula Deen.

Google’s petition against PIPA and SOPA

Maybe We’re All Anonymous

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

I should begin this article with two caveats.

Caveat One: I get 90% of my news from article teasers.

Caveat Two: I’m 90% confident this isn’t a problem because: a) the articles themselves are incredibly biased (including articles by me); and b) thanks to Twitter and text messaging, I’ve learned to parse complex narrative meaning from contextualized, truncated prose.

For example, I can read a teaser that says “UN: Iran is working on nuclear arms” and know instantly it’s an article about a new UN report making a case for Iran’s production of nuclear weapons, so I don’t read it. Do I need to know anything else? Probably not. Is there definitive proof? No. Is Iran denying working on nuclear weapons? Yes. Is anything happening right now that requires my immediate attention? Nope. If the topic of Iran and Nuclear weapons requires my immediate attention, I like to hope the article teaser would look something like this: “Iran has nuclear weapons!!! [email protected]%#!!!!!”

Similarly, if I read an article teaser that says “Lindsay Lohan poses nude for Playboy,” I don’t need to read the article to know exactly what’s important. Does the article itself have nudity? Nope. Is Lindsay Lohan going to be my generation’s Drew Barrymore? Undoubtedly. Will I see any of her movies five years from now once she unbleaches her hair and puts on enough weight to become adorably pudgy? Only if my wife moves it to the top of our Netflix queue without me noticing.

Hahaha… just kidding. In five years, Netflix won’t exist. Hopefully not because Iran already nuked us.

Turns out, this method is great at helping me get a sense of what’s important and worth learning more about, versus what’s not important and not worth my limited time. So when every major mainstream and social media news outlet makes a big deal about the death of Steve Jobs, I know I should learn more. But when only ABC News talks about Ricki Lake’s performance on Dancing With The Stars last night, I know it’s not worth my time.

Now for the contradiction to my personal news aggregation methods. Over the past few weeks, every major mainstream and social media outlet has featured articles on both Anonymous, the “hacktivist” digital collective, and the Occupy movements. Clearly, they’re worth knowing more about. And yet, I haven’t read a single article about either. Best of all, I’m about to very publicly weigh in on both topics. In other words: don’t expect any sort of journalistic integrity established through well-researched arguments.

(Don’t be so shocked. Journalistic integrity finally died five years ago. You know… back when Lindsay Lohan was relevant.)

As more and more stories appear about the friendly folks of Anonymous (please don’t DDoS for writing about you… I’ve only got one server) and the officially unrelated but undeniably similar Occupy demonstrators (please don’t occupy my condo… I’ve only got one bathroom), I find myself increasingly inclined to avoid learning anything about them. I don’t want to know what websites got taken down and why. I don’t want to know which governments are violating what principles of freedom. I’ve even taken to using a different route to reach the highway so I don’t have to drive by an Occupy campground, though that may just be because they cause lots of traffic jams.

I guess it’s time for me to admit it. As a white, American, male, middle-class, well-educated, twenty-something-year-old struggling to pay my bills and wondering which government bureaucracy spent my piece of the American Dream, I’m officially a traitor to the cause. At least, that’s what I feel like, and I’m pretty sure that’s kind of the point. I imagine if I was one of the people occupying someone else’s street or web server, I would want all the folks in my position not championing the cause I’m championing to at least feel guilty. I hope anyone reading this article from a tent or… well… wherever an Anonymous person would be reading this from (your parents’ basement?) feels a slight sense of victory knowing you’ve made me feel guilty. Hell, I even feel guilty about that “your parents’ basement” jab. My problem is, I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel guilty about.

The obvious solution to my problem would seem to be for me to stop reading article teasers and start reading the articles themselves. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the solution. While I might not have read the articles in the mainstream and not-so-mainstream media about Anonymous and the Occupy movements, I’m confident those articles don’t give an accurate picture of what’s at issue. I’m equally confident the folks involved in both movements would agree. The media isn’t in the business of spreading the ideologies of movements, but that’s what’s at stake: warring ideologies.

The war, however, isn’t between who you think it is. The war I don’t understand isn’t digital hacktivists versus governments and supporting corporations cracking down on civil liberties. Nor is the war I don’t understand the battle between the privileged social and economic elite versus the people who, in a raw global economy, are getting a particularly raw deal. I understand both of those wars. To put all my cards on the table, I understand both those wars all too well from both the civil liberties side and the 99% side.

The war that has me both confused and concerned — especially as someone who should be riding the same horse in this race as the Occupiers and Anonymati — is the conflicting ideologies of Anonymous and the Occupy movement. I’m going to reach deep into my southern heritage here and add some good ole’ fashioned “y’alls” to these next statements because they’re that important: Y’all are working against each other. Y’all are contradicting each other. Y’all need to stop activisiming long enough to recognize that, in the digital world, your ideologies are inherently incompatible. And finally, y’all — and maybe even we — need to reconcile the two movements in order for either to succeed.

I don’t need to read a bunch of news articles to understand the foundational principle of the Anonymous movement (thanks Wikipedia!). Anonymous is clearly about acting collectively as a de-individualized entity in order to affect large-scale social change. It’s about acting as a “we” instead of an “I.” By doing so, governments and corporations are no longer accountable to individual people which they can easily defeat. Instead, they’re forced to be accountable to a much larger and much more powerful entity — a digitally organized, decentralized, anonymized collective. It’s a collective that crosses borders, both social and geo-political, meaning it’s not limited to the traditional constraints of laws, wealth, and social reach. In short, the power of Anonymous is that its membership can’t be treated like individuals.

While the strength of Anonymous comes from forcing governments and companies to not treat them as individuals, the Occupy protestors — and they may or may not realize this — are fighting against de-individualized and de-personalized treatment. For proof, consider the reason for this recession. The reason, if it can be boiled down to a single reason (which, luckily, on a macro level, everything can be), is statistics. Not “statistics” in the same sense as math class — that would make my argument awfully anti-climactic, huh? No, I mean statistics in the sense that corporations aren’t concerned with what will please individual consumers. They’re concerned with the overall trends of consumerism. They need to know what decisions will maximize profits and minimize costs. Doing so means not caring about Chris in Cleveland who got laid off and can’t make his car payment or Sarah in San Francisco who’s $100,000 in debt after graduating from Stanford. Corporate policies are determined based on what makes the most money, and making the most money requires ignoring the individual and focusing on the collective.

If we wanted to place blame somewhere — and I know I want to place blame somewhere — the number one candidate for our anger is greed. But before we can lambast corporate executives or political leaders for aspiring to success and doing what’s best for themselves, let’s not forget that, in seeking change, we’re also being greedy; we’re also asking for more for ourselves.

Instead of placing blame on an individual or an entity acting in its best interest, I’m going to suggest we do what’s best for everyone and blame an inanimate object. Specifically, I vote we blame the Internet. And no, I’m not suggesting we all stop using the Internet. Certainly don’t stop using it before you Tweet, Like, Digg, Stumble, Reddit, and otherwise socially disseminate this article out into the great digital void. What I am suggesting is the Internet depersonalizes our communications and our social interactions. We’re no longer individuals interacting directly with our friends and family. More importantly, we’re no longer individuals interacting with those companies we do business with. Instead, we buy online because it’s more convenient. We trade stocks online because it’s faster and cheaper. And we try to affect social change online because it’s easier than sitting in a tent. Are those bad things? I much prefer to order a book from Amazon than go to a store, even if that store treats me like a person, provides a coffee shop, gives me free wifi, and lets me hang out as long as I want (RIP, Borders). But should we be surprised when companies stop treating us like individuals and start treating us like statistics? To them, that’s all we are. That’s all we really can be. By increasingly choosing to live more of our lives online, we all make ourselves Anonymous.