Saturday, October 23, 2021

No More Apologies: How this digital counter-culture app challenges social media

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Every year the University of Leicester launches a study on the state of the digital media industry. This year’s study in English literature looked at online posts written in such a way as to question their relevance to the everyday experience of others. Like researchers elsewhere, this particular academic team wanted to know the impact such content had on the relationship between humans and digital media.

This month, the official application of this particular study becomes available to the wider public. The No More Apologies app tells users if they might have been meaninglessly annoying and sad-faced online. It even suggests what you should do instead.

This app will come as a somewhat unexpected salve for some Facebook users, who have grown increasingly irate over the years over the social network’s handling of complaints from people whose accounts have been hacked. Last year, when hackers exposed the accounts of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users, company officials spent a considerable amount of time advising users to leave their account vulnerable to attack, believing that doing so would protect it from future attacks. But that message was more than a little counter-intuitive. Being pushed to leave your account vulnerable to attack was itself an act of handing hackers such a huge leg-up. Moreover, it undermined Facebook’s reputation in the face of so many legitimate complaints over the years.

The company’s latest research on Apology fatigue came from a study of over 50,000 English language books from the last 200 years. When researchers weighted for popularity and ranking in the global language book section of the store Amazon, they discovered that social media likes are still the least popular reading material online. Only around 1.2% of book reviews received three or more “likes”. The most popular book on Facebook was Romeo and Juliet, which received 4.5 million thumbs up.

The study also found that young people were reading the most books, but when the researchers analysed the books received in comments on Facebook, they found that 29% of the books sent were horror novels, 19% were romance novels, and 16% were crime novels. The other categories received far less scrutiny.

The Apology app works like this: When you open it, you are sent a series of lists of around 20,000 words which challenge your perception of morality and mercy. There are racist slurs, misogyny, and bad references to alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. The key motivator is guilt.

After a user reads through the list of words, they choose whether they wish to apologise for such behaviour. The game will then take over the next year, tracking the offender’s online behaviour, and the amount of guilt they feel, until their web browser prompts them to apologise. Users can show the app their attitude to the issue, and change their behaviour accordingly. Ultimately, this will be judged by the number of actions they take.

The app is powered by a computer program, so it does not take into account how people express themselves in conversation or facial expressions. But once the desired reaction is expressed on the iPad screen or on the phone app, the penalty will be executed by “receiving” a much smaller but more visible penalty than the original offense. As well as keeping you accountable, the app has the added benefit of making Facebook users think about and possibly repair the impact of their actions.

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