Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

A song called ‘No Prejudice’ sung by a group in rainbow coloured suits. Putin is hoping nobody notices his reaction.

Coming Out Atheist: a review

An eleven year old boy is standing in his childhood bedroom while his seven year old brother lies on the wooden bunk bed. With very little thought, he just says something like “That God guy they talk about at school, I reckon he doesn’t exist.”

Some things are easier done as pre-teens and coming out as an atheist is definitely one of them. Of course, it helps that I lived in a family filled with agnostics and atheists, in a country that—David Cameron’s distinctly odd Dyno-Rod fantasies aside—is mostly secular, in an era that is mostly tolerant of disbelief. Residents of other regions of space-time have been less welcoming, as can be seen from instances of extreme religious bullying from the burning of Giordano Bruno to the policy of Disconnection enforced by the Church of Scientology on dissenting family members.

The eventual coming out as gay sixteen years later was slightly less nonchalant than my exit from the irreligious closet. In gay-land, there are some people who it is perfectly appropriate to say “were never closeted”. The closet just wasn’t a thing for them: perhaps through supreme self-confidence, they were out from the earliest moment of realisation. They never were “in” so never needed to come out.

Reading Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist: How To Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why has been making me feel exceptionally lucky that I managed at the tender age of eleven to not only free myself from religion but also to deny myself the dubious comforts of a closet in which to keep my doubts. Since that age, I have always been out about being an atheist even if the sexuality closet was firmly glued shut for quite a while: I was out at school to friends, out at my Jesuit college, out online, out to anyone who wants to have a good old argument about this stuff. Being out as an atheist in central London—home of all those kale-eating metropolitan liberal elites who keep the UKIP voter down!—is refreshingly pain-free. Unless one is unlucky enough to be born in a family of daft fundamentalists, coming out in Britain as an atheist is a bit like coming out as straight. Here, atheists, agnostics and other secular types are the cultural majority—and not too many years from being the statistical majority.

Even if they may feign religious adherence for cultural reasons, most people in Britain are practically secular: only 10% of the population attend a weekly religious service. And the numbers are on our side. The number of people saying they are of “no religion” in the UK census has grown by ten percentage points between 2001 and 2011 (although there are legitimate complaints to be made about census methodology). Young people are less religious than ever. While it may still be a point of (usually fairly idiotic) debate whether Britain is currently a Christian country, the future of Britain’s religiosity is pretty surely one of rapid decline.

As someone who never experienced an atheistic closet and finds the idea that there is such a thing to be an utterly alien idea given my own society’s ever more overwhelming secularity, I’ve never quite gotten what exactly the deal is. To the very idea of the atheist closet, I’m a straight tourist. I picked up Greta Christina’s book precisely because if anyone is able to tackle the subject intelligently and humanely, she can.

The astounding thing about Greta’s book on the subject is how remarkably close the experience tracks with the LGBT coming out experience. As an openly bisexual woman and a writer of essays on sexuality as well as kinky fiction, Greta is excellently qualified to draw those connections.

If, like me, your stay in the atheism closet was exceptionally short and the checking out process was seamless and straight-forward, but one’s exit from the sexuality closet was rather longer and more drawn out, Greta’s book is worth reading to see the differences in experiences. Or rather, to see how for a lot of people, how eerily similar the two are.

And there is plenty to learn. The book describes how some atheists prefer to use what Greta describes as the “no big deal” method. When religion comes up, just drop the atheism in nonchalantly. There is, as the book says, problems with this approach. Namely, however calmly and non-dramatically you decide to announce your atheism, you’ll always have the odd weirdo who might blow up at you about it. This is one of the many wonderful things about being out as gay: you always have to have the mental armour on standby to deal with the occasional asshole. The same is true if you are a open atheist in an area with a noxious amount of religious nuttiness. So get building those mental shields.

The important part of the message is the affirmation that, yes, you bloody well ought to come out. Coming out, standing up and being counted has been the most effective weapon in the history of the gay rights movement. The whole reason homophobes spend so much time telling us to be quiet and “not make a big deal of” being gay is because the closet takes away our power and gives it to them. (Incidentally, in my opinion, the second most important weapon of the gay rights movement has been the hilarious stupidity of the opposition. I’ll leave you to decide whether the stupidity of religious advocates is an excellent tool for the atheists.)

Another recurring theme in the book that neatly parallels the gay experience is the mad lengths some people will go to in order to deny the obvious facts staring them in the face. Just as straight people found an enormous reservoir of cognitive dissonance to explain away the overwhelming campy gayness of everyone from Liberace to Kenneth Williams—and every gay relationship they encountered as being “roommates” and so on, Greta’s book documents numerous instances of religious parents who—unable to grasp the fairly clear statements of disbelief from their children, continue to act in ever more absurd self-denial. (Cognitive dissonance and denial of obvious facts from people who constantly praise the supposed virtues of faith—quelle surprise, non?)

Greta gives an important piece of advice for any closet leavers:

Be clear. Don’t drop hints or leave a trail of clues. If you think it’ll go over better, you can soften the ground first—but eventually, you’ll need to spell it out. Even if you think your hints are pretty obvious, people’s ability to ignore what they don’t want to see is pretty close to infinite.

The other obvious analogy between the case of gay people and atheists with closets and coming out is the strange and persistent belief amongst those unable to come to grips with either obvious hints or even more obvious and clear statements of the fact—that somehow if they force the person to practice as if it were not true, this will somehow change anything. Greta’s book makes mention of people who seem to think that if they just force their religiosity on their offspring with a little more vigour, that’s going to somehow make atheists un-know what they have come to know.

The attentive gay reader will find plenty more such parallels, some amusing, some sad.

The book does not just limit its counsel to those unfortunate souls who find themselves in the social grip of hardcore conservative religiosity and theocracy. Liberal religion—home of piously postmodern interfaith types contemplating the connection between Buddhism and Bultmann—can, despite their stated tolerance, be unwelcoming to the newly deconverted, apparently. More potent than this is the situations mostly outlined by Greta’s African-American correspondents who describe the issues faced when religion is considered foundational by many for their sense of communal identity. The broadly “intersectional” aspects of atheist identity are discussed, with advice on how to deal with how to come out as a female atheist, as an atheist person of colour, or an LGBT atheist. The book is blissfully free of the myopic assumption that atheist activism is complete when one has fully represented the issues as they present themselves to white, straight, cisgender, economically advantaged men in the Western world. Atheism must be for all or it shall be politically dead.

Greta’s advice seems eminently sensible throughout—I did not reach any point where I said “oh, no, she shouldn’t be telling the reader to do that!” The counsel given in the book advises some contextual lenience when it comes to time and place, and pushes the reader to follow a wise path of very selective silence in those situations where outing oneself would bring either no benefit or, worse, cause significant losses.

If you are an atheist who is already open and out about it—or slightly bemused by the idea that people ought to be out—it is worth reading Greta’s book for the stories of how other people came out and the sort of challenges they faced.

If you aren’t out: whatever on earth are you waiting for? Public honesty cripples the attempts by religious cranks and political opportunists to stereotype and demonize us. Coming out—whether as non-religious or as LGBT—makes the world a better place and makes those coming out into happier, more liberated people. You have nothing to lose but your closet.

The organisers have banned rainbow flag displays from Eurovision because they don’t want to piss off the sort of people who get pissy about that sort of thing.

You can take the rainbow out of Eurovision but you can never take the gay out of Eurovision.

“There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This is a very invalid line of argument. A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsiously translates what he hears into something that he can understand.”
—Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy

A documentary on those super creepy evangelical purity balls.

In evangelical crazy-land, fathers taking their daughters on a ‘date’ with all the symbolism of marriage in order to have them pledge to not have sex with anyone until they get married because it will make them ‘impure’ and make the baby Jesus sad is a lot more normal than me cuddling a guy.

Election leaflet count-up: so far, I have had two leaflets from the Conservative Party and none from any other parties.

#HHEP14 notes and live coverage

I’m at Conway Hall for the London Humanist Hustings. I’m hoping to provide running coverage this evening (and maybe a little fact checking).


  • Caroline Allen, Green Party
  • Caroline Attfield, Conservative Party
  • Tony Brown, UKIP
  • Mary Honeyball MEP, Labour Party
  • Dr. Louise Irvine, National Health Action Party
  • Matt J. McLaren, Liberal Democrats

Introductory statements

Matt J. McLaren (Liberal Democrats)

Lapsed member of the British Humanist Association, proud secularist, philosophy graduate from Heythrop. Proud of how Nick Clegg has responded in the “Is Britain a Christian country?” debate. No European supranational institutions should mandate the relation between state and church in member states, but thinks that European institutions should be secular. Concerned about access that groups like the Catholic Church have access to European institutions. Britain is only going to succeed if one allies with one’s European neighbours: “in Europe, in work; out of Europe, out of work”.

Louise Irvine (National Health Action)

GP in Lewisham for 30 years, originally for Scotland. National Health Action Party formed by doctors, nurses, health professionals, patients - people concerned about the NHS. Single issue party—have other policies but focussed on the National Health Service. Hopes that strong vote for NHA will serve as a referendum on the changes to the NHS. 9 hospitals in London at threat of closure or downgrading. Mental health services, GP surgeries at threat of closure. District nurses being reduced, social services budgets being reduced. Leaders of Royal Colleges “predicting imminent meltdown”. The NHS is one of the most civilising institutions of our society. It is a great equalising forces. One of the last forces of social solidarity. NHS is being underfunded to soften up private opinion for privatisation—flotation of charges being suggested by think tanks. Cameron promised no top-down reorganisation and then did the largest NHS reorg—media silent. Huge protests would happen if the public were aware. £5bn of NHS contracts have been put up to tender and 70%+ of those contracts have gone to private contractors. No evidence of improvement under private control. Massive funding gap. “We need to demand our NHS is adequately funding.” Scrap PFI, scrap privatisation.

Mary Honeyball (Labour)

Member of the British Humanist Association. NHS is a great institution that we all want to save and keep. Labour will repeal the Health and Social Care Act. But the European Parliament doesn’t have much to do about the NHS. We need to stay in the EU. Reasons include: air quality, trade—half our exports go to the Single Market—if we were to leave the Single Market, it would have a huge detriment for the country. Equality—women’s rights and LGBT rights. Labour Party in the European Parliament comes out best for fighting LGBT rights. Conservatives aren’t too good, but UKIP are terrible. Peace and Britain’s place in the world: we’ve had peace because of the EU since WWII. Our place in the world is not what it was: we maintain our influence in the world through being in Europe. EU is not perfect: needs reform. Labour has stood up to the EU budget and supported Common Fisheries Policy. Committed to stopping Britain going to Strasbourg. Want to look at reforming the legislative process—too slow. EU is evolving: we have the opportunity to change things and people do listen.

Tony Bronwn (UKIP)

Family of atheists. When mother died, had a rather unsatisfactory religious service. When father died, BHA provided funeral—it was moving because it was personalised and individualised. UKIP is a democratic libertarian party. Treating the individual as an individual. Giving everyone the opportunity to flourish. The European Union is a tremendous impediment: run by a consensus process—largest group is the EPP, Christian Democrats party. Catholic Church has a tremendous role in how the EPP think and vote. Labour co-operate with the EPP. EPP and S&D didn’t disagree. To understand EU parliament, you need to throw out your understanding of Westminster politics. It has evolved from a totally different place. Only way to escape from that system is to vote for the UKIP. The Euro has been a disaster—caused the rise of the Golden Dawn—all the other parties voted for it.

Caroline Attfield (Conservative)

Small government, no nanny state, accountability, equality of opportunity. The European Union is lacking: but am still a committed European. “Ever closer union”: very different from what we signed up for 30 years ago. It’s not a choice between staying in or getting out: there’s a third way. We should stay in for trade reasons: not only to trade with EU countries, but because non-EU countries (US, Asia etc.) invest in Britain to get into European market.

Wants a Europe where we can have trade and some freedom of movement for people—people move both ways. We need to have tough negotiations—the promise of a referendum is a bargaining chip. Only through voting in a team of Conservative MEPs can we see that reform.

Caroline Allen (Green)

Vet, atheist, scientist. People want a positive alternative to the established parties. We do need to be in Europe: but we need to be clear about the type of Europe we want. Rise of nationalism and populism. Need party of democracy and secularism to stand up against nationalism/populism. One issue Greens are working is Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Could lock-in NHS privatisation, threaten environmental protections and protection of workers. All the issues that Greens have worked on are at threat by TTIP.

Equality is vital: a lot of our rights are stronger because of the European Union. Greens have pushed on LGBT rights, equal pay, sexual and reproductive rights—something (Allen) believes in very strongly. Worked on ACTA which threatened Internet freedom. Jean Lambert—Green MEP was protesting outside Guardian office over Snowden.

Greens have bad history on science but this is changinghas changed.1



Allen (Green): completely against fracking. Dangerous, potentially contaminating water supply. Legal case in the US over it. We cannot afford for fossil fuels to come out of the ground because of climate crisis. Only by voting Green will you get action on climate change.

Irvine (NHA): indiscernible

Honeyball (Labour): if we’re going to do it, we need to control it very carefully. Needs to not happen in places where lots of people live.

Brown (UKIP): essential for British jobs and competitiveness

McLaren (LD): not as simple as yes or no. We need to have energy security. We will investigate it and not ban it; where fracking takes places the community needs to benefit.

Allen (Green): energy companies say it won’t change prices. We need to invest in renewables.

UKIP and Same-sex marriage

Bisexual woman quotes from a leaflet that says candidate would oppose same-sex marriage on behalf of “normal people”.

Brown (UKIP): UKIP candidate lists have a variety of candidates.

Moderator indicates that he hasn’t answered the question.

Brown (UKIP): wants equal rights but doesn’t want to use the term marriage because the European Convention on Human Rights would force religions to marry.

McLaren (LD): is openly gay, wants equal rights. Labour and Conservatives voted against requirement for European recognition of marriages, LibDems supported it.

Attfield (Conservative): indiscernible

Honeyball (Labour): Labour have always supported gay marriage.

Clinical trials

Questioner: all UK parties voted for clinical trial transparency except UKIP. What do the parties do?

Allen (Green): lobbyists have too much power in the EU/EuroParl. It’s very easy for non-scientists to be misled. Very important to have scientists and scientific people in European Parliament. Greens want to publish all scientific research including negative/null results.

Brown (UKIP): Greens ignore scientific evidence on GMO evidence. UK approach is sensible—stem-cell research. Doesn’t want to transfer regulations of scientific research to EU.

Allen (Green): anti-GM. Main concern is corporate control not “Frankenfoods”. Where is the actual evidence of the benefits? Looked for it and hasn’t seen it.

Honeyball (Labour): UKIP are demonising the Catholic Church to demonise the EU. There is a Catholic presence in the EPP, but it’s not that Christian. There are worries about regulation of stem-cell research by EU.

Irvine (NHA): Supports evidence-based health policy. Supports All Trials campaign. There is evidence of problems with anti-depression medication that was hidden by suppression of evidence.

McLaren (LD): In favour of evidence-based policy making across the board, but Conservatives won’t let them.

Equality at work

UKIP and Conservative candidates: which rights at work do you want to have removed?

Attfield (Conservative): doesn’t want to remove most of them.

Brown (UKIP): if Britain were to leave the EU, all European legislation would remain unless removed.

Global inequality

I didn’t particularly hear the question.

Brown from UKIP talked about climate change, said that climate has always changed.

What should Europe do?

McLaren (LD): Clegg in The Orange Book—LibDems are in favour of doing more where they can. Environmental policy might be a good place. Debate has become too one-sided - only LDs are standing up for Europe.

Honeyball (Labour): Labour Party is in favour of staying in. Constantly told we are going towards “United States of Europe”. EU Competencies Review: it’s sort of okay where it is.

Irvine (NHA): wants to see European regulation of doctors and nurses to guarantee equal standing.

Attfield (Conservatives): European Security Policy.

Allen (Green): Environment - we can’t tackle it on our own. Food policy: needs to be better and different.

Multinational companies

Should EU regulate multinational companies like Google and Amazon, and of banks?

McLaren (LibDems): Europe is pretty good at it already: holding Google to account. More effective regulations: LibDems want to see effective regulation.

Attfield (Conservatives): Bank regulation is happening, capital harmonization is happening. Transaction tax is “barmy”. Need to be careful about not overburdening to with regulation.

Irvine (NHA): TTIP would extend multinational corporations to sue national governments if they bring in legislation that threaten profits of those companies.

Honeyball (Labour): TTIP is still being negotiated. Needs to be presure.

Brown (UKIP): TTIP isn’t going to happen any time soon. Smaller countries can make other trade agreements - we would have had a UK-US trade agreement but for being in the EU.

Allen (Green): banking regulation isn’t going fast enough. Main concern is we aren’t getting the legislation we need because of lobbying. Problems with TTIP: going on behind closed doors, large, wealthy legal firms representing large wealthy firms.

Religious indoctrination

What do the parties think about state-funded religious education?

McLaren (LD): Not an area the EU works on, and it shouldn’t be. Fundamentally wrong and one of the worst mistakes the Labour government made and Gove is continuing is giving more power to faith schools.

Brown (UKIP): EU spends thousands on information programmes which are propaganda.

Ukraine and NATO

Questioner: EU’s complicity with US pressure to expand NATO eastwards.

Honeyball (Labour): Various countries want to join NATO. Not quite as simple. Given the instability we are seeing in eastern Europe: not a happy situation. Not something the EU is involved in.

Brown (UKIP): UKIP policy is “speak softly, carry a big stick”. EU has acted to the opposite.

McLaren (LD): Eastern Europe countries are joining Europe to protect against Putin. They want Western protection.

Allen (Green): EU meddling in the Ukraine situation - what underlying factors? Energy security and the failure of the EU to sort out energy security and invest in renewables. Reliant on Russian gas.

Women's rights to choose, abortion

Do you support women’s freedom to choose? Should it be a requirement for joining the EU?

McLaren (LD): Yes, no.

Irvine (NHA): Yes, no.

Honeyball (Labour): Yes, yes.

Brown (UKIP): Yes, yes (“because it’ll keep Turkey out”).

Attfield (Conservatives): Yes, no.

Allen (Green): Yes, yes.


What are your parties commitment to secular democracy?

Allen (Green): Separation of church and state, secularism. No position in government or job should depend on religious membership. Education - no state funding of religious shcools.

Attfield (Conservatives): a lot of people in the Conservative party were surprised by Cameron’s comments. Personal opinion: we are a multi-faith country, the Church of England has become almost irrelevant.

Brown (UKIP): admire separation of church and state. Still have an established church: UKIP are debating whether to disestablish the church, may have a policy before the 2015 GE.

Honeyball (Labour): totally think we should have separation of church and state. European Parliament has a working group on church and state separation. Long way to go in a lot of European countries as well as in the UK. Government should tackle House of Lords reform and bishops privilege.

Irvine (NHA): don’t have a policy on this. Committed to social solidarity. Not enough democracy, too much private lobbying. Opposed to health and social care services being farmed out to religious groups.

McLaren (LD): LibDem policy has been separation of church and state for a long time.

Economic inequality and 'The Spirit Level'

Irvine (NHA): Economic inequality affects health. Anti-austerity. Every £1 invested in health has £4 of benefit of the economy.

Brown (UKIP): doesn’t agree with Spirit Level, cites Laffer.

Honeyball (Labour): don’t want to see a continuation of austerity. EU should appoint a Commissioner for Growth.

Allen (Green): economic inequality is a global problem, anti-austerity. Against zero-hour contract poverty pay jobs. Realign the economy, tackle climate change. Youth unemployment across Europe is a scandal.

Attfield (Conservatives): haven’t read the Spirit Level. Balancing the books is important.

Trust in politicians

Why should we trust you?

McLaren (LibDems): can you trust them and can the do it? Proud of what the LibDems did over tuition fees: made the system the best it could possibly be for students.

Allen (Green): You don’t become a Green if you want to be a professional politician or climb the greasy pole. I believe in what we stand for.

Attfield (Conservatives): Not a professional politicians. First election. Hold politicians to account and vote them out if they don’t live up to their policy.

Brown (UKIP): Our cast-iron guarantee is to get the country out of the European Union as fast as possible.

Irvine (NHA): Not a career politician. Labour promised to not bring in privatisation of NHS. They brought in privatisation of clinical services. Cameron promised no top-down reorganisation, then did the biggest reorganisation. We can’t trust Labour.

Honeyball (Labour): politicians do overpromise. Government is never as easy when you get there as you think it will be when you stand for election. It’s difficult in European Parliament and in national and local government. We need to be more aware and not make specific pledges - we should give an idea of what our values and principles.

Stem-cell and religious lobby

All candidates supported stem-cell research.

Women's rights

Religious lobbies are attacking women’s rights. What are you going to do about it?

Allen (Green): Sexual and reproductive rights.

Attfield (Conservatives): Equal opportunities.

Brown (UKIP): Family planning.

Honeyball (Labour): Sexual health and reproductive rights.

NHA: Agree with Honeyball.

McLaren (LibDem): Pan-European plan to deal with female genital mutilation.


Allen (Green): Positive alternative, party of fundamental rights, opposition to populism and nationalism.

Attfield (Conservatives): for reform of Europe.

Brown (UKIP): EU treaties and EU legislation has been clear—committed to “ever closer Union”. Mary wants it to be the same.

Honeyball (Labour): Labour always standed for equal opportunity, rights at work, hard-working families—we need to fight the far right presence in the European Parliament. Need a progressive party to fight for progressive values: equality, women’s rights, workers rights. Will be part of the largest group - S&D.

Irvine (NHA): Need to get 200,000 votes to get elected. Would fight against TTIP. NHS is fighting for its life: this is a chance to vote for a party who will make it the biggest election issue there is. Tories aren’t talking about it, Labour are strangely silent. Voting NHA puts it on the agenda.

McLaren (LibDem): Stand for liberalism, secularism, democracy. This is a pan-European election. You get things done with like-minded people in Europe. Conservatives aren’t in the biggest conservative group. Labour didn’t deliver on LGBT issues. Liberal Democrats can deliver.

  1. Caroline tweeted me with a clarification. As with Hansard, I welcome these kinds of corrections as they are rough notes taken on the fly.

Stating my opinion on State

What is an opinion? What is the point in having opinions? I would suggest that your answer to these questions is very much dependent on who you are and what you value in society.

But let me answer just for myself. The value in opinion is dependent on whether your opinion is informed, whether you are a reasonable person in command of the relevant facts, whether you are aware of your suspceptibility to erroneous thinking processes and capable of overriding them. The opinion you come to would ideally be structured. That is, it would have some kind of factual premises, some set of reasonable procedures you use to in order to reach certain conclusions, and the areas where you have had to settle for subjective feelings or emotions spelled out in a way that people can see how you reached your opinion. You expect that the holder of an opinion can justify that opinion in some fashion by appealing to the premises, the reasoning procedures and so on.

Perhaps my opinion on the subject of opinions is based on my personal and educational background—undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in philosophy. But I’m not dogmatic about this: I don’t think all opinions need to follow from some kind of pure reason or hew to the truth conditions of logical positivism. We can say intelligent and informed things about the subjective realm, about art and music and our emotions and personal experiences. Even with those, we can aspire towards understanding, to providing reasons and arguments, even if those reasons are subjective or presuppose some view not shared by others.

If that is close to your understanding of the nature of opinion, let me congratulate you on being a member of a proud philosophical tradition stemming back to the ancient Greeks. I have bad news for you and for your intellectual ancestors—Socrates, Hobbes, Descartes, Hypatia, Hume, Darwin, Russell—or whoever you pick for your hand from the grand deck of intellectual Top Trumps cards. All of you are out of touch with the modern world of business, advertising and consumerism. And if you are out of touch with those, then by extension, you are out of touch with their offspring: technology, media and the intersection of those things—social media.

It is with this background that I tested out State, a relatively new social media/technology startup based in London that is seeking to build a “global opinion network”, where the user can “have [his or her] opinion counted and see where [they] stand relative to others”. State has $14 million in funding, according to TechCrunch, and intriguingly has professional bullshit peddler Deepak Chopra on their board of advisors according to GigaOm.

I have been giving it a try: I mean, it should be a perfect fit—I have opinions. More than that, I’m a loudmouthed grumbly person who likes sharing my opinions with only minimal solicitation. Sounds like my sort of service. I was encouraged to join partly because a former colleague of mine had just started there and encouraged me to give it a try.

State is indeed a very interesting service, not so much because I think it will be either popular or important. I don’t think it will be either of those two things. But as a perfect encapsulation of exactly what the future holds for social media and society, you couldn’t do much better.

When one joins State, one is encouraged to find topics and to state one’s opinion on them in the form of a number of single word ‘opinions’, of the following form:

  • Lady Gaga: amazing.
  • David Cameron: bastard.
  • Tom Daley: phwoar.
  • Jedward: annoying.
  • UKIP: wankers.

You get the drift.

In fairness to State, you can then attach a comment to one’s statement, to qualify or expand on it. But the primary index of one’s opinions is this single word expressive grunt: awesome, amazeballs, fab, OMG, fail, omnom. The designers of State looked at Twitter and decided it was not short-form enough and so have stripped from it any content besides the hashtags.

Of course, my predictions of what will become popular is very fallible and though I personally do not see State having much success, it could end up being the next big thing. If it does, it won’t be long until people from the worlds of marketing, business and media swarm on to it, demand some kind of API to extract opinions from the State platform and have them displayed in executive summary form on a Big Data-powered dashboard platform. Engineers will scurry around so that senior figures in consumer-facing industries who have a stake in public opinion will be able to see an algorithmic summary of what exactly the interconnected plebiscite thinks of their brands, their celebrity representatives, their preened political spokesmen, all helpfully quantified into a stocker ticker-style ‘metric’.

The helpful grunts from social media will be put through “sentiment analysis” and the opinions of the consumer will lead to a happier, better world where marketers can slice us, dice us, mix together our opinions with our demographic data, quantify whether our preferences satisfy key performance indicators and lots of other important measures.

Opinions in this new world of social media aren’t opinions: they are signalling grunts for marketers. Are you doing better than your competitors? Count up the positive grunts and the negative grunts, calculate the balance of grunts and see if you are getting more grunts than the other guys. The consumer has so much choice on where exactly to post their grunt: on Twitter (with a hashtag, perhaps), on Facebook (by liking posts and pages), on Google+ (if that still exists) and finally now on State. As a system of grunt aggregation, State is impeccable.

Where it falls down is on that boring rational philosophical stuff I started with. In the epistemology of State and many similar social media sites, opinions don’t have supporting reasons. They don’t derive from any confrontation with evidence or experience. They don’t allow for refutation or reformulation or revision. You can refute an argument; you can’t refute a grunt. Ambivalence leads to confusion: thinking a politician is a vicious, dastardly shitbag but admiring his Machiavellian success doesn’t easily translate easily into a simple aye or nay vote for that person.

It’s quite telling that for an opinion platform, I am actually unable to express my opinion of State on their own platform but have to resort to constructing paragraphs of prose and posting them on my own website. But then, I’d like to think my opinion on this topic has reached the point where it is no longer a grunt but some kind of at least vaguely sophisticated take on the place of a piece of technology in society.

Of course, in the consumerist zeitgeist, complex thought is rather embarassing. If a consultant tells you something is impossible or unethical or complicated, you just sack them and hire a bullshit-peddling yes-man to tell you that everything will be fine, and that pigs will fly so long as they practice positive thinking. Why bother weighing up a complex interlocking argument when you can grunt an opinion about a hashtagged blipvert or whatever it is some advertising creative has come up with this week?

If you want to grunt about things, I highly recommend State. As grunt publication and aggregation platforms go, it is exquisite—wonderfully designed, superbly executed, beautifully illustrated and rather addictive. If you want to express something more like an opinion and less like a grunt, you might want to read a writing manual and start a blog, as well as prepare for being ignored by the decision-makers in society because they’ve collectively decided that grunting is more important than well-considered opinions.

On showing URLs and why security and usability will always have a rocky relationship

Jeremy and Jake are debating the merits of Chrome’s plan to hide away the path segment of the URL.

I have only a few things to say:

If Firefox starts hiding the path of the URL I’m looking at, I’ll find whatever extension, plugin, haxie or user script I need to make it stop. It’s bad enough that it hides the protocol from me. I want to see what page I’m on. The URL is the way I know this. I wouldn’t trust a car that hid the speedometer from me, or didn’t let me easily ascertain which gear I was in. Information helps me make decisions. Hiding information away makes me less able to make decisions: it makes me a less informed user.

And, yes, you can show me lots of user experience faff about people and how they operate. I don’t care. You can show me that when asked to make a choice between Vim and Microsoft Word, most normal people choose Microsoft Word. Doesn’t mean that’s the choice for me.

As for the security issue: hiding more of the URL doesn’t help there either. The whole reason that phishing is a problem is because users don’t pay any bloody attention to what they see in their location bar. Putting less information in the location bar makes the location bar less useful and thus there’s less point paying any attention to it.

The problem we also have is that the HTTPS certificate model is very, very broken. The certification authorities have been compromised. In 2011, DigiNotar was hacked and issued fraudulent certificates for Google, Yahoo!, WordPress, Mozilla and the Tor Project. If you are using an up-to-date browser, the CA certificate that signed those certificates was removed. But we are in an industry where people are not only still using a 12-year-old browserpiece of malware, they are complaining about moving from the 12-year-old malware application and paying the malware’s creator to continue supporting it.

In Firefox’s default CA cert list is the China Internet Network Information Center, the body in China that sets Internet policy, and which distributes “Chinese-Language-Surfing Official Edition” which Wikipedia at least claims to be malware. They seem like a fit and proper group to be able to determine whether an SSL certificate is trustworthy or not.

The problem we face is you can’t actually satisfy two masters. Security requires educated, pro-active, informed thinking users. Security is rarely a positive user experience—the free massage provided by the TSA when I refuse to go through their backscatter body scan is rarely as erotic in real life as it tends to be in advertising.

Usability is about making the whole process of using the web seamless and thoughtless: a child should be able to do it. But the security environment we have on the web is extraordinarily broken. In order to actually stay safe online, you need to see the “seams” of the web, you need to pay attention, use your brain.

Don’t Make Me Think says the title of the famous usability book. Be alert all the fucking time or you’ll get scammed say the security people. Good luck squaring that circle.

Facebook API changes: what they mean

Today, Facebook rolled out major changes to their API. While I’m involved in the indie web scene, I have a professional interest in the Facebook API platform and have built a number of Facebook apps.

The changes to Facebook’s API are interesting. First off, there’s Anonymous Login which has got a lot of interest amongst geek friends who think about identity. The idea there is very much pitched at the mobile app market and I don’t see quite so much use for it on the web. If you want to provide “anonymous login” on the web, you just… don’t log in.

Also on the mobile app front, Facebook are pushing App Links which means dropping lots and lots of meta tags into your pages, including a pointer for ‘deep linking’ inside native iOS apps (using custom URL schemes) and native Android apps (using Intents and Activities). It’s interesting to note that Spotify has implemented App Links given how using Spotify on the desktop has become very far from seamless since the introduction of the Web Player.1

Where the Facebook API changes get a bit more interesting is the changes they’ve made to the login process and the Graph API. For user privacy, these have mostly been good. The new Facebook app login window lets you be a lot more clear about what permissions you grant to an application. Before, let’s say an app asked for both basic information and some extended profile like, say, your relationship status, you had two choices: accept the app and grant it both basic and extended information, or reject the app. Now you can choose which pieces of non-basic information you provide to an app. Now app developers will need to check what abilities the user has given you and then deny them the functionality they need and bounce them back through the auth process if they don’t give it to you, or offer more limited functionality.

Apps also now get an app-specific user ID token instead of a universal user ID. What this means is that you can’t easily join together Facebook API data across apps anymore: you have to use a new API called the Business Mapping API, which requires that you set up an account using Facebook’s Business Manager system. This ties together Facebook pages, ad buying and app management with a corporate permission structure: so you can set up developers and testers and administrators to have access to a suite of company Facebook assets. This might actually be useful for some companies, although it may present issues with companies that delegate the production of apps to agencies: will agencies build apps in the agency business account or in their client’s business account? It’s an issue anyone who does Facebook will have to think about.

The API doesn’t let you return a list of a user’s friends anymore. The friends endpoint will now return a list of the user’s friends that have authorised to use the app. Apps that rely on spidering a user’s friend network may be in for a shock. And not just spammy apps: the Tinder dating app shows the number of mutual friends when you are looking at someone. When they switch to V2 of the Graph API, they’ll only be able to show you the number of mutual friends who also use Tinder. (The cynical bit of my brain says Facebook will probably offer them a bizdev deal to give them the full capacities. Maybe.)

More important than that is that Facebook are now going to require review of apps that use Facebook Login and the Graph API to get access to anything beyond public profile information, email address and the list of friends that also use the app. Want to know what brands users of your app like? You’ll need to get your app reviewed. Want to know whether your users are single or married, employed or not, university graduates or not, straight or gay, what their birthday is or perform a wide variety of functions including publishing on their stream without an explicit Facebook SDK UI? You’ll need to submit your app for review and include details of how having access to particular bits of data will improve the experience for the user.

As a developer, this means an infuriating loss of functionality. Certain things you could do fairly straightforwardly will be harder to do, and the acceptability of them will be at the whim of Facebook. It means less experimentation on the Facebook platform: companies will be less interested in building an app that is at the fringes of acceptability.

As a user, it is probably a good thing. Facebook apps have been very spammy and users have been less than careful with their private information. Facebook aren’t preventing you from using the data, they are just saying “if you want to use a particular type of information from a user, tell us why”. The review process actually requires you to explain how your use of the information will “enhance in-app experience” for the user. “Flogging your personal data to sleazy data brokers” isn’t really positive UX: actually having Facebook make sure that the data asked for serves a purpose may not be a bad thing for the user at all. For people building apps for marketing, it may push them away from the platform. Your perspective on whether this is a good thing is probably determined in a large part by whether you are in marketing or not.

Those with existing Facebook apps have a year to switch over to V2 of the Graph API and Login system. New apps must use V2 from now on.

We’ll have to wait to see how the changes play out, but these API changes seem to show that Facebook are leaning more towards protecting user privacy from the many “low-quality” apps and making it so that some actual benefit in UX is given to the user in order to be given access to the data.

And, yes, it’s their playground, they get to set the rules. Whining about them if you don’t like them is pretty pointless: instead, you know, build something better without centralised control.

  1. Pasting an HTTP link to a Spotify song into my browser now launches the Web Player and nags me to log in rather than just telling the Spotify app on my laptop to play the song. The only way to avoid this is to log into Spotify Web Player and stay logged in, even if you don’t use the Web Player.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the strike, TfL’s information has been bloody abysmal.