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on 21 October 2013
Untangling the Web is a timely and detailed account of how the internet is changing us, and what we can do about it.

The book makes very good points about the different identities we have online, and also about the way things are changing as the anonymity of the early days of the web gets eroded, and past identities become harder to erase. It's great on the privacy implications of the web, how much people share online and how much other information can easily be discovered. And there's also a good discussion of the way the internet filters what you see based on the information that companies are building up based on your past usage:

"The commercial services that dominate the digital world - the Googles and the Facebooks - are trying to keep us brand-loyal by delivering services that meet our needs, so they confirm our biases by telling us things that we already want to hear."

This is a fascinating area, covered in more detail by Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble. If you and I both Google "climate change", we'll get different results, and the results we see will likely reinforce our existing opinions. While it makes sense for the search companies to try to make our results more relevant, you can see the dangers of such an approach. As Krotoski puts it, "The vast ocean of information online is increasingly navigated by packs of like-minded people who really only see a little slice of what is available on the web." I'm not sure what a slice of an ocean looks like, but you get the point.

Krotoski returns to the point in a later chapter looking at extremism. The effect of what she calls "cyberbalkanization" is often pluralistic ignorance - the belief that everyone else thinks as we do. This is reinforced by the tribes of self-reinforcing believers that spring up, and can lead to more extreme views, as you are influenced by those around you.

The main strength of Untangling the Web is that it presents very serious, sometimes terrifying information, but never becomes hysterical or deliberately ratchets up the fear. Instead, she usually presents us with something we can do about it, or a reason why it doesn't matter so much. Krotoski wants to show us the effects of the internet, not to scare us with a doomsday scenario, but to enable us to take control of it and make it better.

For example, she tells us about "cyberchondria", the tendency for people to self-diagnose on the internet and make a headache into a brain tumour. Then she gives the more disturbing example of online support communities normalising self-destructive behaviour, such as the pro-ana community which "exacerbates the eating disorder anorexia nervosa by giving its members a place to share anything from tips and tricks for hiding weight loss from loved ones or doctors to `thinspiration' photos of emaciated women." But then she balances this out with an account of some of the positive effects of providing more trusted health information on the internet.

For a book that professes to untangle the web, the organisation is not always very easy to follow. The overall four-section structure makes sense: "Untangling Me" is about our own minds and bodies, "Untangling Us" looks at family and friendship, "Untangling Society" examines the larger social implications, and "Untangling the Future" is about future directions. But the trouble is that there's a lot of overlap in these categories - it's hard to separate out . The result is that things sometimes get a bit tangled. I should confess, though, that it might be me - I read this book on Kindle, and have noticed that I've had similar trouble with a few non-fiction e-books lately. No idea why, but it seems harder to keep track of the structure than it is with paper books.

The other problem I had with the book was the occasional use of the "straw man" technique, presenting breathless newspaper headlines as the representative of criticisms or fears over the web's influence, and then arguing that things are not that bad. For example:

"A headline you read on the front page screaming "Internet `terror breeding ground'" is actually terrifying. It implies that the web eradicates morality. But how real is this threat? Or is it just tapping into a public fear in order to sell copies?"

To me, this misses the point. Yes, of course tabloid headlines are sensationalist and over-hyped, but what about more intelligent critiques? Wouldn't it be more interesting to engage with them?

A similar thing happens sometimes with books, for example Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, in which apparently "he says we're using our minds less than ever before because it's so easy to find information". That wasn't the book I remember reading at all - I thought he was saying that the way we use our minds on the internet is different, and leads to different patterns of thought - more attuned to finding information quickly, and less attuned to deep reading and contemplation. Things like that chipped away at my trust of the author's judgement, and made me question whether the representations of other books or arguments were accurate.

Despite these reservations, though, I'd definitely recommend reading Untangling the Web. It's a lively and interesting introduction to the huge range of changes that are happening as we shift from a predominantly private to an increasingly public way of life. Despite the way the cover shouts "What the internet is doing to YOU", the author presents a balanced view and never subscribes to hyperbole or fear-mongering. Her ultimate philosophy is that we shouldn't be scared of the internet, but should be aware of what is going on and take control of it ourselves:

"The problem we're grappling with is that we are too tangled up in the web, experiencing the social and psychological evolutions as they happen. We're so fearful of what it will do to us and our institutions, that we forget that we have the power to shape it ourselves."
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on 3 August 2013
The web has crept into our lives over the past 20 years or so and while studies have been done into the effects on our lives, there's not much been written for the general audience. Aleks has a research background and draws from previous work that she's done from writing and podcasting for The Guardian and putting together a BBC TV series on the internet to put this together. It covers various subjects such as death, our brains and relationships. It's really clear and well written. You can see the depth of background research in each subject and a while variety of people have been interviewed or quoted. If I had one small complaint it's that it's too short, but there's a lot of "further reading" available on her website and blogs.
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on 21 September 2013
Aleksandra "Aleks" Krotoski is an American academic and journalist who now works in the UK where she lives with Ben Hammersley, another commentator on IT who has recently written "64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then". She is quite unusual in spanning the worlds of both academia and media and the result is that she writes well and bases her material on evidence. I enjoyed her series of columns for the "Observer" newspaper and her BBC series "The Virtual Revolution" and this book is based on her research and her articles and lectures over the previous 13 years. Consequently it covers many aspects of the Internet but has no overarching theme or narrative and it is so sensible in its conclusions that it is not particularly exciting.

The first section - the shortest - is titled "Untangling Me" and contains chapters on how one can play with identity online, how our online presence can live on after our death, and how the web may (or may not) be affecting how we think. Krotoski warns that "every technological innovation introduces new behaviours that are pathologised by anxious people" and she points out that the web has only been around for two decades: "It's way too early to really identify any long-term trends, good or bad".

The second section is headed "Untangling Us" and features chapters on how online communities confirm our sense of social identity, how the web allows us to explore more freely our sexual identity, how children spend so much time on social networking sites, how friendship is handled online through sites like Facebook, how more and more people are finding partners online, and how the Net facilitates bullying, insults and hate speech. Although technically the web allows us to communicate in new ways with a wider range of people, Krotoski insists that: "online, we're communicating more and more with people like ourselves", a phenomenon she calls "cyberbalkanisation"

The third section - the longest - is "Untangling Society" and comprises chapters on how much privacy we do (or do not) have online and the role of 'Big Data', how the web can be used for campaigning and empowerment, how the web can be used to inform and misinform very quickly, how online medical information allows us to self-diagnose and find support groups, how the web is leading to a blurring of the divide between work and home, how the web is being used to tell billions of stories (even if a lot of them are about cats), and how the web is being accessed by the religous and spiritual. Overwhelmingly Krotoski is positive about the Net but she does warn: " Users continue to populate databases with increasingly valuable personal information that, as commercial property, can be transferred to a new company with a different privacy ethos".

If there is an overall message, it is that so much of what people say about the effects of the web is not supported by evidence and we can still assert our control over the how the web is used and developed: "we seem to forget that the web is a network that is entirely human-produced and primarily created by people who live in a small area of Northern California".
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on 15 June 2015
An excellent analysis of the what's happening on the world wide web from a well respected author.

Well written and well researched this book is a must read for everyone living in the 21st century
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on 1 September 2013
Though this tells little more in factual terms than more academic books do, it tells well the story of our addiction with all things social media. Its far more accessible than current tech books as it shares the stories of real people as the technological revolution moves ever faster onwards in our lives. I loved it and found it to be a great companion piece to the weightier tomes on the digital era.
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on 16 March 2015
A really good read - thought provoking - and I've loaned it onwards for others to read ...
Worth reading her PhD thesis if this is your area of interest.
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on 5 August 2013
If you've ever stopped to wonder how much the web holds on you, this book helps to categorise and put it into context.

If you have ever used the Internet, you should read this book.
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on 5 March 2015
This is great just as i expected
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on 8 November 2013
Untangling the Web was an easy read but based on extensive academic research. It considers the web from a wide set of perspectives - from web presence after death, to photo tagging, to selling on of user data. Although I felt I knew a reasonable amount about how the web is used, there were many times in reading that the book made me stop short with a new perspective or deeper consideration about an issue. A particular strength of the book was its argument that we tend to gather with like-minded people online so we assume that most others are like us. This books confronts us with evidence of very different users of the web. I would thoroughly recommend the book, to 'novices' with little knowledge about the web to web fans, who may learn more about the dark corners.
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on 11 April 2016
great book
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