Facebook does NOT make us lonely

I have a response to The Atlantic‘s cover story Does Facebook Make Us Lonely? up at BostInno. Here’s a snippet:

Is Facebook making us lonely? That’s the question posed by The Atlantic‘s new cover story, and if you’re interested in learning more about the nature of loneliness and its prevalance in American life, I recommend you give it a read. But if you’re looking for proof that Facebook and the internet more broadly are making us lonely, be prepared for disappointment.

There’s a lot of good information about the psychology of loneliness in the piece, but while author Stephen Marche isn’t quite so unequivocal in his conclusion, the article safely answers the question posed by its title: No, Facebook isn’t making us lonely.

Go give the rest a read and let me know what you think.


Don Draper on Facebook Timeline

This is a great scene. Not only is it a funny combination, but if you’re like me you may actually be a bit moved in favor of Timeline. But would Don really favor it? Or would he agree with this guy that forgetting is important? It is, after all, what his life is based around. For now, I’ll stick with my previous take: the important thing is that we get the filters right.



Code is control: on Facebook and media

A friend asked me recently what I think of Facebook’s new plan to unveil a new media sharing platform on their site. Dan Gillmor’s column in The Guardian captures most of my thoughts thus far:

If you buy a refrigerator for your home, it’s yours. And once installed, it’s going to work the same way for the rest of its working life, letting you organise perishable food inside a cold space.

But in the world of technology, once you buy something – or, even more, become a user of a web-based service – there is a very good chance that it will change. And increasingly, the changes come with a take-it-or-leave it choice – which is to say, little to no choice at all.

The point is this: the more our products contain software – and increasingly, code is integral to the things we buy – the more likely it will be that these products are not really ours anymore. The companies that sell them (or, in the case of web services, allow us to use them) will increasingly make decisions that they can change at a whim, or a court order. Probably the most infamous example to date took place whenAmazon reached into its customers’ Kindle book readers in 2009 to delete copies of – irony alert – George Orwell’s 1984, which, it turned out, were being sold illegally by one of its online vendors.

I don’t expect bad faith to rule. Most of the changes will be upgrades, no doubt. But we will have no choice but to accept them. That’s the problem.

This is the right framework to think about this. We already give up so much control with our reliance on Facebook. This change seems likely to increase that. A couple things I’d add…

The refrigerator metaphor is interesting because even though you own your ‘fridge, you can’t use it without electricity. We can think about electricity as a fairly open framework; no single corporation can dictate the rules for devices plugging in. Similarly open standards – more open really – exist online. The web itself is governed by a set of open protocols driven forward by rough consensus (and running code). What we need to fear is the open standards web approach giving way to the corporate standards app approach. Every additional layer that we cede to single corporations is a step backward. That’s part of why I’m worried about Spotify.

The second thing I have to add… With respect to media, I’m particularly worried about Facebook and its approach to copyright enforcement. Will Facebook take an aggressive approach akin to Apple’s with iTunes and iPods? Or will it sit back and let the burden sit with the users? If Facebook tries to enforce IP rights as part of its sharing platform it will be truly damaging and a  step back for online culture. Users will presumably pressure them not to, but content creators (and their industry groups) will take the other side, and will be better organized. So that’s a piece I’ll be closely watching as this rolls out.


Initial thoughts on Eli Pariser

Eli Pariser, president of the board at MoveOn.org, has a new book out called The Filter Bubble, and based on his recent NYT op-ed and some interviews he’s done I’m extremely excited to read it. Pariser hits on one of my pet issues: the danger of Facebook, Google, etc. personalizing our news feeds in a way that limits our exposure to news and analysis that challenges us. (I’ve written about that here, here, and here.) In this interview with Mashable he even uses the same metaphor of feeding users their vegetables!

The Filter Bubble - Eli Pariser

So, thus far my opinion of Pariser’s work is very high. But what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t quibble? So here goes…

From the Mashable interview (Mashable in bold; Pariser non-bold):

Isn’t seeking out a diversity of information a personal responsibility? And haven’t citizens always lived in bubbles of their own making by watching a single news network or subscribing to a single newspaper?

There are a few important ways that the new filtering regime differs from the old one. First, it’s invisible — most people aren’t aware that their Google search results, Yahoo News links, or Facebook feed is being tailored in this way.

When you turn on Fox News, you know what the editing rule is — what kind of information is likely to get through and what kind is likely to be left out. But you don’t know who Google thinks you are or on what basis it’s editing your results, and therefore you don’t know what you’re missing.

I’m just not sure that this is true. I completely recognize the importance of algorithmic transparency, given the terrific power they have over our lives. But it’s not obvious to me that we’re living in a less transparent world. Do we really know more about how Fox’s process works than we do about how Google’s does? It seems to me that in each case we have a rough sketch of the primary factors that drive decisions, but in neither do we have perfect information.

But to me there is an important difference: Google knows how its process works better than Fox knows how its process works. Such is the nature of algorithmic decision-making. At least to the people who can see the algorithm, it’s quite easy to tell how the filter works. This seems fundamentally different than the Fox newsroom, where even those involved probably have imperfect knowledge about the filtering process.

Life offline might feel transparent, but I’m not sure it is. Back in November I wrote a post responding to The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and a piece he’d written on algorithms and online dating. Here was my argument then:

Madrigal points out that dating algorithms are 1) not transparent and 2) can accelerate disturbing social phenomena, like racial inequity.

True enough, but is this any different from offline dating?  The social phenomena in question are presumably the result of the state of the offline world, so the issue then is primarily transparency.

Does offline dating foster transparency in a way online dating does not?  I’m not sure.  Think about the circumstances by which you might meet someone offline.  Perhaps a friend’s party.  How much information do you really have about the people you’re seeing?  You know a little, certainly.  Presumably they are all connected to the host in some way.  But beyond that, it’s not clear that you know much more than you do when you fire up OkCupid.  On what basis were they invited to the party?  Did the host consciously invite certain groups of friends and not others, based on who he or she thought would get along together?

Is it at least possible that, given the complexity of life, we are no more aware of the real-world “algorithms” that shape our lives?

So to conclude… I’m totally sympathetic to Pariser’s focus and can’t wait to read his book. I completely agree that we need to push for greater transparency with regard to the code and the algorithms that increasingly shape our lives. But I hesitate to call a secret algorithm less transparent than the offline world, simply because I’m not convinced anyone really understood how our offline filters worked either.


Google News: Trust the algorithm

I’ve written about the potential dangers of Google and Facebook using algorithms to recommend news, with the basic fear being that they’ll recommend stories that confirm my biases rather than “feed me my vegetables.” But Nieman Lab has an interview with the founder of Google News who has quite a different take on what he’s doing:

“Over time,” he replied, “I realized that there is value in the fact that individual editors have a point of view. If everybody tried to be super-objective, then you’d get a watered-down, bland discussion,” he notes. But “you actually benefit from the fact that each publication has its own style, it has its own point of view, and it can articulate a point of view very strongly.” Provided that perspective can be balanced with another — one that, basically, speaks for another audience — that kind of algorithmic objectivity allows for a more nuanced take on news stories than you’d get from individual editors trying, individually, to strike a balance. “You really want the most articulate and passionate people arguing both sides of the equation,” Bharat says. Then, technology can step in to smooth out the edges and locate consensus. ”From the synthesis of diametrically opposing points of view,” in other words, “you can get a better experience than requiring each of them to provide a completely balanced viewpoint.”“That is the opportunity that having an objective, algorithmic intermediary provides you,” Bharat says. “If you trust the algorithm to do a fair job and really share these viewpoints, then you can allow these viewpoints to be quite biased if they want to be.”

[emphasis from Nieman Lab]

A few thoughts:

1. It is very encouraging that Krishna Bharat is thinking about this, even if only as a piece of what he’s doing.

2. He’s right that whether or not you can trust the algorithm matters tremendously.

3. I remain skeptical that there’s any incentive for the algorithm to challenge me. Does he believe doing so will provide something I want and am more likely to click such that this vision fits nicely with Google’s bottom line? Or is he suggesting that he and his team are worried about more than the bottom line?

Bottom line: it’s great he’s thinking about this but he needs to explain why we should really believe it’s a priority if he wants us to truly trust the algorithm.


Google won’t feed me my vegetables

I had a post months back called “Who will feed me my vegetables?” about the dangers of social news feeds. Here was the gist:

Consider politics.  Facebook knows I self-designate as “liberal”.  They know I’m a “fan” of Barack Obama and the Times’ Nick Kristof.  They can see I’m more likely to “like” stories from liberal outlets.So what kind of political news stories will they send my way?  If the algorithm’s aim is merely to feed me stories I will like then it’s not hard to imagine the feed becoming an echo chamber.

Imagine if Facebook were designing an algorithm to deliver food instead of news.  It wouldn’t be hard to determine the kind of food I enjoy, but if the goal is just to feed me what I like I’d be in trouble.  I’d eat nothing but pizza, burgers and fries.

This is not just idle speculation. Here’s an entry today at the Google News Blog:

Last summer we redesigned Google News with new personalization features that let you tell us which subjects and sources you’d like to see more or less often. Starting today — if you’re logged in — you may also find stories based on articles you’ve clicked on before.

For signed-in users in the Personalized U.S. Edition, “News for You” will now include stories based on your news-related web history. For example, if you click on a lot of articles about baseball, we’ll make sure that you get a chance to see breaking baseball stories. We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization, sending more traffic to publishers.

Emphasis mine. In many ways this is obviously useful. But it carries real risks. And I bolded that last line to emphasize the driving force behind these efforts: profit. What you should be reading is nowhere in the equation. Even what you want to read is useful only to the extent that it serves up traffic and ad revenue. Somewhat related…I’m increasingly curious about the possibility for “responsible algorithms” to add a new layer to the web experience for users on an opt-in basis. That’s something I’ll expand on in a future post.


Age of the Winklevi

Vanity Fair published a piece this week on a lawsuit against the Huffington Post by two Democratic political consultants “for failing to acknowledge what they claim was their critical role in the creation of the Huffington Post”. Politico reported the story about two months ago under the headline “2 Dems claim Arianna Huffington stole website idea”.winklevoss

Wait, what?  What exactly was the “idea” for the Huffingon Post?

According to VF, “[plaintiffs] Daou and Boyce say that they were the ones who conceived of ‘a Democratic equivalent of the Drudge Report'”.  If that doesn’t exactly sound like an idea you can steal, that’s because it isn’t.

The actual charge, reports Politico, is “that Huffington and partner Ken Lerer designed the website from a plan [Daou and Boyce] had presented them, and in doing so, violated a handshake agreement to work together.”

This is a strange case, and commenters are already expressing skepticism about the strength of the plaintiffs’ claim, but I’ll defer to lawyers on whether or not any contract was breached.

What disturbs me most about this case is how it’s been presented.  The idea for a liberal Drudge just is not the kind of idea that is protected by our intellectual property regime, and for good reason.  Though the case actually seems to revolve around breach of contract, you wouldn’t necessarily gather as much from how it’s presented in the media.  The Politico headline, in particular, obscures the real issue.

Why does this matter?  My fear is that in the age of constant suits over intellectual property (music, film), and high profile suits that may seem to be about intellectual property (against Facebook or Huffington), we might forget that not every idea is protected by law, and that that is a good thing! Ideas that are protected by law are rightfully the exception, not the rule.

Lawrence Lessig explains how to think about this in The Future of Ideas.  I wish everyone who read the Vanity Fair piece would also read this:

This is a hard fact for lawyers to understand (protected as they are by exclusionary rules such as the bar exam), but most of production in our society occurs without any guarantee of government protection. Starbucks didn’t get a government monopoly before it risked a great deal of capital to open coffee shops around the world. All it was assured was that people would have to pay for the coffee they sold; the idea of a high-quality coffee shop was free for others to take. Similarly, chip fabricators around the world invest billions in chip production plants, with no assurance from the government that another competitor won’t open a competing plant right next door.

In each of these cases, and in the vast majority of cases in a free economy, one person’s great idea is open for others to take. Burger King and McDonald’s; Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks; Peapod and Webvan. No doubt the first movers would like it if others couldn’t use their idea or if others wouldn’t notice their idea until long after a market is set. But it is in the nature of the limits on patent rights, and in the nature of transparency in the market, that innovators in the ordinary market can’t keep their good ideas to themselves.

Some protection for ideas, and a bit more for expression, is provided by the legal system. But this protection is incomplete or leaky. Perfect control is never its character.

Innovators nonetheless innovate. And they innovate because the return to them from deploying their new idea is high, even if others get the benefit of the new idea as well. Innovators don’t simply sit on their hands until a guaranteed return is offered; real capitalists invest and innovate with the understanding that competitors will be free to take their ideas and use them against the innovators.

Thus, rather than puzzling about why anyone would code for free systems, we might as well puzzle about why anyone would innovate without a government-granted monopoly to protect them. Indeed, history will teach that, at an earlier time, this was very much the view. Mercantilists believed that exclusive rights were needed before any investment made sense; the English monarchy at an earlier time protected many ordinary investments through a state-backed monopoly.

Free markets, however, function on a very different basis. We don’t grant every merchant a guaranteed market; we don’t reward every new marketing plan with a twenty-year monopoly; we don’t grant exclusive rights to each new way of doing business. In all these cases, because the market produces enough incentive on its own, the fact that others can free-ride doesn’t kill innovation. (The Future of Ideas, pgs 70-71)


Facebook and face-to-face

I’ve blogged about this before, but I wanted to share a great post from Ed Glaeser at NYT’s Economix on how social networking – in this case Facebook – supplements in-person interaction, rather than replacing it:Facebook-icon

it isn’t clear if Facebook will increase or decrease the demand for face-to-face interactions.When theory is ambiguous, we need to turn to the data, and it seems empirically that Facebook supports, rather than replaces, in-person meetings. For example, surveys of Facebook users have found that the use of “Facebook to meet previously unknown people remained low and stable” and that “students view the primary audience for their profile to be people with whom they share an offline connection.” In other words, Facebook seems to be typically used to connect people who have connected through some other medium, like being in the same class or meeting at a party, which seems to suggest complementarity between meeting face-to-face and connecting on Facebook.

Another paper looks at whether people who are good at face-to-face interactions made greater use of social-networking sites. The study examined a group of 13- to 14-year-olds in 1998-9 and rated their ability to connect well in person with a close friend. In 2006-8, those same people were asked about their involvement with social-networking sites.

The people who were better at interacting face-to-face in adolescence had more friends on social-networking sites as young adults. Again, electronic interactions seem to complement face-to-face connections.


Apple’s music social network, Ping, and a followup on Facebook feeds

After my last post, I had a few conversations with friends about a categorized or sortable Facebook feed.  The point of my post was as much about how Facebook could have better managed the transition from profiles to feeds as it was about categorizing updates, but the latter was, for whatever reason, what I ended up debating.

What I heard from multiple people was, basically, “I don’t use Facebook that way.”  As far as I can tell, my friends mostly use Facebook to post pictures, view pictures, and write on walls.

Perhaps this is the wrong conclusion to draw, but I think this is just more evidence that Facebook is continuing to miss out on an opportunity.  The people I spoke to aren’t thinking about Facebook as a tool for discovering new music, books, interests, etc. because Facebook hasn’t made it easy for them to do so.

If my friends are any indication (and perhaps they’re not?), Facebook users view the platform as a place to see what their friends are up to, and to stay in touch.  They don’t see it as an unprecedented social graph with massive potential to inform and recommend various aspects of their lives.

But that’s what it is.

Perhaps the introduction of a music social network by Apple will spur innovation at Facebook.  After all, is a sortable/categorized news feed really all that much to ask?  Maybe I’m nuts, but I think people would learn to appreciate it quickly.

UPDATE: Apparently, Facebook is testing a feature to “subscribe” to certain friends, to be sure you don’t miss any of their updates.  I have nothing to say about this now, and it’s not directly related to what I’m talking about, but I’ll count it as news feed innovation.