Why I Became a Facebook Refusenik

I know it’s a new year and that generally is a time to make resolutions, give things up, do something different with your life etc but that is not the reason I have decided to become a Facebook refusenik.

Image Copyright http://www.keepcalmandposters.com
Image Copyright http://www.keepcalmandposters.com

Let’s be clear, I’ve never been a huge Facebook user amassing hundreds of ‘friends’ and spending half my life on there. I’ve tended to use it to keep in touch with a few family and ‘real’ friend members and also as a means of contacting people with a shared interest in photography. I’ve never found the user experience of Facebook particularly satisfying and indeed have found it completely frustrating at times; especially when posts seem to come and go, seemingly at random. I also hated the ‘feature’ that meant videos started playing as soon as you scrolled them into view. I’m sure there was a way of preventing this but was never interested enough to figure out how to disable it. I could probably live with these foibles however as by and large the benefits outweighed the unsatisfactory aspects of Facebook’s usability.

What’s finally decided me to deactivate my account (and yes I know it’s still there just waiting for me to break and log back in again) is the insidious way in which Facebook is creeping into our lives and breaking down all aspects of privacy and even our self-determination. How so?

First off was the news in June 2014 that Facebook had conducted a secret study involving 689,000 users in which friends’ postings were moved to influence moods. Various tests were apparently performed. One test manipulated a users’ exposure to their friends’ “positive emotional content” to see how it affected what they posted. The study found that emotions expressed by friends influence our own moods and was the first experimental evidence for “massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks”. What’s so terrifying about this is whether, as Clay Johnson the co-founder of Blue State Digital asked via Twitter is “could the CIA incite revolution in Sudan by pressuring Facebook to promote discontent? Should that be legal? Could Mark Zuckerberg swing an election by promoting Upworthy (see later) posts two weeks beforehand? Should that be legal?”

As far as we know this has been a one off which Facebook apologised for but the mere fact they thought they could get away with such a tactic is, to say the least, breathtaking in its audacity and not an organisation I am comfortable with entrusting my data to.

Next was the article by Tom Chatfield called The Attention Economy in which he discusses the idea that “attention is an inert and finite resource, like oil or gold: a tradable asset that the wise manipulator (i.e. Facebook and the like) auctions off to the highest bidder, or speculates upon to lucrative effect. There has even been talk of the world reaching ‘peak attention’, by analogy to peak oil production, meaning the moment at which there is no more spare attention left to spend.” Even though I didn’t believe Facebook was grabbing too much of my attention I was starting to become a little concerned that Facebook was often the first site I visited in the morning and was even becoming diverted by some of those posts in my newsfeed with titles like “This guy went to collect his mail as usual but you won’t believe what he found in his mailbox”. Research is beginning to show that doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity and that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. As Danny Crichton argues here “we need to recognize the context that is distracting us, changing what we can change and advocating for what we can hopefully convince others to do.”

The final straw that has made me throw in the Facebook towel however was reading The Virologist by Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker magazine about Emerson Spartz the so called ‘king of clickbait”. Spartz is twenty-seven and has been successfully launching Web sites for more than half his life. In 1999, when Spartz was twelve, he built MuggleNet, which became the most popular Harry Potter fan site in the world. Spartz’s latest venture is Dose a photo- and video-aggregation site whose posts are collections of images designed to tell a story. The posts have names like “You May Feel Bad For Laughing At These 24 Accidents…But It’s Too Funny To Look Away“. Dose gets most of its feeds through Facebook. A bored teenager absent mindedly clicking links will eventually end up on a site like Dose. Spartz’s goal is to make the site so “sticky”—attention-grabbing and easy to navigate—that the teenager will stay for a while. Money is generated through ads – sometimes there are as many as ten on a page and Spartz hopes to develop traffic-boosting software that he can sell to publishers and advertisers. Here’s the slightly disturbing thing though. Algorithms for analysing users behaviour are “baked in” to the sites Spartz builds. When a Dose post is created, it initially appears under as many as two dozen different headlines, distributed at random to different Facebook users. An algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. Hence users are “click-bait”, unknowingly taking part in a “test” to see how quickly they respond to a headline.

The final, and most sinister aspect to what Spartz is trying to do with Dose and similar sites is left to the end of Marantz’s article when Spartz gives his vision of the future of media:

The lines between advertising and content are blurring,” he said. “Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.

The ‘content’ that Spartz talks about is news. In other words he sees his goal is to feed us the news articles his algorithms calculate we will like. We will no longer be reading the news we want to read but rather that which some computer program thinks we should be reading, coupled of course with the ads the same program thinks we are most likely to respond to.

If all of this is not enough to concern you about what Facebook is doing (and the sort of companies it collaborates with) then the recent announcement of ‘keyword’ or ‘graph’ search might. Keyword search allows you to search content previously shared with you by entering a word or phrase. Privacy settings aren’t changing, and keyword search will only bring up content shared with you, like posts by friends or that friends commented on, not public posts or ones by Pages. But if a friend wanted to easily find posts where you said you were “drunk”, now they could. That accessibility changes how “privacy by obscurity” effectively works on Facebook. Rather than your posts being effectively lost in the mists of time (unless your friends want to methodically step through all your previous posts that is) your previous confessions and misdemeanors are now just a keyword search away. Maybe now is the time to take a look at your Timeline or search for a few dubious words with your name to check for anything scandalous before someone else does? As this article points out there are enormous implications of Facebook indexing trillions of our posts some we can see now but others we can only begin to guess at as ‘Zuck’ and his band of researchers do more and more to mine our collective consciousness’.

So that’s why I have decided to deactivate my Facebook account. For now my main social media interactions will be through Twitter (though that too is obviously working out how it can make money out of better and more targeted advertising of course). I am also investigating Ello which bills itself as “a global community that believes that a social network should be a place to empower, inspire, and connect — not to deceive, coerce, and manipulate.” Ello takes no money from advertising and reckons it will make money from value added services. It is early days for Ello yet and it still receives venture capital money for its development. Who knows where it will go but if you’d like to join with me on there I’m @petercripps (contact me if you want an invite).

I realise this is a somewhat different post from my usual ones on here. I have written posts before on privacy in the internet age but I believe this is an important topic for software architects and one I hope to concentrate on more this year.

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