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.

Advertisements

2011 Architecture Survival Guide

An article in last Sundays Observer newspaper about Facebook has set me thinking about how we architects can not only survive in today’s rapidly changing technological environment but also actually make a positive difference to the world (even if it’s not on the scale of Facebook, assuming you think that has made a positive impact on the world).The article by John Naughton examines the claim by the Winklevoss twins that they were ripped off when they reached a settlement with Mark Zuckerburg in 2008 after they claimed it was they who had invented Facebook. Their claim is that the number of Facebook shares they acquired was based on a false valuation. For an entertaining view of this see, or rent, The Social Network which goes into the history of how Facebook came into being. The article goes on to pose the question: would we now be looking at a social networking service with 600 million users if the Winklevoss twins had been the ones to develop Facebook?

Naughton thinks not and goes on to explain that although the Winklevoss twins were not stupid they probably “laboured under two crippling disadvantages”:

  1. They were, and probably still are, conventional people who may have been good at “creating businesses in established sectors but who find it hard to operate in arenas where there are no rules”.
  2. The twins weren’t techies and so had no real insight into the technology they were creating and its possibilities. They were therefore less likely to “spot the importance of allowing Facebook to become a software platform on which other people could run applications”.

Here’s my takeaway from this if you want to come up with new ideas, at whatever scale, no one else has thought of.

  1. Don’t think conventionally. Conventional thinking will end up creating conventional business models. Conventional means doing what you’ve been told or what your peers do. Someone once said “fear of our peers makes us conservative in our thinking“. Zuckerburg was not only fearless of his peers (the Winklevoss twins) but had no qualms about using (some would say stealing) their ideas and using them for his own ends. I guess it poses an interesting moral dilemma about when it is right to steal someone elses idea because you think you can do more with it. Facebook paid for this by handing over cash and shares to the Winklevoss twins but have benefited from this ‘investment’ many times over.
  2. Don’t think like everyone else. Walter Lippmann (a writer and political commentator) once said “where we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” Some people claim that Zuckeburg (if you believe the movie at any rate) exhibits characteristics that place him on the autistic spectrum. (actually as having Asperger syndrome). One of the characteristics of someone with Aspergers is that they display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. Zuckeburg not only thought differently to everyone else but took an idea and focused on it intensely (many, many hours of programming) until Facebook was created.
  3. Think visually. Interesting related to number 2. People on the autistic spectrum are often more visual thinkers than those who are not. We often joke about “back of an envelope” or “back of a fag packet” designs but setting aside the medium the ability to visualise your thoughts quickly and succinctly is a key characteristic it’s worth fostering. One of my more memorable ad-hoc design sessions took place over a meal in a restaurant where we used the table cloth as a our drawing canvas. Luckily it was a paper table cloth!
  4. Don’t get out of touch with technology. One of the dangers of becoming an architect in order to make yourself “more valuable” (see Dilbert below) is you not only lose touch with technology but you lose the ability to exploit it in ways others may not see. Making Facebook an open platform has been one of the key factors in its runaway success. I’ve discussed before the importance of being a versatilist (broad in several disciplines and deep in a few specialisms) and this ones all about picking your technology (we can’t all be good at everything) and specialising yourself in it!

Dilbert.com

Interprise Architecture and Ultra-Large-Scale Systems

In a previous post I introduced the term “Interprise Architecture” to describe how the internet is breaking down the traditional boundaries of the enterprise and thus requires a new approach to Enterprise Architecture that’s not just about describing what’s inside the enterprise but also what’s on the outside. No longer can Enterprise Architects create blueprints for some future state that the enterprise will one day reach with roadmaps for how that state will be achieved. There are too many disruptive influences and new technologies that are impinging on the enterprise that will not only mean the roadmap is sending you in the wrong direction but that you are probably using the wrong mode of transport to get there as well.

I received a few comments on this from folk at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI)as well as Gartner. The work on Ultra-Large-Scale (ULS) Systems from the SEI particularly drew my attention and resonates nicely with some of my own thoughts. Here are some of the key ideas from the SEI report Ultra-Large-Scale Systems – The Software Challenge of the Future plus some additional musings of my own on what constitutes Interprise Architecture. First, ULS:

  • The SEI report on ULS systems was funded by the United States Department of Defence (DoD) which asked the SEI to consider future systems that could not only contain of billions of lines of code but also exhibit some, possibly all, of the following characteristics: decentralisation; conflicting, unknowable, and diverse requirements; continuous evolution and deployment; heterogeneous and changing elements; erosion of the people/system boundary; and normal failures of parts of the system.
  • ULS systems are likely to mean that traditional software and systems engineering approaches will no longer be adequate or can be the primary means by which such systems are designed (architected) or built.
  • ULS systems can be compared with cities whereas traditional systems can be compared with buildings. Buildings can be designed and built to a blueprint whereas cities emerge and are continuously adapting over time.
  • ULS systems are comprised of a dynamic community of interdependent and competing organisms (in this case, people, computing devices, and organizations) in a complex and changing environment. These are referred to as socio-technical ecosystems.
  • ULS systems are ones that are continuously evolving with new behaviour constantly emerging. In this respect they have the attributes of wicked problems where the problem is never definitively solved (or indeed understood).
  • ULS systems expect failure to be the norm and that unusual situations and boundary conditions will occur often enough that something will always be failing.

The SEI report is primarily aimed at allowing the US military to develop new systems however I believe the key ideas that challenge the development of such systems also have wide applicability in business systems, the sort I’m most interested in. I see that what I have characterised as Interprise Architecture could therefore be applied to developing ULS business systems. Here are three examples of ULS business systems that might benefit from an Interprise Architecture approach:

  • Electronic Trading Systems. These are systems that trade securities (such as stocks, and bonds), foreign currency, and exchange traded derivatives electronically. They use IT to bring together buyers and sellers through electronic media and create a virtual market place. Such systems are typically built using proprietary software that has grown and evolved over many years. Investment banks have extremely complex technology requirements, as they have to interface with multiple exchanges, brokers and multi-dealer platforms, as well as their own pricing, profit and loss (P&L), trade processing and position-keeping systems. The challenge here then is not only the large numbers of systems but also the increasing complicated regulatory environment.
  • Electricity Generation and Metering. The generation and consumption of electricity faces a number of unique challenges including improved and more efficient use of green technologies as well as smart metering. Traditional electrical meters only measure total consumption and as such, provide no information of when the energy was consumed. Smart meters provide an economical way of measuring this information, allowing price setting agencies to introduce different prices for consumption based on the time of day and the season.
  • Retail Systems. As retailers look for ever more cunning ways to get consumers to part with their hard-earned cash, traditional (i.e. high street) and electronic retail will merge more and more. For example not only can I use my 3G enabled smart-phone from the store I happen to be in to quickly compare prices in other stores in the area, the store itself can potentially detect I am shopping there using location based services and make me an enticing offer to shop there.

So here are the seven challenges that I see Interprise Architecture must deal with in developing a ULS business system:

  1. Requirements are unknowable. Sometimes the very act of capturing a requirement (in whatever form) changes the nature of that requirement. Interprise Architecture must not only allow for continuously changing requirements but must also recognise that some uses of the system cannot be known up-front; hence the need to build more adaptable systems.
  2. The boundary between people and systems is at best blurred and at worst never established. Sometimes people will be users of the system, sometimes they (or at least the devices they own) will be part of the system.
  3. Development never stops but is a continuous cycle. Development processes as well as the projects that deliver such systems must therefore support this never-ending cycle.
  4. Systems continuously adapt and exhibit emergent behaviour. As new uses of the system are “discovered’ by users the components that make up the system need to be able to adapt to satisfy those new behaviours.
  5. Failure (of parts of the system) is inevitable. Just like a fire in a building in a city can be localised and extinguished without by and large affecting the whole of a city then so to must Interprise Architecture allow for partial failure and reconfiguration of some components.
  6. Development tools and languages need to take account of the unpredictable and maybe even unspecifiable aspects of systems development. Traditional development tools favour left-brain thinkers where logic and reasoning can be applied to develop systems that move from abstract ideas to physical implementations (from models to code if you like). New tools for developing and describing Interprise Architectures need to be able to inject a bit of right-brain thinking by allowing creative multi-disciplinary elements to be added.
  7. Governance needs to be de-centralised. Strong, top-down governance (the sort favoured by Enterprise Architects) cannot work in a system where all the parts may not even be known. Interprise Architecture needs to recognise that some components are outside its control or immediate sphere of influence and have policies in place that allow new components to be added which don’t harm or damage the whole system.

As an interesting post-script to this the Financial Times recently published an article on Facebook and the plans that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has for advancing his brainchild. Zuckerberg had just announced a new feature on Facebook called Deals which allows smartphone users who have downloaded the Facebook application to check in at a physical location such as a coffee shop and get a reward. Zuckerberg says:

If you look five years out, every industry is going to be rethought in a social way. You can remake whole industries. That’s the big thing.

Facebook is one example of how external applications that allow users to impinge on the enterprise are changing how Enterprise Architects must think.

Next, a story for what a ULS business system might look like and how it might work.

Art, Creativity and the Tyranny of the Timesheet

Apparently lawyers are some of the glummest groups of professionals out there! One of the reasons for this is the very nature of their profession; it’s usually a “zero-sum” game, if somebody wins someone else loses (and in extreme cases loses their life). Another theory, put forward by Dan Pink in his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is that lawyers have to deal with one of the most “autonomy crushing mechanisms imaginable – the billable hour”. Lawyers have to keep careful track of every hour they spend, sometime to the level of granularity of six minute time chunks, so they can bill their time to the correct client. As a result their focus inevitably shifts to from the quality of the work they do (their output) to how they measure that work (its input). Essentially a lawyers reward comes from time, the more hours they bill, the higher their (or their legal practices) income. In today’s world it is hard to think of a worse way to ensure people do high quality and creative work than making them fill in a timesheet detailing everything they do.

Unfortunately the concept of the billable hour is now firmly embedded into other professions, including the one I work in, IT consulting. As IT companies have moved from selling hardware to software that runs on that hardware and then to providing consulting services to build systems made up of hardware and software they have had to look for different ways of charging for what they do. Unfortunately they have taken the easy option of the billable hour, something that the company accountants can easily measure and penalise people for if they don’t achieve their billable hours every week, month or year.

The problem with this of course is that innovation and creativity does not come in six minute chunks. Imagine if the inventors of some of the most innovative software architecture (Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web or Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook) had to bill their time. When such people wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea that would solve their clients business problem what’s the first thing they reach for: a notebook to record the idea before its gone or a spreadsheet to record their time so they can bill it to the client!

As Dan Pink says, the billable hour is, or should be, a relic of the old economy where routine tasks (putting doors on cars, sewing designer jeans or putting widgets into boxes) had tight coupling between how much effort goes in and the work that comes out. In the old economy where a days work equaled a days pay and you were a day laborer you essentially sold out to the highest bidder. Isn’t what we do worth more than that? As Seth Godin points out “the moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you’re capable of being”.

But what’s the alternative? Clearly IT consulting firms need to be able to charge clients for their work; they’re not charities after all. Here are my thoughts on alternatives to the tyranny of the timesheet which enable the art and creativity in building IT systems to flourish.

  1. Start with the assumption that most people want to do good work and incentivise them on the work products they create rather than the work inputs (time recorded).
  2. Recognise that creativity does not fit nicely into a 9 – 5 day. It can happen at any time. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) has his most creative time between 5am and 9am so is just finishing his work when the rest of us are starting. Creative people need to be allowed to work when they are at their most creative, not when company accountants say they should.
  3. When charging clients for work agree on what will be delivered by when and then build the right team to deliver (a team of shippers not time keepers). Of course this gives company lawyers a nightmare because they get involved in endless tangles with clients about what constitutes a deliverable and when it is complete (or not). Maybe giving lawyers a creative problem to solve will cheer them up though.
  4. Give people time-out to do their own thing and just see what happens. Google famously give their employees 20% time where they are allowed to spend a day working on their own projects. A number of google applications (including gmail) were invented by people doing their own thing.
  5. Allow people to spend time having interactions outside their immediate work groups (and preferably outside their company). Innovative ideas come from many sources and people should be allowed to discover as many new sources as possible. If someone wants to spend half-a-day walking round an art gallery rather than sitting at their desk, why not? Frank Gehry allegedly got his idea for the shape of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from Picasso’s cubist paintings.

In the new economy, the conceptual age where creativity and versatilism is the order of the day the timesheet should be firmly assigned to the shredder and people should be treated as innovaters not just cogs in the big corporate machine.

Working with Zuck

In this article Facebook software engineer Andrew Bosworth describes what its like to work with the founder and architect of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (‘Zuck’). The attributes that Bosworth ascribes to Zuckerberg, that by implication are at least partly the reasons for his galactic success, are ones which I believe all architects should aspire to. Here are the four attributes with my spin on how I think they apply to architects in general:

  1. Zuck expects debate. A good architect is not a dictator but should expect, and be happy to participate in, debate. Be open to new ideas and don’t think you have all the answers. At the same time be robust in pushing back on any ideas to test out peoples thinking thoroughly. Be aware of people who play Devil’s Advocate and who argue just to be heard or are negative without proposing viable, alternative solutions.
  2. Zuck isn’t sentimental. It’s sometimes easy to be too wedded to an idea or your favourite technology. Be prepared to scrap these and to throw things away if they no longer meet the requirements or something better has come along. As Bosworth says of Zuckerman he is “fearless about disrupting the status quo and tireless in his pursuit of building the right thing, even in an ever-changing landscape”.
  3. Zuck experiences things contextually. As architects we often talk about ideas very abstractly and prefer to talk in generalities rather than specifics. Bad idea! A good architect (and indeed architecture) should be firmly grounded in reality and be backed up by actual products, prototypes, even working code! The best way of convincing someone of your idea is to build something that you can give them to play with.
  4. Zuck pushes people. People can often do more than they think (sometimes in less time than they think as well). The important thing is to be focussed on the problem and not the distractions that your job (as opposed to your work) may bring.