Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Defense of Ascent

I've actually spent quite a bit of time with Facebook, not just a user but also as a developer, working with the Facebook Graph. There's a lot that's really innovative about Facebook (React, for example). So I don't think I'm "old fashioned, out of touch and ill informed." But hey, I don't have grey hair for nothing.

That said, I can't say I agree with the content and even the tenor of the criticisms. Let's deal with the points raised, one by one (comments by Pen Lister('Webteach') in italics).
  1. First rule of FB: Make your bed, to lie in the one you want.
Ah, if only. I doubt that anyone gets the FB they want out of Facebook. It's like squishing the come-on posts from clickbait sites - squash one, another one pops up. I could spend the rest of my life blocking feeds from Facebook. But humans cannot block at the speed algorithms can generate.
  1. If you are a completely passive social media user then the majority of what you’re describing is what happens. This is the bottom-line of non active algorithm, defaulting to basic content provision and ad placement (gee, just like free cable channels I guess). My feed is cool. My feed is intellectual. My feed is all round a winner.
Am I a completely passive social media user? Oh, hardly. I've spend a lot of time tweaking the settings and trying to configure Facebook to what I want. I've also tried various experiments (like trying different ways of using 'like' and 'share'). I've gone through campaigns of deleting users who share offensive content only to find it popping up again from the sponsored posts. So, no, I'm not passive. Indeed, I've put a lot more work into it that I should have to.
  1. Why do you think Facebook is anything more than a huge (the biggest ever) TV cable company, syndicating content from any and every source, in this case, individuals, to you, another individual
If Facebook were just a neutral broker of syndicated content from "any and every source" I wouldn't have a problem with it. But Facebook selects from that content using its famous algorithm. Yes, the algorithm can be tweaked, but it can't be overridden, and it is designed to favour content partners and to cater to its very peculiar set of 'social standards'. So it's not just a cable company. It doesn't just present the content, it presents the filtered and commerce-friendly content, which is the core of my objection.
  1. Yep, fat cats from the algae of web life do have the most money to waste on blanket target sponsored ads. Get over it.
Why should I "get over it"? My better option is to work toward a medium of communication which is not owned and dominated by commercial interests attempting to manipulate my perceptions and mental states. I can use the telephone without being interrupted every few seconds by a commercial message, so why can't I use the internet that way?
  1. You want to change this? Not only money is the answer – TIME is the answer. If you care, or had the time, you would facilitate your community and my guess is, more people would see your content organically, because it would be ‘seen’ as useful and engaging by the algorithm. Just like Google, in fact.
Nobody has spent more time working with other people on the internet than I have. I've been at it for more than two decades (hence the grey hair) and even today spend hours a day doing it. Now it might be the case that what I have to offer is inherently boring - it is pretty niche, after all - and I'm prepared to live with that. But seeing the scam artists with their fake weight loss pills and seamy meetup sites purchase their way to the head of the line reminds me that no amount of facilitation and curation is going to counter the effect of sleazy people with big bank accounts.
  1. Why do you think that FB will syndicate your content *forcably* into other people’s feeds unless they really want it – i.e. have engaged actively with it fairly recently? (I note the last post by other people was in February this year and that none of your page posts get any activity at all… yes it’s a vicious circle but you have the control to change that)
I don't think Facebook will syndicate my stuff forcibly into other people's feeds. It only does that for people who pay them money - as Facebook itself reminds me repeatedly whenever I post content into the site. In fact, in order to get me to pay for placement, Facebook's algorithm makes my stuff harder to find.

Now you might say (as is suggested by your comment) that I should make my pages and sites multi-user in order to generate more traffic. Sure, if I had what might be called 'guest posts' then more people might come. But my objective is not to bring in other people's content for Facebook, it's to share my own content. I know I don't have a lot of comments, but when the 'reach' of a post is 11 people, it's not going to generate a lot of comments (thank you for your one comment on that post, by the way).
  1. Semantic web controls web behaviour. I suspect you know this. The more clicks (activity) the higher the visibility in the ‘rank’. Logic, really.
That's a nice fairy tale. It describes what may be version 0.1 of the Page rank. But the actual behaviour of the site is far different. In a nutshell (again) people can buy greater rank, which increases clicks, and Facebook depresses all sorts of content, which decreases clicks.
  1. The challenge we have as the body of users is to teach the algorithm what we want, as individuals, as groups, as global communities. Smart data is not necessarily evil, unless we sit back and do nothing. Much like democracy then.
The snideness gets to me a bit.

If you examined democracy, you would find an algorithm that has been so badly gamed that people now find it impossible to elect governments that represent their interests. I won't go into this in depth because it's really obvious, and I'm surprised you used democracy as an example to make your point.

And similarly, it is not possible to 'train' the Facebook algorithm to respect my interests. Like so many politicians, it can be bought for a surprisingly small amount of money (adding up to surprisingly large amounts of money).

I agree that data are not necessarily evil, but it is hopelessly naive to think that we're looking only at data and evenly applied algorithms.
  1. I liked your FB page. Because I’m interested in your great mind, I selected ’see first’ from the follow options (directly beneath the like button). This way, I won’t miss the action
I'm glad to hear that. Because if you want to continue following the action, you'll have to venture outside Facebook and into the wider internet. I'm planning my departure as we speak.
  1. I am now off to write copious academic-nonspeak about your fab work in my thesis. Have a great social media day, guru of the e-learning glocality.
I'm sorry you have to write academic-nonspeak but I'm glad you like my work. I think it applies directly to the current Facebook discussion.

You know that I prefer open and distributed networks to closed and centralized ones. It disappoints me that social media has evolved into the latter. I want our social networks to become better and smarter but the best evidence right now is that they're becoming worse and stupider.

I blame this not in the individuals involved (though it's true that they are responsible for some reprehensible behaviour) but rather the structure of dysfunctional networks like Faceook and Twitter. I'm pointing to symptoms in the other paper, but let me point to some causes.

The very metrics cited above (clicks, rank, views) are mass metrics. Your interactivity with others is based on these. They are metrics that benefit from the first-mover effect (which is why some Facebook users and pages have large audiences despite not advertising) and are easily manipulated (which is why advertising works).

Facebook also limits scale on individuals (there's a 5,000 follower limit) but is scale free for larger accounts (especially those that pay). This results in the oft-cited long tail effect (which we also see on Twitter) and the corresponding 'big spike' populated mostly by commercial (and frequently slimy) interests.

The way to fix this is to change the metrics for connection with the intention of building communities rather than markets. But this means moving away from mass indicators and instead looking at relevance indicators, and most importantly, preventing commercial interests from gaming the system by buying access.

Facebook also privileges the content over individuals and relationships. There is no real organic community-building or clustering available in Facebook, only the pages and groups people form deliberately (which are either immediately overrun by spammers or must be private and hence invisible to genuinely interested people). Contrast that with Snapchat, which doesn't even keep the content, or WeChat, which is simply a communications system.

Facebook also makes it very hard to work with community outside Facebook. Anyone working with the graph will understand this. Facebook likes users to bring other users and content in, but is very reluctant to let any of that out. Indeed, Facebook is so closed that some users actually think Facebook is the internet. I can build, and have built, a chat application that includes Twitter comments, but I can't build one that includes Facebook comments.

As I said in my previous post, Facebook's strategy is to insert itself between you and whomever you're talking to, and to ensure there's no alternative route. That's why it's so hard to leave Facebook - you're literally cut off. There's nothing in the response that refutes that, or offers a solution to that.

I've described an architecture (and maybe we're seeing it built?). Here's how Facebook stacks up:

- autonomy - no, Facebook will not let you use what platform or software you can use, and is aggressively (eg., Facebook Messenger) working to limit that choice.

- diversity - Facebook is based on principles of mass, which means that it encourages everyone to view the same resources, to the point of privileging some content providers over all others

- openness - the Facebook graph is not open; there are numerous types of content that cannot be exported from the graph. Facebook is the classic walled garden.

- interactivity - Facebook privileges content over relationships, and focuses on what is shared rather than on the network of interactions between people, and has no mechanism of comprehending the wisdom of the community rather than the popularity of the meme.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ascent from Social Media

The sad part is, most of you won't read this message.

Not because you don't want to. You probably do. You actually followed me just for that purpose. But because your social network is lying to you.

As of today my Facebook page OLDaily has 638 'likes'. This mean s 638 people think they are following the page. Yet when I post an article on that page, it reaches a small percentage of that audience. This item, for example, which as of today has reached 33 people.

There are ways to increase the size of my audience on Facebook. I can advertise - specifically, I can 'sponsor' the post. If I spend $4 I can increase its reach by an estimated 10-11 people. Surprisingly, people are paying to boost their posts on Facebook.

What they're trying to do is to insert themselves into my news feed. My news feed is where I read the messages my friends and family have posted. It has long been the target of unwanted attention, as spammers through out clickbait and exhort readers to 'like' and 'share' these empty posts.

These are annoying, but at least my friends actually recommended them (and there are ways of blocking these shares based on where they originate, so when Shirley sends me another meme from the radio station, I no longer see it, because I've blocked everything from the radio station - it takes a while to do this, but at least it can be done).

The sponsored posts weren't recommended by anyone - there's no hint of 'social' about them. They're just inserted into my feed. And while (in theory) I can block messages from a specific source, I can't keep them out of my feed altogether.

I used to be able to do this. For years I've browsed the web with ad-blocking software in my browser. It selects what I want to see, and eliminates the advertisements. It's able to spot the advertisements because reader views of advertising are tracked and reported, and the software can spot this.

Regular advertising - "Eat at Joe's" - slips right through, because it's just content. That's what all advertising used to be. But today's advertising spies on you, installs software on your computer, adds extra seconds to page loads, and generally makes your life miserable. So I blocked it. But now, Facebook has disabled my ad blocker.

All this - the clickbait and spam and sponsored posts and advertising - is inserted into my feed instead of the observations and comments from my friends. And that's why my useful post that 638 people want to see is actually seen by only 33 people. Facebook wants me to join this cavalcade of sponsored posts. Not so much because of the money but because it legitimizes the whole thing.

And - frankly - what it legitimizes are the the greasy bottom-dwellers of the internet. As I go through my feed today this is what I see: Search-Engine Optimization (SEO) services. Gambling houses. Skeezy political organizations. Sexist domain name registrars. 'Bank owned homes'.  Health heart institute (with a fake Princeton URL). There are reasons why I avoid all these sites!

So not only is my personal information being bought and sold by Facebook applications, it is being sold to these guys. Ewww.... where can I wash?

What Facebook has done very deliberately is to insert itself between you and your friends. Nowhere is this more clear than with Facebook messenger, where Facebook no longer allows you to use a mobile browser to send messages to your Facebook friends - you are required to use their proprietary app. It won't let you read what they send you without the app either.

And it has inserted itself there not to serve any higher purpose (such as, you know, actually letting me communicate with my friends). It has inserted it there because it thinks it has me, because it thinks it has managed to eliminate all of your choice in the matter, because it thinks that Facebook is better than nothing.

After all, some other sites have been responding to my ad blockers as well. Sites like Wired and Forbes are preventing me from viewing their content, throwing up a big advertising window instead in which they require that I turn off my ad blocker if I wish to view their contents. But I can easily view other sites, and so I read (and link to) their competitors.

But without Facebook, what to I route around to? How, for example, do I find out about this story about Ulrike Reinhard (as of today, 52 reads on Facebook, 972 reads on my web site)? The value I get from Facebook is that, when my friends' messages finally get through, they're worth listening to.

Facebook has me going both ways. They make me pay money in order to allow people to read my content, and then they throw advertising at the people who are trying to read that content. And now they're tightening the screws.

And even as it clamps down on content, Facebook favours the wrong people, siding once again with the bottom-dwellers of the internet. It has no qualms about encouraging catfishers and other scammers to operate with impunity. Alec Couros has been struggling with this for years as Facebook allows scammer after scammer to use his image to defraud innocent victims. Breastfeeding, however, bothers Facebook a lot. It has no problems with hate speech, but generally dislikes plus sized women, cannabis advocates, sexual health organizations, indigenous people, reporters, and mentions of Facebook censorship.

Why do we tolerate this?

To a large degree, we don't. People have tried to build alternatives, like Elgg and Diaspora and App.net and pump.io and GNU.social. Though they've all had some success and reached some level of usership, none has really caught on, and all are in various stages of abandonment. There are enterprise social networks like Yammer which are poorly used.

It's like we don't want to replace Facebook. We've seen social networks and we don't need another one. Younger people are using things like Tumblr and WeChat and  YikYak and Tinder. And of course Pokemon Go. And Instagram and Snapchat. None of these is perfect, but also none of these seems to be so closely associated with the seamy side of the net the way Facebook is.

So, maybe just maybe, we can live without Facebook. And after all, if my stuff on Facebook is actually not being read, why continue to bother with it.

So I think it's time to move on from Facebook. Not to try to replace it, but to rather ascend from it, to get away from the bottom-feeders and think about new ways to connect with family and friends, new ways to cooperate with colleagues around the world.

Over the next few days I'm going to turn off the feeds and shutter the Facebook pages (I won't delete them, because then some SEO creep will pretend they're me). But first I'll make sure there are other ways to contact me.

And over the next few weeks I'm going to revisit what I do with my core offerings, my newsletter and my other work, and think about making my incoming content feeds work better for me, and my outgoing feeds work better for my readers. Thoughts and comments are welcome, as always.