Tag Archives: Facebook

The Existential Dangers of the Online Echo Chamber

google-search-fake-news

The online filter bubble is a natural extension of our preexisting biases, particularly evident in our media consumption. Those of us of a certain age — above 30 years — once purchased (and maybe still do) our favorite paper-based newspapers and glued ourselves to our favorite TV news channels. These sources mirrored, for the most part, our cultural and political preferences. The internet took this a step further by building a tightly wound, self-reinforcing feedback loop. We consume our favorite online media, which solicits algorithms to deliver more of the same. I’ve written about the filter bubble for years (here, here and here).

The online filter bubble in which each of us lives — those of us online — may seem no more dangerous than its offline predecessor. After all, the online version of the NYT delivers left-of-center news, just like its printed cousin. So what’s the big deal? Well, the pervasiveness of our technology has now enabled these filters to creep insidiously into many aspects of our lives, from news consumption and entertainment programming to shopping and even dating. And, since we now spend growing  swathes of our time online, our serendipitous exposure to varied content that typically lies outside this bubble in the real, offline world is diminishing. Consequently, the online filter bubble is taking on a much more critical role and having greater effect in maintaining our tunnel vision.

However, that’s not all. Over the last few years we have become exposed to yet another dangerous phenomenon to have made the jump from the offline world to online — the echo chamber. The online echo chamber is enabled by our like-minded online communities and catalyzed by the tools of social media. And, it turns our filter bubble into a self-reinforcing, exclusionary community that is harmful to varied, reasoned opinion and healthy skepticism.

Those of us who reside on Facebook are likely to be part of a very homogeneous social circle, which trusts, shares and reinforces information accepted by the group and discards information that does not match the group’s social norms. This makes the spread of misinformation — fake stories, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors — so very effective. Importantly, this is increasingly to the exclusion of all else, including real news and accepted scientific fact.

Why embrace objective journalism, trusted science and thoughtful political dialogue when you can get a juicy, emotive meme from a friend of a friend on Facebook? Why trust a story from Reuters or science from Scientific American when you get your “news” via a friend’s link from Alex Jones and the Brietbart News Network?

And, there’s no simple solution, which puts many of our once trusted institutions in severe jeopardy. Those of us who care have a duty to ensure these issues are in the minds of our public officials and the guardians of our technology and media networks.

From Scientific American:

If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.

In fact, my research team’s analysis of data from Columbia University’s Emergent rumor tracker suggests that this misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information.

Many are asking whether this onslaught of digital misinformation affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. The truth is we do not know, although there are reasons to believe it is entirely possible, based on past analysis and accounts from other countries. Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. Overall, the harm can be very real: If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?

As a researcher on the spread of misinformation through social media, I know that limiting news fakers’ ability to sell ads, as recently announced by Google and Facebook, is a step in the right direction. But it will not curb abuses driven by political motives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Death of Permissionless Innovation

NeXTcube_first_webserver

The internet and its user-friendly interface, the World Wide Web (Web), was founded on the principle of openness. The acronym soup of standards, such as TCP/IP, HTTP and HTML, paved the way for unprecedented connectivity and interoperability. Anyone armed with a computer and a connection, adhering to these standards, could now connect and browse and share data with any one else.

This is a simplified view of Sir Tim Berners-Lee vision for the Web in 1989 — the same year that brought us Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Berners-Lee invented the Web. His invention fostered an entire global technological and communications revolution over the next  quarter century.

However, Berners-Lee did something much more important. Rather than keeping the Web to himself and his colleagues, and turning to Silicon Valley to found and fund the next billion dollar startup, he pursued a path to give the ideas and technologies away. Critically, the open standards of the internet and Web enabled countless others to innovate and to profit.

One of the innovators to reap the greatest rewards from this openness is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, in the ultimate irony, Facebook has turned the Berners-Lee model of openness and permissionless innovation on its head. It’s billion-plus users are members of a private, corporate-controlled walled garden. Innovation, to a large extent, is now limited by the whims of Facebook. Increasingly so, open innovation on the internet is stifled and extinguished by the constraints manufactured and controlled for Facebook’s own ends. This makes Zuckerberg’s vision of making the world “more open and connected” thoroughly laughable.

From the Guardian:

If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: “Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.”

Aw, isn’t that nice? From one “pioneer” to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy. In relation to the former, the guy who invented the web, Tim Berners-Lee, is as mystified by this “anniversary” as everyone else. “Who on earth made up 23 August?” he asked on Twitter. Good question. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out: “If Facebook had asked Berners-Lee, he’d probably have told them what he’s been telling people for years: the web’s 25th birthday already happened, two years ago.”

“In 1989, I delivered a proposal to Cern for the system that went on to become the worldwide web,” he wrote in 2014. It was that year, not this one, that he said we should celebrate as the web’s 25th birthday.

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for “making the world more open and connected”. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more “connected” but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a “walled garden” and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it.

The thing that makes the web distinctive is also what made the internet special, namely that it was designed as an open platform. It was designed to facilitate “permissionless innovation”. If you had a good idea that could be realised using data packets, and possessed the programming skills to write the necessary software, then the internet – and the web – would do it for you, no questions asked. And you didn’t need much in the way of financial resources – or to ask anyone for permission – in order to realise your dream.

An open platform is one on which anyone can build whatever they like. It’s what enabled a young Harvard sophomore, name of Zuckerberg, to take an idea lifted from two nice-but-dim oarsmen, translate it into computer code and launch it on an unsuspecting world. And in the process create an empire of 1.7 billion subjects with apparently limitless revenues. That’s what permissionless innovation is like.

The open web enabled Zuckerberg to do this. But – guess what? – the Facebook founder has no intention of allowing anyone to build anything on his platform that does not have his express approval. Having profited mightily from the openness of the web, in other words, he has kicked away the ladder that elevated him to his current eminence. And the whole thrust of his company’s strategy is to persuade billions of future users that Facebook is the only bit of the internet they really need.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The NeXT Computer used by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Courtesy: Science Museum, London. GFDL CC-BY-SA.

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Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

I’ve been writing about the filter bubble for quite sometime. The filter bubble refers to the tendency for online search tools, and now social media, to screen and deliver results that fit our online history and profile thereby returning only results that are deemed relevant. Eli Pariser coined the term in his book The Filter Bubble, published in 2011.

The filter bubble presents us with a clear faustian bargain: give up knowledge and serendipitous discovery of the wider world for narrow, personalized news and information that matches our immediate needs and agrees with our profile.

The great irony is that our technologies promise a limitless, interconnected web of data and information, but these same technologies ensure that we will see only the small sliver of information that passes through our personal, and social, filters. This consigns us to live inside our very own personal echo chambers, separated from disagreeable information that does not pass criteria in our profiles or measures gleaned across our social networks.

So, we should all be concerned as Facebook turns its attention to delivering and filtering news, and curating it in a quest for a more profitable return. Without question we are in the early stages of the reinvention of journalism as a whole and digital news in particular. The logical conclusion of this evolution has yet to be written, but it is certainly clear that handing so much power over the dissemination of news and information to one company cannot be in our long-term interests. If Mr. Zuckerberg and team deem certain political news to be personally distasteful or contrary to their corporate mission, should we sit back and allow them to filter it for us? I think not.

From Wired:

When Facebook News Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.

As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!

The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.

What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.

The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.

Read the entire article here.

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What If You Spoke Facebookish?

The video from comedian Jason Horton shows us what real world interactions would be like if we conversed the same way as we do online via Facebook. His conversations may be tongue-in-cheek but they’re too close to becoming reality for comfort. You have to suppose that these offline (real world) status updates would have us drowning in hashtags, over-reaction, moralizing, and endless yawn inducing monologues.

I’d rather have Esperanto make a comeback.

Video courtesy of Jason Horton.

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Online Social Networks as Infectious Diseases

Yersinia_pestis

A new research study applies the concepts of infectious diseases to online social networks. By applying epidemiological modelling to examine the dynamics of networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, researchers are able to analyze the explosive growth — the term “viral” is not coincidental — and ultimate demise of such networks. So, is Facebook destined to suffer a fate similar to Myspace, Bebo, polio and the bubonic plague? These researchers from Princeton think so, estimating Facebook will lose 80 percent of its 1.2 billion users by 2017.

From the Guardian:

Facebook has spread like an infectious disease but we are slowly becoming immune to its attractions, and the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017, say researchers at Princeton University (pdf).

The forecast of Facebook’s impending doom was made by comparing the growth curve of epidemics to those of online social networks. Scientists argue that, like bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out.

The social network, which celebrates its 10th birthday on 4 February, has survived longer than rivals such as Myspace and Bebo, but the Princeton forecast says it will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.

John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.

“Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,” the authors claim in a paper entitled Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics.

“Ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other. Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of ‘immunity’ to the idea.”

Facebook reported nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users in October, and is due to update investors on its traffic numbers at the end of the month. While desktop traffic to its websites has indeed been falling, this is at least in part due to the fact that many people now only access the network via their mobile phones.

For their study, Cannarella and Spechler used what is known as the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model of disease, which creates equations to map the spread and recovery of epidemics.

They tested various equations against the lifespan of Myspace, before applying them to Facebook. Myspace was founded in 2003 and reached its peak in 2007 with 300 million registered users, before falling out of use by 2011. Purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $580m, Myspace signed a $900m deal with Google in 2006 to sell its advertising space and was at one point valued at $12bn. It was eventually sold by News Corp for just $35m.

The 870 million people using Facebook via their smartphones each month could explain the drop in Google searches – those looking to log on are no longer doing so by typing the word Facebook into Google.

But Facebook’s chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted on an earnings call with analysts that during the previous three months: “We did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens.”

Investors do not appear to be heading for the exit just yet. Facebook’s share price reached record highs this month, valuing founder Mark Zuckerberg’s company at $142bn.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Scanning electron microscope image of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

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Zynga: Out to Pasture or Buying the Farm?

FarmVille_logoBy one measure, Zynga’s FarmVille on Facebook (and MSN) is extremely successful. The measure being dedicated and addicted players numbering in the millions each day. By another measure, Zynga isn’t faring very well at all, and that’s making money. Despite a valuation of over $3 billion, the company is struggling to find a way to convert virtual game currency into real dollar spend.

How the internet ecosystem manages to reward the lack of real and sustainable value creation is astonishing to those on the outside — but good for those on the inside. Would that all companies could bask in the glory of venture capital and IPO bubbles on such flimsy financial foundations. Quack!

Zynga has been on company deathwatch for a while. Read on to see some of its peers that seem to be on life-support

From ars technica:

HTC

To say that 2013 was a bad year for Taiwanese handset maker HTC is probably something of an understatement. The year was capped off by the indictment of six HTC employees on a variety of charges such as taking kickbacks, falsifying expenses, and leaking company trade secrets—including elements of HTC’s new interface for Android phones. Thomas Chien, the former vice president of design for HTC, was reportedly taking the information to a group in Beijing that was planning to form a new company, according to The Wall Street Journal.

On top of that, despite positive reviews for its flagship HTC One line, the company has been struggling to sell the phone. Blame it on bad marketing, bad execution, or just bad management, but HTC has been beaten down badly by Samsung.

The investigation of Chien started in August, but it was hardly the worst news HTC had last year as the company’s executive ranks thinned and losses mounted. There was reshuffling of deck chairs at the top of the company as CEO Peter Chou handed off chunks of his operational duties to co-founder and chairwoman Cher Wang—giving her control over marketing, sales, and the company’s supply chain in the wake of a parts shortage that hampered the launch of the HTC One. The Wall Street Journal reported that HTC couldn’t get camera parts for the One because suppliers believed “it is no longer a tier one customer,” according to an unnamed executive.

That’s a pretty dramatic fall from HTC’s peak, when the company vaulted from contract manufacturer to major mobile player. Way back in the heady days of 2011, HTC was second only to Apple in US cell phone market share, and it held 9.3 percent of the global market. Now it’s in fourth place in the US, with just 6.7 percent market share based on comScore numbers—behind Google’s Motorola and just ahead of LG Electronics by a hair. Its sales in the last quarter of 2013 were down by 40 percent from last year, and revenues for 2013 were down by 28.6 percent from 2012. With a patent infringement suit from Nokia over chips in the HTC One and One Mini still hanging over its head in the United Kingdom, the company could face a ban on selling some of its phones there.

Executives insist that HTC won’t be sold, especially to a Chinese buyer—the politics of such a deal being toxic to a Taiwanese company. But ironically, the Chinese market is perhaps HTC’s best hope in the long term—the company does more than a third of its business there. The company’s best bet may be going back to manufacturing phones with someone else’s name on the faceplate and leaving the marketing to someone else.

AMD

Advanced Micro Devices is still on deathwatch. Yes, AMD reported a quarterly profit of $48 million in September thanks to a gift from the game console gods (and IBM Power’s fall from grace). But that was hardly enough to jolt the chip company out of what has been a really bad year—and AMD is trying to manage expectations for the results for the final quarter of 2013.

AMD is caught between a rock and a hard place—or more specifically, between Intel and ARM. On the bright side, it probably has nothing to fear from ARM in the low-cost Windows device market considering how horrifically Windows RT fared in 2013. AMD actually gained in market share in the x86 space thanks to the Xbox One and PS4—both of which replace non-x86 consoles. And AMD still holds a substantial chunk of the graphics processor market—and all those potential sales in Bitcoin miners to go with it.

But in the PC space, AMD’s market share declined to a mere 15.8 percent (of what is a much smaller pie than it used to be). And in a future driven increasingly by mobile and low-power devices, AMD hasn’t been able to make any gains with the two low-power chips it introduced in 2013—Kabini and Temash. Those chips were supposed to finally give AMD a competitive footing with Intel on low-cost PCs and tablets, but they ended up being middling in comparison.

All that adds up to 2014 being a very important year for AMD—one that could end with AMD essentially being a graphics and specialty processor chip designer. The company has already divorced itself from its own fabrication capability and slashed its workforce, so there isn’t much more to cut but bone if the markets demand better margins.

Read the entire article here.

Image: FarmVille logo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Liking the Likes of Likers

Researchers trawling through data from Facebook and other social networking sites find good examples of what they call human herding behavior.  A notable case shows that if you “like” an article online, your friends are more likely to “like” that article too. Is it a case of similarities of the group leading to similar behavior among peers? Well, apparently not — the same research also found that if you dislike the same article, your friends are not as likely to dislike it as well. So what is going on?

From the New York Times:

If you “like” this article on a site like Facebook, somebody who reads it is more likely to approve of it, even if the reporting and writing are not all that great.

But surprisingly, an unfair negative reaction will not spur others to dislike the article. Instead, a thumbs-down view will soon be counteracted by thumbs up from other readers.

Those are the implications of new research looking at the behavior of thousands of people reading online comments, scientists reported Friday in the journal Science. A positive nudge, they said, can set off a bandwagon of approval.

“Hype can work,” said one of the researchers, Sinan K. Aral, a professor of information technology and marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “and feed on itself as well.”

If people tend to herd together on popular opinions, that could call into question the reliability of “wisdom of the crowd” ratings on Web sites like Yelp or Amazon and perhaps provide marketers with hints on how to bring positive attention to their products.

“This is certainly a provocative study,” said Matthew O. Jackson, a professor of economics at Stanford who was not involved with the research. “It raises a lot of questions we need to answer.”

Besides Dr. Aral (who is also a scholar in residence at The New York Times research and development laboratory, working on unrelated projects), the researchers are from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and New York University.

They were interested in answering a question that long predates the iPhone and Justin Bieber: Is something popular because it is actually good, or is it popular just because it is popular?

To help answer that question, the researchers devised an experiment in which they could manipulate a small corner of the Internet: reader comments.

They collaborated with an unnamed Web site, the company did not want its involvement disclosed, on which users submit links to news articles. Readers can then comment on the articles, and they can also give up or down votes on individual comments. Each comment receives a rating calculated by subtracting negative votes from positive ones.

The experiment performed a subtle, random change on the ratings of comments submitted on the site over five months: right after each comment was made, it was given an arbitrary up or down vote, or — for a control group — left alone. Reflecting a tendency among the site’s users to provide positive feedback, about twice as many of these arbitrary initial votes were positive: 4,049 to 1,942.

The first person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score. There was no change in the likelihood of subsequent negative votes. Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group.

“That is a significant change,” Dr. Aral said. “We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding.”

Meanwhile, comments that received an initial negative vote ended up with scores indistinguishable from those in the control group.

The Web site allows users to say whether they like or dislike other users, and the researchers found that a commenter’s friends were likely to correct the negative score while enemies did not find it worth their time to knock down a fake up vote.

The distortion of ratings through herding is not a novel concern. Reddit, a social news site that said it was not the one that participated in the study, similarly allows readers to vote comments up or down, but it also allows its moderators to hide those ratings for a certain amount of time. “Now a comment will more likely be voted on based on its merit and appeal to each user, rather than having its public perception influence its votes,” it explained when it unveiled the feature in April.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Facebook “like” icon. Courtesy of Wikimedia / Facebook.

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You Can Check Out Anytime You Like…

“… But You Can Never Leave”. So goes one of the most memorable of lyrical phrases from The Eagles (Hotel California).

Of late, it seems that this state of affairs also applies to a vast collection of people on Facebook; many wish to leave but lack the social capital or wisdom or backbone to do so.

From the Washington Post:

Bad news, everyone. We’re trapped. We may well be stuck here for the rest of our lives. I hope you brought canned goods.

A dreary line of tagged pictures and status updates stretches before us from here to the tomb.

Like life, Facebook seems to get less exciting the longer we spend there. And now everyone hates Facebook, officially.

Last week, Pew reported that 94 percent of teenagers are on Facebook, but that they are miserable about it. Then again, when are teenagers anything else? Pew’s focus groups of teens complained about the drama, said Twitter felt more natural, said that it seemed like a lot of effort to keep up with everyone you’d ever met, found the cliques and competition for friends offputting –

All right, teenagers. You have a point. And it doesn’t get better.

The trouble with Facebook is that 94 percent of people are there. Anything with 94 Percent of People involved ceases to have a personality and becomes a kind of public utility. There’s no broad generalization you can make about people who use flush toilets. Sure, toilets are a little odd, and they become quickly ridiculous when you stare at them long enough, the way a word used too often falls apart into meaningless letters under scrutiny, but we don’t think of them as peculiar. Everyone’s got one. The only thing weirder than having one of those funny porcelain thrones in your home would be not having one.

Facebook is like that, and not just because we deposit the same sort of thing in both. It used to define a particular crowd. But it’s no longer the bastion of college students and high schoolers avoiding parental scrutiny. Mom’s there. Heck, Velveeta Cheesy Skillets are there.

It’s just another space in which all the daily drama of actual life plays out. All the interactions that used only to be annoying to the people in the room with you at the time are now played out indelibly in text and pictures that can be seen from great distances by anyone who wants to take an afternoon and stalk you. Oscar Wilde complained about married couples who flirted with each other, saying that it was like washing clean linen in public. Well, just look at the wall exchanges of You Know The Couple I Mean. “Nothing is more irritating than not being invited to a party you wouldn’t be seen dead at,” Bill Vaughan said. On Facebook, that’s magnified to parties in entirely different states.

Facebook has been doing its best to approximate our actual social experience — that creepy foray into chairs aside. But what it forgot was that our actual social experience leaves much to be desired. After spending time with Other People smiling politely at news of what their sonograms are doing, we often want to rush from the room screaming wordlessly and bang our heads into something.

Hell is other people, updating their statuses with news that Yay The Strange Growth Checked Out Just Fine.

This is the point where someone says, “Well, if it’s that annoying, why don’t you unsubscribe?”

But you can’t.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Facebook logo courtesy of Mirror / Facebook.

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Friendships of Utility

The average Facebook user is said to have 142 “friends”, and many active members have over 500. This certainly seems to be a textbook case of quantity over quality in the increasingly competitive status wars and popularity stakes of online neo- or pseudo-celebrity. That said, and regardless of your relationship with online social media, the one good to come from the likes — a small pun intended — of Facebook is that social scientists can now dissect and analyze your online behaviors and relationships as never before.

So, while Facebook, and its peers, may not represent a qualitative leap in human relationships the data and experiences that come from it may help future generations figure out what is truly important.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Facebook has made an indelible mark on my generation’s concept of friendship. The average Facebook user has 142 friends (many people I know have upward of 500). Without Facebook many of us “Millennials” wouldn’t know what our friends are up to or what their babies or boyfriends look like. We wouldn’t even remember their birthdays. Is this progress?

Aristotle wrote that friendship involves a degree of love. If we were to ask ourselves whether all of our Facebook friends were those we loved, we’d certainly answer that they’re not. These days, we devote equal if not more time to tracking the people we have had very limited human interaction with than to those whom we truly love. Aristotle would call the former “friendships of utility,” which, he wrote, are “for the commercially minded.”

I’d venture to guess that at least 90% of Facebook friendships are those of utility. Knowing this instinctively, we increasingly use Facebook as a vehicle for self-promotion rather than as a means to stay connected to those whom we love. Instead of sharing our lives, we compare and contrast them, based on carefully calculated posts, always striving to put our best face forward.

Friendship also, as Aristotle described it, can be based on pleasure. All of the comments, well-wishes and “likes” we can get from our numerous Facebook friends may give us pleasure. But something feels false about this. Aristotle wrote: “Those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not insofar as the other is the person loved.” Few of us expect the dozens of Facebook friends who wish us a happy birthday ever to share a birthday celebration with us, let alone care for us when we’re sick or in need.

One thing’s for sure, my generation’s friendships are less personal than my parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Since we can rely on Facebook to manage our friendships, it’s easy to neglect more human forms of communication. Why visit a person, write a letter, deliver a card, or even pick up the phone when we can simply click a “like” button?

The ultimate form of friendship is described by Aristotle as “virtuous”—meaning the kind that involves a concern for our friend’s sake and not for our own. “Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue . . . . But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare.”

Those who came before the Millennial generation still say as much. My father and grandfather always told me that the number of such “true” friends can be counted on one hand over the course of a lifetime. Has Facebook increased our capacity for true friendship? I suspect Aristotle would say no.

Ms. Kelly joined Facebook in 2004 and quit in 2013.

Read the entire article here.

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Shirking Life-As-Performance of a Social Network

Ex-Facebook employee number 51, gives us a glimpse from within the social network giant. It’s a tale of social isolation, shallow relationships, voyeurism, and narcissistic performance art. It’s also a tale of the re-discovery of life prior to “likes”, “status updates”, “tweets” and “followers”.

From the Washington Post:

Not long after Katherine Losse left her Silicon Valley career and moved to this West Texas town for its artsy vibe and crisp desert air, she decided to make friends the old-fashioned way, in person. So she went to her Facebook page and, with a series of keystrokes, shut it off.

The move carried extra import because Losse had been the social network’s 51st employee and rose to become founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal ghostwriter. But Losse gradually soured on the revolution in human relations she witnessed from within.

The explosion of social media, she believed, left hundreds of millions of users with connections that were more plentiful but also narrower and less satisfying, with intimacy losing out to efficiency. It was time, Losse thought, for people to renegotiate their relationships with technology.

“It’s okay to feel weird about this because I feel weird about this, and I was in the center of it,” said Losse, 36, who has long, dark hair and sky-blue eyes. “We all know there is an anxiety, there’s an unease, there’s a worry that our lives are changing.”

Her response was to quit her job — something made easier by the vested stock she cashed in — and to embrace the ancient toil of writing something in her own words, at book length, about her experiences and the philosophical questions they inspired.

That brought her to Marfa, a town of 2,000 people in an area so remote that astronomers long have come here for its famously dark night sky, beyond the light pollution that’s a byproduct of modern life.

Losse’s mission was oddly parallel. She wanted to live, at least for a time, as far as practical from the world’s relentless digital glow.

Losse was a graduate student in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2004 when Facebook began its spread, first at Harvard, then other elite schools and beyond. It provided a digital commons, a way of sharing personal lives that to her felt safer than the rest of the Internet.

The mix has proved powerful. More than 900 million people have joined; if they were citizens of a single country, Facebook Nation would be the world’s third largest.

At first, Losse was among those smitten. In 2005, after moving to Northern California in search of work, she responded to a query on the Facebook home page seeking résumés. Losse soon became one of the company’s first customer-service reps, replying to questions from users and helping to police abuses.

She was firmly on the wrong side of the Silicon Valley divide, which prizes the (mostly male) engineers over those, like Losse, with liberal arts degrees. Yet she had the sense of being on the ground floor of something exciting that might also yield a life-altering financial jackpot.

In her first days, she was given a master password that she said allowed her to see any information users typed into their Facebook pages. She could go into pages to fix technical problems and police content. Losse recounted sparring with a user who created a succession of pages devoted to anti-gay messages and imagery. In one exchange, she noticed the man’s password, “Ilovejason,” and was startled by the painful irony.

Another time, Losse cringed when she learned that a team of Facebook engineers was developing what they called “dark profiles” — pages for people who had not signed up for the service but who had been identified in posts by Facebook users. The dark profiles were not to be visible to ordinary users, Losse said, but if the person eventually signed up, Facebook would activate those latent links to other users.

All the world a stage

Losse’s unease sharpened when a celebrated Facebook engineer was developing the capacity for users to upload video to their pages. He started videotaping friends, including Losse, almost compulsively. On one road trip together, the engineer made a video of her napping in a car and uploaded it remotely to an internal Facebook page. Comments noting her siesta soon began appearing — only moments after it happened.

“The day before, I could just be in a car being in a car. Now my being in a car is a performance that is visible to everyone,” Losse said, exasperation creeping into her voice. “It’s almost like there is no middle of nowhere anymore.”

Losse began comparing Facebook to the iconic 1976 Eagles song “Hotel California,” with its haunting coda, “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” She put a copy of the record jacket on prominent display in a house she and several other employees shared not far from the headquarters (then in Palo Alto., Calif.; it’s now in Menlo Park).

As Facebook grew, Losse’s career blossomed. She helped introduce Facebook to new countries, pushing for quick, clean translations into new languages. Later, she moved to the heart of the company as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter, mimicking his upbeat yet efficient style of communicating in blog posts he issued.

But her concerns continue to grow. When Zuckerberg, apparently sensing this, said to Losse, “I don’t know if I trust you,” she decided she needed to either be entirely committed to Facebook or leave. She soon sold some of her vested stock. She won’t say how much; they provided enough of a financial boon for her to go a couple of years without a salary, though not enough to stop working altogether, as some former colleagues have.

‘Touchy, private territory’

Among Losse’s concerns were the vast amount of personal data Facebook gathers. “They are playing on very touchy, private territory. They really are,” she said. “To not be conscious of that seems really dangerous.”

It wasn’t just Facebook. Losse developed a skepticism for many social technologies and the trade-offs they require.

Facebook and some others have portrayed proliferating digital connections as inherently good, bringing a sprawling world closer together and easing personal isolation.

Moira Burke, a researcher who trained at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and has since joined Facebook’s Data Team, tracked the moods of 1,200 volunteer users. She found that simply scanning the postings of others had little effect on well-being; actively participating in exchanges with friends, however, relieved loneliness.

Summing up her findings, she wrote on Facebook’s official blog, “The more people use Facebook, the better they feel.”

But Losse’s concerns about online socializing tracks with the findings of Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist who says users of social media have little understanding of the personal information they are giving away. Nor, she said, do many understand the potentially distorting consequences when they put their lives on public display, as what amounts to an ongoing performance on social media.

“In our online lives, we edit, we retouch, we clean up,” said Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” published in 2011. “We substitute what I call ‘connection for real conversation.’?”

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Image: The Boy Kings by Katherine Losse.

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You as a Data Strip Mine: What Facebook Knows

China, India, Facebook. With its 900 million member-citizens Facebook is the third largest country on the planet, ranked by population. This country has some benefits: no taxes, freedom to join and/or leave, and of course there’s freedom to assemble and a fair degree of free speech.

However, Facebook is no democracy. In fact, its data privacy policies and personal data mining might well put it in the same league as the Stalinist Soviet Union or cold war East Germany.

A fascinating article by Tom Simonite excerpted below sheds light on the data collection and data mining initiatives underway or planned at Facebook.

From Technology Review:

If Facebook were a country, a conceit that founder Mark Zuckerberg has entertained in public, its 900 million members would make it the third largest in the world.

It would far outstrip any regime past or present in how intimately it records the lives of its citizens. Private conversations, family photos, and records of road trips, births, marriages, and deaths all stream into the company’s servers and lodge there. Facebook has collected the most extensive data set ever assembled on human social behavior. Some of your personal information is probably part of it.

And yet, even as Facebook has embedded itself into modern life, it hasn’t actually done that much with what it knows about us. Now that the company has gone public, the pressure to develop new sources of profit (see “The Facebook Fallacy) is likely to force it to do more with its hoard of information. That stash of data looms like an oversize shadow over what today is a modest online advertising business, worrying privacy-conscious Web users (see “Few Privacy Regulations Inhibit Facebook”) and rivals such as Google. Everyone has a feeling that this unprecedented resource will yield something big, but nobody knows quite what.

Heading Facebook’s effort to figure out what can be learned from all our data is Cameron Marlow, a tall 35-year-old who until recently sat a few feet away from ­Zuckerberg. The group Marlow runs has escaped the public attention that dogs Facebook’s founders and the more headline-grabbing features of its business. Known internally as the Data Science Team, it is a kind of Bell Labs for the social-networking age. The group has 12 researchers—but is expected to double in size this year. They apply math, programming skills, and social science to mine our data for insights that they hope will advance Facebook’s business and social science at large. Whereas other analysts at the company focus on information related to specific online activities, Marlow’s team can swim in practically the entire ocean of personal data that Facebook maintains. Of all the people at Facebook, perhaps even including the company’s leaders, these researchers have the best chance of discovering what can really be learned when so much personal information is compiled in one place.

Facebook has all this information because it has found ingenious ways to collect data as people socialize. Users fill out profiles with their age, gender, and e-mail address; some people also give additional details, such as their relationship status and mobile-phone number. A redesign last fall introduced profile pages in the form of time lines that invite people to add historical information such as places they have lived and worked. Messages and photos shared on the site are often tagged with a precise location, and in the last two years Facebook has begun to track activity elsewhere on the Internet, using an addictive invention called the “Like” button. It appears on apps and websites outside Facebook and allows people to indicate with a click that they are interested in a brand, product, or piece of digital content. Since last fall, Facebook has also been able to collect data on users’ online lives beyond its borders automatically: in certain apps or websites, when users listen to a song or read a news article, the information is passed along to Facebook, even if no one clicks “Like.” Within the feature’s first five months, Facebook catalogued more than five billion instances of people listening to songs online. Combine that kind of information with a map of the social connections Facebook’s users make on the site, and you have an incredibly rich record of their lives and interactions.

“This is the first time the world has seen this scale and quality of data about human communication,” Marlow says with a characteristically serious gaze before breaking into a smile at the thought of what he can do with the data. For one thing, Marlow is confident that exploring this resource will revolutionize the scientific understanding of why people behave as they do. His team can also help Facebook influence our social behavior for its own benefit and that of its advertisers. This work may even help Facebook invent entirely new ways to make money.

Contagious Information

Marlow eschews the collegiate programmer style of Zuckerberg and many others at Facebook, wearing a dress shirt with his jeans rather than a hoodie or T-shirt. Meeting me shortly before the company’s initial public offering in May, in a conference room adorned with a six-foot caricature of his boss’s dog spray-painted on its glass wall, he comes across more like a young professor than a student. He might have become one had he not realized early in his career that Web companies would yield the juiciest data about human interactions.

In 2001, undertaking a PhD at MIT’s Media Lab, Marlow created a site called Blogdex that automatically listed the most “contagious” information spreading on weblogs. Although it was just a research project, it soon became so popular that Marlow’s servers crashed. Launched just as blogs were exploding into the popular consciousness and becoming so numerous that Web users felt overwhelmed with information, it prefigured later aggregator sites such as Digg and Reddit. But Marlow didn’t build it just to help Web users track what was popular online. Blogdex was intended as a scientific instrument to uncover the social networks forming on the Web and study how they spread ideas. Marlow went on to Yahoo’s research labs to study online socializing for two years. In 2007 he joined Facebook, which he considers the world’s most powerful instrument for studying human society. “For the first time,” Marlow says, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behavior at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

Marlow’s team works with managers across Facebook to find patterns that they might make use of. For instance, they study how a new feature spreads among the social network’s users. They have helped Facebook identify users you may know but haven’t “friended,” and recognize those you may want to designate mere “acquaintances” in order to make their updates less prominent. Yet the group is an odd fit inside a company where software engineers are rock stars who live by the mantra “Move fast and break things.” Lunch with the data team has the feel of a grad-student gathering at a top school; the typical member of the group joined fresh from a PhD or junior academic position and prefers to talk about advancing social science than about Facebook as a product or company. Several members of the team have training in sociology or social psychology, while others began in computer science and started using it to study human behavior. They are free to use some of their time, and Facebook’s data, to probe the basic patterns and motivations of human behavior and to publish the results in academic journals—much as Bell Labs researchers advanced both AT&T’s technologies and the study of fundamental physics.

It may seem strange that an eight-year-old company without a proven business model bothers to support a team with such an academic bent, but ­Marlow says it makes sense. “The biggest challenges Facebook has to solve are the same challenges that social science has,” he says. Those challenges include understanding why some ideas or fashions spread from a few individuals to become universal and others don’t, or to what extent a person’s future actions are a product of past communication with friends. Publishing results and collaborating with university researchers will lead to findings that help Facebook improve its products, he adds.

Social Engineering

Marlow says his team wants to divine the rules of online social life to understand what’s going on inside Facebook, not to develop ways to manipulate it. “Our goal is not to change the pattern of communication in society,” he says. “Our goal is to understand it so we can adapt our platform to give people the experience that they want.” But some of his team’s work and the attitudes of Facebook’s leaders show that the company is not above using its platform to tweak users’ behavior. Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people.

In April, influenced in part by conversations over dinner with his med-student girlfriend (now his wife), Zuckerberg decided that he should use social influence within Facebook to increase organ donor registrations. Users were given an opportunity to click a box on their Timeline pages to signal that they were registered donors, which triggered a notification to their friends. The new feature started a cascade of social pressure, and organ donor enrollment increased by a factor of 23 across 44 states.

Marlow’s team is in the process of publishing results from the last U.S. midterm election that show another striking example of Facebook’s potential to direct its users’ influence on one another. Since 2008, the company has offered a way for users to signal that they have voted; Facebook promotes that to their friends with a note to say that they should be sure to vote, too. Marlow says that in the 2010 election his group matched voter registration logs with the data to see which of the Facebook users who got nudges actually went to the polls. (He stresses that the researchers worked with cryptographically “anonymized” data and could not match specific users with their voting records.)

This is just the beginning. By learning more about how small changes on Facebook can alter users’ behavior outside the site, the company eventually “could allow others to make use of Facebook in the same way,” says Marlow. If the American Heart Association wanted to encourage healthy eating, for example, it might be able to refer to a playbook of Facebook social engineering. “We want to be a platform that others can use to initiate change,” he says.

Advertisers, too, would be eager to know in greater detail what could make a campaign on Facebook affect people’s actions in the outside world, even though they realize there are limits to how firmly human beings can be steered. “It’s not clear to me that social science will ever be an engineering science in a way that building bridges is,” says Duncan Watts, who works on computational social science at Microsoft’s recently opened New York research lab and previously worked alongside Marlow at Yahoo’s labs. “Nevertheless, if you have enough data, you can make predictions that are better than simply random guessing, and that’s really lucrative.”

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Image courtesy of thejournal.ie / abracapocus_pocuscadabra (Flickr).

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Loneliness in the Age of Connectedness

Online social networks are a boon to researchers. As never before, social scientists are probing our connections, our innermost thoughts now made public, our networks of friends, and our loneliness. Some academics point to the likes of Facebook for making our increasingly shallow “friendships” a disposable and tradable commodity, and ironically facilitating isolation from more intimate and deeper connections. Others see Facebook merely as a mirror — we have, quite simply, made ourselves lonely, and our social networks instantly and starkly expose our isolation for all to see and “like”.

An insightful article by novelist Stephen Marche over at The Atlantic examines our self-imposed loneliness.

From the Atlantic:

Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate and B-movie star, best known for her role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, would have been 83 last August, but nobody knows exactly how old she was when she died. According to the Los Angeles coroner’s report, she lay dead for the better part of a year before a neighbor and fellow actress, a woman named Susan Savage, noticed cobwebs and yellowing letters in her mailbox, reached through a broken window to unlock the door, and pushed her way through the piles of junk mail and mounds of clothing that barricaded the house. Upstairs, she found Vickers’s body, mummified, near a heater that was still running. Her computer was on too, its glow permeating the empty space.

The Los Angeles Times posted a story headlined “Mummified Body of Former Playboy Playmate Yvette Vickers Found in Her Benedict Canyon Home,” which quickly went viral. Within two weeks, by Technorati’s count, Vickers’s lonesome death was already the subject of 16,057 Facebook posts and 881 tweets. She had long been a horror-movie icon, a symbol of Hollywood’s capacity to exploit our most basic fears in the silliest ways; now she was an icon of a new and different kind of horror: our growing fear of loneliness. Certainly she received much more attention in death than she did in the final years of her life. With no children, no religious group, and no immediate social circle of any kind, she had begun, as an elderly woman, to look elsewhere for companionship. Savage later told Los Angeles magazine that she had searched Vickers’s phone bills for clues about the life that led to such an end. In the months before her grotesque death, Vickers had made calls not to friends or family but to distant fans who had found her through fan conventions and Internet sites.

Vickers’s web of connections had grown broader but shallower, as has happened for many of us. We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment. In 2010, at a cost of $300 million, 800 miles of fiber-optic cable was laid between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange to shave three milliseconds off trading times. Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

At the forefront of all this unexpectedly lonely interactivity is Facebook, with 845 million users and $3.7 billion in revenue last year. The company hopes to raise $5 billion in an initial public offering later this spring, which will make it by far the largest Internet IPO in history. Some recent estimates put the company’s potential value at $100 billion, which would make it larger than the global coffee industry—one addiction preparing to surpass the other. Facebook’s scale and reach are hard to comprehend: last summer, Facebook became, by some counts, the first Web site to receive 1 trillion page views in a month. In the last three months of 2011, users generated an average of 2.7 billion “likes” and comments every day. On whatever scale you care to judge Facebook—as a company, as a culture, as a country—it is vast beyond imagination.

Despite its immense popularity, or more likely because of it, Facebook has, from the beginning, been under something of a cloud of suspicion. The depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, in The Social Network, as a bastard with symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, was nonsense. But it felt true. It felt true to Facebook, if not to Zuckerberg. The film’s most indelible scene, the one that may well have earned it an Oscar, was the final, silent shot of an anomic Zuckerberg sending out a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking—a moment of superconnected loneliness preserved in amber. We have all been in that scene: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.

When you sign up for Google+ and set up your Friends circle, the program specifies that you should include only “your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.” That one little phrase, Your real friends—so quaint, so charmingly mothering—perfectly encapsulates the anxieties that social media have produced: the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.

Facebook arrived in the middle of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive. Americans are more solitary than ever before. In 1950, less than 10 percent of American households contained only one person. By 2010, nearly 27 percent of households had just one person. Solitary living does not guarantee a life of unhappiness, of course. In his recent book about the trend toward living alone, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU, writes: “Reams of published research show that it’s the quality, not the quantity of social interaction, that best predicts loneliness.” True. But before we begin the fantasies of happily eccentric singledom, of divorcées dropping by their knitting circles after work for glasses of Drew Barrymore pinot grigio, or recent college graduates with perfectly articulated, Steampunk-themed, 300-square-foot apartments organizing croquet matches with their book clubs, we should recognize that it is not just isolation that is rising sharply. It’s loneliness, too. And loneliness makes us miserable.

We know intuitively that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Solitude can be lovely. Crowded parties can be agony. We also know, thanks to a growing body of research on the topic, that loneliness is not a matter of external conditions; it is a psychological state. A 2005 analysis of data from a longitudinal study of Dutch twins showed that the tendency toward loneliness has roughly the same genetic component as other psychological problems such as neuroticism or anxiety.

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Photograph courtesy of Phillip Toledano / The Atlantic.

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You Are What You Share

The old maxim used to go something like, “you are what you eat”. Well, in the early 21st century it has been usurped by, “you are what you share online (knowingly or not)”.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Not so long ago, there was a familiar product called software. It was sold in stores, in shrink-wrapped boxes. When you bought it, all that you gave away was your credit card number or a stack of bills.

Now there are “apps”—stylish, discrete chunks of software that live online or in your smartphone. To “buy” an app, all you have to do is click a button. Sometimes they cost a few dollars, but many apps are free, at least in monetary terms. You often pay in another way. Apps are gateways, and when you buy an app, there is a strong chance that you are supplying its developers with one of the most coveted commodities in today’s economy: personal data.

Some of the most widely used apps on Facebook—the games, quizzes and sharing services that define the social-networking site and give it such appeal—are gathering volumes of personal information.

A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person’s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.

Yahoo and Skype say that they seek the information to customize their services for users and that they are committed to protecting privacy. “Data that is shared with Yahoo is managed carefully,” a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

The Journal also tested its own app, “WSJ Social,” which seeks data about users’ basic profile information and email and requests the ability to post an update when a user reads an article. A Journal spokeswoman says that the company asks only for information required to make the app work.

This appetite for personal data reflects a fundamental truth about Facebook and, by extension, the Internet economy as a whole: Facebook provides a free service that users pay for, in effect, by providing details about their lives, friendships, interests and activities. Facebook, in turn, uses that trove of information to attract advertisers, app makers and other business opportunities.

Up until a few years ago, such vast and easily accessible repositories of personal information were all but nonexistent. Their advent is driving a profound debate over the definition of privacy in an era when most people now carry information-transmitting devices with them all the time.

Capitalizing on personal data is a lucrative enterprise. Facebook is in the midst of planning for an initial public offering of its stock in May that could value the young company at more than $100 billion on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Facebook requires apps to ask permission before accessing a user’s personal details. However, a user’s friends aren’t notified if information about them is used by a friend’s app. An examination of the apps’ activities also suggests that Facebook occasionally isn’t enforcing its own rules on data privacy.

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Image: Facebook is watching and selling you. Courtesy of Daily Mail.

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GE and EE: The Dark Side of Facebook

That’s G.E. and E.E, not “Glee”. In social psychology circles GE means grandiose exhibitionism, while EE stands for entitlement / exploitativeness. Researchers find that having a large number of “ifriends”on social networks, such as Facebook, correlates with high levels of GE and EE. The greater the number of friends you have online, the greater the odds that you are a chronic attention seeker with shallow relationships or a “socially disruptive narcissist”.

From the Guardian:

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

A number of previous studies have linked narcissism with Facebook use, but this is some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most “toxic” elements of narcissistic personality disorder.

Researchers at Western Illinois University studied the Facebook habits of 294 students, aged between 18 and 65, and measured two “socially disruptive” elements of narcissism – grandiose exhibitionism (GE) and entitlement/exploitativeness (EE).

GE includes ”self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies” and people who score high on this aspect of narcissism need to be constantly at the centre of attention. They often say shocking things and inappropriately self-disclose because they cannot stand to be ignored or waste a chance of self-promotion.

The EE aspect includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”.

The research revealed that the higher someone scored on aspects of GE, the greater the number of friends they had on Facebook, with some amassing more than 800.

Those scoring highly on EE and GG were also more likely to accept friend requests from strangers and seek social support, but less likely to provide it, according to the research.

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

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Image “Looking at You, and You and You”, Jennifer Daniel, an illustrator, created a fan page on Facebook and asked friends to submit their images for this mosaic; 238 of them did so. Courtesy of the New York Times.

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Your Guide to Online Morality

By most estimates Facebook has around 800 million registered users. This means that its policies governing what is or is not appropriate user content should bear detailed scrutiny. So, a look at Facebook’s recently publicized guidelines for sexual and violent content show a somewhat peculiar view of morality. It’s a view that some characterize as typically American prudishness, but with a blind eye towards violence.

From the Guardian:

Facebook bans images of breastfeeding if nipples are exposed – but allows “graphic images” of animals if shown “in the context of food processing or hunting as it occurs in nature”. Equally, pictures of bodily fluids – except semen – are allowed as long as no human is included in the picture; but “deep flesh wounds” and “crushed heads, limbs” are OK (“as long as no insides are showing”), as are images of people using marijuana but not those of “drunk or unconscious” people.

The strange world of Facebook’s image and post approval system has been laid bare by a document leaked from the outsourcing company oDesk to the Gawker website, which indicates that the sometimes arbitrary nature of picture and post approval actually has a meticulous – if faintly gore-friendly and nipple-unfriendly – approach.

For the giant social network, which has 800 million users worldwide and recently set out plans for a stock market flotation which could value it at up to $100bn (£63bn), it is a glimpse of its inner workings – and odd prejudices about sex – that emphasise its American origins.

Facebook has previously faced an outcry from breastfeeding mothers over its treatment of images showing them with their babies. The issue has rumbled on, and now seems to have been embedded in its “Abuse Standards Violations”, which states that banned items include “breastfeeding photos showing other nudity, or nipple clearly exposed”. It also bans “naked private parts” including “female nipple bulges and naked butt cracks” – though “male nipples are OK”.

The guidelines, which have been set out in full, depict a world where sex is banned but gore is acceptable. Obvious sexual activity, even if “naked parts” are hidden, people “using the bathroom”, and “sexual fetishes in any form” are all also banned. The company also bans slurs or racial comments “of any kind” and “support for organisations and people primarily known for violence”. Also banned is anyone who shows “approval, delight, involvement etc in animal or human torture”.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Guardian / Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA.

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Life Without Facebook

Perhaps it’s time to re-think your social network when through it you know all about the stranger with whom you are sharing the elevator.

From the New York Times:

Tyson Balcomb quit Facebook after a chance encounter on an elevator. He found himself standing next to a woman he had never met — yet through Facebook he knew what her older brother looked like, that she was from a tiny island off the coast of Washington and that she had recently visited the Space Needle in Seattle.

“I knew all these things about her, but I’d never even talked to her,” said Mr. Balcomb, a pre-med student in Oregon who had some real-life friends in common with the woman. “At that point I thought, maybe this is a little unhealthy.”

As Facebook prepares for a much-anticipated public offering, the company is eager to show off its momentum by building on its huge membership: more than 800 million active users around the world, Facebook says, and roughly 200 million in the United States, or two-thirds of the population.

But the company is running into a roadblock in this country. Some people, even on the younger end of the age spectrum, just refuse to participate, including people who have given it a try.

One of Facebook’s main selling points is that it builds closer ties among friends and colleagues. But some who steer clear of the site say it can have the opposite effect of making them feel more, not less, alienated.

“I wasn’t calling my friends anymore,” said Ashleigh Elser, 24, who is in graduate school in Charlottesville, Va. “I was just seeing their pictures and updates and felt like that was really connecting to them.”

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Image: Facebook user. Courtesy of the New York Times.

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It’s Actually 4.74 Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Six degrees of separation is commonly held urban myth that on average everyone on Earth is six connections or less away from any other person. That is, through a chain of friend of a friend (of a friend, etc) relationships you can find yourself linked to the President, the Chinese Premier, a farmer on the steppes of Mongolia, Nelson Mandela, the editor of theDiagonal, and any one of the other 7 billion people on the planet.

The recent notion of degrees of separation stems from original research by Michael Gurevich at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the structure of social networks in his 1961. Subsequently, an Austrian mathematician, Manfred Kochen, proposed in his theory of connectedness for a U.S.-sized population, that “it is practically certain that any two individuals can contact one another by means of at least two intermediaries.” In 1967 psychologist Stanley Milgram and colleagues validated this through his acquaintanceship network experiments on what was then called the Small World Problem. In one example, with 296 volunteers who were asked to send a message by postcard, through friends and then friends of friends, to a specific person living near Boston. Milgram’s work published in Psychology Today showed that people in the United States seemed to be connected by approximately three friendship links, on average. The experiment generated a tremendous amount of publicity, and as a result to this day he is incorrectly attributed with originating the ideas and quantification of interconnectedness and even the statement “six degrees of separation”.

In fact, the statement was originally articulated in 1929 by Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy and later popularized by in a play written by John Guare. Karinthy believed that the modern world was ‘shrinking’ due to the accelerating interconnectedness of humans. He hypothesized that any two individuals could be connected through at most five acquaintances. In 1990, playwright John Guare unveiled a play (followed by a movie in 1993) titled “Six Degrees of Separation”. This popularized the notion and enshrined it into popular culture. In the play one of the characters reflects on the idea that any two individuals are connected by at most five others:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.

Then in 1994 along came the Kevin Bacon trivia game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” invented as a play on the original concept. The goal of the game is to link any actor to Kevin Bacon through no more than six connections, where two actors are connected if they have appeared in a movie or commercial together.

Now, in 2011 comes a study of connectedness of Facebook users. Using Facebook’s population of over 700 million users, researchers found that the average number of links from any arbitrarily selected user to another was 4.74; for Facebook users in the U.S., the average number of of links was just 4.37. Facebook posted detailed findings on its site, here.

So, the Small World Problem popularized by Milgram and colleagues is actually becoming smaller as Frigyes Karinthy had originally suggested back in 1929. As a result, you may not be as “far” from the Chinese Premier or Nelson Mandela as you may have previously believed.

Image: Six Degrees of Separation Poster by James McMullan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Ravelry 1, Facebook 0

Facebook with its estimated 600-700 million users, multi-billion dollar valuation, and its 2,500 or so employees in 15 countries is an internet juggernaut by most measures. But, measure a social network by the loyalty and adoration of its users and Facebook is likely to be eclipsed by a social network of knitters and crocheters.

The online community is known as Ravelry. It was created by a wife-and-husband team and has four employees, including the founders, and boasts around 1.5 million members.

From Slate:

The best social network you’ve (probably) never heard of is one-five-hundredth the size of Facebook. It has no video chat feature, it doesn’t let you check in to your favorite restaurant, and there are no games. The company that runs it has just four employees, one of whom is responsible for programming the entire operation. It has never taken any venture capital money and has no plans to go public. Despite these apparent shortcomings, the site’s members absolutely adore it. They consider it a key part of their social lives, and they use it to forge deeper connections with strangers—and share more about themselves—than you’re likely to see elsewhere online. There’s a good chance this site isn’t for you, but after you see how much fun people have there, you’ll wish you had a similar online haunt. The social network is called Ravelry. It’s for knitters (and crocheters).

Ravelry’s success is evidence in favor of an argument that you often hear from Facebook’s critics: A single giant social network is no fun. Social sites work better when they’re smaller and bespoke, created to cater to a specific group. What makes Ravelry work so well is that, in addition to being a place to catch up with friends, it is also a boon to its users’ favorite hobby—it helps people catalog their yarn, their favorite patterns, and the stuff they’ve made or plan on making. In other words, there is something to do there. And having something to do turns out to make an enormous difference in the way people interact with one another on the Web.

More from theSource here.

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The Homogenous Culture of “Like”

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About 12 months ago I committed suicide — internet suicide that is. I closed my personal Facebook account after recognizing several important issues. First, it was a colossal waste of time; time that I could and should be using more productively. Second, it became apparent that following, belonging and agreeing with others through the trivial “wall” status-in-a-can postings and now pervasive “like button” was nothing other than a declaration of mindless group-think and a curious way to maintain social standing. So, my choice was clear: become part of a group that had similar interests, like-minded activities, same politics, parallel beliefs, common likes and dislikes; or revert to my own weirdly independent path. I chose the latter, rejecting the road towards a homogeneity of ideas and a points-based system of instant self-esteem.

This facet of the Facebook ecosystem has an affect similar to the filter bubble that I described is a previous post, The Technology of Personalization and the Bubble Syndrome. In both cases my explicit choices on Facebook, such as which friends I follow or which content I “like”, and my implicit browsing behaviors that increasingly filter what I see and don’t see causes a narrowing of the world of ideas to which I am a exposed. This cannot be good.

So, although I may incur the wrath of author Neil Strauss for including an excerpt of his recent column below, I cannot help but “like” what he has to say. More importantly, he does a much more eloquent job of describing the issue which commoditizes social relationships and, dare I say it, lowers the barrier to entry for narcissists to grow and fine tune their skills.

By Neil Strauss for the Wall Street Journal:

If you happen to be reading this article online, you’ll notice that right above it, there is a button labeled “like.” Please stop reading and click on “like” right now.

Thank you. I feel much better. It’s good to be liked.

Don’t forget to comment on, tweet, blog about and StumbleUpon this article. And be sure to “+1” it if you’re on the newly launched Google+ social network. In fact, if you don’t want to read the rest of this article, at least stay on the page for a few minutes before clicking elsewhere. That way, it will appear to the site analytics as if you’ve read the whole thing.

Once, there was something called a point of view. And, after much strife and conflict, it eventually became a commonly held idea in some parts of the world that people were entitled to their own points of view.

Unfortunately, this idea is becoming an anachronism. When the Internet first came into public use, it was hailed as a liberation from conformity, a floating world ruled by passion, creativity, innovation and freedom of information. When it was hijacked first by advertising and then by commerce, it seemed like it had been fully co-opted and brought into line with human greed and ambition.

But there was one other element of human nature that the Internet still needed to conquer: the need to belong. The “like” button began on the website FriendFeed in 2007, appeared on Facebook in 2009, began spreading everywhere from YouTube to Amazon to most major news sites last year, and has now been officially embraced by Google as the agreeable, supportive and more status-conscious “+1.” As a result, we can now search not just for information, merchandise and kitten videos on the Internet, but for approval.

Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn’t retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.

Conversely, when we’re looking at someone else’s content—whether a video or a news story—we are able to see first how many people liked it and, often, whether our friends liked it. And so we are encouraged not to form our own opinion but to look to others for cues on how to feel.

“Like” culture is antithetical to the concept of self-esteem, which a healthy individual should be developing from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Instead, we are shaped by our stats, which include not just “likes” but the number of comments generated in response to what we write and the number of friends or followers we have. I’ve seen rock stars agonize over the fact that another artist has far more Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers than they do.

More from theSource here.

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Life of a Facebook Photo

Before photo-sharing, photo blogs, photo friending, “PhotoShopping” and countless other photo-enabled apps and services, there was compose, point, focus, click, develop, print. The process seemed a lot simpler way back then. Perhaps, this was due to lack of options for both input and output. Input? Simple. Go buy a real camera. Output? Simple. Slide or prints. The end.

The options for input and output have exploded by orders of magnitude over the last couple of decades. Nowadays, even my toaster can take pictures and I can output them on my digital refrigerator, sans, of course, real photographs with that limp, bendable magnetic backing. The entire end-to-end process of taking a photograph and sharing it with someone else is now replete with so many choices and options that today it seems to have become inordinately more complex.

So, to help all prehistoric photographers like me, here’s an interesting process flow for your digital images in the age of Facebook.

From Pixable:

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Social networking: Failure to connect

From the Guardian:

The first time I joined Facebook, I had to quit again immediately. It was my first week of university. I was alone, along with thousands of other students, in a sea of club nights and quizzes and tedious conversations about other people’s A-levels. This was back when the site was exclusively for students. I had been told, in no uncertain terms, that joining was mandatory. Failure to do so was a form of social suicide worse even than refusing to drink alcohol. I had no choice. I signed up.

Users of Facebook will know the site has one immutable feature. You don’t have to post a profile picture, or share your likes and dislikes with the world, though both are encouraged. You can avoid the news feed, the apps, the tweet-like status updates. You don’t even have to choose a favourite quote. The one thing you cannot get away from is your friend count. It is how Facebook keeps score.

Five years ago, on probably the loneliest week of my life, my newly created Facebook page looked me square in the eye and announced: “You have 0 friends.” I closed the account.

Facebook is not a good place for a lonely person, and not just because of how precisely it quantifies your isolation. The news feed, the default point of entry to the site, is a constantly updated stream of your every friend’s every activity, opinion and photograph. It is a Twitter feed in glorious technicolour, complete with pictures, polls and videos. It exists to make sure you know exactly how much more popular everyone else is, casually informing you that 14 of your friends were tagged in the album “Fun without Tom Meltzer”. It can be, to say the least, disheartening. Without a real-world social network with which to interact, social networking sites act as proof of the old cliché: you’re never so alone as when you’re in a crowd.

The pressures put on teenagers by sites such as Facebook are well-known. Reports of cyber-bullying, happy-slapping, even self-harm and suicide attempts motivated by social networking sites have become increasingly common in the eight years since Friendster – and then MySpace, Bebo and Facebook – launched. But the subtler side-effects for a generation that has grown up with these sites are only now being felt. In March this year, the NSPCC published a detailed breakdown of calls made to ChildLine in the last five years. Though overall the number of calls from children and teenagers had risen by just 10%, calls about loneliness had nearly tripled, from 1,853 five years ago to 5,525 in 2009. Among boys, the number of calls about loneliness was more than five times higher than it had been in 2004.

This is not just a teenage problem. In May, the Mental Health Foundation released a report called The Lonely Society? Its survey found that 53% of 18-34-year-olds had felt depressed because of loneliness, compared with just 32% of people over 55. The question of why was, in part, answered by another of the report’s findings: nearly a third of young people said they spent too much time communicating online and not enough in person.

More from theSource here.

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