Facebook and the CCTV effect

This morning’s Observer column:

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…

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Why is WhatsApp founder quitting Facebook? You can guess the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Early in 2009, two former Yahoo employees, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, sat down to try and create a smartphone messaging app. They had a few simple design principles. One was that it should be easy to use: no complicated log-in and authentication procedures; instead, each user would be identified by his or her mobile number. And second, the app should have an honest business model – no more pretending it’s free while covertly monetising users’ data: instead, users would pay $1 a year after a certain period. Searching for a name for their service, they came up with WhatsApp, a play on “What’s Up?”

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Zuckerberg for Pope?

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who has been sounding the alarm about the social media giant since the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, is not letting up.

In an interview with the Mercury News, McNamee talked about why he thinks Facebook should be reined in — and possibly broken up.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the AT&T consent decree planted the seed for Silicon Valley,” McNamee wrote. “One of the many fundamental patents in AT&T’s huge portfolio was the transistor. The combination of freely licensable patents and restrictions on AT&T’s ability to enter new markets enabled entrepreneurs to create today’s semiconductor, computer, data communications, mobile technology and software industries, among others.”

McNamee told this news organization that the changes Facebook is making now don’t go far enough, and that “nobody can make them” enact change that would truly address the myriad problems with the platform, including possible manipulation of Facebook’s massive number of users.

“There are 2.2 billion people on Facebook each with their own ‘Truman Show,’ ” McNamee said. “Everybody has their own set of facts.”

In addition, he takes issue with the attitudes of Facebook’s top executives.

Facebook is “almost the same size as Christianity,” McNamee said. “When you are presiding over the largest interconnected organization in the world, that gets to your head after a while.”

Zuckerberg for Pope?

Facebook: stay tuned for more disclosures

That’s the message they’re giving to investors.

“We anticipate that our ongoing investments in safety, security, and content review will identify additional instances of misuse of user data or other undesirable activity by third parties on our platform.”

Well, well. Maybe Cambridge-Analytica is just the thin end of an interesting wedge.

So are the Democrats ready to unfriend Facebook?

Nice Observer piece by Thomas Frank, reminding us of how Obama & Co drank the Facebook Kool-Aid:

Seated with a panel of entrepreneurs from around the world, the president [Obama] lobbed his friend Zuckerberg an easy question about Facebook “creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world”. In batting it out of the park, the Facebook CEO, clad in his humble costume of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, took pains to inform everyone that what animated him were high-minded ideals. “When I was getting started,” he burbled, “I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice, and giving people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together …”

No rude senator spoke up to interrupt this propaganda. Instead, Zuckerberg went on to describe his efforts to connect everyone to the internet as a sort of wager on human goodness itself.

“It’s this deep belief that you’re trying to make a change, you’re trying to connect people in the world, and I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you. And you may not know up front what it’s going to be, but that’s just been the guiding principle for me in the work that we’ve done …”

That’s how it works, all right. Gigantic corporate investments are acts of generosity, and when making them, kind-hearted CEOs routinely count on Karma to reward them. That’s the “guiding principle”.

Reader, here is what the president could be heard to say as Zuckerberg ended this self-serving homily: “Excellent.”

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What Facebook’s monopoly means for developing countries

This morning’s Observer column:

The most significant moment in the US Senate’s interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg came when Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Facebook boss: “Who’s your biggest competitor?” It was one of the few moments in his five-hour testimony when Zuckerberg seemed genuinely discombobulated. The video of the exchange is worth watching. First, he smirks. Then he waffles about Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft “overlapping” with Facebook in various ways. It’s doesn’t look like he believes what he’s saying.

Eventually, Senator Graham cuts to the chase and asks Zuckerberg if he thinks Facebook is a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” the lad replies.

Laughter ripples through the room, as well it might. Here, at last, was something that every senator at the hearing understood. What’s less clear is whether they grasped the scale of the problem the company poses to society…

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So what is Facebook for, exactly?

What’s astonishing to me is the vacuity of Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting the world and creating a ‘global community’. This is his cover story for the real goal — to paint a target on every human’s back so that advertisers can hit them accurately. But then I’m just a cynic. And then I read this tweet by Benedict Evans, who’s a serious, perceptive and open-minded observer of these things:

Apple will make smart glasses, cars, contact lenses and neural implants. Google will make search, discovery and recommendation 10x better. Amazon will do 5 minute drone delivery and take half your retail spending. What about FB, though? They ‘connected’ half the world. What next?

Facebook’s Terms & Conditions in human-readable form

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the few coherent messages to emerge from the US Senate’s bumbling interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg was a touching desire that Facebook’s user agreement should be comprehensible to humans. Or, as Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana put it: “Here’s what everyone’s been trying to tell you today – and I say it gently – your user agreement sucks. The purpose of a user agreement is to cover Facebook’s rear end, not inform users of their rights.”

“I would imagine probably most people do not read the whole thing,” Zuckerberg replied. “But everyone has the opportunity to and consents to it.” Senator Kennedy was unimpressed. “I’m going to suggest you go home and rewrite it,” he replied, “and tell your $1,200 dollar an hour lawyer you want it written in English, not Swahili, so the average American user can understand.”

Since Zuckerberg’s staff are currently so overworked, the Observer is proud to announce that it has drafted a new, human-readable user agreement that honours Zuckerberg’s new commitment to “transparency”. Here it is…

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The death of the news feed

Ben Evans has a very thoughtful essay on his Blog about the intrinsic contradictions of social media. It’s basically about digital overload and is long and complicated and so worth reading in full. But he provides a useful summary towards the end, which goes like this:

All social apps grow until you need a newsfeed
All newsfeeds grow until you need an algorithmic feed
All algorithmic feeds grow until you get fed up of not seeing stuff/seeing the wrong stuff & leave for new apps with less overload
All those new apps grow until…

— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) January 22, 2018

I’m reminded of Clay Shirky’s famous aphorism that “there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s just filter failure”. Evans’s point is that normal human beings can’t — or won’t — use filters.

The best question Zuckerberg was asked was the one he couldn’t answer

I agree with Dave Winer:

Senator Lindsey Graham asked Zuck the right question on Tuesday. Who are your competitors? The answer is they have none, though Zuck wouldn’t say that. That is the big problem. Solve it and all the others go away.

Zuck tried to laugh off the question, but the answer was as clear as day and he knew it. In the social-networking business, Facebook is the monopoly to end all monopolies.