Facebook: the Psychopaths ‘R Us channel

Yesterday’s Observer column:

The old adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. A while back, Facebook launched Facebook Live, a service that enables its users to broadcast live video to the world. Shortly after the service was activated, the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that the service would support all the “personal and emotional and raw and visceral” ways that people communicate. Users were encouraged to “go live” in casual settings – waiting for baggage at the airport, for example, or eating at a restaurant.

Note the phrase “raw and visceral”. Facebook Live has already broadcast a live stream of a young disabled man being tied up, gagged and attacked with a knife. In March, two Chicago teenage boys live-streamed themselves gang-raping a teenage girl. And around 40 Facebook users watched the video without reporting it either to Facebook or the police.

That’s pretty raw and visceral, you might think. But it turns out that it was just a prelude…

Read on

Facebook won’t fix fake news or filter bubbles for one simple reason: its business model depends on them

I’ve had a few goes at this (for example here and here) but Frederic Filloux has done an even better job:

Setting aside the need to fix its current PR nightmare, Facebook has no objective interest in fixing its fake stories problem.

In the end, it all boils down to this:

Facebook is above all an advertising machine. A fantastic one. I encourage everyone to explore its spectacular advertising interface and, even better, to spend a few bucks to boost a post, or build an ad. Its power, reach, granularity and overall efficiency are dizzying.

Facebook’s revenue system depends on a single parameter: page views. Pages views come from sharing. Which page criteria lead to the best sharing volumes?

You know the answer:

  • Emotions, preferably positive ones
  • Fun – LOLcats, listicles, cartoons,…
  • Proximity – stuff from friends and family
  • Affinities – stuff that resonates with your feelings, values and politics (and thereby locks you into your own personal filter bubble)

Sharing is key to Facebook’s business model because it leads to higher page consumption which, in turn, leads to multiple personalised advertising exposures.

It’s a great post, well worth reading in full. What I particularly enjoyed is Filloux’s takedown of young Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting everybody. This is what the lad said:

We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. And this idea of connecting the world has gotten stronger over the last century. You can now travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. Countries trade more openly and cooperate more easily than ever. And the Internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before. We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.

Sounds good? Only problem: it’s BS. As Filloux puts it:

Facebook might have created a “global community” but its components are utterly segregated and fragmented.

Facebook is made up of dozens of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions. Each group is protected against ideological infiltration from other cohorts. Maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm.

Yep. QED.

Just because it’s ‘trending’ doesn’t mean it’s true

This morning’s Observer column:

On 27 September, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced up to one another in the first of the televised presidential debates. Most observers concluded that Clinton had come off best. She was better prepared, they thought, and towards the end Trump seemed rattled and rambling.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop the Trump campaign team from using the phrase “Trump Won” in ads even before the debate ended. Aha, you say, that’s American politics for you: you get what you pay for. And in these circumstances, every candidate says that she or he has won anyway, no matter what happened in the debate.

But then something interesting happened. The hashtag #TrumpWon went viral on Twitter and in a few hours had reached the top of the global trending list. Trump was on to it like a shot. “The #1 trend on Twitter right now,” he tweeted, “is #TrumpWon – thank you!”

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The triumph of hope over experience

This morning’s Observer column:

There is something irresistibly comical about the spectacle of two CEOs announcing a friendly takeover. The two chaps (for they are still generally chaps) stand side by side, grinning into the cameras. The proud new owner explains what a great outfit his latest acquisition is, how pleased he is with the deal, extols the “synergies” that will magically materialise once the marriage is consummated and expresses his undying admiration for the poor schmuck who is now his latest subordinate.

The schmuck, for his part, declares his undying admiration for his new boss and his deep respect for the gigantic organisation into whose maw he is about to disappear. He, too, is “incredibly excited” by the new horizons that are now open to him and his colleagues. The marriage is a very good deal for both organisations – a win-win outcome no less. The fact that he omits to mention how much he has personally made from the deal is tactfully overlooked by his admiring media audience.

Last week’s announcement of Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn followed this script to the letter…

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Whither Twitter?

My comment piece in today’s Observer.

If there’s one thing Wall Street and the tech industry fears, it is the idea that something potentially profitable might peak or reach some kind of equilibrium point. Endless exponential growth is what investors seek. Whereas you or I might think that a company with more than 300 million regular users that pulls in $710m in revenues is doing OK, Wall Street sees it as a potential zombie.

At the root of the dissonance is the fact that Twitter is a public company. At its flotation in November 2013 it was valued at $32bn, a figure largely based on hopes (or fantasies) that it would keep modifying its service to attract mainstream users, that its advertising business would continue to grow at a phenomenal rate and that it would eventually be bigger than Facebook.

It didn’t do all these things, for various reasons, the most important of which is that it wasn’t (and isn’t) a “social networking” service in the Facebook sense. At the heart of the distinction is the fact that, whereas it is easy to give an answer to the question “What is Facebook?”, the answers for Twitter depend on who you ask…

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Incivility and its implications

Very perceptive essay by Umair Haque about the long-term implications of online incivility. Sample:

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop. What does that particular social phenomenon sound like to you? Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit. And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

The social web became a nasty, brutish place. And that’s because the companies that make it up simply do not not just take abuse seriously…they don’t really consider it at all. Can you remember the last time you heard the CEO of a major tech company talking about…abuse…not ads? Why not? Here’s the harsh truth: they see it as peripheral to their “business models”, a minor nuisance, certainly nothing worth investing in, for theirs is the great endeavor of…selling more ads.

They’re wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central.

It is. Of course the reason why the proprietors of social networking services don’t want to tackle it is that doing so would imply that they were responsible for what gets published on their platforms, and that might imply legal liability for it in the longer run.

Facebook: the unique self-disrupting machine?

Interesting post by M.G. Siegler:

Reading over the coverage of F8 this week, one thing is clear: Facebook the social network isn’t very interesting anymore. I think we’re on the other side of its peak, even if we can’t perceive that just yet. The interesting parts of Facebook are now Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus.

They are slowly becoming Facebook. A federation of products, not the social networking stream.

I think we’ll look back and believe that Facebook, like Apple, is a company that did a great job disrupting itself before others could. And they did it all through smart acquisitions — people forget that even Messenger was an acquisition way back when. Just imagine if they had been able to buy Snapchat as well…