Best article yet on the Facebook research controversy

Best article yet on the Facebook research controversy

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Best article yet on the Facebook research controversy

I thought I wrote a pretty good piece on the Facebook emotional manipulation research fiasco, but this piece by danah boyd, is much better. It’s long, but worth the read. It goes into a nuanced assessment of research practices today – an area that I know little about, so I found it interesting. 

But the best part of this piece is that she also feels the focus on the research is misplaced, and that what the strong public pushback is really about is a growing uneasiness over big data and the use of opaque algorithms to mysteriously shaper our online experiences – and in ways that, first and foremost, support the commercial objectives of the service provider. 

Note also that danah is concerned that Facebook is incorrectly interpreting the pushback as being about research, and that they will most likely curtail further disclosures of similar findings in the future, as the PR department of a publicly-traded corporation inevitably out-wrangle their small (and most likely politically weak) research group. These research disclosures offer some of the only visibility that we have into the way that Facebook manipulates us through its algorithms, and now this window is likely to close too.

Finally, I loved this particular paragraph, because it paints so very well my own experience on Facebook:  

“I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see. I hate that I have no meaningful mechanism of control on the site. And I am painfully aware of how my sporadic use of the site has confused their algorithms so much that what I see in my newsfeed is complete garbage. And I resent the fact that because I barely use the site, the only way that I could actually get a message out to friends is to pay to have it posted. My minimal use has made me an algorithmic pariah and if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know better, I would feel as though I’ve been shunned by my friends rather than simply deemed unworthy by an algorithm. I also refuse to play the game to make myself look good before the altar of the algorithm. And every time I’m forced to deal with Facebook, I can’t help but resent its manipulations.”

I have around a thousand friends on Facebook. Several years ago, I was quite active, but I’m not today. The only way I can get any real attention from friends over there these days is to pay for a boost, or maybe do something really embarrassing that I’ll pay for in other ways. You’re either all in, or your algorithmic roadkill. 

Anyway, I highly recommend this piece. Thanks to  Alex Schleber for flagging it for me. 

Oh, and if you’re still interested in my piece on this topic (yes, even though danah’s is better), well, here it is:

I include some speculations on why I think this stuff matters to the future of artificial intelligence and its emotional intelligence. 



  1. Not important, Gideon Rosenblatt, but you need to take out that initial quotation mark on danah’s long quote, so that it gets italicized – if that doesn’t work than there is a return or more somewhere in the middle of it.

  2. Yes, i agree with you, loved this analysis by danah and especially your highlighted paragraph.

  3. Gideon Rosenblatt. Both are great articles! TY for these!

  4. Got it – thanks Brad Acker. Yeah, she did a great job on this. Thanks Roxann Riskin. 

  5. They were both good articles. I liked yours until I read hers and now I like both. I kind of like the font and layout on Medium a bit more than the Vital Edge, but that’s just my personal preference.

    P.S: She probably read yours first for ideas.

    Nice of you to pay her the compliment though.

  6. Thanks, Bill Abrams. I like the Medium layout too. Very simple. 

    Yeah, and I sincerely doubt she read mine first, but the world today is small, so I guess you never know. I’m just glad to see her weighing in on this important topic. 

  7. I’m worried about AI for different reasons from you or danah boyd , Gideon Rosenblatt .  I’m worried that the algorithms and the “technology” will become ends in themselves and us human beans will be left out of the soup altogether.  Did you ‘catch’ the almost agreement on the previous thread on this subject, agreement to letting algorithms have their way because they are (somehow) better than people at getting things done?  (Efficiency?)  

    Efficiency is not life nurturing nor life promoting.  Efficiency is something a machine can do (from the Greek, machina, “to trick”) and we’ve all seen “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and know where that can lead.

    I don’t care about the Facebook experiment because if they got anything useful out of it, it will have the same level of usefulness as Nielson, pretty much.  The Milgram Experiment did not even stop Abu Ghraib!  (A first year psych student could have prevented that (from Milgram and Zimbardo).  

    In other words, the knowledge gleaned is useless in any case.  No one is paying attention.  It’s like that TV show where there are no rules and the points don’t count.  …Sounds signifying nothing.  …Running out of metaphors.  ;’)  

    [I have “technology” in quotes because, as I’ve said so many times, all technology is is “skills and knowledge” of PEOPLE!  That’s its definition.  Think about trying to use a computer without skills and knowledge and the computer becomes a nice paper weight?  IDK.]

  8. Gideon Rosenblatt that’s a great paragraph you quoted. Looking forward to reading, thanks for the share.

  9. When I was doing a research paper on another subject, I found an interesting point in my interviews with several subjects: once a new communications technology is introduced, people who experience its both before and after situations sometimes have a tendency to feel that the old lifeworld was normal, thus managing their interpersonal communications on the basis of rights they believe they had in the former situation.

    This might seem like a bold hypothesis, but I guess children raised using AI-equipped communications technologies would feel radically different than us in cases such as the one discussed here. Sherry Turckle has convincingly argued that children who are raised playing with robotic toys even reconsidered the meaning of life itself, coming to fuzzy definitions of life radically different from those espoused by children for thousands of years. In comparison, my guess is not that bold.

  10. Both articles are great and worth the read. They don’t ‘compete’, but rather complement each other. 

    My favorite phrase, which sums up my attitude as well, is:

     _”I also refuse to … make myself look good before the altar of the algorithm.”_ 

    that applies both to FB (where I only go to check up on family and share the odd semi-automatic posting from supporting causes) and all of the SEO, semantic-search, etc.

    Since my posts often express a certain wariness about the direction that applied technology is being used for, I suppose most of my posts just tend to evaporate in the cloud somewhere because they are not warm and fuzzy.

    It’s a very slippery slope that we are on, and I hope that some of danah boyd ‘s ideas about ethics in corporations are implemented before we are all turned into Borg-like zombies, all busy with our tweets, FB, etc. feeling good, thinking we are singing Kumbaya, communication over and with machines, while our world goes to hell in a hand basket to the tune of ‘sound and fury’.

    btw: Meg Tufano metaphors are a wonderful thing 😉

  11. Gideon Rosenblatt  _”I also refuse to … make myself look good before the altar of the algorithm.”_ 

    I think Susanne Ramharter hit my point.  NOT sayin’ she was supporting my argument, but this is what I meant.

  12. One note for danah boyd  – you can tell Facebook which people you’d like to see more updates from by adding them to your “close friends” list. I realize this treats the symptom, not the disease, but just throwing it out there.

  13. Susanne Ramharter and Meg Tufano, you are both hitting on the thing that nags at me, and that is increasingly pulling the focus of my writing. To say that the technology is hijacking us risks gives it more volition than is probably useful in a day-to-day sense. But there is a kind of poetic distance, from which I think it’s possible to see that something interesting is happening.

    Today, it is the marketplace that is driving the evolution of the technology and its grip on us, but at a certain point, I think the technology itself does begin to play a more proactive role. It may not be volition in the sense that we understand it today, but I think it is something  close, and that is one of the things that continues to fascinate me. 

    I also think it’s very important that we get a handle on what this is, as it could have a very large impact on our future. 

  14. For anyone who interested in more on this last point, this is something I wrote about this last August:

  15. Thanks for your comment, Mohammad Memarian. Yes, I think there is lots of evidence to support the idea that new generations of users have very different ideas about what is and is not normal with regard to our expectations with technologies like Facebook. But I think that these expectations can often be shaped by the corporate interest that are behind these tools. Facebook, for example, has much to gain from promoting the idea that people care less about privacy these days. And as you point out, the most fruitful focus for these kinds of influence efforts are often younger generations where habits and viewpoints are still a bit more flexible than with older generations. So, while I think this openness to explore new modes of working with technology is extremely important for humanity’s progress, I also think that, sometimes, it leaves us open to manipulation. 

  16. Oh, Gideon Rosenblatt I wanted to remind you of David Amerland ‘s articles from the autumn:  “Welcome to the Panopticon:  You’re Going to Like it Here.”

  17. The dislike of the stream is growing – even here.   Nothing is really wrong with what people choose to post but this is a horribly inefficient way to read information and even worse for following people.   We only see the people who post frequently here, and it ie heavily filtered by Google.

  18. Rob Gordon My solution is to subscribe to certain people.  It’s the only way to “play” this G+ game (no matter what those who are using this media for sales say).  It is impossible for a human being to “relate” honestly with thousands of people.  I have about twenty people whom I do not want to miss their posts, but, then, through them?  I stay in touch with hundreds who post to THEIR posts.  Then again, I’m not looking to become famous in my own mind.  I really mean what I say when I say I want to learn what people are thinking.  I LIKE changing my mind.  It’s like a muscle that if you don’ t use it, you quickly stop being ABLE to use it.  E.G., Denis Wallez changed my mind about an issue this morning; others have changed my mind about whether I should learn to love AI or not on this thread (I’m still on the fence).  But that’s a good way to enter into “streams” of thought.  Trying to make a case, or an argument?  This is not the right forum, I agree.  Too many associative thoughts, too much like a conversation. But, like a conversation, gets those thinking juices going!

  19. Meg Tufano I was mostly just referring to the situation where someone doesn’t post much anymore   The are still cool, interesting people, with like interests,-  but “out of sight” out of mind   This has nothing to do with “following too many people”:  – you should be able to follow as many or as few as you choose.   What we are seeing in the stream is essentially “suvivorship bias”.    I am also talking about pure efficiency – give me a list view and a “mark as read” like the old Reader and I would be happy.   Google+ was designed to be “sticky” not efficient. 

  20. Rob Gordon the great irony for me has always been that it is also computationally HUGELY inefficient to assemble a (rough) temporal timeline, with per-user customization. When a temporal sort (except for a few fast-moving real-time events) is about the least meaningful of all: Who cares in what precise minute-by-minute order people said/published something? That’s mostly accidental.

    The only reason to do it is 1) to harvest all of the Follow Graph data, and 2) to eventually begin messing about with the stream once it has (predictably) become overwhelming to users…

    So there’s your answer to why Google Reader got cancelled: It couldn’t be manipulated well…

  21. Gideon Rosenblatt have you had a chance to read the great post by Om yet? Should be right up your alley here.

  22. Alex Schleber I saw your response on Twitter to a complaint Robert Scoble made about someone “flooding his stream” and you said something along the lines of “that shouldn’t be possible” and I agreed with you

     A “temporal sort” can be manipulated, but at least it is logical – who know what they are doing with our feed, but I do know it is starting to annoy people..  My own suspicions is they want it to have a Facebook-like addictive quality, where you see the same people over and over again.. 

    As for why Google gave up on Reader, I think it should be in business text books as a monumentally stupid decision – akin to “new Coke” – but yeah, they got rid of RSS because it gave the little guy too much power.. 

  23. BTW, good stuff:

    “…Rob Horning ‏/@marginalutility 21h

    “Facebook both convenes and intervenes. Indeed, it convenes in order to intervene”

  24. Excellent, Alex Schleber. This one nails it. Thanks. 

  25. “The table has an agenda.”  “The medium is the message.”  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    Alex Schleber Gideon Rosenblatt 

    I think we should not give up on other interests in keeping the net neutral, one of which being our government.  We are IN a war right now (and we’re not talking about it as citizens because we are so dense as to have missed the real “Snowden revelation” (that we are already in cyber warfare and it ain’t pretty and it ain’t something we can control).)  

    But imagine being able to get better, faster connections than, say, your local government?  

    Net neutrality is a national defense issue and I don’t think they are ignoring it.  I think they are just not talking about it publicly.  

  26. I think the key issue here is trust.

  27. George Cohn:   Yifat Cohen and I are trying to finish a book on that subject.  Our biggest obstacle is that it comes up almost every day in new dimensions!!!!!!

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