The Future According to Facebook

By James Kwak

From the Times:

“Doug Purdy, the director of developer products, painted Facebook’s future with great enthusiasm . . . One day soon, he said, the Facebook newsfeed on your mobile phone would deliver to you everything you want to know: what news to digest, what movies to watch, where to eat and honeymoon, what kind of crib to buy for your first born. It would all be based on what you and your Facebook friends liked.”

Does that sound to you like a good thing? Even assuming for the sake of argument that Facebook does not let commercial considerations interfere with that “newsfeed” (and we know it already has, with Sponsored Stories), or otherwise tweak its algorithms to influence what you see:

  • First, do you really want your view of the world shaped by your friends? I mean, I like my friends, but I don’t count on them to, for example, tell me which NBER working papers are worth reading, let alone what crib to buy. (In Facebook’s theory, my friends are the people with similar tastes to mine, but that’s not how it works in the real world. For example, I liked Laguna Beach, and most of my friends thought were horrified to find out. In reality, you have plenty of friends with different tastes from yours, and that’s a good thing. This is why Netflix ratings work better than Facebook friends.)
  • Second, doesn’t that seem like a terrifying vision of the future? It’s kind of like 1984, except kindler and gentler, because Big Brother has been replaced by the most effective form of peer pressure ever invented. At the same time, humanity has splintered into millions of tiny (though overlapping) tribes, each with its own version of the Internet and hence its own set of facts.

21 thoughts on “The Future According to Facebook

  1. Well, If I had a facebook account and….friends…they’d hate me ’cause They’d get the news I want…which is vastly different from the news THEY want. But, since I don’t have friends or a facebook account, everyone is safe.

  2. It was clear to me (and many others, I believe) that Facebook jumped the shark long before it’s IPO. It’s not like some other app has become better. It’s that they are no longer the only game in town. They can buy up whatever other fragments of social apps they want but there will always be something else shiny enough to distract people from their feed.

    And I also agree with James – I really don’t much care what my ‘friends’ have chosen to do. Their opinions are an input to my decision making but not a determining one.

  3. Obviously, the implied algorithm is completely broken, and I’m not so sure they’d actually come up with a functional one, but I’m not sure that what they’re reaching for is wrong. After all, you say you don’t count on your friends to tell you what NBER working papers are worth reading, but that’s what academic journals really are: your peers tell the publisher whether papers are worthwhile, and the publisher shows you the ones they approved of. I think the comparison between Nature and Facebook points out all of the things that are wrong with Facebook as a newsfeed, but it also seems like the differences aren’t necessarily fundamental. They’d just have to work out your trust network (instead of your friends) and understand their comments on papers (instead of only counting “likes”), and they could provide you with your personal peer-reviewed journal. And that just means they have to invade everyone’s privacy more and do more effective data mining, and I’m sure those are on their roadmap.

  4. ‘It’s kind of like 1984, except kindler and gentler, because Big Brother has been replaced by the most effective form of peer pressure ever invented.’

    What a monumentally stupid thing to write. Hint; you can turn off your iphone.

  5. This also contributes to political polarization, as people are reinforced ONLY with views they already ‘like’. A sure route to a closed and ignorant mind. Disgusting.

  6. I like when Mr. Kwak lets his more vicious part come through. It’s a common Asian trait they try awfully hard to hide this part. The Niall Ferguson tweet gets A+++ for “viciousness” and a regular A+ for accuracy.

    Actually Niall Ferguson is very readable and even enjoyable. I have 2 of his books, and almost got his “Ascent of Money” book which seems purchase worthy. But here is the key to reading or more importantly purchasing Niall Ferguson books. He is very good at writing historical literature, but as excellent at history as Niall Ferguson is, he is just as horrible and crappy at economics analysis. Which actually is a rare combination, but somehow Niall manages that.

    Mr. Kwak, it wasn’t the “Laguna Beach” thing that made me worry about you. It was when you seemed to indirectly say that “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” was your favorite show (because your daughter??) OMG, really!?!?!?!……….REALLY!?!?!?!?! tisk tisk……tisk

    As far as Facebook is concerned…??? I found following the Heb.rew money flows, you often can’t go too wrong in monetary decisions. When the Heb.rew money is running for the exits, get on their heals quickly.See here:

  7. Speaking of TV shows, Elizabeth Shue is on CSI now. You know something is very wrong in America when this woman has to lower herself to mediocre TV dialogue instead of art house films. I gotta serious serious (and large??) jones for this woman. Oh, the pains of hearing badly written dialogue to satisfy eye candy wants.

    “Fie!!! fie!!! This saintly maiden’s scribes doth have me confounded, suffering through bad dialogue!!! Think ye of the wasted parchment!!!”

  8. The problem with FACEBook sending recommendations is that it would never send you the stuff your Friends HATE. And the crib that killed your friend’s baby is far more important information than the crib that the other 19 liked.

  9. I wrote fb for assistance in shortening, if possible, the display of responses to a posting. While they wrote me back, it was in complete geek gibberish with lots of symbols and algorithims. The get D for design. They get F for usability. They get F for communication. It’s clear I can’t trust them with much, certainly not decision making.

  10. I do not use Facebook. I had an account for a short time and decided it was pretty much useless and removed myself from it — not an easy task. This need to be liked bothers me. Are we that insecure?
    That said, I like what you’re doing here. In a world that’s gone crazy, you guys are a voice of reason.
    Thank you.

  11. Facebook was and always will be an advertizing tool. Its also used by grandparents to keep an eye on their grandchildren, and make certain they do as grandma says, and not do as grandma does, or did.

  12. While I like getting some updates from facebook, and very occasionally post, what has always concerned me about people that get their news, ideas, suggestions, etc from this medium is the fact that they are getting this information from like minded people. One of the advantages of reading the newspaper, or getting news from google news, or reading reviews on amazon from strangers, is that the news, ideas, etc are being shaped by people with different backgrounds, different ideologies, different economic levels, etc. If everything you read, every decision you make, is shaped by people that think the same as you, want the same things as you do, etc, then the world will become, as you said,

    “splintered into millions of tiny (though overlapping) tribes”

    and your experiences and choices will be limited. I for one value the feedback from facebook, as I value comments and conversations from friends received face to face or over email or any other way. But I think I also understand the risk this has, and make sure I temper it with information from complete strangers and from people with different agendas. The weight I assign them in my decisions is different, but I can’t imagine not having them.

  13. The takeaway for me is that Mr Purdy is throwing this out there because Facebook doesn’t a solid idea of what their true value proposition really is, a sentiment which is confirmed by their stock price.

  14. If you’re really worried about 1984, at least facebook is a voluntary surrender of privacy. For the true Orwelean version, check out this link:

  15. Eli Pariser’s “Filter Bubble” does make a good case as to why we should worry about a worldview wholly shaped by “friends.” However, the mainstream media may well become unbearable. Better to get the “friends'” view than no view at all.

    Another key worry: We may have no idea why Facebook is prioritizing some stories, and not others. Very easy to work political bias into the secret algorithms of EdgeRank. Or we may gradually see, for the most part, posts that have proven themselves capable of (somehow) getting people to click on ads.

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