Happy 10th Birthday, Facebook

Today is the 10th anniversary of the founding of Facebook. The social network has come a long way, and in a blog post, Mark Zuckerberg reflects on its trajectory from a Harvard-only network to the worldwide use of it today:

When I reflect on the last 10 years, one question I ask myself is: why were we the ones to build this? We were just students. We had way fewer resources than big companies. If they had focused on this problem, they could have done it. 

The only answer I can think of is: we just cared more. 

While some doubted that connecting the world was actually important, we were building. While others doubted that this would be sustainable, you were forming lasting connections. 

We just cared more about connecting the world than anyone else. And we still do today.

That last sentence? I believe it was true at the time, but it’s no longer as applicable. Today, as a public corporation, the customers/users are less important that the big shareholders. The biggest evidence I see of this is the repeated pronouncements by users who say their content is viewed/shared less after Facebook tweaked its algorithms. But, if you are willing to pay a few dollars, Facebook will make sure to show your posts in your fans’ news feed. That’s a far cry from really caring about caring to connect the world, if what I have to share/say with my friends/fans literally comes at a price.

 

What Apps and Services Does Barack Obama Think Young People Use?

A young associate editor at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, reflects on how he accidentally met Barack Obama at a local cafe. The takeaway of what the young people use (apps, services) seems to be in constant flux, but based on the subtitle of the piece, it seems “that even Obama knows young people don’t use Facebook anymore”:

Obama sat down at the head of the table. There was a brief photo op at the opposite end of the table. I surreptitiously took a picture to remember what being on the other side of a wall of cameras felt like, but now it seems more remarkable that I can see the president’s undershirt.

He had come to my local cafe to meet with five young people. According to White House background, provided to me after he left, they met to discuss how to get more 18-34 year-olds to sign up for the coverage under the Affordable Care Act. (The law depends on 18-34 year-olds signing up for healthcare.) One of the five was a navigator, someone employed to help families sign up; another helped explain the law at a mall over the holidays.

They talked about health care stuff for the first 20 minutes. The five shared their experiences, and some of them spoke quietly, so I couldn’t hear them that well.

At one point the president said, “Now, this isn’t public yet.” I perked up.

“Thirty percent of somethingsomethingsomething is mumblemumble,” he said.

I didn’t hear. I had failed as a journalist, so I went to the bathroom.

Failure

When I got back, they were talking about music. Circumstantial evidence indicates that, while I was in the bathroom, they talked about Beyoncé. 

The conversation moved on. They talked about cell phones, and Obama mentioned how Malia did not receive one until she was 16. One of the young people pointed out that, unlike most parents, the president could always argue that he’d know where she was.

They segued to talking about social media (I couldn’t hear their exact words).Now, I thought. Now I could do tech journalism.

The president said something—I could not hear all of it—about new social media apps that were for messaging, new apps that only somethingsomething’d for eight seconds.

“Snapchat,” said one of the young people.

The president made a comment about how different apps were now popular. Someone—it might have been the president—said the word “Instagram.” 

I guess that they were talking about the difficulty of doing political outreach on Snapchat or one of this newer, less textual ilk? I’m not sure. Then the president drops this:

“It seems like they don’t use Facebook anymore,” he said.

Facebook is so uncool even the president of the United States knows it.

I’ve been saying this for a while, but I am disliking using Facebook as of the last year or two. I prefer Twitter and Instagram.

The story is worth the click simply for that SnapChat photo at the end.

Facebook Knows Your Thoughts Even When You Don’t Share

A fascinating post on Slate explains how your unfinished thoughts on Facebook may be monitored by Facebook’s algorithms. Have you ever composed a status update, only decided to not click on publish? Gmail and other email clients do store your drafts, but it is unexpected (and not wholly beneficial) why Facebook would do that too.  The two people behind the “self-censorship” study are Sauvik Das, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon and summer software engineer intern at Facebook, and Adam Kramer, a Facebook data scientist. Slate summarizes:

It is not clear to the average reader how this data collection is covered by Facebook’s privacy policy. In Facebook’s Data Use Policy, under a section called “Information we receive and how it is used,” it’s made clear that the company collects information you choose to share or when you “view or otherwise interact with things.” But nothing suggests that it collects content you explicitly don’t share. Typing and deleting text in a box could be considered a type of interaction, but I suspect very few of us would expect that data to be saved. When I reached out to Facebook, a representative told me that the company believes this self-censorship is a type of interaction covered by the policy.

In their article, Das and Kramer claim to only send back information to Facebook that indicates whether you self-censored, not what you typed. The Facebook rep I spoke with agreed that the company isn’t collecting the text of self-censored posts. But it’s certainly technologically possible, and it’s clear that Facebook is interested in the content of your self-censored posts. Das and Kramer’s article closes with the following: “we have arrived at a better understanding of how and where self-censorship manifests on social media; next, we will need to better understand what and why.” This implies that Facebook wants to know what you are typing in order to understand it. The same code Facebook uses to check for self-censorship can tell the company what you typed, so the technology exists to collect that data it wants right now.

Revealing and very troubling, especially how prevalent the behavior is. From the paper:

We found that 71% of the 3.9 million users in our sample self-censored at least one post or comment over the course of 17 days, confirming that self-censorship is common. Posts are censored more than comments (33% vs. 13%).

On Facebook’s Massive Data Center near the Arctic

A fascinating look in Businessweek at Facebook’s data center in a Swedish town of Luleå (population 75,000), located about 70 miles from the Arctic Circle:

The heart of Facebook’s experiment lies just south of the Arctic Circle, in the Swedish town of Luleå. In the middle of a forest at the edge of town, the company in June opened its latest megasized data center, a giant building that comprises thousands of rectangular metal panels and looks like a wayward spaceship. By all public measures, it’s the most energy-efficient computing facility ever built, a colossus that helps Facebook process 350 million photographs, 4.5 billion “likes,” and 10 billion messages a day. While an average data center needs 3 watts of energy for power and cooling to produce 1 watt for computing, the Luleå facility runs nearly three times cleaner, at a ratio of 1.04 to 1. “What Facebook has done to the hardware market is dramatic,” says Tom Barton, the former chief executive officer of server maker Rackable Systems (SGI). “They’re putting pressure on everyone.”

There’s a reason why they chose this place:

The location has a lot to do with the system’s efficiency. Sweden has a vast supply of cheap, reliable power produced by its network of hydroelectric dams. Just as important, Facebook has engineered its data center to turn the frigid Swedish climate to its advantage. Instead of relying on enormous air-conditioning units and power systems to cool its tens of thousands of computers, Facebook allows the outside air to enter the building and wash over its servers, after the building’s filters clean it and misters adjust its humidity. Unlike a conventional, warehouse-style server farm, the whole structure functions as one big device.

To simplify its servers, which are used mostly to create Web pages, Facebook’s engineers stripped away typical components such as extra memory slots and cables and protective plastic cases. The servers are basically slimmed-down, exposed motherboards that slide into a fridge-size rack. The engineers say this design means better airflow over each server. The systems also require less cooling, because with fewer components they can function at temperatures as high as 85F. (Most servers are expected to keel over at 75F.)

Now you know where those photos and messages are stored!

Facebook “Like” Feature Is Protected Speech under the U.S. Constitution

The case is Bland v. Roberts, 12-1671, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Richmond), reported by Bloomberg:

Using Facebook Inc. (FB)’s “Like” feature to show support for a candidate in an election is protected speech under the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, issued its ruling today in a lawsuit brought by former employees of a sheriff’s office who said they lost their jobs because they supported their boss’s opponent, including by endorsing a campaign page on Facebook.

The appeals court reversed a lower court judge who said that simply clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook page didn’t amount to “a substantive statement” that warrants constitutional protection.

“Liking a political candidate’s campaign page communicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Traxler said in today’s ruling. “It is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”

In simple terms: using Facebook’s “Like” is protected under the 1st Amendment.

On Our Feelings After Facebook Use

I’ve been reading a number of different studies that are in opposite camps about Facebook: on the one hand, Facebook helps us feel more social; on the other hand, Facebook depresses us. So which is it?

Maria Konnikova, writing in The New Yorker, summarizes that the answer isn’t black and white:

The key to understanding why reputable studies are so starkly divided on the question of what Facebook does to our emotional state may be in simply looking at what people actually do when they’re on Facebook. “What makes it complicated is that Facebook is for lots of different things—and different people use it for different subsets of those things. Not only that, but they are alsochanging things, because of people themselves changing,” said Gosling. A 2010 study from Carnegie Mellon found that, when people engaged in direct interaction with others—that is, posting on walls, messaging, or “liking” something—their feelings of bonding and general social capital increased, while their sense of loneliness decreased. But when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.

I would argue that “liking” things on Facebook has become the generic, zombie-like action that isn’t particularly social. Commenting on photos and posts, however, are examples of actively engaging with content.

How Facebook is Making us Lonely and Unhappy

What is the connection with being active on social networks and being lonely? A lot more than you think. Watch this video below titled “The Innovation of Loneliness”:

 

Beautifully done. And I hope you didn’t miss the underlying message. It’s even more pernicious than that: not only are we becoming more lonely with  frequent use of Facebook, we’re also feeling terrible about it as a consequence.

How to Love Facebook Again

Jessica Hische published a great post explaining how she fell in love with Facebook, then started to hate it, and the process she went through to love it again. It helped that her future husband became an employee of Facebook, but her number one advice is to be selective in the friending.

  1. Only friend people you actually want to be friends with.
    This sounds dumb, but is amazingly hard to adhere to. As mentioned above, I only friend people that I would be happy to see if they stopped by for an unexpected visit. If you follow this rule, there are a lot of Facebook services (like check-ins) that you will feel a lot more comfortable using.

  2. Set your privacy settings to a level that makes you happy.Facebook isn’t a leather-bound diary you stuff under your mattress. It’s a public place. Privacy is the thing people complain most about on Facebook, especially since the launch of Graph Search—which makes all public content on Facebook a lot easier to find (note the emphasis on public—if you’ve marked posts or photos as only viewable by friends, these won’t show up when non-friends search for things). Truthfully, Facebook would be a very boring place if every person had his or her privacy settings all the way up. Searches that are now possible because of Graph Search (like “restaurants my friends have been to in Portland” or “friends of friends who used to live in Brooklyn and who now live in San Francisco”) wouldn’t be possible, and this new tool would be a whole lot less useful.Yes, Facebook isn’t “free”—we pay for it by sharing personal data about ourselves—but all other “free” services (like all of Google’s products) operate similarly, they’re just better at making us feel good about how they sell our information to advertisers (I mean, how amazing were those commercials with the dad and the guy who gets married? They make me cry every single time.) I do get a kick out of the Facebook sidebar advertisements and how amazingly off they can be (rehab and egg donation in the same sidebar? Who do you think I am, Facebook?!).After spending a lot of time with the people that help make Facebook what it is, I can say that I haven’t met a single employee that didn’t think they were making the world a better and more connected place by working there.

  3. Don’t mix business with pleasure.I choose Facebook to be my friends-and-family-only social network, but some people have found it to be incredibly beneficial if used as a business network. My only advice is to use separate social networks for friends and for business. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to befriend work peers on Facebook if you choose it as your “friends only” zone, it just means that the person you present there is you. I’m a very open person and don’t think that my professional self is different from my personal self, but there are still things that people that know me in real life would care to read about that total strangers would not. I share almost everything that pops into my brain with my Twitter followers, but sometimes if I need some real friend advice about a personal matter, I’ll only ask on Facebook. It’s my opinion that Twitter is an amazing work-centric network, and Facebook is best used for personal interactions, but every person is different. I don’t advocate one over the other, I think that the two work in tandem to create a well-rounded online social experience.

  4. Don’t be afraid to hide people.Hiding is one of the most wonderful things Facebook has introduced. If someone starts showing up in my newsfeed that I don’t regularly talk to or see in real life—like a friend from high school that I would love to reconnect with when I’m home for the holidays but don’t want to see frequent updates from—I will hide them. I can still check in on them when they pop into my head on a rainy day or I can message them over Thanksgiving when I’m back home, but I’m not flooded with their baby pictures on a daily basis. Hiding people (checking or unchecking “show posts in news feed” when you hover over the friendship button) will change your life. You have control over who shows up in your newsfeed.

  5. One word: stickers.Now on Facebook, you can use these things called stickers, which are like elaborate emoji, and they will cause you so much delight you will never want to use traditional text messaging again. There are days when Russ and I communicate only in “Pusheen”.

Worth reading.

“The Facebook Experience Has Failed”

An articulate blog post on why Facebook is on the decline (or why you should consider it to be so):

While the social network is in a way similar to real world associations, the way sharing works on Facebook is completely disconnected from reality. In the real world, you don’t have information that you need to share with every single person you know.

But that’s how it works on Facebook, unless you jump through hoops to make lists and share selectively.

I don’t agree that Facebook gets worse the more you use it (on the contrary), but I think this this observation is astute (but sad):

The way Facebook advertising works, it bumps the spamming potential of a ‘Like’ up a notch. A ‘Like’ on a product or service will make a paid story visible not just to the person who liked it, but also to their friends.

Inevitably, there is an entire industry working non-stop creating low quality, emotionally appealing content that gets ‘likes’ from gullible users.

 

Data Science of the Facebook World

The ever insightful Stephen Wolfram has another graph-heavy post, this time compiling data on Facebook analytics:

More than a million people have now used our Wolfram|Alpha Personal Analytics for Facebook. And as part of our latest update, in addition to collecting some anonymized statistics, we launched a Data Donor program that allows people to contribute detailed data to us for research purposes.

A few weeks ago we decided to start analyzing all this data. And I have to say that if nothing else it’s been a terrific example of the power of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language for doing data science. (It’ll also be good fodder for the Data Science course I’m starting to create.)

We’d always planned to use the data we collect to enhance our Personal Analyticssystem. But I couldn’t resist also trying to do some basic science with it.

I’ve always been interested in people and the trajectories of their lives. But I’ve never been able to combine that with my interest in science. Until now. And it’s been quite a thrill over the past few weeks to see the results we’ve been able to get. Sometimes confirming impressions I’ve had; sometimes showing things I never would have guessed. And all along reminding me of phenomena I’ve studied scientifically in A New Kind of Science.

So what does the data look like? Here are the social networks of a few Data Donors—with clusters of friends given different colors. (Anyone can find their own network usingWolfram|Alpha—or the SocialMediaData function in Mathematica.)

It’s a pretty fascinating read.

My favorite graph was this one of the distribution of  your Facebook friends’ age versus your age:

The age of your Facebook friends versus your age.

The age of your Facebook friends versus your age.

It’s also quite interesting how the marriage statistics from Facebook line up with the official Census data:

Facebook marriage age vs. Census data.

Facebook marriage age vs. Census data.

For a lot more analysis, read Stephen Wolfram’s entire post.