TagFacebook

I’m leaving Facebook

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I’m leaving Facebook.

I’m not leaving in a huff, nor to make a strong statement. I simply haven’t been getting anything out of Facebook in a long time and like to do a good house cleaning from time to time.

To be honest, I’m a bit surprised myself to find myself leaving out of disinterest rather than conviction. (I do feel a little ashamed of that fact, but there you go. We all contain multitudes.) I never particularly liked FB, but used to use it a lot. And as someone who for a long time worked professionally in/with/about social media, there simply wasn’t a way around it, and that was ok, and I would say “I’m not a fan, but it works for x or y, and there’s no way around it anyway.” In 2017, this feels patently untrue.

I’d like to stress that I’m not judging for using or not using FB or any other platform. People like what they like, and it’s ok!

Personally, to me Facebook feels like an outdated model of social media. It feels a bit like reading the news on paper rather than my phone: It might be ok, but it’s just not for me anymore. Social conversations still happen of course, but the semi-public model, and more importantly the model that’s financed through driving up “engagement” (read: anything goes that gets you to click “like” or “share”) is one that feels kind of dirty by now.

For me, the conversations happen across a number of platforms. Slack and Whatsapp are a constant presence in my communications landscape, I still enjoy a good private Instagram, and of course I never left Twitter: It’s still the platform I use most, every single day, and I still get a lot of interesting and helpful interactions there every day. (I’m old school that way.)

Again, this isn’t a political statement. I’m 5 years too late for that, when many of my early adopter friends left. It simply feels like the party is over. That said, I’ll be happy to vote with my feet and take a tiny, miniscule fraction out of the “monthly active users” stats away with me. Facebook aligned its service a little too perfectly with their financial incentives, and picked dangerous incentives for my taste.

I’m of course a little worried about losing some contact details. I’m afraid there’s only so much I can do about that. The best I can do, at this point, is to share my contact details and hope everybody who needs them notes them down. They’re also easy to find online.

I might also keep a shadow profile to occasionally have a look at some pages I (notionally) manage. But given that we haven’t done a great job maintaining those anyway and you can tell by the lack of conversations there, we might just delete them altogether. The conversations for ThingsCon and my other collaborative projects are happening on Twitter and Slack anyway. Maybe it’s better that way.

Sincerely, P.

Facebook, Twitter, Google are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply

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When Congress questioned representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter, it became official: We need to finally find an answer to a debate that’s been bubbling for months (if not years) about the role of the tech companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, or GAFAM—and their platforms.

The question is summed up by Ted Cruz’s line of inquiry (and here’s a person I never expected to quote) in the Congressional hearing: “Do you consider your sites to be neutral public fora?” (Some others echoed versions of this question.)

Platform or media?

Simply put, the question boils down to this: Are GAFAM tech companies or media companies? Are they held to standards (and regulation) of “neutral platform” or “content creator”? Are they dumb infrastructure or pillars of democracy?

These are big questions to ask, and I don’t envy the companies for their position in this one. As a neutral platform they get a large degree of freedom, but have to take responsibility for the hate speech and abuse on their platform. As a media company they get to shape the conversation more actively, but can’t claim the extreme point of view of free speech they like to take. You can’t both be neutral and “bring humanity together” as Mark Zuckerberg intends. As Ben Thompson points out on Stratechery (potentially paywalled), neutrality might be the “easier” option:

the “safest” position for the company to take would be the sort of neutrality demanded by Cruz — a refusal to do any sort of explicit policing of content, no matter how objectionable. That, though, was unacceptable to the company’s employee base specifically, and Silicon Valley broadly

I agree this would be easier. (I’m not so sure that the employee preference is the driving force, but that’s another debate and it certainly plays a role.) Also, let’s not forget that each of these companies plays a global game, and wherever they operate they have to meet legal requirements. Where are they willing to draw the line? Google famously didn’t enter the Chinese market a few years ago, presumably because they didn’t want to meet the government’s censorship requirements. This was a principled move, and I would expect not an easy one for a big market. But where do you draw the line? US rules on nudity? German rules on censoring Nazi glorification and hate speech? Chinese rules on censoring pro-democracy reporting or on government surveillance?

For GAFAM, the position has traditionally been clear cut and quite straightforward, which we can still (kind of, sort of) see in the Congressional hearing:

“We don’t think of it in the terms of ‘neutral,'” [Facebook General Counsel Colin] Stretch continued, pointing out that Facebook tries to give users a personalized feed of content. “But we do think of ourselves as — again, within the boundaries that I described — open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology.” (Source: Recode)

Once more:

[Senator John] Kennedy also asked Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, whether the company is a “newspaper” or a neutral tech platform. Salgado replied that Google is a tech company, to which Kennedy quipped, “that’s what I thought you’d say.” (Source: Business Insider)

Now that’s interesting, because while they claim to be “neutral” free speech companies, Facebook and the others have of course been hugely filtering content by various means (from their Terms of Service to community guidelines), and shaping the attention flow (who sees what and when) forever.

This aspect isn’t discussed much, but worth noting nonetheless: How Facebook and other tech firms deal with content has been based to a relatively large degree by United States legal and cultural standards. Which makes sense, given that they’re US companies, but doesn’t make a lot of sense given they operate globally. To name just two examples from above that highlight how legal and cultural standards differ from country to country, take pictures of nudity (largely not OK in the US, largely OK in Germany) versus positively referencing the Third Reich (largely illegal in Germany, largely least legal in the US).

Big tech platforms are a new type of media platform

Here’s the thing: These big tech platforms aren’t neutral platforms for debate, nor are they traditional media platforms. They are neither neither dumb tech (they actively choose and frame and shape content & traffic) nor traditional media companies that (at least notionally) primarily engage in content creation. These big tech platforms are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply. Hence, they require new ways of thinking and analysis, as well as new approaches to regulation.

(As an personal, rambling aside: Given we’ve been discussing the transformational effects of digital media and especially social media for far over a decade now, how do we still even have to have this debate in 2017? I genuinely thought that we had at least sorted out our basic understanding of social media as a new hybrid by 2010. Sigh.)

We might be able to apply existing regulatory—and equally important: analytical—frameworks. Or maybe we can find a way to apply existing ones in new ways. But, and I say this expressly without judgement, these are platforms that operate at a scale and dynamism we haven’t seen before. They are of a new quality, they display qualities and combinations of qualities and characteristics we don’t have much experience with. Yet, on a societal level we’ve been viewing them through the old lenses of either media (“a newspaper”, “broadcast”) or neutral platforms (“tubes”, “electricity”). And it hasn’t worked yet, and will continue not to work, because it makes little sense.

That’s why it’s important to take a breath and figure out how to best understand implications, and shape the tech, the organizations, the frameworks within which they operate.

It might turn out, and I’d say it’s likely, that they operate within some frameworks but outside others, and in those cases we need to adjust the frameworks, the organizations, or both. To align the analytical and regulatory frameworks with realities, or vice versa.

This isn’t an us versus them situation like many parties are insinuating: It’s not politics versus tech as actors on both the governmental and the tech side sometimes seem to think. It’s not tech vs civil society as some activists claim. It’s certainly not Silicon Valley against the rest of the world, even though a little more cultural sensitivity might do SV firms a world of good. This is a question of how we want to live our lives, govern our lives, as they are impacted by the flow of information.

It’s going to be tricky to figure this out as there are many nation states involved, and some supra-national actors, and large global commercial actors and many other, smaller but equally important players. It’s a messy mix of stakeholders and interests.

But one thing I can promise: The solution won’t be just technical, not just legal, nor cultural. It’ll be a slow and messy process that involves all three fields, and a lot of work. We know that the status quo isn’t working for too many people, and we can shape the future. So that soon, it’ll work for many more people—maybe for all.

Please note that this is cross-posted from Medium. Also, for full transparency, we work occasionally with Google.

Google+ First Impressions

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It’s time to drop some off-the-cuff punditry. (Kidding.) I’m sitting at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport waiting for boarding one of a long series of flights, on a trip that’s been going on for the better part of a week. So when I got my Google+ invite, I hardly had time to check it out – besides through the mobile app on Android.

And I have to say: I’m impressed.

Disclaimer one: As we see a lot of bashing on one, and hyperbole on the other end of the spectrum, I’ll try to stay clear of all that. If you don’t like moderate blog posts, skip this one. Disclaimer two: I once worked on a small project for Google, and I’ve been (on and off) a member of the Google-initiated Internet & Society Collaboratory in Berlin (a multi stakeholder initiative, unpaid).

So! Is Google+ a Facebook killer? Nonsense, of course not. There’s a time and a place for Facebook, and the level of convenience as well as the incredible reach that Facebook has reached makes it unlikely to go away anytime soon. However – Facebook has been feeling stale and old for quite some time, and they have fumbled privacy so many times it’s hard to imagine that they really tried. Whatever their agenda is, protecting their users doesn’t seem to be part of it. If we’re lucky – and I must say I hope so – then Google+ might help nudge Facebook just that tiny bit closer to become more like MySpace: still around, but really, really irrelevant.

G+ is, however, the first serious and promising large scale attempt to offer a serious alternative to Facebook. While I’ve been really crossing my fingers for Diaspora – and it has become relatively neat over time – it’s not a very lively space.

The way Google has connected all the dots and learned from all the ways other platforms as well Google themselves were criticized is quite impressive. It’s obvious that a lot (!) of thought and resources have been poured into G+. Even the awkward loose ends like “+1” and their other social near-failures seems to fit right in. And while of course only time will tell how protective of our privacy G+ will be, there are a number of interesting and very promising paradigms at work here. For one, sharing is much more granular – the “circles” metaphor works well. Group chat (“huddles”) works smoothly.

The mobile app is fantastic, and the notion of separating between a stream for your circles and “nearby” conversations happening allows for temporary local networks. Imagine you’re at a conference or concert, and instead of doing the awkward hashtag thing, you just see what people around you are saying. This could change quite a bit.

And one thing is certain: Since Google dropped G+ right into the Google navigation bar (along with mail, calendar etc) shows it really prominently whenever you have a touchpoint with another Google webservice – if you’re a knowledge worker these days, that means basically all the time. The integration with the other services, as far as I could tell, works very smooth, too. Google has managed to connect all the dots, and a very decent picture emerged.

Maybe it happened at random, but the fact that Google Calendar and Gmail also got a new, freshly designed interface just makes Google look that much more attractive than just a few days ago.

Of course, we’re seeing only the beginning of what will probably a long iterative process. The not-yet-quite obvious effects are hard to grasp at this point, where the beta users are only trying out what exactly it is that Google+ is even capable of. But besides becoming another big social network (which I’m sure G+ will become very quickly), I expect Google search results to become a lot more relevant.

When G+ will be available on iOS I don’t know. But Google has at least proven one thing: That despite their reputation they actually know how to do social. They’re a bit late to the game, but with G+ they put a stake in the ground.

This is going to be interesting to watch.

ps. For a very decent overview and analysis, this WIRED article is a must read.

Facebook launches facial recognition, screws users (again)

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Goopymart

Facebook has done it again: The company enabled a new feature that uses facial recognition to prompt your Facebook connections to “tag” you in photos they are shown. In other words: It recognizes user faces in photos, then shows them to their friends, encouraging them to identify the user by putting a name to the image.

Sounds useful? Yeah, right.

Consider this: A user does not get the option to pre-approve of photos of themselves being published. As you might know, I usually go for a share-all approach. This case, though, is another notch in Facebook’s bedpost of privacy violations. As so many times before, Facebook defaulted to share personal information instead of to protecting it. Again, they went for an opt-out model (where the user has to become actively involved to protect their privacy) and – to top things off – decided to hide the option to disable this “feature” way down in the privacy settings.

This is beyond bad style. Here’s how you disable facial recognition on Facebook.

I can’t wait for a truly privacy-conscious social networking service.

mystery cat / goopy mart / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Diaspora Alpha is live, looks good

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Diaspora has launched its consumer-facing alpha (as opposed to the last release that was for developers and tinkerers only). The privacy-conscious social network was off to a bit of a rocky start since it was profiled (in the media, on the web) enthusiastically as The Facebook Killer – a level of expectation that led to huge crowd-funding on Kickstarter as well as completely overwhelming expectations no one could possible live up to.

Fast forward half a year to now. The dust has settled, the first release is out. The “alpha” isn’t in the name to look more cute, it actually is a very early release with likely a lot of bugs and certainly only very basic functionality.

However, it does seem to work, and after the first few pokes at the service it looks quite good to me. A few screenshots:

Diaspora

The blog, just because I kinda like the logo.

Diaspora

The Diaspora dashboard is clean and minimalistic. Works fine for me, but it’ll only really become clear how usable it is once more contacts are linked to my profile.

Diaspora

To handle privacy and granular sharing, Diaspora uses the metaphor of “aspects” of your identity. An aspect could be your friends, your family, your work life: you can choose granularly which of these groups sees what you post. In Diaspora’s own words:

Diaspora lets you create “aspects,” which are personal lists that let you group people according to the roles they play in your life. We think that aspects are a simple, straightforward, lightweight way to make it really clear who is receiving your posts and who you are receiving posts from. It isn’t perfect, but the best way to improve is to get it into your hands and listen closely to your response.

At a glance this makes a lot of sense. Again, time will tell if it holds up.

Diaspora

On your dashboard you can also always see with whom you shared what kind of information.

Diaspora

Status updates and photos can also easily shared with external services. So far (ironically) this is limited to Twitter and Facebook. You cross-post by simply ticking the “make public” box.

Diaspora

User profiles are very minimalistic as of yet – for example you can’t put in a link to an external website. The age indicator is one of the less charming ones – never before have I actually felt old using a social network ;)

Since Diaspora is positioned as a more responsible social network than Facebook, data export and deleting your account is a simple enough task:

Diaspora

It’ll take a little while to test it all in full, and to gather a bit of a crowd on Diaspora to check out all the interactions. But at a first glance, despite this being very clearly alpha ware, it looks very promising. Another half year, maybe, and this may be a F… no. I’m kidding. This has nothing to do with Facebook, or being a Facebook killer – but it really doesn’t have to. This looks great by itself.

Diaspora, an open Facebook?

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A few weeks ago, four recent NYU graduates announced – to the background noise of the latest (of many) major Facebook privacy fail – that they intended to build a privacy-focuses, decentralized, open-source alternative to Facebook. A social network, installed on a server of your choice, the data controlled by you alone.

Their fundraising period just ended. Instead of the $10K they had planned to raise, they got some $200K in pledges on Kickstarter.

There are several interesting points here: (1) these four young guys seem fairly inexperienced, yet they are a main focal point of hope for a large & growing number of privacy concerned web heads, including myself, so they get all the attention and are in a very interesting place right now. (2) After their initial announcement and the following hype (both on blogs and traditional media) they fell practically silent for several weeks. Which didn’t go down to well with many including myself, but others are more forgiving that way. (3) How can they match the expectations? Is there even a clear consensus about where the road should lead? Can they manage to pull of the first steps towards a prototype and open source quickly enough to engage the community, including some of the veterans of this field like Chris Messina and David Recordon (who both work for big companies now)?

As of yesterday, the Diaspora website is relaunched and also offers the Diaspora roadmap (PDF). Looks like late summer is still the first big milestone. From the (very top-level) roadmap, and with my very limited knowledge about the technical background of social networking and distributed computing, the project seems to be sensible. I really hope the four of them manage to pull off the first steps quickly enough to get more people and support on board.

This is potentially huge. But so is the chance of screwing up. And they just put a lot of stuff on a plate that’s growing by the day.

Image: IMG_4567, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from nearnearfuture’s photostream

Facebook turns against its users, pro marketers

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pitfall

The EFF has put together a timeline of Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy. And it’s a deeply disturbing thing to read. Please read the whole (brief) post over at the EFF website, but I’d like to highlight the development with just two quotes.

From the 2005 Facebook privacy policy:

No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.

From the April 2010 Facebook privacy policy:

When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. … The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.”

This is just the most recent of many changes Facebook has unilaterally imposed on its users. It’s not like the 400+ million Facebook users were consulted about these changes, or will ever be. Unlike Google, which in Germany is often and harshly criticized about privacy concerns, there is a different quality to what Facebook is doing: Google has a business interest in only using abstract (i.e. aggregated) data (so they can sell access to this data as a middle man), and otherwise get out of the way as they live off of more people just using the web, thus being exposed to more ads.

Facebook on the other hand hasn’t figured out a really smart way to monetize on their users. But instead of working hard on figuring out a smarter way, they instead decided to just do the stupid thing: they are now in the business of selling their users. This wasn’t the second best option, but arguably the worst.

Now to put this into perspective: Facebook has introduced features or other changes many times over the years. Always there was a huge outcry; sometimes they were right in standing by the changes (activity stream, anyone?), sometimes they were right in abandoning them (remember Beacon?).

However, there were also cases where they stood by even their dumber decisions, like making the default setting of Facebook public. Since users of web services tend to leave the settings untouched, the default setting is a big deal. You make a bad decision and most of your users suffer. That’s what Facebook did a few months back: Just switch settings from private to public for everyone who hadn’t changed their privacy settings. (Better idea: if you want to switch defaults, just do it for new users and tell them about it.)

Now Facebook has implemented some major changes both in their privacy policy and in their architecture again. Much has been written about the (lousy, nasty, annoying) details; I recommend Chris Messina’s post “understanding the open graph protocol” to get up to speed on the criticism:

Ok, not a big deal, but think laterally: how about this? What if Larry and Sergey wanted to recreate PageRank today? You know what I bet they wish they could have done? Forced anyone who wanted to add a page to the web to authenticate with them first. It sure would have kept out all those pesky spammers! Oh, and anyone that wanted to be part of the Google index, well they’d have to add additional metadata to their pages so that the content graph would be spic and span. Then add in the “like” button to track user engagement and then use that data to determine which pages and content to recommend to people based on their social connections (also stored on their server) and you’ve got a pretty compelling, centralized service. All those other pages from the long tail? Well, they’re just not that interesting anyway, right? This sounds a lot to me like “Authenticated PageRank” — where everyone that wants to be listed in the index would have to get a Google account first. Sounds kind of smart, right? Except — shucks — there’s just one problem with this model: it’s evil! When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive.

So the new Facebook system sucks more than the old one, that’s one of the problems. But I think there’s another issue: I’ve lost my trust in Facebook. It’s not like Facebook was the most trustworthy service to begin with, but it seemed that our goals were kind of aligned: get more people on board, make it easier to share info with friends. Good stuff, right? But it turned out that Facebook management decided that this wasn’t enough for them, and instead they now cater not to their users, but primarily to marketers. (For them, the new Facebook is a pretty sweet deal. For site owners, it’s nice and convenient short term, but will suck in the longer run.) In other words: I had to learn that Facebook interests and my personal needs aren’t aligned, but pretty much contrary.

When I saw a message pop up from Facebook about linking my profile to certain sites and profile pages, even a few months ago I would have clicked OK. Now I manually opted out of every single check box, and went ahead to set my privacy settings to the most paranoid settings I could find. This means a lot, given that I’m usually not exactly a privacy nut, and my personal default setting is to share liberally online.

I don’t trust Facebook to handle my data anymore, nor to be open, upfront and acting in my interest when implementing changes.

Since 2005 I’ve been on Facebook. There is, at the moment, no decent alternative I know to keep in touch with my friends who live all over the place. So for the moment I’m locked into Facebook. But a locked-in user is a user lost – as soon as a better alternative pops up, I’m gone, and I’ll take my friends with me, even if it means adding them one by one, by hand. Because they deserve better than being exposed to Facebook marketers through their connection with me.

Generations of web startups will study Facebook and its development. I’m guessing that 2010 is the year they will mark red, as from there on the decline of Facebook would become obvious. Even though I’m still hoping that Facebook turns around. They had the chance of not just being a successful business, but a great one.