What you need to know about Facebook’s “proof” that it’s not a political echo chamber

When nearly half of US internet users are getting their political news from Facebook, it rightfully raises many worries. Chief among them is that Facebook’s powerful algorithm creates a “filter bubble” in which users mainly see posts they agree with, reinforcing the heavily polarized nature of American political discourse.

In research recently published in Science, researchers from Facebook and the University of Michigan suggest that the news feed algorithm is less influential than some people have made it out to be. Instead, they claim it is mostly users themselves who, through their decisions about what to click on or who to be friends with, are responsible for the creation of any ideological bubbles.

Don’t be so quick to let Facebook off the hook, though. Despite being published in a reputable science journal, the researchers’ conclusion appears to be questionable.

Read more on Quartz, published May 11, 2015.

Image by nate bolt under CC-BY-SA.

Curious Bends – big tobacco, internet blindness, spoilt dogs and more

1. Despite the deadly floods in Uttarakhand in 2013, the govt ignores grave environmental reports on the new dams to be built in the state

“The Supreme Court asked the Union environment ministry to review six specific hydroelectric projects on the upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand. On Wednesday, the ministry informed the apex court that its expert committee had checked and found the six had almost all the requisite and legitimate clearances. But, the ministry did not tell the court the experts, in the report to the ministry, had also warned these dams could have a huge impact on the people, ecology and safety of the region, and should not be permitted at all on the basis of old clearances.” (6 min read, businessstandard.com)

2. At the heart of the global-warming debate is the issue of energy poverty, and we don’t really have a plan to solve the problem

“Each year, human civilization consumes some 14 terawatts of power, mostly provided by burning the fossilized sunshine known as coal, oil and natural gas. That’s 2,000 watts for every man, woman and child on the planet. Of course, power isn’t exactly distributed that way. In fact, roughly two billion people lack reliable access to modern energy—whether fossil fuels or electricity—and largely rely on burning charcoal, dung or wood for light, heat and cooking.” (4 min read, scientificamerican.com)

3. Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet

“Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.” (8 min read, qz.com)

+ The author of the piece, Leo Mirani, is a London-based reporter for Quartz.

4. The lengths to which big tobacco industries will go to keep their markets alive is truly astounding

“Countries have responded to Big Tobacco’s unorthodox marketing with laws that allow government to place grotesque images of smoker’s lung and blackened teeth on cigarette packaging, but even those measures have resulted in threats of billion-dollar lawsuits from the tobacco giants in international court. One such battle is being waged in Togo, where Philip Morris International, a company with annual earnings of $80 billion, is threatening a nation with a GDP of $4.3 billion over their plans to add the harsh imagery to cigarette boxes, since much of the population is illiterate and therefore can’t read the warning labels.” (18 min video, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight via youtube.com)

5. Hundreds of people have caught hellish bacterial infections and turned to Eastern Europe for a century-old viral therapy

“A few weeks later, the Georgian doctors called Rose with good news: They would be able to design a concoction of phages to treat Rachel’s infections. After convincing Rachel’s doctor to write a prescription for the viruses (so they could cross the U.S. border), Rose paid the Georgian clinic $800 for a three-month supply. She was surprised that phages were so inexpensive; in contrast, her insurance company was forking over roughly $14,000 a month for Rachel’s antibiotics.” (14 min read, buzzfeed.com)

Chart of the Week

“Deshpande takes her dog, who turned six in February, for a walk three times every day. When summers are at its peak, he is made to run on the treadmill inside the house for about half-hour. Zuzu’s brown and white hair is brushed once every month, he goes for a shower twice a month—sometimes at home, or at a dog spa—and even travels with the family to the hills every year. And like any other Saint Bernard, he has a large appetite, eating 20 kilograms of dog food every month. The family ends up spending Rs5,000 ($80)-7,000 ($112) every month on Zuzu, about double the amount they spend on Filu, a Cocker Spaniel.” (4 min read, qz.com)

Are all of WhatsApp’s 55 employees millionaires now? Not just yet

Facebook has just acquired the mobile messenger service WhatsApp for US$19 billion. Launched in 2009 by two former Yahoo employees, in just over four years WhatsApp has grown to 420m monthly users.

Why is it so popular? Founder Jan Koum told the New York Times in 2012, “We are providing a richness of experience and an intimacy of communication that e-mail and phone calls simply can’t compare with.”

Facebook has been pushing its own messenger service to its users, but without much success. Markos Zachariadis at Warwick Business School, said, “Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in many ways an admission of defeat.”

The explosion in the number of smartphones in recent years has also seen a boom in instant messaging services. Popular services such as WeChat, Line and Viber each have more than 100m users. WhatsApp tops that chart in not just number of users but also engagement. With the per-day volume at 19 billion messages sent and 34 billion received, the messaging service will soon trump the total global SMS volume.

According to Sotirios Paroutis, also at Warwick Business School, Mark Zuckerberg is out to make Facebook a truly mobile company with Instagram and WhatsApp. “In the past WhatsApp founders have been vocal in their objection to be acquired by a larger firm. So beyond their own reward package, the promise to keep WhatsApp as an independent service seems to have helped bring the two parties together,” he said.

Show me the money

With only 55 employees, WhatsApp’s $19-billion valuation could, in an alternate universe where each employee was given an equal share, fetch US$350m per employee. This is nearly five times what employees of Instagram would have got when that company was bought out for US$1 billion in 2012.

WhatsApp8-01

While founders take away big chunks of the proceeds from such deals, with so few employees the windfall can still make many others rich. But in some cases, like that of Skype’s acquisition by Microsoft, the unequal distribution can leave employees with nothing. Worse still, Felix Salmon at Reuters points out that because of the way these deals are structured, employees can do little to fight back.The Conversation

First published on The Conversation. Image credit: janpersiel.

Social media is about filtering trolls

Trolling, I decided, was the native mode of the internet, and not exactly sharing in the literal way that Facebook declares it. Sharing is complicated and private; humour is entertaining, appropriate to an audience.

From Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings about about the rise of Facebook from the view of its 51st employee.

Fatal flaw in Facebook’s privacy promises?

I follow Calvin and Hobbes on Facebook. And some of the cartoon strips are such gems that I cannot help but share them beyond Facebook. Given Calvin and Hobbes has a public page and makes its posts public, I can just copy the post’s URL and share it on Twitter. But, like many others, I hate sharing links from Facebook on Twitter. Mostly because it loads slowly on mobile or asks people to sign in, or *invent your own excuse*, etc. So to work around that problem I copied the image’s URL (right click, select “copy image URL”), and checked to see if it works in an independent browser tab.

Sure it does. It is a publicly shared image, so it should work.

Then I tried the same thing on a personal image that I’ve shared only with friends on Facebook (not even friends of friends). Even that URL works. It works in an incognito tab on Chrome. It works on another browser where I’ve never signed in on Facebook. You can even see a private image from a person’s albums as long as you have the image URL. This shocks me. What happened to all the things that Facebook said about protecting our content?

Up until now I haven’t taken social media privacy too seriously. I’ve tended to follow the mantra: everything I do online is public. And Scott McNealy (CEO, Sun Microsystems) said in 1999You already have zero privacy. Get over it.

But that doesn’t stop me from calling out Facebook’s empty promises. Facebook insists that it is up to you to decide how much you share. Bullshit.

Update: A user has found that Facebook doesn’t kill the link even after you delete the photo.

Visualising Facebook

Your correspondent was shocked to learn that 34% of his Facebook friends are married. Still in his 20s, he does not want to contemplate settling down quite yet. Knowing that 64% of his online friends are male does not help either—more so because only 57% of Facebook is comprised of women. When he lamented these facts (on Facebook of course) he was asked the obvious question: “Did you go through your friends list and count?”

Well, no. The number-crunching comes courtesy of Wolfram|Alpha, a sort of search engine for quantifiable facts. Begun in 2009 by Stephen Wolfram, a British scientist and entrepreneur, the online service serves up answers to queries by harnessing information from its own databases. It can compute things like the distance between the Earth and the Moon on your parents’ first Valentine dinner, for example. Its latest feature lets people analyse their Facebook account for free. Enumerating and plotting the vagaries of one’s online life is at times surprising. Your correspondent wouldn’t have thought he was many times more active in 2011 than this year, in terms of status updates, sharing links, photos, etc (chart below).

Since the service began a few weeks ago, more than 400,000 Facebook users have let Wolfram|Alpha examine their digital bits—an outpouring of interest that caught the firm by surprise, says Luc Barthelet, Wolfram|Alpha’s executive director. The company plans to expand into other “personal analytics” services. Mr Barthelet declined to be more specific, but it could well entail analysing users’ email patterns and other social media behaviour.

In February Wolfram|Alpha rolled out a Pro service. At $4.99 per month it gives people the ability to process their own data, or even download Wolfram|Alpha’s information on a query. Such information is potentially very useful as it comes from the service’s own curated databases. Thus, armed with data on homicides in African countries, for example, Wolfram|Alpha can generate various types of graphs (scatter plot, raw data plots, bivariate histograms) to help users understand their information better. It can create a heat map to visualise the data geographically. And it lets users overlay other data, such as GDP of the country, to make, in this case, a GDP-neutralised heat map.

The Wolfram|Alpha “answer engine” is based on Mathematica, a software program developed by Mr Wolfram that can perform elaborate calculations. After the site’s launch in 2009 it was criticised for being limited in what it could do: solve mathematical problems, answer some scientific questions, but nothing out of the ordinary. Since then it has expanded considerably. As it moves beyond computing the world into analysing the individual, it is providing fresh new ways to look at life.

Also published on economist.com.

Free image from here.

The internet, social media and relationships

Whenever I sign in to my Facebook account, I am greeted by hundreds of smiling faces wanting to tell me about their lives. I can at the choice of my whim get entertained by my friends doing stupid things or choose to wonder about the beautiful world through that friend’s pictures who just spent the last month in New Zealand. I can feel nostalgic by hearing that old song which was posted by another friend or even choose to cry reading about the sad story of a friend who met with an accident and who’s ‘wall’ is full of messages from well-wishers. I can choose to feel jealous about my mate who just found the hottest girl-friend or go to the profile of my class topper and get a dose of Schadenfreude from knowing that he is on a minimum wage job. I have the whole platter of emotions served to me everyday at whatever time I would like.

The cherry on top of this platter is that I also have the choice of declining to listen to any of these stories without it being considered rude. It’s great. Even King Louis XIV could not afford this kind of social luxury with all the power and money he had.

We live today with hundreds of friends on Facebook and similar number of followers on twitter. We have the ability to broadcast are thoughts in words, written or spoken, to millions of people for free. I can build friendships across the seas and over the mountains. I can have intellectual debates or learn something that blows my mind away. I can buy gifts for my parents sitting at my desk at work. The Internet has made plenty possible and yet I can’t stop but wonder when I heard the following from my dad.

“I was at your aunt’s place the other day and had a somewhat surprising experience. I was chatting with your cousin and asking her about her work. She explained it well in detail and we had a nice chat which was interrupted only because she had to leave. When she left your aunt came to me and told me, ‘You know she has never before explained to me what she does at work, despite having asked many times before.’ On further enquiry your aunt explained that she spends most of her time at home on the computer. She’s either on Facebook or watches some videos on YouTube. Rest of the time she doesn’t talk much. And I could not disagree because this was the first conversation that I had had with her in many years where she answered in more than a few words.”

I know my cousin somewhat well. We used to have lots of fun as kids but it has been many years since we spent any substantial time together. I know that she is a smart girl and although I can’t say much about her conversational skills. It makes me wonder that if the social media revolution had happened while I was still at home, would I have fallen in to the same ‘trap’ – showing a lack of interest in the people around me but paying more attention to those on Facebook. I tried to dismiss it as a singular case but my dad retorted that it is not a singular case. He’s heard the complain from many other parents in the recent months. More importantly though, the case my dad described was of an urban Indian family. In India, Facebook hasn’t quite reached the levels of penetration that it has in the US or UK.