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.