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.

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.

Rethinking the information revolution

Written with Alex Flint

Beyond all the needs that it fulfils, all technological innovation is underpinned by a common driving force: how to make information flow more efficiently. From when the first modern humans walked the earth, we’ve assumed that it was their survival instinct that drove innovation. It certainly has, but we forget that without the ability to efficiently pass on information from one generation to the next, our ancestors would’ve had to reinvent the most basic things every time they needed it.

From the beginning of human civilisation till today, our aim has been to increase, what can be termed, brain to brain bandwidth. The idea encompasses not just flow of information from one person to the other but also how effectively it is transmitted, that is how well it is understood or used by the person receiving it.

We’ve come to associate the last 50 years with the period when the information revolution took place. But that is because the industrial revolution that preceded it made life easy enough for us to focus primarily on information and its transmission. Is the information revolution slowing down though? Certainly not.

The machine of the dreamers

The personal computer was expected to make its way into every home well before the 1990s. But its limitations with speed and memory did not let that happen. Its main users for many years were technology geeks, nerds and hackers.

While no one doubted the achievement of Apple I from a purely technical standpoint, giants of the field like IBM did not believe in the dream of the PC-enthusiasts. In 1976 it was hard to imagine how exactly an abstruse gadget in a wood-casing with the title “Apple I” scrawled over the headpiece would have a large impact on ordinary life. But should it have been so difficult? The fundamental role of information in our lives seemed to have been underplayed.

By the time the personal computer, as we know it*, was first built, it had already been over a decade since Gordon Moore’s prediction that the number of components on an integrated circuit would double every two years^.

A general purpose information processing device was going to be in demand and would become cheap enough for many to afford. But it still took a genius and a rebel like Steve Jobs to force the incumbents to accept that the PC age had begun.

The byproduct of science

The next innovation after the PC that had a comparable impact on humanity’s brain to brain bandwidth was the internet. What the PC made possible was a better way to access and manipulate information. The advent of the internet brought things a step further by enabling us to connect such information with relative ease.

However, like the PC before it, mass adoption took time. After being invented as a means of transferring data between physicists, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s idea took off in the mid-90’s. Since then the internet has disrupted not just information transfer mechanisms but many other markets. From the postal system to the education system, anything that has information transfer at its heart has been changed by the internet.

The rise of social

While many might dispute social media as the next big innovation, there is little doubt that adding a personal touch to information flow has made a huge difference. Defined as a website that allows you to make a profile page, connect with friends and view your friends’ connections, the first social networking website was SixDegrees.com launched in 1997.

Since then, of course, social networking sites like MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, Twitter and, most recently, Google+ have drawn hundreds of millions of users. Even though Facebook is not quite worth $100 billion just yet, the sheer number of users of Facebook has helped it create a parallel world of its own on the internet. Just a little less than half the world’s internet users have Facebook accounts. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter though. Social news sites like Reddit, Digg and StumbleUpon draw large crowds too.

But innovation in this sector is reaching a plateau. All social networking websites have essentially the same features: profiles, news feed, data-sharing (photos, links, documents, etc.) and many ways of bringing users together in groups or by direct communication. We’ve reached a point today when people are spending less time on social networks than before.

Virtually face to face

The next innovation needed in increasing our brain to brain bandwidth are being touted to come from wearable computing, be it smartwatches or products like Google Glass. But these seem like an incremental development rather than one that is paradigm-shifting.

What we really need is a virtual way to replicate the water-cooler effect. The effect is named after the phenomenon that colleagues in an office meet at a water-cooler, which leads to serendipitous exchange of ideas. It is thought that the internet has led to the decline of these chance events happening, and thus slowed down the pace of innovation.

It was this that formed the core of a recent note from Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, that asked Yahoo employees to stop working from home. Many decried Mayer’s note, calling her out of touch with reality. But she has a point because there is a lot of value in face to face communication. No innovation yet has come close to solving that problem.

A solution to this problem will truly impact the world. Economists have found out that the easiest way to double world GDP is to get rid of international borders. Which, of course, is a politically implausible proposition. But if technological development could allow virtual presence of a person to be nearly as good as real presence, this dividend would not remain an unrealised one.

And perhaps Yahoo workers could start working from home again.

* Many will dispute which exactly was the first personal computer. Perhaps it was GENIAC built in 1955. The Apple II built in 1977 was the first mass-produced PC. But the first PC with a graphic user interface, that we have become so accustomed to, was Lisa built in 1983.

^ The often-quoted period of 18 months was a modification by David House, of Intel, who said the growth in computing power will come not just from more transistors but also from faster ones

First published on medium.com. Image from here.

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.

Don’t overthink social media

Ed Yong distills the notion of self-promotion through social media in one sentence:

The way to think about this is to map any [online] behaviour onto the physical world.

And here is the explanation in full:

So, would I tweet about something I wrote. Yes. That is basically telling friends about something I did that I’m proud of. Who wouldn’t do that in real life?

Would I tweet about something I wrote multiple times? Yes. In the same way that I would tell the same anecdote to different groups of friends. Different people are online at different times. If the same person happens to hear the same anecdote, who cares?

Would I tag friends into tweets, or DM them about it? Rarely, but sure, why not? Same thing. This is just specifically going up to someone and telling them about something I did that I’m proud of. I’d wouldn’t do this for everyone, but for people I have an established relationship with, why not? I wouldn’t rankle if someone did it to me.

Would I tag strangers into tweets? Probably not unless under exceptional circumstances. Would I tag a group of influencers into a tweet, many of whom I’ve never spoken to before or follow? No. Hell no. That would make me the guy at the party who only goes up to the famous people and shouts loudly about themselves. Who wants to be, or speak to, that guy?

Would I reply to the tweet of someone I follow but have never spoken to, alerting them about a post I wrote that was related to what they tweeted about? Absolutely. What, you’ve never started a conversation with a stranger riffing off of what they said?

It is social media. Online, too, the same rules apply.

On our digital lives

With power comes responsibility, said Spiderman.

And you know what? He was damn right. This pithy quote is at the heart of our modern lives. Technology has given us tremendous power, but it comes with a responsibility to use it properly.

In this age where the world’s greatest encyclopedia is a website, where nothing is hidden from the eyes of a google bot, where every tiny details of people’s lives are being recorded by the US library of congress in the form of ‘tweets’, and where ‘Charlie bit my finger again!’ is among the most viewed scenes in the history of time, we ought to give our digital lives a serious thought.

Technological progress has touched the every human alive today. And since the explosion of the internet, every day we are offered some new digital product that is always of some apparent value to us. I have, of course, been a part of this bandwagon for quite some time now.

I am a technophile, which means that I trial any new technology that I can get my hands on. Most times, if it is any good, then I am very keen on adopting it to my life. Internet, of course, has been one of those many technologies.

Now for a small digression – let’s go back a little in time to my early experiences with technology. I got my hands on Windows 95 the same year that it was released, I got my first email in 1996 (jammu11@yahoo.com, I had access to it till 2006 when it got hacked!), every new mobile phone that came to the Indian market up until 2004 had been through my hands and I was well aware of all the fine features of each. In 2005, my Dad bought me an IBM desktop, and I was one of the first students to have a personal computer in my hostel and it came with a cherry-on-top – a flat screen monitor!

Owning a PC enabled me to access the World Wide Web whenever I wanted. I started blogging in 2006, had a Facebook account in 2007, my first tweets were sent in 2008,  and I’ve been amongst the first users for pretty much every Google product that I could get my hands on including Wave, Buzz, and Google+. But there is nothing unique about this because, just like me, millions have gotten hooked on to the new things that the ever growing technologies have to offer us. For good or otherwise.

The ubiquitous access to internet these days via 3G on our smart phones or tablets, the constant pleasurable jolts of adrenaline because of the arrival of new emails, and the raised dopamine levels because of Facebook likes or Twitter mentions are all adding up to creating this sense of ‘busyness where you don’t remember doing very much’.

A now-famous essay by Nicholas Carr titled, ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘, questioned this very notion. The essay was such a sensation that Carr went on to write a book, called The Shallows, about how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember .

Since the very beginning, internet and social media have been fundamentally changing not just our society but also the way we think. Just like the invention of the wheel or that of the steam engine changed our society. As Kevin Kelly says, what technology wants is to keep moving forward. If there is something we can do, then we can adapt to these changes in a way that affect us positively.

I have dwindled on this subject before when I started an information diet. One that lasted for quite a while but also one that I cheated on, most of the time, inadvertently (blame the Blackberry). Ironically, these thoughts about modern-day distractions started in a conversation with a friend on twitter.

But I remain of the opinion that any technology that remains in use is benefiting humanity in some form. Maybe only until it is replaced by newer technology, but even then, any technology that persists is essentially making a positive contribution. Thus, each one of our distractions has some positives for us to gain.

Beyond the obvious benefits, social media can be used as a motivational tool. For example, I expose my writing to my close friends, some of whom I will face in real life after having written it. I share my photography to get feedback from those I care about. I make public commitments like that of learning piano or running 3 miles, and then do those things out of the fear of public shame.

Twitter gives me access to a lot of food for thought not just through the amazing variety of links that get shared, but also because of easy access to some of the smartest people in the world. Facebook, of course, serves as a fantastic tool for keeping in touch with old friends. When I need to reconnect with one, which is usually by email, I have a look at their Facebook feed and will usually have lots of things to talk about even after months or years of no direct communication.

To me none of these changes seem subtle, as my friend seemed to suggest. These changes can have a profound effect. Sometimes we don’t realise the profundity because we cannot compare our own experience with one where these technologies don’t exist.

There is an answer to this question which will console you. Consider the life of a science journalist 20 years ago. He would’ve had to wait for the physical copy of a research article to arrive. Then in order to get in touch with an author half-way across the globe, he would’ve had to send a letter which took weeks to reach and then wait for many more weeks till he got a reply which he could use as a quote.

Or consider that, only 40 years ago, one of the greatest chemists of our generation spent three years of his PhD trying to find out exactly what is the structure of a single molecule. Today, in my thesis there are hundreds of molecules which I have been able to characterise to near certainty. So life, as we have it today, is much easier than it was before the information revolution. Too often we forget this.

But this doesn’t solve our low esteem crisis because it originates from feeling less control over our lives. It seems that these constant distractions don’t let us do much. I haven’t met anyone, including some of the most successful people I know, who hasn’t lamented this fact at least once in their life. So yes, there is no denying that there is a problem. But…

The lack of motivation is the single biggest factor that leads to low self-esteem. And this lack stems from not knowing ourselves well enough. If we know what makes us tick, then we will be able to unlock the vast reservoir of motivation that each one of us has inside. Of course, knowing oneself that well isn’t easy, especially in the face of a deluge of choices.

In the past, people did not have as many choices when it came to deciding on a career. Of course, there were specialised jobs. But if you wanted to do something highly specialised, it usually happened after years of on-the-job training. So, essentially, you got recruited as a fresh graduate from either arts, commerce, or science.

Now there are undergraduate courses have sprung up that teach students about a field that was christened a few decades ago but has taken off only in the past few years (see Bachelors in Nanotechnology). The choice of college is among the most important decisions that one takes in their lives. If it’s hard for a student, then I can’t imagine how hard it must be for a parent.

Self-knowledge becomes more important than before. If we are aware of our preferences, the set choices becomes smaller. We are less stressed about the possibility of choosing wrongly. There is less ambiguity. But we are remarkably poor at understanding ourselves.

We should be taught in school how to explore ourselves and our beliefs. Maybe we should explain to kids how to use the scientific method in better understanding their own desires (and not just the world around them). There should be classes about how to deal with distractions or how to overcome temptation (see the marshmallow test). If technology is going to be such an integral part of our lives, then students should be taught how to use it effectively. A class on ‘how to use your mobile but still get your work done’ would be very popular, don’t you think?

We adults should also be more aware of how seemingly small things can make a big difference. Updating our Facebook statuses and getting ‘likes’ can seem like a good substitute for the social validation that doing good work brings. Putting in the effort to leave unhelpful comments on online forums can seem like ‘work’ and drain us of the motivation needed to do real work. Gathering followers on twitter can be a substitute for achieving something that makes a difference to people’s lives.

This brings me back a full circle to Spiderman. With power comes responsibility, of course. It is our individual choices that affect our digital lives. Accepting that there is something to fix is only the first step, albeit an important one.

What if we were to go back to the 80’s

My mum told me a story which moved me and made me think about a bunch of things. Before I tell you those things, here’s the story:

I was born in 1987 in Nashik. Only a few days after I was born, my Dad got a job in Calcutta. He moved from Nashik to Calcutta at a short notice leaving me with my mum and my nani (mum’s mum).

Without dad, my mum and my nani did a lot for me. She developed a very close connection to me spending all day and night taking care of me. Then after three months, my Dad came back to take my mum and me with him to Calcutta.

Suddenly, all the joys of having a baby around disappeared. My nani felt very lonely. At the time, the only means of keeping in touch were letters and trunk calls. Of course, I couldn’t write a letter so the only communication that happened between nani and me was that when, during a very expensive and rare trunk call, she heard me make some noises. That almost always made her cry.

If I were born today, things would have been so different for the relationship that my nani would have developed with me. We would have the modern forms of communication – she could talk to me on the mobile phone even if my dad earned the same salary as then, she could see me grow up on Skype and if she really really missed me she could even take a flight to Calcutta (because they’ve become so much cheaper than those days!).

The story made me wonder about how much technology has affected us. I tried hard to understand what it must’ve been to have a relationship in that era but I am unable to. Sure, people must’ve dealt with it and got on with things. But I am more interested in the quality of the relationship of those times. We may never realise what it meant to long for someone.

I remember my mum telling me that when my Dad went to Europe in the early 80’s, he used to write her a letter a day which she usually received in bunches after a couple of weeks. Letters from India to Europe took even longer and because my dad was travelling, I am not sure how many times he actually heard back from mum. What must it have been to be my dad who had a one-sided dialogue with his newly wed wife for months?

Somehow, I am not sure that everything is better because of newer technology. We seek immediate responses and quick replies. Many have forgotten the art of letter writing. We’ve developed LOLspeak and gotten addicted to IM. Knowing people’s ‘status’ makes us happy even if you don’t know what is really going on their life.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be a Luddite. Technology has done lots to help. A frequent story that is repeated to show the power of technology is that of an Indian farmer who can now afford to make calls to the local market to figure out a better price for his crop. The grassroots have definitely been strengthened. 884 million Indians have a mobile phone today, that’s 73% of the population!

Even in my case, technology has done plenty. Skype is such a blessing. Every weekend when I talk to my parents for an hour or two, I leave the conversation feeling satisfied. It’s not just about knowing what they are doing but also seeing them and hearing them (so much is communicated through body language).

And yet, stories like the one about my nani make me think about the time without the internet, without mobile phones, without social media…