What Happens When You Starve the Facebook Brain?

The Facebook algorithm, the “brain” which decides what content to feature, what content to bury, and what content to put in front of you, is being tested mightily of late. One writer tried to game the Facebook brain by disguising his posts as major life events in hopes of seeing them rise to the top. Another tried to overwhelm the brain (and himself) by clicking “like” on literally everything he saw.

Elan Morgan had a different idea altogether. Instead of gaming the Facebook brain, she more or less ignored it. Taking the opposite tack from Mat Honan, the Wired writer who liked all content for 48 hours without discrimination (and suffered for it), Morgan stopped clicking like altogether. She describes her troubles with the entire concept:

I actually felt pangs of guilt over not liking some updates, as though the absence of my particular Like would translate as a disapproval or a withholding of affection. I felt as though my ability to communicate had been somehow hobbled. The Like function has saved me so much comment-typing over the years that I likely could have written a very quippy, War-and-Peace-length novel by now.

Rather than give the Facebook brain a deluge of contradictory feedback as Honan did, Morgan gave it none at all, leaving the Facebook brain with little data with which to base its curation on. The result? Well, in a way, she got Facebook – the one we all used to like – back:

Now that I am commenting more on Facebook and not clicking Like on anything at all, my feed has relaxed and become more conversational.

Imagine that. This is what drew me to Facebook to begin with, when it still seemed to be a platform mainly for college students. It distinguished itself from MySpace by having a clean, uncomplicated interface, and with a news stream that didn’t necessesitate going to an individual’s page to interact. And when you wanted to interact, to comment or ask a question, it was quick and easy.

But when Facebook turned so strongly in the direction of heavy algorithm-based curation as almost literally everyone began posting on it, it turned into something that resembled a WalMart lined with cheesy inspirational posters. Community and interaction became incidental to passive consumption of content. Passive, save for the “like.”

Morgan saw this too:

I had been suffering a sense of disconnection within my online communities prior to swearing off Facebook likes. It seemed that there were fewer conversations, more empty platitudes and praise, and a dearth of political and religious pageantry. It was tiring and depressing. After swearing off the Facebook Like, though, all of this changed. I became more present and more engaged, because I had to use my words rather than an unnuanced Like function. I took the time to tell people what I thought and felt, to acknowledge friend’s lives, to share both joys and pains with other human beings. It turns out that there is more humanity and love in words than there are in the use of the Like.

I think this is an experiment very much worth pursuing. As Mike Daisey wrote (on Facebook) in response to Morgan’s piece, “[I]t might help make it closer to being a discussion board, which is what I wish it to be.” Same here.

But there are different perspectives on the “like.” Anil Dash wrote back in 2011 how he uses likes, Twitter “favoriting,” and other forms of social media up-voting with specific intention:

[F]avoriting or liking things for me is a performative act, but one that’s accessible to me with the low threshold of a simple gesture. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen online, but if I could smile at a person in the real world in a way that would radically increase the likelihood that others would smile at that person, too, then I’d be doing that all day long.

This idea, likes as a stand-in for in-person smiles and nods, is part of what Morgan finds problematic, that they are substanceless. “The Like is the wordless nod of support in a loud room,” she writes. “It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos.”

There’s nothing wrong with yesses and me-toos, of course. Sometimes that’s really all that’s worth saying, and that’s okay. I think the trick is to know when a mere “like” or “fav” truly is sufficient, when a more substantive response is warranted, and when it’s best, or just okay, to let something go by without expressing an opinion at all. After all, not every opinion needs expressing, does it?

I keep coming back to the idea of using Facebook and other social media with intention, knowing that there is an algorithm behind this platform that dominates so much of our online experiences, and acting on that understanding. That might mean you become far more judicious with your likes, and favoring prose responses over a mere thumbs-up. And maybe it means you eschew a reaction on Facebook’s platform altogether (thereby bypassing the Facebook brain altogether), and put your response into a blog post, a tweet, or a private email.

Just because something starts or is discovered on Facebook doesn’t mean it has to stay there. That brain doesn’t own you.

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What the Facebook Brain Thinks of You

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If you’re in public relations, journalism, entertainment, or other similar fields, you already know that Facebook wields enormous power, probably far too much, in that its algorithms are what chiefly decide to what degree any content you post will be seen by users. Only the people who work at Facebook can know precisely how every factor is weighed, but we do know that there are elements of the content itself that determine its delivery, as well as how its received once it meets its first few sets of eyeballs.

You can almost think of Facebook like an acting agent.

When you sign up with the agency, you audition for the agent, and show them what you’ve got. This is you initially submitting your content to Facebook. (Let’s not take this analogy too literally — obviously the agent can turn you away, where Facebook almost never decline to post something you submitted.)

The agent then shops you around to a few producers and directors and casting directors, and sees how you far in the market. This is the first few moments of activity, if any, your content sparks on Facebook.

If you (the actor) start getting hired for things, make a good name for yourself, and engender more interest, the agent puts you further up their priority list and show you off to more and more muckity-mucks, for higher pay, and more exposure, which leads to even better jobs. This is when your post does well, earns a bunch of likes, comments, and shares, which in turn generates more likes, comments, and shares.

Or, the acting jobs don’t turn out, the agent loses interest, and you go into career limbo. This is the fate of most actors, really, and most content on Facebook.

So what a couple of folks lately have been trying to do is game the agent, and we have examples from two different directions: as the content creator/submitter (the actor in the analogy) and as the audience for the content (the producers and casting directors and box office numbers).

On the first part, we have Caleb Garling at The Atlantic, who decided he’d package his content in a particular way to trick the Facebook algorithm into giving his content traction.

I wanted to see if I could trick Facebook into believing I’d had one of those big life updates that always hang out at the top of the feed. People tend to word those things roughly the same way and Facebook does smart things with pattern matching and sentiment analysis. Let’s see if I can fabricate some social love.

I posted: “Hey everyone, big news!! I’ve accepted a position trying to make Facebook believe this is an important post about my life! I’m so excited to begin this small experiment into how the Facebook algorithms processes language and really appreciate all of your support!”

You can guess what happened. Though totally manufactured, the post did very well, as opposed to some of his previous substantive posts.

Garling admits that he doesn’t know precisely why this worked. You’d need to do a lot more testing outside of a clever novelty stunt to understand what will and will not make Facebook lift your material. But it’s an intriguing way of thinking about how this electronic brain that makes so many decisions for us in terms of what content we see online actually works.

On the other side, we have the brilliant Mat Honan at Wired who decided not to submit content, but to respond to it. All of it. With no particular goal in mind, Honan decided to run an experiment in which he would click “like” on almost literally everything Facebook put in front of him for 48 hours, just to see how his Facebook experience would change. And the results were varying degrees of horrifying. If you hate Facebook now (as I do), just imagine if it were always like this (and this was just in the first 60 minutes):

My News Feed took on an entirely new character in a surprisingly short amount of time. After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.

But over time, like a great body of water, or really, a brain with moods and dispositions, things changed. As a result of a rogue like on a conservative-leaning comment, things got ugly and nutty really fast, with a swarm of frightening hard-right vitriol now flooding the feed. And this led something we now know all too well in a world of curation-by-servers:

This is a problem much bigger than Facebook. It reminded me of what can go wrong in society, and why we now often talk at each other instead of to each other. We set up our political and social filter bubbles and they reinforce themselves—the things we read and watch have become hyper-niche and cater to our specific interests. We go down rabbit holes of special interests until we’re lost in the queen’s garden, cursing everyone above ground.

And those bubbles can get very small. We tend to think of this in terms of liberals and conservatives, or maybe Apple and Android fans. But look at what it does to niche within niche, like the skepto-atheosphere, where a burgeoning movement of folks who largely all ought to be on the same side cannot seem to stop eating each other alive online, and hunkering down with those who are ideologically pure – at ever-increasing rates of purity, and therefore ever-shrinking bubbles. As Felicia Day put it on her own blog, “We’re being tricked into believing that our small worlds are much bigger than they really are in the grand scheme of things.”

Garling might have tricked the Facebook brain into thinking he had posted content that was not what it seemed. Honan definitely tricked the Facebook brain into thinking he was asking to see all manner of content he never really would.

What this tells me is that, yes, the brain is fallible, sure, but more importantly that intention matters enormously when it comes to social media. In previous posts here, I’ve talked about how the “crisis” of this filter bubble can be mitigated by intentional self-curation, by being mindful of what you approve of, what you click, what you post, and what you seek out.

Meanwhile, you can’t allow what you see on social media, or what you post to it, to define who you are in your own eyes. So the other lesson is to be intentional in your own self-perception. An actor’s sense of self can rise or fall by the approval of their agent and the industry to which the agent presents them. But it shouldn’t. If the Facebook algorithm is a brain, it’s just one brain, and it’s not a very wise one.

Social Media and the Imprisoned Juggler

Image by Shutterstock.
Speaking of whether social media can subsume one’s identity, I’m reminded of a piece from last year by Sara Scribner on “breaking up” with Facebook, and for so many of us even contemplating such a thing is fraught with anxiety and percieved peril. (I also wrote about this piece around the time it came out.)

Toward the end, she queries some young adults as to their dependence on Facebook, and is surprised to hear that many of them are not happy about life in Zuckerberg’s town:

One eloquently described his need to unplug but said that he could never even think about doing that for very long. “My friends would get worried,” he said. “They would think that something was wrong.” The way he described it, he was like an imprisoned juggler, perpetually condemned to keep the social networking and texting balls in the air. He couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. Would he – on unplugging — simply disappear?

If you’re like me, and eschew interaction in meatspace in favor of the life of the mind (and of bits), it can be scary to think of being outside of social media’s perpeutal cocktail party. Because if we percieve ourselves to exist digitally, cutting yourself off from social media removes a primary mode of defining that existence. And here you have the person in Scribner’s piece who she described as feeling “condemned,” and that if he left the FaceTwitPlusTumbl-o-sphere, he would cease to exist. Not literally of course, but he wouldn’t know who he is anymore.

I sympathize. Which is why it’s all the more important that if we choose to use these tools, such as Facebook, that we use them with intention. That means not passively accepting whatever the algorithm behind the curtain has designed for you based on your browsing and “liking” history, but actively seeking out the content and the people that matter, and populating it with content that doesn’t contribute to its Walmart-ification.

But most importantly, it means knowing and accepting who you are no matter what platform you’re using, be it in a browser, on a smartphone, or in the physical presence of actual breathing humans. I am still working on that.

The Spectacle of Ourselves: Social Media and the Superfluous Will

Image by Sutterstock.
Are we losing ourselves in social media? A lot of people feel that way, that we’re all just absorbing ourselves into some kind of swirl of ones and zeroes, and that our identities and individualities are being lost to “Big Data.” One way I’ve heard it put is that we’re all turning into the passengers on the Axiom.

Rob Horning at The New Inquiry addresses this, by way of his reading of Jean Baudrillard, a social critic from the previous few decades, who in the 1980s seems to have prophesied the coming of social media, with a number of predictions about what it would lead to, which I won’t get into here. Horning quotes this bit from Baudrillard, and it rings true:

This is our destiny, subjected to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics: constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behavior, absorbed by this permanent refraction of our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will. … Now, where there is no other, the scene of the other, like that of politics and society, has disappeared. Each individual is forced despite himself into the undivided coherency of statistics.

Horning applies this to the example of things like Facebook’s feed curation (and I’d say Google’s person-by-person search algorithms), in that they give us what their data says we ought to want before we’ve ever requested it. He calls it “postauthenticity”:

Even if the prediction is initially wrong, preferential placement in the platform, and the efficacy of the subsequent feedback loops can make it so … Postauthenticity (social media plus Big Data) makes our will superfluous.

Okay so that does sound pretty unsettling. I certainly don’t want to think of myself as passively and thoughtlessly having my online experiences doled out to me a) without being in control of it and b) without even realizing or caring that I’m not in control.

Horning says:

Facebook promises to entertain you, but it turns out that promise is synonymous with manufacturing demand. … Within that model is where power is exercised, modulating behavioral outcomes at the level of populations.

I actually agree with his diagnosis here, that this is indeed the power that Facebook wields, as does Google, and perhaps to a lesser extent Amazon, and Twitter even less so, until they decide to exercise more of their power and deny the “firehose” to users and aim for enforced curation.

But I don’t see it as a crisis, at least no more so than with any other mass media with which we’re already familiar. Horning, channeling Baudrillard, talks about social media as a system that serves our selfhood to us, in which “the masses enjoy the spectacle of themselves as a kind of consumer good.” Which is a heavy concept, but not new. What else is television if not the masses enjoying the spectacle of themselves, a spectacle that is sold to them through exposure to advertisements and paid subscriptions?

Obviously the difference is that on TV, we’re not watching “us,” we’re watching other people. But the reason we watch TV, see theatre, read books, etc., is to place ourselves outside of our normal worlds and into someone else’s, be it something wholly fictional or something based in “reality.” It is escapism, with varying degrees of escape versus engagement. We place ourselves in those modes of entertainment because, as we watch, where else could our “selves” be?

On Facebook and other social media, obviously we’re more “ourselves.” We present our faces, our names, our biographical information, our day-to-day comings and goings, our likes and dislikes, and anything else that delights us, upsets us, or somehow reflects something about us that we want to show the world.

It’s easy to get lost in the rathole of Facebook, as much as I loathe it on ethical and aesthetic prinicples. It’s easy to waste countless hours and unfathomable patience on Twitter. And yes, one activity in which one can get lost is in constructing one’s own “self,” the version of you you’re going to show the world. I know I do! I’m at least under the impression that when I do it, it’s quite deliberate. Other times I am sure I am being unconsciously guided and dazzled by algorithms being processed on distant server farms.

But at the very least I do have that power to decide what I will and will not expose myself to. I can construct my online identity, aware all the while that it is only a representation, and not a whole. I can waste time in the various services’ ratholes, but all the while understand that I can change what I’m allowing myself to see, exit it at any time, and if I choose, never return.

With television, you can choose what you watch, or whether to watch at all, but once that choice is made, the choosing ends. You go strictly into passive mode, where social media can be either passive or active, serendipitous (or with the illusion of seredipty) or intentional.

All this said, I think we did and continue to lose the masses to “the spectacle of themselves” with television. Snotty smartypants so-and-so’s like me have been complaining about the brain-rot of television since its advent, and rightly so. It’s a mind-deadener for most people, but for some, it can also be used for enrichment or engagement.

I don’t think social media is any different on that end. The poor “masses” will use it purely for the spectacle of themselves (and others of course), and some, perhaps relatively few, will use its power for more intentional, active purposes, for good or ill, just like with television, radio, and the printing press. Does Big Data and the hyper-curation of online experiences subsume people until they are lost? For many of us, yes, the will does become superfluous, and more and more so as these systems become more powerful. But they don’t, and I think won’t, subsume all of us. And that makes all the difference.

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Unrelated side note: Horning makes sure to let us know how “frustrating” he finds Baudrillard’s byzantine style of writing, which I find fairly ironic considering how generally hoity-toity The New Inquiry is as a whole, and how in this same piece Horning himself writes things like this:

Maybe then, the way to resist the demand to make one’s subjectivity productive for capital is to use social media in a “hyperconformist” normcore way, emptying “self-expression” of its value for social-media companies and shifting the location of selfhood elsewhere by perpetually deferring its “genuine” expression.

Yeah. So.

In Case You Don’t Want to Be an Unpaid Spokesmodel

If you don’t want to have your mug showing up all over the Web, appearing to endorse products and services in Google’s ads, go to this site, scroll the bottom, and uncheck the box that says, “Based upon my activity, Google may show my name and profile photo in shared endorsements that appear in ads,” and click save.

It’ll prompt you with some crap about making it easier for your friends to discover blah blah blah, just confirm, and go on with your life as someone who is not a non-compensated spokesmodel.

This is a new thing that Google is rolling out. To opt out of Facebook’s similar (yet entirely internal) endorsement-conscription, go here.

You’re welcome. Hat tip to Larry Magid.

My Brilliant Wife Messes with a Facebook Scammer

If you’re on Facebook long enough, you’ll probably get a wall post, a message, or a chat request from someone who seems to be one of your contacts, but soon reveals themselves to be someone who has hijacked their account, and it trying to get something out of you. Or at least, that’s the hope: that you figure out it’s not them before you lose your shirt.

The other night, my wife Jessica was chatted up on Facebook by just such a scammer, and very quickly clued in. But unlike most folks, who would probably end the conversation as soon as the ruse was revealed, decided to scam the scammer right back. The exchange is hilarious.

Some quick context. It is about 6:30 am, and Jess is up to tend to our awakened toddler. The scammer is posing as a friend of ours who lives in Arizona. So not to tempt other scammers, I won’t say who the real friend is, but we’ll call her “Jane” for now. Importantly, “Jane” is also a pastor with the United Church of Christ.

Jane (the scammer):

hello

how are you doing?

Jessica:

hiiiiii!

why are you up at this hour???!?!

did you have a baby too?

Jane:

i am not too good at the moment

Jess:

oh no what’s going on?

do you want to call?

Jane:

i am stuck here in London,England

got mugged at gun-point last night

Jess (now aware this is a scam):

I thought you weren’t allowed to leave the country because of your parole?!?!?!

Jane:

i was here for personal issues

all cash,credit cards and phone was taken away

Jess:

Yeah, right!

Jane:

it was a scary and awful experience but thank God i still have my life and passport

Jess:

Jane you don’t believe in God! [remember, “Jane” is a pastor]

Are you drunk?

Jane:

my return flight is scheduled to leave in few hours from now..Please i need your help

are you there?

Jess:

Oh yes.

I think you must have been drinking.

You’re not making much sense.

Jane:

please i need you to help me with a loan of $980 to sort out my bills and also take a cab to the airport

i will definitely pay back

Jess:

You’re not in England. I just talked to you on the phone yesterday.

WERE YOU KIDNAPPED!?!?!?

That would make sense!

Jane:

i got here last night

are you willing to help me or not?

Jess:

Well, maybe.

I am going to need you to apologize for that other thing though.

I mean, it’s pretty crazy you are asking me for a favor after what you did.

Jane:

i am sorry…please i got limited tome here

Jess:

That’s all you have to say after you got pregnant with Paul’s baby??!!? ‘i am sorry’

That’s not good enough.

Jane:

we will talk about it when i get back to the states

please can you help me with the money?

Jess:

How much money do you want? Does it have to be London money? I don’t have any of that.

Jane is offline.

My wife is a genius.