Friday, January 12, 2018

Birdcage Liners

Joel Spolsky (Hacker News):

Rather than providing a constant stream of satisfying news and engagement with friends, Facebook’s algorithm had learned to give me a bunch of junk I didn’t need to hear, and only gave me intermittent rewards through the occasional useful nugget of information about friends. Once in a blue moon I would hear about a friend’s accomplishment or I would find out that someone I like is going to be in town. The rest of the time I would just get the kind of garbage newspaper clippings[…]


Both Twitter and Facebook’s selfish algorithms, optimized solely for increasing the number of hours I spend on their services, are kind of destroying civil society at the same time.


The good news is that Facebook suddenly realized what they had done, and today they announced a pretty major change of direction. They want the feed to leave people feeling like “more connected and less lonely,” so they have actually decided to sacrifice “engagement.” Mark Zuckerberg posted, “By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable.”

Cory Doctorow:

There is a war for your attention, and like all adversarial scenarios, the sides develop new countermeasures and then new tactics to overcome those countermeasures. The predator carves the prey, the prey carves the preda tor. To get a sense of just how far the state of the art has advanced since Farmville, fire up Universal Paperclips, the free browser game from game designer Frank Lantz, which challenges you to balance resource acquisi tion, timing, and resource allocation to create paperclips, progressing by purchasing upgraded paperclip-production and paperclip-marketing tools, until, eventually, you produce a sentient AI that turns the entire universe into paperclips, exterminating all life.

Update (2018-01-12): See also: John Gruber.

Update (2018-01-14): Andy Coravos:

Wait. @instagram strategically withholds “likes” from users that they believe might disengage hoping they'll be disappointed and recheck the app?! Harvesting painful insecurities. This is so messed up.


In case you’re not trained in cutting PR wood: They will not completely “eliminate” news (no one thought that anyway) but show “less”. Will hurt the business of news organizations? You bet, but who cares? Will it hurt Facebook’s business? Probably, at least a bit. So why do they go this way? Next Wednesday, Facebook is set to appear at another hearing on Capitol Hill, along with Twitter and YouTube, about the online spread of extremist propaganda.

Tyler Cowen:

In essence, they are blaming the media, without having to throw the stones themselves. Americans respond positively to attacks on the media, so this is a strong public relations move. Facebook retains the option of blaming the media more explicitly for its previous troubles, if need be.

Update (2018-01-15): Sarah Mei:

I find it really hard to believe that instagram chose eventual consistency for likes specifically so they could drive re-engagement. Let me walk you through how this sort of thing scales up.

Mike Krieger:

To be super clear, we don’t do this.

Frederic Filloux:

Consider us notified. Facebook is done with journalism. It will happen, slowly, gradually, but the trend is here.

Update (2018-01-16): See also: Nick Heer.

Update (2018-01-17): Ben Thompson:

So excuse me if I take Facebook’s pronunciations about the harm its business will soon befall with a rather large grain of salt. The company has already demonstrated it has pricing power such that its advertising revenue can continue to grow strongly even as the number of ads-per-user plateaus; moreover, that power further complicates any attempt to understand Facebook’s motivation.


It follows that Facebook’s ultimate threat can never come from publishers or advertisers, but rather demand — that is, users. The real danger, though, is not from users also using competing social networks (although Facebook has always been paranoid about exactly that); that is not enough to break the virtuous cycle. Rather, the only thing that could undo Facebook’s power is users actively rejecting the app. And, I suspect, the only way users would do that en masse would be if it became accepted fact that Facebook is actively bad for you — the online equivalent of smoking.

This is why I find Facebook’s focus on what is good for users to be so fascinating. On one level, maybe the company is, as they can afford to be, simply altruistic. On another, perhaps they are diverting attention from problematic trends in user engagement. Or perhaps they are seeking to neutralize their biggest threat by addressing it head-on.

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