Some things I thought worth reading in the past days

  • A good read on how currently machine learning (ML) merely obfuscates human bias, by moving it to the training data and coding, to arrive at peace of mind from pretend objectivity. Because of claiming that it’s ‘the algorithm deciding’ you make ML a kind of digital alchemy. Introduced some fun terms to me, like fauxtomation, and Potemkin AI: Plausible Disavowal – Why pretend that machines can be creative?
  • These new Google patents show how problematic the current smart home efforts are, including the precursor that are the Alexa and Echo microphones in your house. They are stripping you of agency, not providing it. These particular ones also nudge you to treat your children much the way surveillance capitalism treats you: as a suspect to be watched, relationships denuded of the subtle human capability to trust. Agency only comes from being in full control of your tools. Adding someone else’s tools (here not just Google but your health insurer, your landlord etc) to your home doesn’t make it smart but a self-censorship promoting escape room. A fractal of the panopticon. We need to start designing more technology that is based on distributed use, not on a centralised controller: Google’s New Patents Aim to Make Your Home a Data Mine
  • An excellent article by the NYT about Facebook’s slide to the dark side. When the student dorm room excuse “we didn’t realise, we messed up, but we’ll fix it for the future” defence fails, and you weaponise your own data driven machine against its critics. Thus proving your critics right. Weaponising your own platform isn’t surprising but very sobering and telling. Will it be a tipping point in how the public views FB? Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis
  • Some of these takeaways from the article just mentioned we should keep top of mind when interacting with or talking about Facebook: FB knew very early on about being used to influence the US 2016 election and chose not to act. FB feared backlash from specific user groups and opted to unevenly enforce their terms or service/community guidelines. Cambridge Analytica is not an isolated abuse, but a concrete example of the wider issue. FB weaponised their own platform to oppose criticism: How Facebook Wrestled With Scandal: 6 Key Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation
  • There really is no plausible deniability for FB’s execs on their “in-house fake news shop” : Facebook’s Top Brass Say They Knew Nothing About Definers. Don’t Believe Them. So when you need to admit it, you fall back on the ‘we messed up, we’ll do better going forward’ tactic.
  • As Aral Balkan says, that’s the real issue at hand because “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have the same business model. If Cambridge Analytica can sway elections and referenda with a relatively small subset of Facebook’s data, imagine what Facebook can and does do with the full set.“: We were warned about Cambridge Analytica. Why didn’t we listen?
  • [update] Apparently all the commotion is causing Zuckerberg to think FB is ‘at war‘, with everyone it seems, which is problematic for a company that has as a mission to open up and connect the world, and which is based on a perception of trust. Also a bunker mentality probably doesn’t bode well for FB’s corporate culture and hence future: Facebook At War.

Stephanie Booth, a long time blogging connection, has been writing about reducing her Facebook usage and increasing her blogging. She says at one point

As the current “delete Facebook” wave hits, I wonder if there will be any kind of rolling back, at any time, to a less algorithmic way to access information, and people. Algorithms came to help us deal with scale. I’ve long said that the advantage of communication and connection in the digital world is scale. But how much is too much?

I very much still believe there’s no such thing as information overload, and fully agree with Stephanie that the possible scale of networks and connections is one of the key affordances of our digital world. My rss-based filtering, as described in 2005, worked better when dealing with more information, than with less. Our information strategies need to reflect and be part of the underlying complexity of our lives.

Algorithms can help us with that scale, just not the algorithms that FB uses around us. For algorithms to help, like any tool, they need to be ‘smaller’ than us, as I wrote in my networked agency manifesto. We need to be able to control its settings, tinker with it, deploy it and stop it as we see fit. The current application of algorithms, as they usually need lots of data to perform, sort of demands a centralised platform like FB to work. The algorithms that really will be helping us scale will be the ones we can use for our own particular scaling needs. For that the creation, maintenance and usage of algorithms needs to have a much lower threshold than now. I placed it in my ‘agency map‘ because of it.

Going back to a less algorithmic way of dealing with information isn’t an option, nor something to desire I think. But we do need algorithms that really serve us, perform to our information needs. We need less algorithms that purport to aid us in dealing with the daily river of newsy stuff, but really commodotise us at the back-end.

It’s never been a secret that Facebook is a data hungry monster, and I have always acted in that knowledge. There are reasons why FB is valuable as a tool for me, there are a range of others why FB is all wrong. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, it is time to create a path for myself away from it. I am not leaving, at least not completely for reasons following towards the end of this post. I did however deactivate my account last night. This means my data is still available within FB but invisible, and logging in will reactivate it all.

In short, I am not going cold turkey on FB, but merely semifreddo, half cold.
I expect that removing myself from FB for now creates the space for me to figure out what to do and not do with FB.

My FB history
I joined FB in the first week of October 2006, shortly after it became available for non-US non-academic e-mail accounts in September. Until the winter of 2013 I posted virtually nothing, except automatic links to my blogposts. Only from November 2013, nudged by Gerrit Eicker, I started interacting with FB more, and from early 2014 the number of postings slowly grew. It turned into an addictive habit, that you really want to quit but don’t really seem to be able to. A tool I use to track my own software and web-usage has been brutally direct in showing me how much of a time sink FB became. I removed the FB app from my phone at some point in the last year, mostly to cut away the noise and disconnect from the here and now that doing a quick FB check during ‘empty’ moments creates.

The constructive effects of FB
FB has been both helpful, as well as damaging on a personal level. In the positive sense,

  • it allows me to stay in touch with a wide variety of people that I otherwise wouldn’t be in touch with. Because they are distant in terms of geography, because the context we once shared is a long time ago, the current overlap in context is small, or any combination thereof.
  • It makes keeping a sense of what’s going on in their lives pretty effortless, and even if actual interaction may be low, it serves as a low threshold channel to emphatise.
  • It allowed me to share things in a much less public place than my blog when in 2015 and 2016 personal events were dominant, without the need to reach out directly to anyone. This allowed others to respond as they see fit.
  • In some instances FB is the only way I can easily connect to people and groups I am professionally connected with, such as for instance colleagues in Central Asia, or the Serbian open data community.

There’s also a destructive side to FB
FB has had a huge impact over time on my regular information strategies. This was of course helped along by the demise of many other tools and platforms such as Google Reader, Dopplr, and the erosion of what makes the web work, such as Twitter doing away with RSS. For these tools lost behind the event horizon of the black hole that FB and other walled gardens are, me and many of my network used FB as a replacement. For instance, Dopplr was a good way to inform the traveling part of my professional network of upcoming trips and therefore potential opportunities to meet, should some of our travel coincide. Posting a travel update on FB has replaced it, albeit with loss of visibility and functional value. The large majority of RSS feeds I followed have dried up. The disappearance of RSS from many platforms which allowed me to aggregate information about my network myself, meant I had to go to a place where that aggregation was done for me, and FB is such a place with the most people in it. Again at a significant loss of functional value (influence, filtering, tagging, making on the fly cross-sections etc.)

Over time it became clear to me that the endless FB timeline has de facto replaced my carefully calibrated rss-based information diet. What were my intentional and purposeful acts of keeping in touch, learning and informing myself, got replaced by a steady stream of distraction and procrastination. Starting from a question, and then seeking out what might be relevant mostly disappeared, at best responsive but often passive consumption replacing it. There’s a distracting quality to FB as a gateway to material even when interacting with the same content: I follow some thinkers/authors in my FB network, but end up engaging with whatever they posted today, rather then diving deeply into their actual work available on their own sites. It’s almost as if I have to remind myself that doing online deskresearch or literature review isn’t checking out the FB timelines of the people in that field.

The nefarious asymmetry of FB
To large swathes of the global population FB serves as a facsimile of the internet, hiding the potent agency-inducing qualities the internet actually has, and merely presenting the passive and consumer side of the net. As long as you keep scrolling down your timeline you’re not taking action (even if changing your avatar to show sympathy with one plight or another gives you that feeling).
Although I’ve succeeded in preserving a certain variety in my FB network, so that regularly I get presented with viewpoints or articles which clash with my sense of what is common (not: common sense), FB has been busily building my own bubble around me. This is readily apparent whenever I venture into other places, darker places, following links on the profiles of friends of friends of friends further and further outside my ‘regular’ network. The resulting suggested articles and ads that fill my timeline for days afterwards are a shocking view on what others apparently get presented as their day to day diet.

At issue here is the enormous asymmetry. It is infinitely easier to automatically feed me dross, aim to manipulate my choices in a myriad of ways, then it is for me to purposefully individually and manually resist that (if at all psychologically possible). FB, or actually anyone paying them, can without effort suggest 100s of articles and ads, an individual will get fed up manually hitting ‘show me less of this’ after less than a dozen times. A second layer of asymmetry is that none of the pattern matching or categorising you and I are subject to are in any meaningful way available to us ourselves. This isn’t about the personal data we consciously share (e.g. dates of birth, phone numbers, postings), but about our actual behaviour on the platform, the things I and my connections hit like for, the links we click, the time we spend engaged with those links, the comments we typed in and ultimately decided not to post, the frequency with which we yet again open up the timeline to see if we get a little bit of endorphins from being ‘liked’, our responses to the A/B testing done on us unawares ,etc. etc.

On top of all that, similar to the tobacco industry, FB really likes to keep you hooked. Over the years I’ve deleted accounts from dozens if not hundreds of services. Some will say “we’re really sorry to see you go”, or ask you to reconsider, or make you type a confirmation manually (“DELETE”). FB however appeals to your emotions like no other, saying ‘oh but this or that person will miss you so much!’ and force you to provide a reason to leave, and even then ask for another confirmation after all that. That’s just for de-activating the account, leaving everything still there. Re-activating merely requires logging in, yet another designed asymmetry. I wonder what they will do when I actually would to delete the account.


Aldo will miss me, Jeroen will miss me, Baden will miss me, all 660 of my FB friends will miss me,……please stay! Yes, I’m sure.

So, what to do?

  • FB has to be removed as a time sink and obstacle to purposeful interaction.
  • In terms of information intake it means going through my network list (I downloaded my FB data), and find other ways to keep track.
  • In terms of sharing, my blog (which is fully public, so very different questions apply concerning what to post or not there) will need to have prevalence, likely augmented with some other tools. I can see running my own Diaspora-pod (or another distributed FB simile), and inviting selected groups into specific instances. This replaces the single humongous space that is used for all group interaction in FB, with more group and community specific ‘town squares’. Having the right spaces for interaction is an important aspect in community health, and FB is not designed like that.
  • In terms of interacting it means looking at my network list and more frequently purposefully reach out. Yes, that’s more time consuming, but more rewarding as well. Since my friend Peter left FB, the frequency of being in touch has risen I feel, and the quality and awareness of it has definitely increased. Although it won’t scale to all other connections.
  • Ensuring using FB more deliberately is another element. There are those I’m only connected with there. There are those I’m only professionally connected with there. So for them I will likely retain my account. For some Messenger is the only tool we share, and that too requires keeping the FB account. But like going to the pub, visiting FB will need to be a planned and time-boxed thing, and no longer the ‘filler’ of small periods of time. This is the ‘quitting smoking’ part of FB, all the ‘quick ciggies’ during the day. Any return to FB will be like a none-smoker entering a venue where smoking is allowed.
  • For that more purposeful and limited interaction, my entire FB history is of no importance, so deleting that is a logical step.