August 23, 2016

Hey, EU! Two can play this silly medal total game!

Filed under: Europe, Media, Sports — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, I’m sure you’ve seen at least one variant of this bit of EU self-puffery going around:

EU fake 2016 Olympic medal ranking

As Guido Fawkes points out, under those rules the British Empire completely eclipses the medal total of all the EU states:

The former countries of the British Empire won 396 medals – 138 more medals than a post-Brexit EU. While the European Parliament invents an EU state to “win” the Olympics, the medal tally of a one-time actual supra-state leaves Brussels for dust. Former member countries of the British Empire accrued 76 more medals than the rest of the world (24%). In all, the Empire’s score of 137 gold medals trounces the EU’s, which after removing Great Britain sits at just 79.

Looking at other alliances NATO countries took a stunning 443 out of the 974 medals on offer (45%), while Anglosphere countries grabbed a whopping 288 – 30% of the world total. This is compared to Francophone states’ measly 87 (9%), even with Canada’s 22 (2%) generously included. Hoisting the colours appears to have been good luck; countries with Union Jacks in their flags took a massive 115 medals, of which 40 were gold!

August 14, 2016

When virtue signalling became the dominant form of social media content

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Dan Sanchez explains why political “discussions” on social media tend to be worse than useless:

When children are free to learn from undirected experiences, they learn to conceive of truth as something that guides the successful pursuit of their own goals. But in the domineering, tightly-directed environments of school and the modern household, we condition our children to conceive of truth as received wisdom handed down by authority.

Children are largely deprived of the noble joy of discovering truths as revealed by successful action. Instead they are left with the ignoble gratification of pleasing a taskmaster by reciting an answer that is marked “correct.” And this goes far beyond academics. For the modern child, learning “good behavior” is not about discovering through trial and error what kinds of behaviors are conducive to thriving socially. Instead, it’s about winning praise and avoiding censure from authority figures.

Thanks to this conditioning, we have all become approval-junkies, always on the lookout for our next fix of external validation: for the next little rush of dopamine we get whenever we are patted on the head by others for being a “good boy” or a “good girl,” for exhibiting the right behavior, for giving the right answer, for expressing the right opinion.

This is why the mania for virtue signalling is so ubiquitous, and why orthodoxies are so impervious. Expressing political opinions is not about hammering out useful truths through the crucible of debate, but about signaling one’s own virtue by “tattling” on others for being unvirtuous: for being crypto-commies or crypto-fascists; for being closet racists or race-traitor “cucks;” for being enemies of the poor or apologists for criminals.

Much of our political debate consists of our abused inner children basically calling out, “Teacher, teacher, look at me. I followed the rules, but Johnny didn’t. Johnny is a bad boy, and he said a mean word, too. Teacher look what Trump said. He should say sorry. Teacher look what Hillary did. You should give her detention.”

You can’t expect much enlightenment to emerge from this level of discourse.

May 30, 2016

QotD: Facebook’s Orwell problem

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

As Orwell noted in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened — and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation’s most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it’s just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.

This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.

Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine — in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.


The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell’s dictum and say: “Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that’s how we’re going to build a better future.” The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is … downright Orwellian.

Megan McArdle, “Facebook Dislikes Conservatives, and That’s OK”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-11.

May 21, 2016

“Social media needs social relevance to disguise the narcissism at the center of its appeal”

Filed under: Business, Media, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Daniel Greenfield explains how Facebook got into the business of “curating” your user experience:

Despite the denials, the stories about Facebook’s bias are real. But the bias isn’t there because of the company’s new technology. Facebook is biased because of its reliance on the biased old media.

Facebook’s trending topics wasn’t the automatic system that the company wanted people to think it was. Instead it hired young journalists with new media experience to “curate” its news feed. And plenty of them proved to be biased against conservative news and sources. Meanwhile someone at the top of Facebook’s dysfunctional culture wanted to play up Syria and the Black Lives Matter hate group.

Mark Zuckerberg’s fundamental mistake was recreating the biases and agendas of the old media in a service whose whole reason for existing was to allow users to create their own experience. The big difference between social and search is that social media is supposed to let you be the curator.

But, like Facebook’s trending topics, social curation was another scam. Facebook users don’t really define what they see. It’s defined for them by the company’s agendas. This includes the purely financial. It would be foolish to think that the fortunes that Buzzfeed spends on Facebook advertising don’t impact the placement of its stories by Facebook’s mysterious algorithm. And there is the more complex intersection of politics and branding in an age when business relevance means social relevance.

Twitter piggybacked on the Arab Spring to seem relevant. Facebook has used Black Lives Matter. Social media needs to be associated with political movements to seem more important than it is. Zuckerberg doesn’t want to head up a shinier version of MySpace that was originally set up to rate the attractiveness of Harvard girls. Being socially relevant is better for business. Especially when the business is vapid at its core.

Social media needs social relevance to disguise the narcissism at the center of its appeal.

May 20, 2016

Mommy blogger blows the whistle on Mommy blogging

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The actual blog post by Josi Denise has been removed (go to the original URL and you get an “Account Suspended” notification), but Robert McCain quoted perhaps the key part of the post here:


I mean no one. Even the people you think are reading your shit? They aren’t really reading it. The other mommy bloggers sure as hell aren’t reading it. They are scanning it for keywords that they can use in the comments. “So cute! Yum! I have to try this!” They’ve been told, like you, that in order to grow your brand, you must read and comment on other similar-sized and similar-themed blogs. The people clicking on it from Pinterest aren’t reading it. They are looking for your recipe, or helpful tip promised in the clickbait, or before and after photo, then they might re-pin the image, then they are done. The people sharing it on Facebook? They aren’t reading it either. They just want to say whatever it is your headline says, but can’t find the words themselves. Your family? Nope. They are checking to make sure they don’t have double chins in the photos you post of them, and zoning in on paragraphs where their names are mentioned.

Why? Because your shit is boring. Nobody cares about your shampoo you bought at Walmart and how you’re so thankful the company decided to work with you. Nobody cares about anything you are saying because you aren’t telling an engaging story. You are not giving your readers anything they haven’t already heard. You are not being helpful, and you are not being interesting. If you are constantly writing about your pregnancy, your baby’s milestones, your religious devotion, your marriage bliss, or your love of wine and coffee…. are you saying anything new? Anything at all? Tell me something I haven’t heard before, that someone hasn’t said before. From a different perspective, or making a new point at the end at least if I have to suffer through a cliche story about your faceless, nameless kid.

You’re writing in an inauthentic voice about an unoriginal subject, worse if sprinkled with horrible grammar and spelling, and you are contributing nothing to the world but static noise.

No blogger, Mommy- or other, wants to be told that nobody is reading their posts. Something like this could ruin your whole day…

April 23, 2016

Politics, your social bubble, and you

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last week, Megan McArdle looked at the Hindenburg-crashing-into-the-Titanic-during-a-volcanic-eruption how so many people’s assessment of the US general election is so at variance with reality:

Call it “the big sort” or “demographic clusters” or whatever you like, it all comes down to the same thing: Even as Americans talk more and more about diversity, they are increasingly dividing themselves into like-minded bubbles where other people, with other experiences and viewpoints, almost never penetrate. This is the message of books by Charles Murray and Robert Frank, and indeed of our own social media feeds.

All of those articles on “how to talk to your family about politics this Thanksgiving” might as well be called “how to discuss politics on the one day a year when you find yourself in a group that has not been hand-curated to remove dissenting viewpoints.”

I don’t exclude myself from this. I live in one of the most rarefied bubbles on the planet, a community of policy-focused knowledge workers in which I practically qualify as a proletarian because I have spent years in jobs that did not involve writing about what other people have done or ought to do.

Even the socialists here in Washington are often notable for their lack of personal familiarity with their side in the class war. Outside of family circles, I almost never meet anyone who does not have a college degree and a 401(k), unless I’m buying something from them, or giving a talk at a university to people who are on their way to having a college degree and a 401(k).

Social media, of course, makes this problem worse. Even if we are not deliberately blocking people who disagree with us, Facebook curates our feeds so that we get more of the stuff we “like.” What do we “like”? People and posts that agree with us. Given that Facebook seems to be the top news source for millennials, and an increasingly important one even for folks who grew up skimming dead trees for information, that matters quite a lot.

December 20, 2015

Are you the customer or are you the product?

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Howard Tayler explains why he’d be willing to pay real money to Twitter for the use he gets out of the service and in the process, change from being a product to be resold into an actual customer:

Facebook’s actual plans were far more problematic. At a high level, the plan was to monetize their user base as a product, rather than as customers. This meant selling the product to OTHER customers — advertisers and market research firms, for starters. I don’t mind being advertised to, but in order for the monetization to work, Facebook had to step into our feeds and adjust the content we were seeing.

Facebook became less useful to us, and this loss of utility was hidden much of the time. When we actually noticed it, it was status quo.

Twitter is doing similar things to monetize their user base. The insertion of Promoted Tweets is the most immediately intrusive, but recently they’ve begun mucking with our timelines in order to adjust the content we see.

Look, I get it. These companies are providing an exceptionally valuable communication service to hundreds of millions of users. They deserve to be paid for that. The question is, what’s the best way to pay them? What will make them the most money, while keeping their users not just happy, but loyal?

Twitter’s 2014 revenue was $1.4B. They have over 900 million users, but most of those users do not tweet things. If we assume, conservatively, that there are only 100 million human beings actively using Twitter’s service, they were worth $14 each during 2014. Much of that money was paid in by advertisers.

$14 isn’t much. It’s less than $1.20 per month. I would cheerfully round up, and pay $20 for an annual Twitter membership without batting an eyelash.

For that money I would obviously expect to NOT be monetized further. Don’t market to me, don’t promote Tweets, don’t mess with my feeds. Maybe give me instead some cool tools that let me better manage this awesome communications tool.

If those 100 million users were willing to pay $20/year for “Twitter Prime,” Twitter’s revenues would be $2B. It’s not beyond the pale to further assume that their profit margins would be better, since all the overhead that goes into making a useful advertising engine could be dust-binned. Additionally, Twitter would become far more valuable to its users (who are now CUSTOMERS,) and they’d attract more paying users pretty quickly.

My ISP is Rogers, and I’ve been a customer for more than a decade. I use their web client for my personal email most of the time and it’s part of the services I pay for. At some point, Rogers decided that they needed to take over part of the screen to advertise at me. That was what finally induced me to install AdBlock Plus in all of my web browsers. Had the email been a free service, I wouldn’t have objected, but I was paying real money for it and chose not to be subject to having to put up with animated ads every time I needed to read or write an email message.

October 10, 2015

Free design advice for Facebook from the kindly folks at The Register

Filed under: Humour, Media, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Facebook is reportedly rolling out a new button for their users to “dislike” posts they see on their feeds. The helpful souls at The Register offer their free, expert advice on how to go about doing this right:

The Register's Facebook Dislike buttons

  • Like: The classic.
  • Click Bait: For article links that people click on despite themselves and then feel like they’ve let themselves down shortly afterwards. The sort of posts that make you feel society has just got a little worse. Upworthy and BuzzFeed articles will be tagged with this option as a default.
  • Idiot: To confirm that the author of the post is lacking in common sense and/or rational analysis. Most useful for politics and health issues.
  • Umm: A useful passive-aggressive way of letting your friends know that you may want to take this post down or at least edit it heavily before others read it.
  • Fresh Air: A positive, life-affirming choice that says to people: “Maybe it’s time you took a break from your laptop and went out into the real world for a bit.”
  • Privacy: A direct link to the privacy settings for this particular post’s author so you are able to block, unfriend, or report them in one easy tap.
  • Holiday: A “Fresh Air” Superlike. A firm encouragement that perhaps it’s time both you and the author take an extended holiday from Facebook and do something useful with your lives rather than just read others’ mindless thoughts and respond to them with equally mindless comments and emojis.

May 29, 2015

QotD: Buying modern indulgences for Silicon Valley billionaires

Filed under: Business, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Silicon Valley is an American success story. At a time of supposed American decline, a gifted group of young entrepreneurs invented, merchandized, and institutionalized everything from smartphones and eBay to Google and Facebook. The collective genius within a small corridor from San Francisco to Stanford University somehow put hand-held electronics into over a billion households worldwide — and hundreds of billions of dollars in profits rolled into Northern California, and America at large.

Stranger yet, Silicon Valley excelled at 1950s-style profit-driven capitalism while projecting the image of hip and cool. The result is a bizarre 21st-century 1-percenter culture of $1,000-a-square-foot homes, $100,000 BMWs, and $500 loafers coexisting with left-wing politics and trendy pop culture. Silicon Valley valiantly tries to square the circle of driving a Mercedes or flying in a Gulfstream while lambasting those who produce its fuel.

But the paradox finally has reached its logically absurd end. In medieval times, rich sinners sought to save their souls by buying indulgences to wash away their sins. In the updated version, Silicon Valley crony capitalists and wheeler-dealers buy exemption for their conspicuous consumption with loud manifestations of cool left-wing politics.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Valley of the Shadow: How mansion-dwelling, carbon-spewing cutthroat capitalists can still be politically correct”, National Review, 2014-07-22.

April 16, 2015

Measuring productivity in the modern economy

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall on how our traditional economic measurements are less and less accurate for the modern economic picture:

… in the developed countries there’s a problem which seems to me obvious (and Brad Delong has even said that I’m right here which is nice). Which is that we’re just not measuring the output of the digital economy correctly. For much of that output is not in fact priced: what Delong has called Andreessenian goods (and Marc Andreessen himself calls Mokyrian). For example, we take Google’s addition to the economy to be the value of advertising that Google sells, not the value in use of the Google search engine. Similarly, Facebook is valued at its advertising sales, not whatever value people gain from being part of a social network of 1.3 billion people. In the traditional economy that consumer surplus can be roughly taken to be twice the sales value of the goods. For these Andreessenian goods the consumer surplus could be 20 times (Delong) or even 100 times (my own, very controversial and back of envelope calculations) that sales value.

We are therefore, in my view, grossly underestimating output. And since we measure productivity as the residual of output and resources used to create it we’re therefore also grossly underestimating productivity growth. We’re in error by using measurements of the older, physical, economy as our metric for the newer, digital, one.

In short, I simply don’t agree that growth is as slow as we are measuring it to be. Thus any predictions that rely upon taking our current “low” rate of growth as being a starting point must, logically, be wrong. And that also means that all the policy prescriptions that flow from such an analysis, that we must spend more on infrastructure, education, government support for innovation, must also be wrong.

January 4, 2015

When companies bought into the open plan workspace model

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the Washington Post, Lindsey Kaufman recounts her experience when her workplace changed to the “open-office model”:

A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York, making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn’t occupying billing hours. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, “ease of interaction” with colleagues — the problem that open offices profess to fix — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue. In a previous study, researchers concluded that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction … was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.”

I work in the software industry and it’s been nearly 20 years since I last had a private office. Every company I’ve worked for since then has either consciously been moving in the open office direction, or unwilling to spend money to partition open space in whatever office space they had. Sometimes, I even get nostalgic for cube farms…

October 28, 2014

Facebook‘s UK tax picture

Filed under: Britain, Business, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:17

Tim Worstall explains why it’s not a scandal that Facebook doesn’t pay more taxes in the UK:

In fact, it’s actually rather a good idea that Facebook isn’t paying UK corporation tax. For the standard economic finding (also known as optimal taxation theory) is that we shouldn’t be taxing corporations at all. Thus, as a matter of public policy we should be abolishing this tax: and also perhaps applauding those companies that take it upon themselves to do what the politicians seem not to have the courage to do, make sure that corporations aren’t paying tax.

That isn’t how most of the press sees it, of course


That’s an extremely bad piece of reporting actually, for of course Facebook UK did not have advertising revenue of £371 million last year: Facebook Ireland had advertising revenue of that amount from customers in the UK that year. And that’s something rather different: that revenue will be taxed under whatever system Ireland has in place to tax it. And this is the way that the European Union system of corporate taxation is supposed to work. Any company, based in any one of the 28 member countries, can sell entirely without hindrance into all other 27 countries. And the profits from their doing so will be taxed wherever the brass plate announcing the HQ of that company is within the EU. This really is how it was deliberately designed, how it was deliberately set up: it is public policy that it should be this way.

We could also note a few more things here. The UK company itself made a loss and that loss was because they made substantial grants of restricted stock units to the employees. And under the UK system those RSU grants are taxed as income, in full, at the moment of their being granted. Which will mean, given those average wages, at 45% or so. And we should all be able to realise that a 45% tax rate is rather higher than the 24% corporation tax rate. The total tax rate on the series of transactions is thus very much higher than if Facebook has kept its employees as paupers and just kept the profits for themselves. Further, those complaining about the tax bill tend to be those from the left side of the political aisle: which is also where we find those who insist that workers should be earning the full amount of their value to the company which is what seems to be happening here.

August 16, 2014

Stupid people and stupid arguments

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:59

Megan McArdle on the phenomenon of dismissing other people as “stupid”:

Ultimately, calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience. It’s a way that we can all come together and agree that we don’t have to engage with some argument, because the person making it is a bovine lackwit without the basic intellectual equipment to come in out of the rain. So the first message it sends — “don’t listen to opposing arguments” — is a stupid message that is hardly going to make anyone smarter.

The second message it sends is even worse: “If he’s stupid, then we, who disagree with him, are the opposite of stupid, and can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority.” Feeding your own arrogance is an expansive, satisfying feeling. It is also the feeling of you getting stupider.

I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here).” It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.

In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.

July 15, 2014

The economic side of Net Neutrality

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:41

In Forbes, Tim Worstall ignores the slogans to follow the money in the Net Neutrality argument:

The FCC is having a busy time of it as their cogitations into the rules about net neutrality become the second most commented upon in the organisation’s history (second only to Janet Jackson’s nip-slip which gives us a good idea of the priorities of the citizenry). The various internet content giants, the Googles, Facebooks and so on of this world, are arguing very loudly that strict net neutrality should be the standard. We could, of course attribute this to all in those organisations being fully up with the hippy dippy idea that information just wants to be free. Apart from the obvious point that Zuckerberg, for one, is a little too young to have absorbed that along with the patchouli oil we’d probably do better to examine the underlying economics of what’s going on to work out why people are taking the positions they are.

Boiling “net neutrality” down to its essence the argument is about whether the people who own the connections to the customer, the broadband and mobile airtime providers, can treat different internet traffic differently. Should we force them to be neutral (thus the “neutrality” part) and treat all traffic exactly the same? Or should they be allowed to speed up some traffic, slow down other, in order to prioritise certain services over others?

We can (and many do) argue that we the consumers are paying for this bandwidth so it’s up to us to decide and we might well decide that they cannot. Others might (and they do) argue that certain services require very much more of that bandwidth than others, further, require a much higher level of service, and it would be economically efficient to charge for that greater volume and quality. For example, none of us would mind all that much if there was a random second or two delay in the arrival of a gmail message but we’d be very annoyed if there were random such delays in the arrival of a YouTube packet. Netflix would be almost unusable if streaming were subject to such delays. So it might indeed make sense to prioritise such traffic and slow down other to make room for it.

You can balance these arguments as you wish: there’s not really a “correct” answer to this, it’s a matter of opinion. But why are the content giants all arguing for net neutrality? What’s their reasoning?

As you’d expect, it all comes down to the money. Who pays more for what under a truly “neutral” model and who pays more under other models. The big players want to funnel off as much of the available profit to themselves as possible, while others would prefer the big players reduced to the status of regulated water company: carrying all traffic at the same rate (which then allows the profits to go to other players).

June 30, 2014

Has your Facebook feed been particularly “down” lately?

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:42

If so, you may have been involuntarily recruited to take part in a “scientific” study as Facebook tailored hundreds of thousands of users’ feeds to show them only good news or only bad news:

As you may have heard (since it appears to have become the hyped up internet story of the weekend), the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) recently published a study done by Facebook, with an assist from researchers at UCSF and Cornell, in which they directly tried (and apparently succeeded) to manipulate the emotions of 689,003 users of Facebook for a week. The participants — without realizing they were a part of the study — had their news feeds “manipulated” so that they showed all good news or all bad news. The idea was to see if this made the users themselves feel good or bad. Contradicting some other research which found that looking at photos of your happy friends made you sad, this research apparently found that happy stuff in your feed makes you happy. But, what’s got a lot of people up in arms is the other side of that coin: seeing a lot of negative stories in your feed, appears to make people mad.

There are, of course, many different ways to view this: and the immediate response from many is “damn, that’s creepy.”

Did you know that your terms of service with Facebook allow this? I suspect a lot of Facebook users had no clue that their newsfeeds could be (and regularly are) manipulated without their awareness and consent.

If anything, what I think this does is really to highlight how much Facebook manipulates the newsfeed. This is something very few people seem to think about or consider. Facebook‘s newsfeed system has always been something of a black box (which is a reason that I prefer Twitter‘s setup where you get the self-chosen firehose, rather than some algorithm (or researchers’ decisions) picking what I get to see). And, thus, in the end, while Facebook may have failed to get the level of “informed consent” necessary for such a study, it may have, in turn, done a much better job accidentally “informing” a lot more people how its newsfeeds get manipulated. Whether or not that leads more people to rely on Facebook less, well, perhaps that will be the subject of a future study…

Related: Brendan posted this the other day, and I found it quite amusing.

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