Shaky Foundation (Common Sense)

Shaky Foundation (Common Sense)

A well-built house
with a poor foundation
won’t stand tall for long.
 The soil wears away
and the whole
beautiful thing

What Underpins Your Communications?

From personal exchanges with far-flung family members to my professional communications, even to the design of my new company: social media, and in particular, Facebook has become a core part of my thinking and my activities.

So it disturbed me to read in Technology Review that Facebook has intentionally, silently, and randomly messed with its audience — just to study how users react.  Please read the whole article, both disturbing and enlightening:  What Facebook Knows – Technology Review

From the article:

Recently the Data Science Team has begun to use its unique position to experiment with the way Facebook works, tweaking the site—the way scientists might prod an ant’s nest—to see how users react…Over a seven-week period, the 76 million links that those users shared with each other were logged. Then, on 219 million randomly chosen occasions, Facebook prevented someone from seeing a link shared by a friend

Those weird times when you missed something that someone close posted, and you wondered why? Well, some of it may have been Facebook messing with you, and measuring your reaction.

Why would I trust Facebook as a broadcast or marketing vehicle when they mess with my signal? Why would I build on shifting sands?

How can I trust the effectiveness of my material, if I can’t trust that my entire network has seen my post?

How many relationships were bruised? What people felt hurt, ignored, or frustrated? Who reengineered a communications strategy thinking his message failed to resonate with his usual audience?

Our role as Facebook users is captured in this sentence making the rounds (though I don’t know to whom proper attribution belongs): “If you’re not paying for it you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”

And, I’m OK with that. I’m the product for NBC, CBS, WEEI, NPR, the NY Times, the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, the Herald, the Wall Street Journal, and every other media outlet on the planet that managed to reach me, too.

None of them conducts experiments on my friends and me by manipulating our conversations.

What Mark Zuckerburg et. al. need to understand is that they could lose their massive audience, us,  on our whim. Good will and a good experience keeps us using their network — and willing to be used by their business. (Remember when print was king? Not many of us buy newspapers anymore, do we?)

Our time and attention are our power. We should start exercising it.

I delight in a fair exchange. But this active manipulation takes the fun out of it.

Did you read the get-out-the-vote paragraphs?

Or the organ donor paragraphs?

Apps were floated out designed to modify and measure our behavior: not by our friends, but by Marlow’s team, and Mark Zuckerberg.

These two examples may be benign in absolute terms, but the mechanism is disturbing. A wide gulf exists between studying interactions, and perturbing the system. Without true transparency we don’t know whether an agenda lurks behind the “like” button. Worse: we don’t know whose agenda is in play. We do not yet have sufficient critical reasoning tools to suss out the malarky from the truth in social media.

Have you considered the implications of being able to manipulate the communications stream of a tenth of the world’s population?

Facebook’s cavalier attitude toward such awesome power puzzles me. Why risk disenfranchising your audience?

I want Facebook to succeed. I want it to be a reliable platform.

But, it won’t be reliable until Facebook recognizes and acts on the social responsibility that comes with its success.

Our love and respect for each other and those in our extended networks is being used to engage us in peer-pressure conformity with an opaque (possibly frivolous) agenda. I don’t mind sharing what oatmeal I like, or encouraging you to check out when you next buy photo equipment.

But I am not going to be used unwittingly to manipulate my friends and family.

It’s Time to Strengthen Our Foundation

Facebook: “Move fast and break stuff” is a cute and energizing slogan, but the stuff you are breaking is called “trust”. It has real monetary and social value. Once gone, it may not come back. (Ask Microsoft.) Treat your audience with respect. Research and advocate a new standard of ethical behavior in social media before someone tries to legislate it.

Educators: Develop curricula and articles that expand our critical thinking skills. Teach us to challenge the sources and actionable quality of ideas, memes, and movements. (For example: how many protestors knew that, at its inception, the #occupywallstreet movement was an anti-consumerist marketing campaign, not a grass roots, populist movement? How many would lend their voices to that effort if they knew where it came from?)

Gentle Readers: There are now just about four hundred of you, if I can trust my metrics. Together, we have quite a reach. Please help. Spread this message. “Like” it, Google +1 it, share it, copy it, co-opt it, but get the message out. (That way, too, I’ll know that Facebook isn’t blocking it.) Challenge Facebook. It may seem free, but you are paying for their service with your time. Time is your most precious commodity. What is twenty minutes of your day worth? Don’t let anyone tell you Facebook is free. Bombard Facebook, and demand an apology and true transparency. (For example, the authors of apps should be visible and accountable. And experiments with your audience and friends should be reported.)

If Facebook doesn’t issue an apology and a manifesto for change, I plan to organize a one day boycott to drive the point home.

But I’d rather take photos, and talk about common sense.

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