Facebook, but for dating

Women who have received unsolicited…solicitations… on Facebook may be surprised to learn this, but Facebook doesn’t have a way for lonely singles in your area to meet each other. Or at least it didn’t. Mark Zuckerberg got on stage last week at F8 and announced to the world that Facebook is entering the matchmaking game.

This may seem pretty tone deaf, coming just weeks after we learned about Cambridge Analytica. Rest assured, it only seems that way because it is. And even though #deletefacebook seems to have been more bark than bite, it doesn’t seem like a great time to roll out a service that gets more directly at people’s most personal parts of life. So why would anyone use this?

SIngle

Creep factor

The creep factor is definitely in play here. I’m not talking about the rando you get matched up with, but the service itself. Facebook took some PR damage from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Given what Facebook already knows (or surmises) about us, do we really want to feed it more information?

Morality play

From what I understand from other reporting, this is only available to people who indicate they are single. I know several couples who are openly polyamorous, which means I probably know twice as many who quietly polyamorous. It seems like Facebook is missing out on that demographic. I guess they figure it’s worth alienating that group to avoid being the place where non-poly folks go to commit adultery?

It’s 2018

The matching is done by having people select nearby events and places they’re interested in. This means matching only happens with geographic proximity. I’ll grant that it’s generally easier to have a long-term relationship when you’re nearby, but online dating has been a thing for a while now. Users should be able to select the radius that’s appropriate for them.

In a relationship

But not everything about is bad. Facebook gets it right on a few points, too.

Friendzone

Facebook is explicitly not matching people to their friends. The assumption being that if you wanted to date someone you already know, you have a means of doing that. That’s probably a wise course of action. Unrequited desire could make life awkward for everyone.

Courage in (no) profiles

A person’s dating profile will not be generally visible. That strikes me as a positive, because it means you can’t go trawling through profiles. And if you have something embarrassing in there (say you’re interested in a Nickelback concert), your friends won’t see it.

It’s complicated

The markets are betting that this new service spells danger for competitors. The company that owns Match.com, Tinder, and other dating services broke up with 20% of its share price the day of the announcement. After a day and a half of trading, it’s down over 26%. By the time this post publishes, who knows where it will be?

But I’m thinking that now might be a good time to pick up the stock on the cheap. People aren’t running away from Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they’ll jump onto this new service when it rolls out. And given the aging Facebook user base, there may be less of an audience than they think.

Woz deactivates his Facebook account

USA TODAY reported Sunday that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak deactivated his Facebook account. “Woz” said “The profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back.” I read this quote and I wondered where he had been. Certainly we’ve learned more details in recent weeks about how Facebook makes their money, but I didn’t think the general mechanism was hidden. Woz is much smarter than I could ever hope to be, so I found his sudden realization a bit confusing.

Now Woz is hardly the first person to deactivate his account. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, “#DeleteFacebook” is a popular topic. But despite the popularity of the topic, users don’t seem to be following through. I still use Facebook, although I’m spending less time on the site. My engagement has been trending downward for a while, and I can’t say that Cambridge Analytica had much of an effect one way or another.

It’s been said a bazillion times before, but it bears repeating: if you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product. I don’t view that as a value judgment, though. I’m willing to trade data for free services that are valuable to me. The question is: does the data I give up equal or exceed the value I get from the product? If it does, I keep using it.

Facebook is a good tool for passively keeping up with people I like. It’s algorithms ensure that I can’t use it to actively keep up on my friends, but it’s better than nothing. I was talking to my friend’s mother over the weekend and she decided to attend her 50th high school reunion because of the reconnections she made with Facebook. Meanwhile, I haven’t bothered with any high school reunions in part because Facebook allows me to keep in touch.

As with any economic exchange, each person needs to weigh what they give and what they get. Facebook can stand to be more transparent about what happens with user data (though that’s not even the issue they need to be most transparent about). But just because the users aren’t getting the profits, that doesn’t mean they’re not getting value.

Who gets your Facebook messages after you die?

Last month, a court in Germany ruled that Facebook should not be compelled to give access to the account of a teenager who died to her parents. The girl died after being struck by a train. Her parents, trying to determine if it was a suicide, wanted to look for evidence that she had been bullied. The initial court ruled in favor of the girls parents, but Facebook prevailed on appeal.

This is an excellent example of the “hard cases make bad law” adage, though I think the court arrived at the right decision here. The girl’s parents argued that it was the digital equivalent of a diary, which is an interitable item. I understand their argument. As a parent myself, I don’t doubt that I would make the same argument were I in their case. But I think the appeals court made the right decision here, although it took some thought to get to that.

It’s more than just a diary

The “it’s the same as a diary” argument makes sense only if you intentionally exclude the ways it’s not. Yes, people use Facebook to share personal musings and reflections the same way they might in a diary or journal. However, Facebook (and other social media) have an interactivity that a diary does not.

This goes beyond the fact that others may leave comments on posts. The owner of an account is not necessarily the originator of the content within the account. What I mean by that is that the messages may be initiated by someone else. Granting account access to the girl’s parents is not really about protecting her privacy, it’s about protecting the privacy of those she has communicated with.

But that’s the point, right?

The girl’s parents wanted to find evidence of bullying. Why should the privacy of the bullies be protected (in the very narrow context of their messages to the girl)? Because they’re probably not the only people who sent the girl messages. What if another friend had confided in the girl about personal matters? What right do the girl’s parents have to that communication? None, of course.

I have a hard time justifying why the girl’s account should be made available to anyone given the risk of harm to innocent third parties. If the situation were different – if the police or prosecutor were ask for specific searches as part of a case – that would be more reasonable, in my opinion. In that case, the structure and process of the investigation would minimize the harm of disclosure.

This is a hard problem

In the pre-digital age, it was less complicated. Conversations that didn’t happen face-to-face (or on the telephone) probably happened via letter. Any letters that were not destroyed became part of the estate. Some heirs probably destroyed them, others not. And though there are many threats to privacy these days, the electronic age has made possible a form of privacy that was hitherto unknown.

I’m certainly in favor of people being able to explicitly opt in to allowing someone to inherit their accounts. And not all accounts are created equal. When I die, I’d like to think someone would keep my meager website around in order to provide a legacy of sorts. But I’d also like to think that my death won’t result in the correspondence my friends have sent me in confidence. It’s not my privacy I want to protect after I die, it’s the privacy of my friends.

Does anyone at Twitter use Twitter?

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Twitter.

Earlier this month, Twitter announced deals to bring more live content to the platform. Bloomberg will provide an original stream 24/7 and many other sources will generate technology, news, sports, and other content. Which makes me wonder if anyone at Twitter actually uses Twitter.

There’s something to be said for telling your users what they want instead of letting them tell you. It worked well for Apple, and of course there’s the famous Henry Ford quote about a faster horse. But this doesn’t seem like a product vision so much as grasping for something that might turn around the stock price. Twitter is a great place for near real time conversations about breaking news and live events, but is it the place to watch those? I’m not convinced.

It’s worth noting that Snap is working on similar deals for Snapchat. Snap is coming off a disappointing earnings report (its first since going public) that saw a 25% drop in stock price. Snap is facing a lot of pressure from Instagram, which is adding features that look very similar to Snapchat’s with the added bonus of being a Facebook property.

Facebook has been strong in user-generated live content, but they don’t seem to be that interested in pursuing Content. Given the success of Facebook, this is either a glaring oversight or a wise decision that other social networks might want to take a lesson from.

But getting back to Twitter, I recently joined the “Twitter Insiders” community. They asked for feedback on a potential new threading feature last week. It’s basically native tweetstorms. One of the survey questions asked what I’d call such a feature. I said “Medium”.

RIP Lara

lara

Internet, I want to tell you about my friend Lara Ann Harrison. Lara was a short little bundle of happy. She was a sweet person who was fiercely loyal to her friends. I met her by happy accident. Her older sister was my age. We met at a couple of Model UN conferences and became friends. One day, I called her and we talked for several minutes before I said “you don’t know who this is, do you?” Well it turned out I didn’t know who she was. I wasn’t talking to Kari, I was talking to Lara.

At 17, I didn’t have too many friends who were younger than me, but Lara and I quickly became close friends. I hope I was as good a friend to her as she was to me, but at that point in my life I don’t think it was very likely. At any rate, we lived about 45 minutes away from each other, so we didn’t see each other too often, but we talked a lot on AIM.

I got older and busier and we started talking less. Then she got older and busier and we talked even less than that. The last time I saw her was at least 5 years ago, probably closer to 10 at this point. I don’t remember the last time we talked. We just sort of drifted apart.

I found out earlier this week that Lara died at the far-too-young age of 28. In fact, she died back in January. I missed the news when it first happened, and it was only because Facebook had decided to show me a post that her sister made that I realized she was gone. It’s odd how the Internet has changed the way we interact. Without it, Lara and I would never have become close friends. Without it, I might never have known she left us far too soon.

Calling people people. What’s in a name?

My IT service management professor once told the class “there are only two professions who have users: IT and drug dealers.” It’s interesting how the term “user” has become so prevalent in technology, but nowhere else. Certainly the term “customer” is better for a series organization (be it an internal IT group or a company providing technology services). “Customer” sounds better, and it emphasizes whose needs are to be met.

For a free Internet service, though, it’s not necessarily an apt term, if for no other reason than the rule of “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” That’s why I find Facebook’s recent decision to call their users “people” interesting.

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss this as a PR move calculated to make people feel more comfortable with a company that makes a living off of the personal information of others. I don’t doubt that there is a marketing component to this, but that doesn’t make the decision meritless. Words mean things, and chosen the right word can help frame employees mindsets, both consciously and subconsciously.

In Fedora, contributors have been actively discussing names, both of the collected software (“products” versus alternatives) and the people involved (“contributors”, “developers”, “users”). Understanding what the general perception of these terms are is a critical part of selecting the right one (particularly when the chosen term has to be translated into many other languages). A clear definition of the people terms is a necessary foundation of trying to understand the needs and expectations of that group.

“People” may be too broad of a term, but it’s nice to see a major company forego the word “user”. Perhaps others will follow suit. Of course, “user” is just such a handy term that it’s hard to find a suitably generic replacement. Maybe that’s why it sticks around?

Fun with birthdays

Sometimes I get distracted by shiny trivia. Shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, I noticed that seven of my Facebook friends happened to celebrate their birth on that holiday. That seemed surprisingly high, so I went through and counted up the birthdays for all 459 of my Facebook friends who have their birthday listed. The results are interesting. I don’t know if they’re meaningful or not.

As you can see from the I-should-have-made-it-larger chart above, any given day is most likely to be the birthday of one of my Facebook friends. It is slightly less likely to be the birthday of none of my friends. That was the most surprising result: I would never have expected that 108 days a year are empty when there are 459 birthdays to go around.

St. Patrick’s Day is the most frequently-birthed day with seven, although June 4 has six. According to the New York Times, those are the 134th and 146th most common birthdays. The most common birthday for those born between 1973 and 1999 is September 16, yet none of my Facebook friends claim that day.

May and December are the most common months for my friends, both with 52 birthdays. January is the least common with 25, though February and November each have 26. February gets some credit for being the shortest month, but it is still among the three months with less than one birthday per day. January does claim the longest stretch of birthday-less days, with eight.

How about days of the month? The 31st has the highest average, due to the 5s contributed by March and May (interestingly, these are the only two days with 5 birthdays). In second place, is the 22nd, which has the highest total count at 24. The lowest is on the 20th, which only has 6 birthdays. Two days before and after are in the 20s, so it’s a notable dip.

The full spreadsheet is available in Google Drive if you want to make your own observations.

Facebook’s post policing

Casey Johnston had an article on Ars Technica today about Facebook’s announcement that they would step up monitoring and removal of what they deem to be hate speech. Because this appears to be driven by complaints from women’s advocacy groups, the commentary has been largely political. I’d like to set aside the specifics of this and focus on the general case. It’s an interesting move on Facebook’s part because it sets a precedent.

Long, long ago, when telephones were still a thing, there was a legal idea of a “common carrier” (it still exists, of course, I’m just employing some blogtistic license). Common carriers offered services to the general public and were generally prohibited from doing anything about the content. For example, AT&T could not cut off your phone service if you did nothing but swear and say profane things when you were on the phone.

Although phone provides are still considered common carriers, internet service providers (ISPs) generally are not. ISPs, while protected from liability under various laws (e.g. Comcast can’t be shut down because a customer used a Comcast connection to transmit child pornography), can [in my understanding] theoretically terminate service if they don’t like what you’re “saying” on your connection.

Moving up the stack, websites such as Facebook or Funnel Fiasco are neither ISPs nor are they telecommunications common carriers. The general consensus, though untested in court as far as I know, is that sites are privately owned and can allow or disallow whatever content they like. This seems to be a pretty reasonable position, but there’s a difference between Facebook and Funnel Fiasco.

Apart from having a smarter and better-looking founder, Funnel Fiasco doesn’t allow just anyone to have a presence on the site. Facebook, especially for businesses/organizations, is more than just a blog or a message board, it’s a key part of digital presence. While that doesn’t make it an ISP, it does move it away from being just a website. Perhaps some additional category (e.g. “hosting provider”) needs to enter the understanding in this context.

What makes Facebook’s policy interesting to me from my perch as an armchair lawyer is the selective enforcement. While they are well within their legal rights, does it set a dangerous precedent for them? By choosing to police some content, are they liable (legally or otherwise) for not policing other content? Can they be held liable for policing content when other substantially similar content was not policed? Can the publicness of Facebook make it a common carrier?

Eventually this will become better defined. Whether it be by legislation, regulation, or litigation.

On September 11: my memories and the role of technology in never forgetting

I really hadn’t intended to write a 9/11 post here. It doesn’t seem to fit with whatever this blog is supposed to be. But it’s all over the newspaper and it’s all over Twitter, and I’m sure if I turned on the TV I’d see 9/11 all over again. Even the Sunday comics were more touching than comic, so I guess it’s fitting that I share my thoughts.

The morning of September 11, 2001 dawned. I’m not sure how it dawned, because I was still sound asleep in my room at Purdue’s Cary Quadrangle. My alarm went off at some point to tell me to wake up and go to class, and I ignored it. A few weeks into my collegiate career, I had already decided that 8:30 chemistry lectures were optional. I didn’t wake up again until my roommate Carl came back from his morning classes. “Dude. One of the World Trade Center towers collapsed,” he told me. “Fuck off, Carl,” was my reply. I was barely awake, and I was convinced that Carl was bullshitting me.

So he turned on the TV.

I don’t remember what time it was. I don’t even remember where in the timeline it happened. All I know is that for the rest of the day, Carl and I sat on Lucy the Couch and watched CNN. We couldn’t look away. I don’t even think I left to go to the restroom until about 2:00 that afternoon. And that’s when I first started to realize the magnitude of what had happened. There were about 40 guys on my end of the floor, mostly freshmen and sophomores, and it was rarely a quiet place. Without air conditioning, we all kept our doors open to get air flow. But as I walked down the hall to the bathroom, I realized that all I could hear was the sound of everyone’s televisions.

That night, Carl and I went to go get dinner. I don’t think we went with friends as we normally did. It was more of a “we haven’t eaten all day and there’s no new news, let’s go grab a bite real quick” decision. The Cary dining hall, one of the most popular eateries in all of University Residences, was subdued. The kids of middle-Eastern decent looked nervous and ate quietly and away from everyone else. Were they afraid of misplaced retribution? To my relief, I never heard of such an occurrence at Purdue. The same could not be said for other college campuses.

Life returned to normal fairly quickly for us. No classes were cancelled. Homework was still there. Most of us, being generally Midwesterners, had few ties to New York City. While the news was horrific, it didn’t impact our daily lives. And here we are 10 years later. The political climate is soured. Our troops are still in Afghanistan. Laws passed to aid the fight against terrorism have been used largely to combat domestic drug crimes. And yet we maintain this promise to never forget.

And so I think about the other events that we, as a nation, have sworn to remember. The Alamo, the Maine, Pearl Harbor. Each of these events were a rallying cry for a moment in time, a common thought that drove the people toward a goal. But as time has passed, we seem to remember them less. The events are still recalled, but with no more clarity than a history lesson. The personal stories are fading, and continue to do so as a an ever smaller percentage of our population has first-hand stories to tell.

A decade on, the September 11 attacks are still remembered. Will they be in 2101? Certainly the history and political science texts will have much to say. But what will our national conscious say? Does the fact that the victims were civilians instead of military personnel make this more enduring? Will the digital age help preserve our stories? Or will time simply wash this event from our collective thoughts?

As a technology enthusiast, I am intrigued by the role that technology may play in our shared history. Although social media didn’t really exist in 2001, it now provides an opportunity for shared reflection. People are able to interconnect in ways that were not possible on December 7, 1951. We’ve seen the role Twitter and Facebook can play in driving revolution in oppressive regimes. What will our Tweets, our statuses, and our blog posts do to ensure we truly never forget?

Social steganography?

Steganography was in the news this summer when the FBI revealed that Russian intelligence agents were using steganography to pass secret messages.  Unlike encryption, which mathematically changes a message so that it can’t be read by a third party, steganography hides the message in plain sight — in this case in image files.  With the buzz in the news, there was some discussion on blogs as well.  I’m not sure how I came across it, but Danah Boyd penned an article about steganography in social media.  Boyd talks about a girl named “Carmen”, who quoted lines from a Monty Python movie to communicate distress to her friends while hiding it from her mother.

I took serious issue with the article as an example of steganography.  While it may technically meet the definition since Carmen’s mother apparently does not realize a secret message is being sent, that’s more a matter of serendipity than message obfuscation.  Frankly, it’s a better example of “Carmen’s mom has no taste in movies” than “teens can hide secret messages in Facebook”.  If Carmen’s mom had seen “Life of Brian”, which is undoubtedly older than Carmen, then the steganography fails.

Steganography only works if the recipient knows not to respond in the clear, too. If Carmen’s friend “Jane” had said “aw, what’s wrong”, the whole thing is blown. It’s possible that Carmen and her friends have worked out a protocol ahead of time, but that’s more of a code than a method.  While it would be very trivial to share secret messages on Facebook, but song lyrics from a beloved movie is a pretty bad way to do that.  To me, this article reads like another “OMG YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT KIDS ARE DOING ONLINE” piece designed to scare gullible parents.