The aliens of Facebook

The more I think about this secret Facebook psych test the more I’m disturbed by it. And not in the outrage de jour kind of way, either. Facebook is a company with nearly a billion daily users and no compunction regarding screwing with their emotional state. What does it say about a company that would do such a thing with apparently no idea normal non-Facebook employees would be horrified by it? Reading their reaction to the outrage, it seems as though they’re truly blindsided by it. Unbelievable. 

Every successful corporation has a kind of cultural DNA that motivates their actions. Facebook’s DNA is truly and deeply screwed up. It’s like the company is run by a group of aliens who only somewhat understand how humans work and only have that insight based on analyzing social graph data. 

This episode raises all kinds of questions for me. How big is too big in social media? Who will ensure companies like Facebook are acting in an ethical manner? How can misuse of their power to influence us (either by them or third parties) be safeguarded against? 

I guess, in a way, it’s a good thing Facebook stumbled face-first into this pile of horseshit in the innocently and socially clueless way they did. Now we know what can be done to us by them. How will we respond? And when I say “we” I mean everyone since that’s approximately Facebook’s user base. Every damned one. 

Exactly like that but totally not

Over on Recode — oh, sorry…I mean Re/codeUncle Walt posits that Apple is like a movie studio.

Studios release blockbuster franchise movies every few years, and then try to live off a series of sequels until the next big, successful franchise. We are in the early stages of one such project right now: On May 2, Columbia Pictures will release “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the first of what may be several sequels to the original 2012 film, that was itself a reboot of an earlier series.

Looked at in this way, your almost-new iPhone 5s and iPad Air are mere sequels, iterations of Apple blockbusters that rocked the world when they first appeared. The same goes for your MacBook Air, which has gone through many changes and improvements since Mr. Jobs theatrically slid it out of a manila envelope in 2008 to show how thin it was.

He uses the word “iteration” there but I think he confuses its meaning with the word “derivative.” Iteration implies methodical incremental improvement which, I think, any casual observer would see has been the case with the iPhone and iPad and pretty much everything Apple makes. Constant improvement. Sometimes not earth-shattering by themselves, but when taken in aggregate, adding up to a pretty big deal.

In contrast, Spider Man reboots are derivative. You are literally retelling the same story with minor changes around the edges which, in itself, is derivative of its comic book source material. It might be better or it might be worse. The only thing you can count on is it will be in some way different. But not. The goal isn’t to improve Spidey, only get you to see him again with another actor’s face (and, let’s be clear, to enable Sony to maintain their license to Marvel’s IP).

Movie sequels almost (almost) always do worse financially than their predecessors. Which Apple “sequel” has sold more poorly than the device it replaced? Also, with a few notable exceptions, qualitatively the originals are better, too (Empire Strikes Back and Godfather II being the most obvious examples I can think of). Movie sequels are often a crass attempt to pull more treasure from a productive hole. See Jaws 2, Poltergeist IIMatrix Reloaded, etc.

I also have to wonder what would qualify as a “game-changer” from Apple? Which game are we looking to change? From a financial aspect, there is no way for Apple to create something that generates the kind of revenue iPhone does. Not unless they branch out into oil production or auto manufacturing.

Apple is solely focused on making great products. Sometimes they change games, sometimes they “merely” make those games better to play. But they don’t make ill-conceived bullshit to give tech writers something to natter on about. Walt, of all people, should know better.

Random Facebook Paper thoughts

Facebook dropped its new iPhone newsreading app Paper yesterday and it’s getting universally positive reviews. And for good reason. It’s lovely. Some random things that have occurred to me as I’ve used it.

  • The interface is going to change mobile apps. It is almost entirely without chrome (as in, buttons and menus and such). All the navigation and interaction is done with swipes and gestures. This is not new. Other iPhone apps have established this kind of interface before, but none with the potential impact of Paper as Facebook has hundreds of millions of mobile users. The mechanisms set by Paper could easily become a new standard for other apps.
  • Which wouldn’t be a bad thing since they’ve been thoughtfully devised. After only a few seconds, I found myself intuitively getting how Paper worked. That hasn’t always been the case for other apps using gestures for interaction. After an extended Paper session, I found myself trying to use the “swipe down to close” gesture to get out of a folder in iOS. It just makes sense.
  • Wither most recent? Paper seems to have the “top stories” feed view hard-coded into it. I think that’s bad news for frequent Facebook users (like yours truly). I’ve found that “top stories” rehashes things I’ve already seen or are out of date. For example, in the last 12 hours or so, I’ve noticed the large images above the news feed stories seem to be stuck. I keep seeing the same post by George Takai and one by another friend, both from yesterday. Same goes for the stories in the feed. Too much repetition and stale stuff when I know there are new things to see that aren’t there. The algorithm is either stupid or there’s a caching issue. In any event, I much prefer “most recent” but haven’t found a way to make that happen. More bad news for those of us who want more control over how we view our feeds.
  • Speaking of that big image above the feed, Paper cycles through a number of stories and pictures there but doesn’t seem to allow a way to navigate among them. The dots that usually indicate more “slides” in a “stack” actually indicate more curated feeds. So, if you swipe to the side, you get the next feed stack, not the next slide in the current stack. It doesn’t make sense and is an odd and glaring UI misstep in an otherwise lovely experience.
  • With regard to the other curated feeds, I’d like to be able to pick and choose which sources show up there or even make my own. Imagine being able to make a Tech feed made up only of pages you’ve already chosen to follow on Facebook. Maybe another that’s just high school friends. That would be pretty sweet. Hopefully, we’ll see that in future releases.
  • Releasing it as a stand-alone second option to the existing Facebook app (probably the single most popular mobile app in the world) is likely a smart move, but strikes me as very un-Apple-like. Also not very Zuckerberg-like. Typically, they seem to shove new approaches and views down their users’ throats with the suggestion to “trust us.” Not sure if this indicates a tempering of that attitude or just a healthy helping of corporate caution. Nor if it’s a good thing or bad.
  • No, there are no ads, but we all know they’re coming so please don’t whine about it when they show up.

Paper seems to be a logical and natural step in the progression of Facebook. The site and its apps are more and more becoming how many people get their news and find things to see and read on the web (which is exactly what Facebook wants, of course). I don’t think this is just another way to view Facebook or is a “Flipboard killer.” It’s the future of the platform.

Freely speaking

Phil Robertson got kicked off Duck Dynasty (at least for a little while) because of something he said. What he said really isn’t important to this discussion, but A&E felt sufficiently disturbed by it to give him the boot. 

And instantly, everyone lost their shit.

Fox News and their ilk cranked up their industrial-scale outrage machine and cried to the heavens about the sorry nature of “free speech” in our culture. Except there’s nothing in this event that suggests there’s anything at all wrong with the price of speech in America.

Consider…

  • Robertson was asked by GQ what he thought to be sinful and he was able to answer, presumably, from his heart.
  • GQ was able to publish the account (to great effect, undoubtedly).
  • A&E was able to exercise their right to expression by canning Robertson.
  • Due to the massive popularity of Duck Dynasty, Robertson will undoubtedly have the opportunity to return to television (assuming he’s permanently off the show and the show falls apart without him) when another network exercises their right to free expression and picks him and his family up.
  • Fox and the rest of the media nabobs are contributing mightily to the problem of greenhouse gasses by talking this thing into its atomic sub-particles.
  • Several friends I have on Facebook have an opinion on the matter and are not shy about sharing it freely (let alone how the kerfuffle has added to the Twitter firehose of expression).
  • Lastly, remember that our Supreme Court have elevated money to be the equivalent of speech and Robertson is terrifically wealthy meaning he has more potential “speech” at his disposal than likely all the people who will read these words combined (yeah, I don’t get a lot of traffic). Nothing that has happened will materially change his fortunes for very long (if at all).

The First Amendment restricts the government’s ability to stifle speech, not citizens and their corporate counterparts. A&E is freely enjoying their speech now as much as Robertson was in the GQ interview or MSNBC was when they canned Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin (where was the outrage over free speech for Bashir, I wonder?).

“Free speech” isn’t freedom from having to deal with the consequences of what you say. It isn’t carte blanche to say whatever you want wherever you want regardless of your relative visibility in the media. It is not a freedom to be bigoted with no strings attached. It never has been and was not intended as such.

So, as far as I can tell, speech it still free as a bird here in the USA.