The Hidden Agenda Behind Zuckerberg’s “Meaningful Interactions”

It probably started with a good intention. Facebook – aka Mark Zuckerberg – wanted to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions”. And so, early last year, Facebook engineers started making some significant changes to the algorithm that determined what you saw in your News Feed. Here are some excerpts from Zuck’s post to that effect:

“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.”

That makes sense, right? It sounds logical. Zuckerberg went on to say how they were changing Facebook’s algorithm to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions.”

“The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”


Let’s fast-forward almost two years and we now see the outcome of that good intention…an ideological landscape with a huge chasm where the middle ground used to be.

The problem is that Facebook’s algorithm naturally favors content from like-minded people. And surprisingly, it doesn’t take a very high degree of ideological homogeneity to create a highly polarized landscape. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. American Economist Thomas Schelling showed us how easy it was for segregation to happen almost 50 years ago.

The Schelling Model of Segregation was created to demonstrate why racial segregation was such a chronic problem in the U.S., even given repeated efforts to desegregate. The model showed that even when we’re pretty open minded about who our neighbors are, we will still tend to self-segregate over time.

The model works like this. A grid represents a population with two different types of agents: X and O. The square that the agent is in represents where they live. If the agent is satisfied, they will stay put. If they aren’t satisfied, they will move to a new location. The variable here is the level of satisfaction determined by what percentage of their immediate neighbours are the same type of agent as they are. For example, the level of satisfaction might be set at 50%; where the X agent needs at least 50% of its neighbours to also be of type X. (If you want to try the model firsthand, Frank McCown, a Computer Science professor at Harding University, created an online version.)

The most surprising thing that comes out of the model is that this threshold of satisfaction doesn’t have to be set very high at all for extensive segregation to happen over time. You start to see significant “clumping” of agent types at percentages as low as 25%. At 40% and higher, you see sharp divides between the X and O communities. Remember, even at 40%, that means that Agent X only wants 40% of their neighbours to also be of the X persuasion. They’re okay being surrounded by up to 60% Os. That is much more open-minded than most human agents I know.

Now, let’s move the Schelling Model to Facebook. We know from the model that even pretty open-minded people will physically segregate themselves over time. The difference is that on Facebook, they don’t move to a new part of the grid, they just hit the “unfollow” button. And the segregation isn’t physical – it’s ideological.

This natural behavior is then accelerated by the Facebook “Meaningful Encounter” Algorithm which filters on the basis of people you have connected with, setting in motion an ever-tightening spiral that eventually restricts your feed to a very narrow ideological horizon. The resulting cluster then becomes a segment used for ad targeting. We can quickly see how Facebook both intentionally built these very homogenous clusters by changing their algorithm and then profits from them by providing advertisers the tools to micro target them.

Finally, after doing all this, Facebook absolves themselves of any responsibility to ensure subversive and blatantly false messaging isn’t delivered to these ideologically vulnerable clusters. It’s no wonder comedian Sascha Baron Cohen just took Zuck to task, saying “if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”. 

In rereading Mark Zuckerberg’s post from two years ago, you can’t help but start reading between the lines. First of all, there is mounting evidence that disproves his contention that meaningful social media encounters help your well-being. It appears that quitting Facebook entirely is much better for you.

And secondly, I suspect that – just like his defence of running false and malicious advertising by citing free speech – Zuck has an not-so-hidden agenda here. I’m sure Zuckerberg and his Facebook engineers weren’t oblivious to the fact that their changes to the algorithm would result in nicely segmented psychographic clusters that would be like catnip to advertisers – especially political advertisers. They were consolidating exactly the same vulnerabilities that were exploited by Cambridge Analytica.

They were building a platform that was perfectly suited to subvert democracy.

The Tourification of Our World

Who wouldn’t want to be in Venice? Gondolas drift by with Italian gondoliers singing “O Sole Mio.” You sit at a café savoring your espresso as you watch Latin lovers stroll by hand in hand on their way to the Bridge of Sighs. The Piazza San Marco is bathed in a golden glow as the sun sets behind the Basilica di San Marco. The picture? Perfect.  

Again, who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?

The answer, according to the latest population stats, is almost everyone. The population of Venice is one third what it was in 1970.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I changed the sentence slightly in the second version. I replaced “be” with “live.”  And that’s the difference. Venice is literally the “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

A lot of people do visit, well over 5 million a year. But almost nobody lives there. The permanent population of Venice has shrunk to below 60,000.

Venice has become tourified. It’s a false front of a city, one built for those who are going to be there for 48 to 72 hours. In the process, everything needed to make it sustainable for those who want to call it home has been stripped out. It has become addicted to tourist dollars — and that addiction is killing it.

We should learn from Venice’s example. Sometimes, in trying to make a fantasy real, you take away the very things needed to let it survive.

Perfection doesn’t exist in nature. Imperfections are required for robustness. Yet, we are increasingly looking for a picture of perfection we can escape to.

The unintended consequences of this are troubling to think about.

We spent a good part of the last century devising new ways to escape. What was once an activity that lived well apart from our real lives has become increasingly more entwined with those lives.

As our collective affluence has grown, we spend more and more time chasing the fantastical. Social media has accelerated this chase. Our feeds are full of posts from those in pursuit of a fantasy.

We have shifted our focus from the place we live to the “nice place to visit.” This distorts our expectations of what reality should be. We expect the tourist-brochure version of Venice without realizing that in constructing exactly that, we set in motion a chain of events resulting in a city that’s unlivable.

The rise of populist politics is the broken-mirror image of this. Many of us have mythologized the America we want — or Britain, or any of the other countries that have gone down the populist path.. And myths are, by definition, unsustainable in the real world. They are vastly oversimplified pictures that allow us to create a story that we long for. It’s  the same as the picture I painted of Venice in the first paragraph: a fantasy that can’t survive reality.

In our tendency to “tourify” everything, there are at least two unintended consequences: one for ourselves and one for our world.

For us, the need to escape continually draws our energies and attentions from what we need to do to save the world we actually live in, toward the mythologization of the world we think we want to live in. We ignore the inconvenient truths of reality as we pursue our imagined perfection.

But it’s the second outcome that’s probably more troubling. Even if we were successful in building the world we think we want, we could well find that built a bigger version of Venice, a place sinking under the weight of its own fantasy.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.

The Joy of Listening to Older People

The older I get, the more I enjoy talking to people who have accumulated decades of life experience. I consider it the original social media: the sharing of personal oral histories.

People my age often become interested in their family histories. When you talk to these people, they always say the same thing: “I wish I had taken more time to talk to my grandparents when they were still alive.” No one has ever wished they had spent less time with Grandma and Grandpa.

In the hubris of youth, there seems to be the common opinion that there couldn’t be anything of interest in the past that stretches further than the day before yesterday.  When we’re young, we seldom look back. We live in the moment and are obsessed with the future.

This is probably as it should be. Most of our lives lie in front of us. But as we pass the middle mark of our own journey, we start to become more reflective. And as we do so, we realize that we’ve missed the opportunity to hear most of our own personal family histories from the people who lived it. Let’s call it ROMO: The Regret of Missing Out.

Let me give you one example. In our family, with Remembrance Day (the Canadian version of Veterans Day) fast approaching, one of my cousins asked if we knew of any family that served in World War I. I vaguely remembered that my great grandfather may have served, so I did some digging and eventually found all his service records.

I discovered that he enlisted to go overseas when he was almost 45 years old, leaving behind a wife and five children. He served as a private in the trenches in the Battle of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. He was gassed. He had at least four bouts of trench fever, which is transmitted by body lice.

As a result, he developed a debilitating soreness in his limbs and back that made it impossible for him to continue active duty. Two and a half years after he enlisted, this almost 50-year-old man was able to sail home to his wife and family.

I was able to piece this together from the various records and medical reports. But I would have given anything to be able to hear these stories from him.

Unfortunately, I never knew him. My mom was just a few years old when he died, a somewhat premature death that was probably precipitated by his wartime experience.

This was a story that fell through the cracks between the generations. And now it’s too late. It will remain mostly hidden, revealed only by the sparse information we can glean from a handful of digitized records.

It’s not easy to get most older people talking. They’re not used to people caring about their past or their stories. You have to start gently and tease it out of them.

But if you persist and show an eagerness to listen, eventually the barriers come down and the past comes tumbling out, narrated by the person who lived it. Trust me when I say there is nothing more worthwhile that you can do.

We tend to ignore old people because we just have too much going on in our own lives. But it kills me just a little bit inside when I see grandparents and grandchildren in the same room, the young staring at a screen and the old staring off into space because no one is talking to them.

The screen will always be there. But Grandma isn’t getting any younger. She has lived her life. And I guarantee that in the breadth and depth of that life, there are some amazing stories you should take some time to listen to.

This Election, Canucks were “Zucked”

Note: I originally wrote this before results were available. Today, we know Trudeau’s Liberals won a minority government, but the Conservatives actually won the popular vote: 34.4% vs 33.06% for the Liberals. It was a very close election.

As I write this, Canadians are going to the polls in our national election. When you read this, the outcome will have been decided. I won’t predict — because this one is going to be too close to call.

For a nation that is often satirized for our tendencies to be nice and polite, this has been a very nasty campaign. So nasty, in fact, that in focusing on scandals and personal attacks, it forgot to mention the issues.

Most of us are going to the polls today without an inkling of who stands for what. We’re basically voting for the candidate we hate the least. In other words, we’re using the same decision strategy we used to pick the last guest at our grade 6 birthday party.

The devolvement of democracy has now hit the Great White North, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.

While the amount of viral vitriol I have seen here is still a pale shadow of what I saw from south of the 49th in 2016, it’s still jarring to witness. Canucks have been “Zucked.” We’re so busy slinging mud that we’ve forgotten to care about the things that are essential to our well being as a nation.

It should come as news to no one that Facebook has been wantonly trampling the tenets of democracy. Elizabeth Warren recently ran a fake ad on Facebook just to show she could. Then Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook last week when he said: “While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I worry about living in a world where you can only post things that tech companies decide to be 100 per cent true.”

Zuckerberg believes the onus lies with the Facebook user to be able to judge what is false and what is not. This is a suspiciously convenient defense of Facebook’s revenue model wrapped up as a defense of freedom of speech. At best it’s naïve, not to mention hypocritical. What we see is determined by Facebook’s algorithm. At worst it’s misleading and malicious.

Hitting hot buttons tied to emotions is nothing new in politics. Campaign runners have been drawing out and sharpening the long knives for decades now. TV ads added a particularly effective weapon into the political arsenal. In the 1964 presidential campaign, it even went nuclear with Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” Ad.

But this is different. For many reasons.

First of all, there is the question of trust in the channel. We have been raised in a world where media channels historically take some responsibility to delineate between what they say is factual (i.e., the news) and what is paid persuasion (i.e., the ads).

In his statement, Zuckerberg is essentially telling us that giving us some baseline of trust in political advertising is not Facebook’s job and not their problem. We should know better.

But we don’t. It’s a remarkably condescending and convenient excuse for Zuckerberg to appear to be telling us “You should be smarter than this” when he knows that this messaging has little to do with our intellectual horsepower.

This is messaging that is painstakingly designed to be mentally processed before the rational part of our brain even kicks in.

In a recent survey, three out of four Canadians said they had trouble telling which social media accounts were fake. And 40% of Canadians say they had found links to stories on current affairs that were obviously false. Those were only the links they knew were fake. I assume that many more snuck through their factual filters. By the way, people of my generation are the worst at sniffing out fake news.

We’ve all seen it, but only one third of Canadians 55 and over realize it. We can’t all be stupid.

Because social media runs on open platforms, with very few checks and balances, it’s wide open for abuse. Fake accounts, bots, hacks and other digital detritus litter the online landscape. There has been little effective policing of this. The issue is that cracking down on this directly impacts the bottom line. As Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Even given these two gaping vulnerabilities, the biggest shift when we think of social media as an ad platform is that it is built on the complexity of a network. The things that come with this — things like virality, filter bubbles, threshold effects — have no corresponding rule book to play by. It’s like playing poker with a deck full of wild cards.

Now — let’s talk about targeting.

When you take all of the above and then factor in the data-driven targeting that is now possible, you light the fuse on the bomb nestled beneath our democratic platforms. You can now segment out the most vulnerable, gullible, volatile sectors of the electorate. You can feed them misinformation and prod them to action. You can then sit back and watch as the network effects play themselves out. Fan — meet shit. Shit — meet fan.

It is this that Facebook has wrought, and then Mark Zuckerberg feeds us some holier-than-thou line about freedom of speech.

Mark, I worry about living in a world where false — and malicious — information can be widely disseminated because a tech company makes a profit from it.

The Internet: Nasty, Brutish And Short

When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid to late 90s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter. What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.

The internet lures us into thinking with half a brain. Actually, with less than half a brain – and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half. The culprit is the speed of connection and reaction. We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.

Daniel Kahneman’s monumental book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” lays out the two loops we use for mental processing. There’s the fast loop, our instinctive response to situations, and there’s the slow loop, our thoughtful processing of reality.

Humans need both loops. This is especially true in the complexity of today’s world. The more complex our reality, the more we need the time to absorb and think about it.

 If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in the Hobbesian State of Nature (from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): The “natural condition of mankind” is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.”

That is not the world I want to live in. I want a world of compassion, empathy and respect. But the better angels of our nature rely on thoughtfulness. They take time to come to their conclusions.

With its dense interconnectedness, the internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of “cancel” and “callout” culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

We seem to think this is OK because for every post we see that makes us rage inside, we also see posts that make us gush and goo. Every hateful tweet we see is leavened with a link to a video that tugs at our heartstrings. We are quick to point out that, yes, there is the bad — but there is an equal amount of good. Either can go viral. Social media simply holds up a mirror that reflects the best and worst of us.

But that’s not really true. All these posts have one thing in common: They are digested too quickly to allow for thoughtfulness. Good or bad, happy or mad — we simply react and scroll down. FOMO continues to drive us forward to the next piece of emotionally charged clickbait. 

There’s a reason why social media is so addictive: All the content is aimed directly at our “Thinking Fast” hot buttons. And evolution has reinforced those hot buttons with generous discharges of neurocchemicals that act as emotional catalysts. Our brain online is a junkie jonesing for a fix of dopamine or noradrenaline or serotonin. We get our hit and move on.

Technology is hijacking our need to pause and reflect. Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message and, in this case, the medium is one that is hardwired directly to the inner demons of our humanity.It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.

Marketing Vs. Advertising: Making It Personal

Last year I wrote a lot about the erosion of the advertising bargain between advertisers and their audience. Without rehashing at length, let me summarize by simply stating that we no longer are as accepting of advertising because we now have a choice. One of those columns sparked a podcast on Beancast (the relevant discussion started off the podcast).

As the four panelists – all of whom are marketing/advertising professionals – started debating the topic, they got mired down in the question of what is advertising, and what is marketing. They’re not alone. It confuses me too.

I’ve spent all my life in marketing, but this was a tough column to write. I really had to think about what the essential differences of advertising and marketing were – casting aside the textbook definitions and getting to something that resonated at an intuitive level. I ran into the same conundrum as the panelists. The disruption that is washing over our industry is also washing away the traditional line drawn between the two. So I did what I usually do when I find something intellectually ambiguous and tried to simplify down to the most basic analogy I could think of. When it comes to me – as a person – what would  be equivalent to marketing, what would be advertising, and – just to muddy the waters a little more – what would be branding?  If we can reduce this to something we can gut check, maybe the answers will come more easily.

Let’s start with branding. Your Brand is what people think of you as a person. Are you a gentleman or an asshole? Smart, funny, pedantic, prickly, stunningly stupid? Fat and lazy or lean and athletic. Notice that I said your brand is what other people think of you, not what you think of yourself. How you conduct yourself as a person will influence the opinions of others, but ultimately your brand is arbitrated one person at a time, and you are not that person. Branding involves both parties, but not necessarily at the same time. It can be asynchronous. You live your life and by doing so, you create ripples in the world. People develop opinions of you.

To me, although it involves other people, marketing is somewhat faceless and less intimate. In a way, It’s more unilateral than advertising. Again, to take it back to our personal analogy, marketing is simply the social you – the public extension of who you are. One might say that your personal approach to marketing is you saying “this is me, take it or leave it!”

But advertising is different. It focuses on a specific recipient. It implies a bilateral agreement. Again, analogously speaking, it’s like asking another person for a favor. There is an implicit or explicit exchange of value. It involves an overt attempt to influence.

Let’s further refine this into a single example. You’re invited to a party at a friend’s house. When you walk in the door, everyone glances over to see who’s arrived. When they recognize you, each person immediately has their own idea of who you are and how they feel about you. That is your brand. It has already been formed by your marketing, how you have interacted with others your entire life. At that moment of recognition, your own brand is beyond your control.

But now, you have to mingle. You scan the room and see someone you know who is already talking to someone else. You walk over, hoping to work your way into their conversation. That, right there, is advertising. You’re asking for their attention. They have to decide whether to give it to you or not. How they decide will be dependent on how they feel about you, but it will also depend on what else they’re doing – ie –  how interesting the conversation they’re already engaged in is. Another variable is their expectation of what a conversation with you might hold – the anticipated utility of said conversation. Are you going to tell them some news that would be of great interest to them – ask for a favor – or just bore them to tears? So, the success of the advertising exchange in the eyes of the recipient can be defined by three variables: emotional investment in the advertiser (brand love), openness to interruption and expected utility if interrupted.

If this analogy approximates the truth of what is the essential nature of advertising.  Why do I feel Advertising is doomed? I don’t think it has anything to do with branding. I’ve gone full circle on this, but right now, I believe brands are more important than ever. No, the death of advertising will be attributable to the other two variables: do we want to be interrupted and; if the answer is yes, what do we expect to gain by allowing the interruptions?

First of all, let’s look at our openness to interruption. It may sound counter intuitive, but our obsession with multitasking actually makes us less open to interruption.

Think of how we’re normally exposed to advertising content. It’s typically on a screen of some type. We may be switching back and forth between multiple screens.  And it’s probably right when we’re juggling a full load of enticing cognitive invitations: checking our social media feeds, deciding which video to watch, tracking down a wanted website, trying to load an article that interests us. The expected utility of all these things is high. We have “Fear of Missing Out” – big time! This is just when advertising interrupts us, asking us to pay attention to their message.

“Paying attention” is exactly the right phrase to use. Attention is a finite resource that can be exhausted – and that’s exactly what multi-tasking does. It exhausts our cognitive resources. The brain – in defence – becomes more miserly with those resources. The threshold that must be met to allow the brain to allocate attention goes up. The way the brain does this is not simply to ignore anything not meeting the attention worthy threshold, but to actually mildly trigger a negative reaction, causing a feeling of irritation with whatever it is that is begging for our attention. This is a hardwired response that is meant to condition us for the future. The brain assumes that if we don’t want to be interrupted once, the same rule will hold true for the future. Making us irritated is a way to accomplish this. The reaction of the brain sets up a reinforcing cycle that build up an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards advertising.

Secondly, what is the expected utility of paying attention to advertising? This goes hand in hand with the previous thought – advertising was always type of a toll gate we had to pass through to access content, but now, we have choices. The expected utility of the advertising supported content has been largely removed from the equation, leaving us with just the expected utility of the advertisement itself. The brain is constantly running an algorithm that balances resource allocation against reward and in our new environment, the resource allocation threshold keeps getting higher as the reward keeps getting lower.

Dear Facebook. It’s Not Me, It’s You

So, let’s say, hypothetically, one wanted to get break up with Facebook? Just how would one do that?

I heard one person say that swearing off Facebook was a “position of privilege.” It was an odd way of putting it, until I thought about it a bit. This person was right. Much as I’d like to follow in retired tech journalist Walter Mossberg’s footsteps and quit Facebook cold turkey, I don’t think I can. I am not in that position. I am not so privileged.

This is no way condones Facebook and its actions. I’m still pretty pissed off about that. I suspect I might well be in an abusive relationship. I have this suspicion because I looked it up on Mentalhealth.net, a website offered by the American Addictions Centers. According to them, an abusive relationship is

where one thing mistreats or misuses another thing. The important words in this definition are “mistreat” and “misuse”; they imply that there is a standard that describes how things should be treated and used, and that an abuser has violated that standard.

For the most part, only human beings are capable of being abusive, because only human beings are capable of understanding how things should be treated in the first place and then violating that standard anyway.”

That sounds bang on when I think about how Facebook has treated its users and their personal data. And everyone will tell you that if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, you should get out. But it’s not that easy. And that’s because of Metcalfe’s Law. Originally applied to telecommunication networks, it also applies to digitally mediated social networks. Metcalfe’s Law states that states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.”

The example often used is a telephone. If you’re the only person with one, it’s useless. If everyone has one, it’s invaluable. Facebook has about 2.3 billion users worldwide. That’s one out of every three people on this planet. Do the math. That’s a ton of value. It makes Facebook what they call very “sticky” in Silicon Valley.

But it’s not just the number of users that makes Facebook valuable. It’s also the way they use it. Facebook has always intended to become the de facto platform for broad based social connection. As such, it is built of “weak ties” – those social bonds defined by Mark Granovetter almost 50 years ago which connect scattered nodes in a network. To go back to the afore-mentioned “position of privilege” comment, the privilege in this case is a lack of dependence on weak ties.

 

My kids could probably quite Facebook. At least, it would be easier for them then it would be for me. But they also are not in the stage of their life where weak ties are all that important. They use other platforms, like Snapchat, to communicate with their friends. It’s a channel built for strong ties. If they do need to bridge weak ties, they escalate their social postings, first to Instagram, then – finally – to their last resort: Facebook. It’s only through Facebook where they’ll reach parents, aunts, cousins and grandmas all at once.

It’s different for me. I have a lifetime of accumulated weak ties that I need to connect with all the time. And Facebook is the best way to do it. I connect with various groups, relatives, acquaintances and colleagues on an as needed basis.  I also need a Facebook presence for my business, because it’s expected by others that need to connect to me. I don’t have the privilege of severing those ties.

So, I’ve decided that I can’t quit Facebook. At least, not yet. But I can use Facebook differently – more impersonally. I can use it as a connection platform rather than a channel for personal expression. I can make sure as little of my personal data falls into Facebook’s hands as possible. I don’t need to post what I like, how I’m feeling, what my beliefs are or what I do daily. I can close myself off to Facebook, turning this into a passionless relationship. From now on, I’ll consider it a tool –  not a friend, not a confidante, not something I can trust – just a way to connect when I need to. My personal life is none of Facebook’s business – literally.

For me, it’s the first step in preventing more abuse.