kottke.org posts about Facebook

The problem with OKCupid is the problem with the social webAug 01 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

On Monday, I tried to list some reasons why OKCupid's self-acknowledged experiments on its users didn't seem to be stirring up the same outrage that Facebook's had. Here at the end of the week, I think I was largely right: fewer people are upset, the anger is more tempered, and that has a lot to do with the reasons I gave. But one reaction I didn't expect is that some people took it as saying that I wasn't upset by what OKCupid did, or that people shouldn't be as upset by it.

What OKCupid did has actually made me madder and madder as the week's gone on, but for reasons that are different from other people's. I think this is pretty important, so I'm going to try to explain why.

Let's start with the Facebook "social contagion" study. Most Facebook critics focused on the people who were the subjects of the study, for good reasons. Did these users give consent? Can terms of service count as consent for an academic study? Should they have been informed of the study afterwards? Is Facebook responsible for any harm these users might have suffered? Is an increase or decrease in engagement really a sign that users' emotions were affected? How else has Facebook attempted to influence its users, or might try in the future? These are all good questions.

But what if you flip it around? What if you weren't one of the subjects whose moods Facebook was trying to study, but one of their friends or family? What if you were one of the people whose posts were filtered because your keywords were too happy, too angry, or too sad?



I think there's no way to know whether the Facebook study may have harmed people who weren't being studied. And even though the TOS basically says that users give Facebook permission to do whatever they want not only with the users' data, but all of their friends' too, you can't call that consent with a straight face. (This is just another reason that software terms of service are a rotten legal and ethical basis for research. They just weren't built for that reason, or to solve any of those problems.)

So Facebook didn't just mess around with some of its users' feeds, hoping to see if it might mess around with their feelings. It used some of its users' posts in order to do it. Arguably, it made them complicit.

To be clear, filtering posts, giving preference to some and not others, is how Facebook's newsfeed algorithm always works. Facebook users have been complaining about this for a long time, especially brands and news organizations and other companies who've built up their subscriber counts and complain that hardly anybody ever sees their posts unless they pay off Facebook's ad department. And Facebook makes no guarantees, anywhere, that they're going to deliver every message to every user who's subscribed to it. Readers miss posts all the time, usually just because they're just not looking at the screen or reading everything they could see. Facebook isn't certified mail. It's not even email. All this is known.

However.

We all buy in to Facebook (and Twitter, and OKCupid, and every other social media network), giving them a huge amount of personal data, free content, and discretion on how they show it to us, with the understanding that all of this will largely be driven by choices that we make. We build our own profiles, we select our favorite pictures, we make our own friends, we friend whatever brands we like, we pick the users we want to block or mute or select for special attention, and we write our own stories.

Even the filtering algorithms, we're both told and led to assume, are the product of our choices. Either we make these choices explicitly (mute this user, don't show me this again, more results like these) or implicitly (we liked the last five baby pictures, so Facebook shows us more baby pictures; we looked at sites X, Y, and Z, so we see Amazon ads for people who looked at X, Y, and Z. It's not arbitrary; it's personalized. And it's personalized for our benefit, to reflect the choices that we and the people we trust have made.

This is what makes the user-created social web great. It's the value it adds over traditional news media, traditional classified ads, traditional shopping, everything.

We keep copyright on everything we write and every image we post, giving these services a broad license to use it. And whenever the terms of service seem to be saying that these companies have the right to do things we would never want them to do, we're told that these are just the legal terms that the companies need in order to offer the ordinary, everyday service that we've asked them to do for us.

This is why it really stings whenever somebody turns around and says, "well actually, the terms you've signed give us permission to do whatever we want. Not just the thing you were afraid of, but a huge range of things you never thought of." You can't on one hand tell us to pay no attention when you change these things on us, and with the other insist that this is what we've really wanted to do all along. I mean, fuck me over, but don't tell me that I really wanted you to fuck me over all along.

Because ultimately, the reason you needed me to agree in the first place isn't just because I'm using your software, but because you're using my stuff. And the reason I'm letting you use my stuff, and spending all this time working on it, is so that you can show it to people.

I'm not just a user of your service, somebody who reads the things that you show it to me: I'm one of the reasons you have anything that you can show to anyone at all.

Now let's go back to the OKCupid experiment. Facebook didn't show some of its users posts that their friends wrote. But at least it was a binary thing: either your post was shown, just as you wrote it, or it wasn't. OKCupid actually changed the information it displayed to users.

You can pick nits and say OKC didn't change it, but rather, just selectively repressed parts of it, deleting photos on some profiles and text on others. But if you've ever created a profile on any web site, you know that it's presented as being a whole ensemble, the equivalent of a home page. The photos, the background, the description, the questions you answer: taken altogether, that's your representation of yourself to everyone else who may be interested. It's the entire reason why you are there.

Now imagine you're an OKCupid user, and you strike up a conversation with someone or someone strikes up a conversation with you. You assume that the other person has all of your information available to them if they're willing to look at it. That's the basis of every conversation you have on that site. Except they don't. The profile that OKCupid has implicitly promised they'll show to everyone who looks at it has been changed. The other person either doesn't know what you look like (and assumes you can't be bothered to post a photo) or doesn't know anything else about you (and assumes you can't be bothered to write anything about yourself.) Both of you have been deceived, so the site can see what happens.

This is why I question the conclusion that OKC users who were only shown profiles with pictures are shallow, because their conversations were almost as long as the ones who were shown full profiles. This is how I imagine those conversations going:

Rosencrantz: So what do you do?
Guildenstern: Um I work in marketing?
Rosencrantz: That's great! Where did you go to school?
Guildenstern: I went to UVA
Guildenstern: Wait a minute are you some kind of bot?
Rosencrantz: What makes you say that?
Guildenstern: You keep asking me questions that are in my profile, did you even read it
Rosencrantz: I'm looking at it right now, why didn't you answer any of the questions
Guildenstern: lol I guess you can't read nice pic though goodbye

That's a high-value interaction by the OKC researchers' standards, by the way.

This is also why I don't have much patience with the idea that "The worst thing could have happened [with the OkCupid testing] is people send a few more messages, and maybe you went on a date you didn't like." (Rey Junco told this to ReadWrite to explain why he thought Facebook's study was worse than OKCupid's, but you see versions of this all over.)

First, going on "a date you didn't like" isn't a frivolous thing. It definitely incurs more material costs than not seeing a Facebook status. And bad (or good) messages or a bad or good date can definitely have a bigger emotional impact as well.

More importantly, though, don't make this just a question about dates or feelings, about what somebody did or didn't read and what its effect on them was. I don't care if you think someone making a dating profile is a frivolous thing. Somebody made that. They thought the company hosting it could be trusted to present it honestly. They were wrong.

So this is the problem I see not just with Facebook and OKCupid's experiments, but with most of the arguments about them. They're all too quick to accept that users of these sites are readers who've agreed to let these sites show them things. They don't recognize or respect that the users are also the ones who've made almost everything that those sites show. They only treat you as a customer, never a client.

And in this respect, OKCupid's Christian Rudder and the brigade of "and this surprises you?" cynics are right: this is what everybody does. This is the way the internet works now. (Too much of it, anyway.) It doesn't matter whether your site is performing interventions on you or not, let alone publishing them. Too many of them have accepted this framework.

Still, for as long as the web does work this way, we are never only these companies' "products," but their producers, too. And to the extent that these companies show they aren't willing to live up to the basic agreement that we make these things and give them to you so you will show them to other people -- the engine that makes this whole world wide web business go -- I'm not going to have anything to do with them any more. What's more, I'll get mad enough to find a place that will show the things I write to other people and tell them they shouldn't accept it either. Because, ultimately, you ought to be ashamed to treat people and the things they make this way.

It's not A/B testing. It's just being an asshole.

Update: OKCupid's Christian Rudder (author of the "We Experiment On Human Beings" post) gave an interview to Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt for On the Media's TLDR podcast.

Rudder says some of the negative response "is my own fault, because, y'know, the blog post is sensationally written, for sure." But he doesn't back off of that tone one bit. In fact, he doubles down.

Alex Goldman: Have you thought about bringing in, say, like an ethicist to, to vet your experiments?

Christian Rudder, founder of OkCupid: To wring his hands all day for a hundred thousand dollars a year?... This is the only way to find this stuff out. If you guys have an alternative to the scientific method, I'm all ears.

I think he maybe should have just written the blog post and left it alone.

Update: University of Maryland Professor of Law James Grimmelmann say that not only were OKCupid's and Facebook's studies unethical, but they were illegal.

Most of the resulting discussion has treated this as a story about ethics. Which it is -- and the lapses of ethical judgment shown by Facebook and OkCupid are scandalous. But the ethics are only half of the story. What Facebook and OkCupid did wasn't just unethical. It was illegal. A common assumption is that even if research laws ought to apply to private companies, they don't. But that assumption is false. Facebook and OkCupid are bound by research laws, and those research laws quite clearly prohibit what they did.

Why don't OKCupid's experiments bother us like Facebook's did?Jul 28 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

OK Cupid's Christian Rudder has responded to the outcry over Facebook's experiments with user emotions by... publishing a list of experiments that the dating site has run on its users, along with their results.

And it's not little stuff either! To test its matching algorithms, OKC has selectively hidden users' profile images, their profile text, and even told pairs of users they were a good match when the algo said they weren't, and vice versa.

In short, Facebook may have hid stuff from you, but OK Cupid might have actually lied to you.

But... nobody's really upset about this. Or if they are, they're mostly just upset (or dryly observing, it's hard to tell) that other people aren't upset.

Why? I have some theories:

  1. It's early yet. It took the Facebook story some time to steep before it really picked up steam.
  2. OKC users are less likely to be troubled by this sort of thing than Facebook users are. And people get more upset when they feel like they personally might have been messed with. Hilary Parker pointed out that non-online daters are less likely to get upset on online daters' behalf: even if you don't actively look down on OKC users (and many do), you might be more likely to think they got what they deserved. OK Cupid has a history of disclosing these kinds of numbers, and there's a laissez-faire attitude towards users gaming accounts for their own purposes.
  3. We trust Facebook in a way we don't trust OKC. Facebook is the safe baby internet, with our real friends and family sending us real messages. OKC is more internet than the internet, with creeps and jerks and catfishers with phony avatars. So Facebook messing with us feels like a bigger betrayal.
  4. OKC's matching algorithm may be at least as opaque as Facebook's news feed, but it's clearer to users that site matches and views are generated using an algorithm. Reportedly, 62 percent of Facebook users weren't aware that Facebook's news feed was filtered by an algorithm at all. (That study has a small sample size, but still, we can infer that lots of Facebook users have no idea.)
  5. The results of OKC's experiments are less troubling. Facebook's study showed that our posting behavior (and maybe our feelings) were pretty susceptible to manipulation without a whole lot of effort. OKC's results seemed more complimentary. Sure, lots of people on dating sites are shallow, and sometimes you may have ended up in longer conversations than you might like with incompatible people, but good matches seem to find a way to connect no matter what OKC tells us! So... the algorithm works and I guess we can trust what they tell us? My head hurts. (Jess Zimmerman adds that part of the Facebook intervention was deliberately designed to cause harm, by making people unhappy, at least as mediated through their posts. The difference here depends on whether you think trying to match you up with someone incompatible might be causing them harm.
  6. The tone of the OKC post is just so darned charming. Rudder is casual, self-deprecating. It's a blog post! Meanwhile, Facebook's "emotional contagion" scholarly paper was chillingly matter-of-fact. In short, the scientism of the thing just creeped us the fuck out.
  7. This is related to the tone issue, but OKC seems to be fairly straightforward about why it performed the experiment: they didn't understand whether or how their matching algorithm was working, and they were trying to figure that out to make it better. Facebook seemed to be testing user's emotional expressions partly to solve a scholarly dispute and partly just to see if they could. And most of the practical justifications folks came up with for the Facebook study were pretty sinister: tricky folks into posting more often, into clicking on ads, into buying stuff. (Really, both experiments are probably a mix of product testing and shooting frogs for kicks, but the perception seems to be different.)
  8. The Facebook study had an added wrinkle in that academics were involved in designing the study and writing it up. This raised all sorts of factual and ethical issues about university institutional review boards and the responsibility of the journal's editors and publishers that don't seem to be relevant here. I mean, maybe SOMEbody should be veryifying that experiments done on human subjects are ethical, whether it's in a university, medical, or government context or not, but it's not like someone may have been asleep at the switch. Here, there is no switch.
  9. Maybe we're all just worn out. Between Facebook, this, Uber ratings, and god knows what, even if you're bothered by this kind of experimentation, it's more difficult to stay angry at any one company. So some people are jaded, some people would rather call attention to broader issues and themes of power, and some people are just tired. There's only so many times you can say "see? THIS! THIS is what I've been telling you about!" or "I can't believe you're surprised by this" before you're just like, ¯\_(?)_/¯.

I don't agree with all of these explanations, and all of them feel a little thin. But maybe for most of us, those little scraps of difference are enough.

Update: Here's a tenth reason that I thought of and then forgot until people brought up variations of it on Twitter: Facebook feels "mandatory" in a way that OKCupid doesn't. It's a bigger company with a bigger reach that plays a bigger part in more people's lives. As Sam Biddle wrote on Twitter, "Facebook is almost a utility at this point. It's like ConEd fucking with us."

The slow-motion political race to build tiny stars on EarthMar 04 2014

Raffi Khatchadourian's long piece on the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is at once fascinating (for science reasons) and depressing (for political/bureaucratic reasons). Fusion reactors hold incredible promise:

But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world's energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on iter will be built, too-generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity's will. iter, in Latin, means "the way."

But ITER is a collaborative effort between 35 different countries, which means the project is political, slow, and expensive.

For the machine's creators, this process-sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star-will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars' worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the iter organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world's population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the iter Unit of Account.

No one knows iter's true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars -- a sum that makes iter the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.

I wonder what the project would look like if, say, Google or Apple were to take the reins instead. In that context, it's only $20 billion to build a tiny Sun on the Earth. Facebook just paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, Apple has a whopping $158.8 billion in cash, and Google & Microsoft both have more than $50 billion in cash. Google in particular, which is making a self-driving car and has been buying up robots by the company-full recently, might want their own tiny star.

But back to reality, the circumstances of ITER's international construction consortium reminded me of the building of The Machine in Carl Sagan's Contact. In the book, the countries of the world work together to make a machine of unknown function from plans beamed to them from an alien intelligence, which results in the development of several new lucrative life-enhancing technologies and generally unites humanity. In Sagan's view, that's the power of science. Hopefully the ITER can work through its difficulties to achieve something similar.

Why did Facebook buy WhatsApp?Feb 20 2014

I don't know if Facebook buying WhatsApp for $16 billion is a good idea for Facebook or not, but I'm pretty sure it's a potentially good idea. I'd heard of WhatsApp before, but I first took real notice of it last July when researching this post about Instagram businesses in Kuwait.

Several of the businesses I found used WhatsApp for messaging...browse via Instagram, arrange to buy via WhatsApp. Very low cost, more flexible than SMS, cross-platform, no giant social network appendage to deal with (e.g. Facebook/Twitter), and it's not email. And, the thing that struck me, WhatsApp (and Instagram) being used for financial/business transactions. Services teens use for social grooming are certainly interesting and important (after all, teens' social grooming is how, eventually, we end up with more teens), but when you've got something being used in all sorts of places all over the world as a social tool *and* a marketplace, you've got yourself a platform and that is potentially very valuable.

Facebook PaperFeb 03 2014

Facebook's new Paper app is pretty good. Once you get the hang of the gestures, it feels natural and very Letterpressy and smooth, which isn't surprising considering Loren Brichter's involvement. Check out The Verge's review.

JZSMA (The Jay Z Social Media Average)Dec 03 2013

From Rap Genius, a chart showing mentions in rap songs of popular social sites and apps like Twitter and Instagram:

Rap Genius Sm Graph

Compare with the graph for the same terms from Google News:

Google News Sm Graph

And here's the graph for general search terms. (I excluded Snapchat from the Google graphs because Google wouldn't allow 6 search terms at a time...it barely showed up in either case.) Twitter rules the rap roost, but Facebook demolishes everyone in general and news search traffic.

Facebook of the DeadOct 31 2013

For his latest What If? column, Randall Munroe tackles the question "When, if ever, will Facebook contain more profiles of dead people than of living ones?"

Based on the site's growth rate, and the age breakdown of their users over time, there are probably 10 to 20 million people who created Facebook profiles who have since died.

That's an incredible number; most tech startups would kill (well, not really but maybe...) for that many alive users.

Christopher Robin friend-requests Pooh on FacebookOct 03 2013

After receiving Facebook friend requests from Christopher Robin after several years of not hearing from him, the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood hold a meeting to talk about the new development.

"No disrespecting what's clearly a very Emportent Meeting," Eeyore began, "but to me it's simple: Christopher Robin left to do who-knows-what-and-where, and we stayed here. Both of our lives went on. The way I see it, Christopher Robin was feeling lonely and sad last night -- maybe his girlfriend just dumped him, maybe he got rejected from the graduate program he was hoping to get in to. He'd probably been drinking, and he started getting wistful for days-gone-by, so he searched us all on Facebook and so-on-and-so-on and there we have it. Trust me, Christopher Robin is probably relieved I [ignored his friend request]. He's probably sitting in his apartment right now in a pair of ripped sweatpants, eating ice cream out of a tub and re-watching The Wire and thanking his stars he doesn't have to actually still be friends with his old, mopey pal Eeyore."

What inner city kids know about social mediaSep 26 2013

This piece by Jacqui Cheng about her experience watching kids from inner city Chicago navigate social media is interesting thoughout, but the way they use account deletion to turn Facebook into something a bit more like Snapchat is super-clever and savvy.

For example, did you know that many teens "delete" their Facebook accounts altogether every time the rest of us would just log out? They're taking advantage of the fact that Facebook actually keeps much of your account information on its servers when you decide to "leave" the service, allowing them to stay under the radar from nosy friend, parent, or public searches while they're not online. Their photos disappear and their status updates go on the down-low-at least until the next time they log back in by re-activating their accounts.

How long before we see a social networking app where your info is only visible when you're actively online? And maybe you can pay to increase your visibility beyond those bounds?

Wanting to be likedMay 24 2013

This interview with a 14-year-old girl about how she uses her iPhone and social media is almost equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Some choice quotes:

"I'll wake up in the morning and go on Facebook just ... because," Casey says. "It's not like I want to or I don't. I just go on it. I'm, like, forced to. I don't know why. I need to. Facebook takes up my whole life."

--

"I bring [my iPhone] everywhere. I have to be holding it," Casey says. "It's like OCD -- I have to have it with me. And I check it a lot."

--

Not having an iPhone can be social suicide, notes Casey. One of her friends found herself effectively exiled from their circle for six months because her parents dawdled in upgrading her to an iPhone. Without it, she had no access to the iMessage group chat, where it seemed all their shared plans were being made.

"She wasn't in the group chat, so we stopped being friends with her," Casey says. "Not because we didn't like her, but we just weren't in contact with her."

--

The most important and stress-inducing statistic of all is the number of "likes" she gets when she posts a new Facebook profile picture -- followed closely by how many "likes" her friends' photos receive. Casey's most recent profile photo received 117 "likes" and 56 comments from her friends, 19 of which they posted within a minute of Casey switching her photo, and all of which Casey "liked" personally.

"If you don't get 100 'likes,' you make other people share it so you get 100," she explains. "Or else you just get upset. Everyone wants to get the most 'likes.' It's like a popularity contest."

--

"If I'm not watching TV, I'm on my phone. If I'm not on my phone, I'm on my computer. If I'm not doing any of those things, what am I supposed to do?" Casey says.

Josh Miller asked his 15-year-old sister about social media trends. That was six months ago, so everything has probably already changed, but it's still an interesting read. (via digg)

Making Facebook actually usefulMar 07 2013

Facebook has so many features that at least one of them has to be useful, right? Here's the page on Facebook that just shows you links shared by the people you follow. No tweets, no photos, no jingoistic rants from distant cousins. Just the links. (And if you like links on Facebook, you should like kottke.org on Facebook.)

Worrisome Facebook Graph Search queriesJan 23 2013

Facebook's new Graph Search can be used to find some very unusual, disturbing, and potentially dangerous things. Like "Married people who like Prostitutes", "Family members of people who live in China and like Falun Gong", and "Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran".

Twitter is a machine for continual self-reinventionNov 30 2012

Matt Haughey wrote an essay called Why I love Twitter and barely tolerate Facebook.

There's no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting. Though that concept may seem daunting to some (archivists, I feel your pain), it also means the content in my feed is an endless stream of new information, either comments on what is happening right now or thoughts about the future. One of the reasons I loved the Internet when I first discovered it in the mid-1990s was that it was a clean slate, a place that welcomed all regardless of your past as you wrote your new life story; where you'd only be judged on your words and your art and your photos going forward.

Facebook is mired in the past.

One of my favorite posts on street photographer Scott Schuman's blog, The Sartorialist, consists of two photos of the same woman taken several months apart.

Sartorialist Kara

Schuman asked the woman how she was able to create such a dramatic change:

Actually the line that I think was the most telling but that she said like a throw-away qualifier was "I didn't know anyone in New York when I moved here..."

I think that is such a huge factor. To move to a city where you are not afraid to try something new because all the people that labeled who THEY think you are (parents, childhood friends) are not their to say "that's not you" or "you've changed". Well, maybe that person didn't change but finally became who they really are. I totally relate to this as a fellow Midwesterner even though my changes were not as quick or as dramatic.

I bet if you ask most people what keeps them from being who they really want to be (at least stylistically or maybe even more), the answer would not be money but the fear of peer pressure -- fear of embarrassing themselves in front of a group of people that they might not actually even like anyway.

For a certain type of person, changing oneself might be one of the best ways of feeling free and in control of one's own destiny. And in the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you're living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with. Twitter's we're-all-here-in-the-moment thing that Matt talks about is what makes it possible for people to continually reinvent themselves on Twitter. You don't have any of that Facebook baggage, the peer pressure from a lifetime of friends, holding you back. You are who your last dozen tweets say you are. And what a feeling of freedom that is.

Real-time visualization of Facebook users unliking Mitt RomneyNov 12 2012

Kent Brewster's Who Likes Mitt allows you to watch Mitt Romney's Facebook fans unlike him in real time. Before the election, I wondered how either candidate would utilize their social media platforms in the event of their loss, as both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had several million followers on Twitter and Facebook. We'll have quite some time to see the answer because at the current and unsustainable rate of abandonment, Mitt's last follower will unlike him in just over 3 years. *181 Facebook fans left Mitt while this post was written. (via ★akuban)

Update: Now, with graphs! (thx, @colossal)

Twitter, Facebook, and old new mediaOct 19 2012

Newsweek announced yesterday that the print magazine will cease publication and the entire thing will move to an all-digital format.

Newsweek Global, as the all-digital publication will be named, will be a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context. Newsweek Global will be supported by paid subscription and will be available through e-readers for both tablet and the Web, with select content available on The Daily Beast.

In talking about the shift on his Daily Beast blog, Andrew Sullivan notes something interesting about reading online vs. reading in print (emphasis mine):

Which is why, when asked my opinion at Newsweek about print and digital, I urged taking the plunge as quickly as possible. Look: I chose digital over print 12 years ago, when I shifted my writing gradually online, with this blog and now blogazine. Of course a weekly newsmagazine on paper seems nuts to me. But it takes guts to actually make the change. An individual can, overnight. An institution is far more cumbersome. Which is why, I believe, institutional brands will still be at a disadvantage online compared with personal ones. There's a reason why Drudge Report and the Huffington Post are named after human beings. It's because when we read online, we migrate to read people, not institutions. Social media has only accelerated this development, as everyone with a Facebook page now has a mini-blog, and articles or posts or memes are sent by email or through social networks or Twitter.

People do tend to read people and not institutions online but a shift away from that has already started happening. A shift back to institutions, actually. Pre-1990s, people read the Times or Newsweek or Time or whatever. In 2008, people read Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish or Paul Krugman's column in the Times or Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP. Today, people read feeds of their friends/followees activities, interests, thoughts, and links on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Tumblr, i.e. the new media institutions.

Now, you may follow Daily Dish or Krugman on Twitter but that's not quite the same as reading the sites; you're not getting the whole post/article on Twitter, Krugman items are intermingled & fighting for attention with tweets from @horse_ebooks & Lady Gaga, and if you unfollowed Krugman altogether, you'll find when he writes something especially good, someone else in your Twitter stream will point you to it pretty quickly. That is, Twitter or Facebook will provide you with the essential Krugman without you having to pay any attention to Krugman at all.

What that means is what blogs and the web are doing to newspapers and magazines, so might Facebook & Twitter do to blogs. Blogs might not even get the chance to be called old media before they're handed their hats. It'll be interesting to see how smartphone/tablet apps affect this dynamic...will apps push users/readers back toward old media institutions, individuals, or the friend-packaging institutions like Twitter?

Facebook's current valuation in BK WhoppersMay 16 2012

Facebook's going public in a few days and will finally get a real valuation attached to it. During a 2009 Burger King promotion that doled out free Whoppers for deleting some of your Facebook friends, I estimated Facebook's valuation at about $1.8 billion.

What BK has unwittingly done here is provide a way to determine the valuation of Facebook. Let's assume that the majority of Facebook's value comes from the connections between their users. From Facebook's statistics page, we learn that the site has 150 million users and the average user has 100 friends. Each friendship is requires the assent of both friends so really each user can, on average, only end half of their friendships. The price of a Whopper is approximately $2.40. That means that each user's friendships is worth around 5 Whoppers, or $12. Do the math and:

$12/user X 150M users = $1.8 billion valuation for Facebook

At the time, Facebook's estimated worth was anywhere between $9-15 billion, about an order of magnitude more than the company's 2009 Whopper valuation. According to the company's Key Facts page, Facebook has 901 million monthly active users as of the end of March 2012. Doing the math again:

$12/user X 901M users = $10.8 billion valuation for Facebook

Right now, the price range for the IPO is $34-38 a share which would put the company's overall valuation at $104 billion, the same order of magnitude more than the current Whopper valuation.

Now, I'm no economist, but that's a lot of hamburgers.

How Mark Zuckerberg became a good CEOMay 09 2012

Writing for New York magazine, Henry Blodget explains how a young startup founder and college dropout became the CEO of a soon-to-be $100 billion company.

When talking about Zuckerberg's most valuable personality trait, a colleague jokingly invokes the famous Stanford marshmallow tests, in which researchers found a correlation between a young child's ability to delay gratification -- devour one treat right away, or wait and be rewarded with two -- with high achievement later in life. If Zuckerberg had been one of the Stanford scientists' subjects, the colleague jokes, Facebook would never have been created: He'd still be sitting in a room somewhere, not eating marshmallows.

Abraham Lincoln invented FacebookMay 08 2012

[Ed note: read the update below...this is likely definitely a hoax.] Intrigued by a possible connection between PT Barnum and Abe Lincoln, Nate St. Pierre travelled to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, IL. Once there, he stumbled upon something called The Springfield Gazette, a personal newspaper made by Lincoln that is eerily similar to Facebook.

The whole Springfield Gazette was one sheet of paper, and it was all about Lincoln. Only him. Other people only came into the document in conjunction with how he experienced life at that moment. If you look at the Gazette picture above, you can see his portrait in the upper left-hand corner. See how the column of text under him is cut off on the left side? Stupid scanned picture, I know, ugh. But just to the left of his picture, and above that column of text, is a little box. And in that box you see three things: his name, his address, and his profession (attorney).

The first column underneath his picture contains a bunch of short blurbs about what's going on in his life at the moment - work he recently did, some books the family bought, and the new games his boys made up. In the next three columns he shares a quote he likes, two poems, and a short story about the Pilgrim Fathers. I don't know where he got them, but they're obviously copied from somewhere. In the last three columns he tells the story of his day at the circus and tiny little story about his current life on the prairie.

Put all that together on one page and tell me what it looks like to you. Profile picture. Personal information. Status updates. Copied and shared material. A few longer posts. Looks like something we see every day, doesn't it?

Lincoln even tried to patent the idea.

Lincoln was requesting a patent for "The Gazette," a system to "keep People aware of Others in the Town." He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where "every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors."

He went on to propose that "each Man may decide if he shall make his page Available to the entire Town, or only to those with whom he has established Family or Friendship." Evidently there was to be someone overseeing this collection of documents, and he would somehow know which pages anyone could look at, and which ones only certain people could see (it wasn't quite clear in the application). Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated "at any time deemed Fit or Necessary," so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends' lives "without being Present in Body."

Man, I hope this isn't a hoax...it's almost too perfect. Also, queue Jesse Eisenberg saying "Abe, if you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook". (via @gavinpurcell)

Update: Ok, I'm willing to call hoax on this one based on two things. 1) The first non-engraved photograph reproduced in a newspaper was in 1880, 35 years after the Springfield Gazette was alledgedly produced. 2) The Library of Congress says that the photograph pictured in the Gazette was taken in 1846 or 1847, a year or two after the publication date. That and the low-res "I couldn't take proper photos of them" images pretty much convinces me.

Update: And the proof...the original Springfield Gazette sans Lincoln. (via @zempf)

Facebook and Instagram as company townsApr 11 2012

One of the more thought-provoking pieces on Instagram's billion dollar sale to Facebook is Matt Webb's Instagram as an island economy. In it, he thinks about Instagram as a closed economy:

What is the labour encoded in Instagram? It's easy to see. Every "user" of Instagram is a worker. There are some people who produce photos -- this is valuable, it means there is something for people to look it. There are some people who only produce comments or "likes," the virtual society equivalent of apes picking lice off other apes. This is valuable, because people like recognition and are more likely to produce photos. All workers are also marketers -- some highly effective and some not at all. And there's a general intellect which has been developed, a kind of community expertise and teaching of this expertise to produce photographs which are good at producing the valuable, attractive likes and comments (i.e., photographs which are especially pretty and provocative), and a somewhat competitive culture to become a better marketer.

There are also the workers who build the factory -- the behaviour-structuring instrument/forum which is Instagram itself, both its infrastructure and it's "interface:" the production lines on the factory floor, and the factory store. However these workers are only playing a role. Really they are owners.

All of those workers (the factory workers) receive a wage. They have not organised, so the wage is low, but it's there. It's invisible.

Like all good producers, the workers are also consumers. They immediately spend their entire wage, and their wages is only good in Instagram-town. What they buy is the likes and comments of the photos they produce (what? You think it's free? Of course it's not free, it feels good so you have to pay for it. And you did, by being a producer), and access to the public spaces of Instagram-town to communicate with other consumers. It's not the first time that factory workers have been housed in factory homes and spent their money in factory stores.

Although he doesn't use the term explictly, Webb is talking about a company town. Interestingly, Paul Bausch used this term in reference to Facebook a few weeks ago in a discussion about blogging:

The whole idea of [blog] comments is based on the assumption that most people reading won't have their own platform to respond with. So you need to provide some temporary shanty town for these folks to take up residence for a day or two. And then if you're like Matt -- hanging out in dozens of shanty towns -- you need some sort of communication mechanism to tie them together. That sucks.

So what's an alternative? Facebook is sort of the alternative right now: company town.

Back to Webb, he says that making actual money with Instagram will be easy:

I will say that it's simple to make money out of Instagram. People are already producing and consuming, so it's a small step to introduce the dollar into this.

I'm not so sure about this...it's too easy for people to pick up and move out of Instagram-town for other virtual towns, thereby creating a ghost town and a massively devalued economy. After all, the same real-world economic forces that allowed a dozen people to build a billion dollar service in two years means a dozen other people can build someplace other than Instagram for people to hang out in, spending their virtual Other-town dollars.

Also worth a read on Facebook/Instagram: Paul Ford's piece for New York Magazine.

Facebook, a company with a potential market cap worth five or six moon landings, is spending one of its many billions of dollars to buy Instagram, a tiny company dedicated to helping Thai beauty queens share photos of their fingernails. Many people have critical opinions on this subject, ranging from "this will ruin Instagram" to "$1 billion is too much." And for many Instagram users it's discomfiting to see a giant company they distrust purchase a tiny company they adore - like if Coldplay acquired Dirty Projectors, or a Gang of Four reunion was sponsored by Foxconn.

So what's going on here?

First, to understand this deal it's important to understand Facebook. Unfortunately everything about Facebook defies logic. In terms of user experience (insider jargon: "UX"), Facebook is like an NYPD police van crashing into an IKEA, forever - a chaotic mess of products designed to burrow into every facet of your life.

Social media shaming tames Spring BreakMar 16 2012

Maybe Facebook *is* good for society: teens aren't acting as crazy during Spring Break because they don't want to get caught doing inappropriate things on camera.

They are so afraid everyone is going to take their picture and put it online.

You don't want to have to defend yourself later, so you don't do it.

But spring break [in Key West] has been Facebooked into greater respectability.

"At the beach yesterday, I would put my beer can down, out of the picture every time," Ms. Sawyer said. "I do worry about Facebook. I just know I need a job eventually."

"Oh, no," she recoiled. "I'm friends with my mom on Facebook."

Facebook: Society's Self-Surveillance Network™. (via @gavinpurcell)

The reluctant sex lube salesmanFeb 27 2012

Nick Bergus recently posted a link on Facebook to a 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant sold by Amazon -- it's only $1500! Then the post got sponsored and his family and friends started seeing it when they used Facebook, turning Bergus into a pitchman of sorts for an absurd amount of sex lube.

A week later, a friend posts a screen capture and tells me that my post has been showing up next to his news feed as a sponsored story, meaning Amazon is paying Facebook to highlight my link to a giant tub of personal lubricant.

Other people start reporting that they're seeing it, too. A fellow roller derby referee. A former employee of a magazine I still write for. My co-worker's wife. They're not seeing just once, but regularly. Said one friend: "It has shown up as one on mine every single time I log in."

Get used to this...promoted word of mouth is how a lot of advertising will work in the future.

BTW, as with many unusual products on Amazon, the "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed" listing (horse head mask?) and the reviews are worth checking out.

As a Fertility Specialist for Pachyderms, this was exactly what we needed to help rebuild elephant populations all over sub-saharan africa. It's not all just Medications and IVF treatments. Some times you need a loudspeaker, a Barry White CD and a 55 Gallon drum of Lube.

Working with ZuckOct 26 2011

More than a year ago, Facebook engineer Andrew Bosworth wrote a post about how best to work with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when first working with Zuck is feeling that they can't push back. As long as I have been at Facebook, I have been impressed with how much he prefers to be part of an ongoing discussion about the product as opposed to being its dictator. There are a number of exceptions to this, of course, but that comes with the territory. In those instances where he is quite sure what he wants, I find he is quite good at making his decisions clear and curtailing unneeded debate.

Barring that, you should feel comfortable noting potential problems with a proposal of his or, even better, suggesting alternative solutions. You shouldn't necessarily expect to change his mind on the spot, but I find it is common for discussions to affect his thinking over a longer time period. Don't necessarily expect acknowledgment for your role in moving the discussion forward; getting the product right should be its own reward. If you do that, you'll find you are invited back more and more to the debate.

Facebook is certainly an interesting company...they're a large company that appears to operate much like a small company. Will be interesting to see if they can keep that up as they get larger, go public, etc.

Stalking in the age of FacebookOct 13 2011

This is the contemporary take on the guy-meets-girl-at-party story. Guy isn't particularly interested in girl but at some later point starts surreptitiously taking photos of her and posting them to a secret blog. Girl finds out, isn't creeped out at all. Boy doesn't feel shame at girl's discovery, only that it ruined his creative outlet before "he might have gotten better at it or something". Girl decides to interview boy for her communications class. You know, completely normal.

She messaged Walker through Facebook, and at first he seemed receptive. "He thought it was funny," said Merker. But after an initial show of interest, Walker got skittish, canceling and rescheduling the interview repeatedly. When Merker finally sat down with him, it was only after she had managed to catch him off-guard, saying she was already in his neighborhood and offering to meet at a bar.

Walker had one condition: he wanted to do the interview "in character" as the persona he had established through the blog. That would mean interviewing Merker, too; after all, any blogger who had devoted an entire Tumblr to a single person would certainly take the opportunity to directly question his subject.

You know when Mark Zuckerberg says stuff like privacy doesn't matter and Facebook makes formerly private information public without notice and all the tech pundits (most of whom are older than Zuck) go bananas tearing out their hair about how stupid and crazy that is? Now you know where Zuck and Facebook are coming from.

Don Draper pitches Facebook TimelineSep 27 2011

This is just flat-out fantastic.

(via ★interesting)

Mark Zuckerberg's adult supervisionJul 05 2011

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Ken Auletta has a profile of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. A lot of the article focuses on gender issues in business and technology.

Early this spring, Sandberg gathered twelve female Facebook executives in a bare, white-walled conference room to review the agenda for the company's Women's Leadership Day, which was scheduled for the following week. Each of them was expected to lead sessions encouraging all the female executives there to step up "into leadership" roles. "What I believe, and that doesn't mean everyone believes it, is that there are still institutional problems and we need more flexibility in all of this stuff," Sandberg told them. "But much too much of the conversation is on blaming others, and not enough is on taking responsibility ourselves."

Yes, she continued, we could swap anecdotes about sexist acts. But doing so diverts women from self-improvement. She opposes all forms of affirmative action for women. "If you don't believe there is a glass ceiling, there is no need," she told me. She doesn't even like voluntary efforts to keep positions open for qualified women. There's a cost, she explained, in lost time, and a cost for women, because "people will think she's not the best person and that job was held open for a woman."

How Facebook decides what to show youOct 22 2010

Thomas Weber attempted to reverse engineer the algorithm that Facebook uses for its "Top News" feed and learned some very interesting things about what Facebook chooses what to show (and not show) their users.

1. Facebook's Bias Against Newcomers. If there's one thing our experiment made all too clear, it's that following 500 million people into a party means that a lot of the beer and pretzels are already long gone. Poor Phil spent his first week shouting his updates, posted several times a day, yet most of his ready-made "friends" never noticed a peep on their news feeds. His invisibility was especially acute among those with lengthy, well-established lists of friends. Phil's perpetual conversation with the ether only stopped when we instructed our volunteers to interact with him. A dynamic which leads to...

2. Facebook's Catch-22: To get exposure on Facebook, you need friends to interact with your updates in certain ways (more on that below). But you aren't likely to have friends interacting with your updates if you don't have exposure in the first place. (Memo to Facebook newcomers: Try to get a few friends to click like crazy on your items.)

This bit at the end is particularly interesting:

All the while, Facebook, like Google, continues to redefine "what's important to you" as "what's important to other people." In that framework, the serendipitous belongs to those who connect directly with their friends in the real world-or at least take the time to skip their news feed and go visit their friends' pages directly once in a while.

Facebook soon bigger than Google?Oct 05 2010

In a piece at the normally unlinkable TechCrunch, Adam Rifkin argues that Facebook could be bigger than Google (revenue-wise) in five years. Rifkin makes a compelling argument.

Facebook Advertising does not directly compete with the text advertisements of Google's AdWords and AdSense. Instead Facebook is siphoning from Madison Avenue TV ad spend dollars. Television advertising represented $60 billion in 2009, or roughly one out of every two dollars spent on advertising in the U.S.; the main challenge marketers have with the Internet till recently has been that there aren't too many places where they can reach almost everybody with one single ad spend. Facebook fixes that problem.

Worst practices on the webSep 16 2010

Dark Patterns are UI techniques designed to trick users into doing things they otherwise wouldn't have done.

Normally when you think of "bad design", you think of laziness or mistakes. These are known as design anti-patterns. Dark Patterns are different -- they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user's interests in mind.

For instance, Privacy Zuckering is a dark pattern implemented by Facebook to get users to share more about themselves than they would like to. (thx, @tnorthcutt)

Zuckerberg and Style Rookie and DysonSep 13 2010

The New Yorker has a trio of interesting articles in their most recent issue for the discerning web/technology lady or gentlemen. First is a lengthy profile of Mark Zuckerberg, the quite private CEO of Facebook who doesn't believe in privacy.

Zuckerberg may seem like an over-sharer in the age of over-sharing. But that's kind of the point. Zuckerberg's business model depends on our shifting notions of privacy, revelation, and sheer self-display. The more that people are willing to put online, the more money his site can make from advertisers. Happily for him, and the prospects of his eventual fortune, his business interests align perfectly with his personal philosophy. In the bio section of his page, Zuckerberg writes simply, "I'm trying to make the world a more open place."

The second is a profile of Tavi Gevinson (sub. required), who you may know as the youngster behind Style Rookie.

Tavi has an eye for frumpy, "Grey Gardens"-inspired clothes and for arch accessories, and her taste in designers runs toward the cerebral. From the beginning, her blog had an element of mystery: is it for real? And how did a thirteen-year-old suburban kid develop such a singular look? Her readership quickly grew to fifty thousand daily viewers and won the ear of major designers.

And C, John Seabrook has a profile of James Dyson (sub. required), he of the unusual vacuum cleaners, unusual hand dryers, and the unusual air-circulating fan.

In the fall of 2002, the British inventor James Dyson entered the U.S. market with an upright vacuum cleaner, the Dyson DC07. Dyson was the product's designer, engineer, manufacturer, and pitchman. The price was three hundred and ninety-nine dollars. Not only did the Dyson cost much more than most machines sold at retail but it was made almost entirely out of plastic. In the most perverse design decision of all, Dyson let you see the dirt as you collected it, in a clear plastic bin in the machine's midsection.

Meet Sean ParkerSep 08 2010

Vanity Fair has a profile of hacker-turned-billionaire Sean Parker, who helped found Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook.

He has financed the businesses of numerous cohorts, merely out of affection. "He's one of the most generous people I know," says another associate. "Also one of the flakiest."

Traditional media's adoption of social mediaMay 22 2010

Think about the following platforms and when the first traditional media activity/participation occurred in that platform's history: Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Chatroulette. It was a shorter and shorter period for each platform.*

Let's call this the adoption half-life. It's a bastardization of Moore's Law, but the level of adoption required for a social platform to be covered as The Next Big Thing in social platforms will continue to decrease until NBT status is bestowed upon a platform used only by those in the media.

I'd been writing a post about this that wasn't coming out the way I wanted, so I shelved it until I saw The Onion's take on last fall's New York Times' take on Foursquare. Then I decided to jam 2 posts together.

The Onion sums this all up way more succinctly:

Aging, scared newspapermen throw themselves at the latest mobile technology trend in a humiliatingly futile attempt to remain relevant.

For his part, Foursquare founder, Dennis Crowley, had this to say:

Um, The Onion poking fun of @foursquare (and me). This is the greatest moment of my entire life.

*If someone has a LexisNexis account and can find the first mention of these platforms, I'd be grateful, but since this is the internet, I don't need sources, mirite?

The gameification of everythingFeb 25 2010

In this 28-minute presentation, Jesse Schell talks about the psychological and economic aspects of Facebook games and what that means for the future of gaming and living. If you make products or software that other people use, this is pretty much a must-see kinda thing...the last 5 or 6 minutes are dizzying, magical, and terrifying.

Using Facebook to split up the USFeb 09 2010

Data from Facebook reveals how the United States is split up into different regions like Stayathomia, Greater Texas, Dixie, and Mormonia.

Stretching from New York to Minnesota, [Stayathomia's] defining feature is how near most people are to their friends, implying they don't move far. In most cases outside the largest cities, the most common connections are with immediately neighboring cities, and even New York only has one really long-range link in its top 10. Apart from Los Angeles, all of its strong ties are comparatively local.

(thx, dinu)

Interview with an anonymous Facebook employeeJan 13 2010

All sorts of goodies come up during the interview, including master passwords, keeping data after it has been deleted, and the the ubersmart Facebook engineers that you can't talk to "on a normal level".

Facebook = lobster trapJul 23 2009

I love a good analogy:

Facebook is basically designed like a lobster trap with your friends as bait.

(via migurski)

Facebook's valuation and the network effectJan 13 2009

My inbox is divided about the valuation of Facebook calculated using Burger King Whopper Sacrifice promotion (unfriend 10 people to get a Whopper). The majority say that even if you prevented people from refriending those they unfriended for a Whopper, a value of 12 cents for each friend link is too high and that most links are worth much less than that. That is, Facebook is awash in junk friendships of little value.

A smaller contingent is arguing that Burger King would have to pay much more to break some friendships and that Facebook's valuation is therefore higher than the straight calculation indicates. For instance, getting Johnny Shoegazer to unfriend that girl he likes might take a considerable sum of money. I agree that Facebook is worth more than $1.8 billion in Whoppers but not because some individual links are more valuable than others...it's about groups and networks of links. You might be able to get someone to part with 10 "junk" friends for $2.40 but could you pay them $22 more to essentially shut down their Facebook account for good? I don't think so. It's going to cost much more than that...and for some intense users of the site, the "buyout" amount might be surprisingly high. (I'd probably accept $24 to close my Facebook account. But I pay nothing to use Twitter and ~$25 a year for Flickr and it might take several hundred or even thousands of dollars to entice me to permanently close either of those accounts...I get so much value from them.)

The reason for this seems like it might have something to do with Metcalfe's Law:

Metcalfe's law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n^2). [...] Metcalfe's law characterizes many of the network effects of communication technologies and networks such as the Internet, social networking, and the World Wide Web. It is related to the fact that the number of unique connections in a network of a number of nodes (n) can be expressed mathematically as the triangular number n(n - 1)/2, which is proportional to n^2 asymptotically.

Or for our economic purposes, the network effect:

In economics and business, a network effect (also called network externality) is the effect that one user of a good or service has on the value of that product to other users. The classic example is the telephone. The more people own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. This creates a positive externality because a user may purchase their phone without intending to create value for other users, but does so in any case.

As Facebook accumulates users and friendship links, the service becomes more and more valuable for each user. In Whoppernomics terms, Facebook may well be worth the $15 billion that the Microsoft deal suggested, but there are obviously problems for Facebook in thinking about their value in this way. How do they extract that value from their users? Getting a user to accept a $500 buyout for their Facebook account is different than Facebook asking that user to pay $500 to keep using their account even though the monetary value of the account is the same in either case. What Facebook is betting on is that each user will put up with hundreds of dollars worth of distractions (in the form of advertising and promotions) from their primary goal on the site (i.e. connecting with friends). Also, as Friendster and MySpace and every other social networking site has learned, membership in these services is not exclusive and users may eventually find more value in some other network with (temporarily) less distraction.

Again, assuming that we're not taking this too seriously.

Facebook's valuation (in Whoppers)Jan 09 2009

[Update: I had decimal point problems with my math. 100 users = 10 Whoppers = $24, not $240. More updates below...]

Burger King recently introduced a Facebook app called Whopper Sacrifice that allows users to delete ten of their friends in exchange for a Whopper sandwich. Watch the app in action.

What BK has unwittingly done here is provide a way to determine the valuation of Facebook. Let's assume that the majority of Facebook's value comes from the connections between their users. From Facebook's statistics page, we learn that the site has 150 million users and the average user has 100 friends. Each friendship is requires the assent of both friends so really each user can, on average, only end half of their friendships. The price of a Whopper is approximately $2.40. That means that each user's friendships is worth around 5 Whoppers, or $12. Do the math and:

$12/user X 150M users = $1.8 billion valuation for Facebook

That's considerably less than the $15 billion valuation assigned to Facebook when Microsoft invested in the company in October 2007 and the lower valuations being tossed about in recent months.

P.S. Other assumptions for the sake of argument: every user is eligible for the Whopper promotion (it's actually only valid in the US), you can sell all of your friends for multiple burgers (actually limit one per customer), and the "average user has 100 friends" means that Facebook users average 100 friends apiece (no idea what the reality is...if they're using the median instead of the mean then that number could be higher or lower). Oh, and it's also assumed that no one should take this too seriously.

Update: I'm getting some email saying that Facebook friendships require the assent of both parties. Is that the way it works for the BK thing? If I am friends with Mary and I unfriend her through the Whopper Sacrifice app, is she then unable to unfriend me to help get her burger? If so, then the $3.6 billion valuation drops to $1.8 billion because each unfriending event takes care of 2 friend connections, not just one. Anyone? Note: we are already taking this too seriously!

Update: Ok, it looks like unfriending on Facebook takes out two friendship connections, not just one. So that drops each user's share to $12 and the valuation to $1.8 billion. D. Final answer, Regis. (thx, everyone)

kottke.org on FacebookOct 16 2008

kottke.org now has a Facebook page. I don't know what this is good for exactly, but there it is. Become a fan! (kottke.org also has a Twitter account if you'd like to read the site that way.)

Facebook still closedJul 07 2008

Some Facebook employee wrote a rebuttal on Facebook to Facebook is the new AOL:

my former PayPal colleague Yishan Wong, now an ass-kicking, name-taking engineer at Facebook, lays the "Walled Garden" rebuttal smackdown on Kottke, Arrington, et al. you go, Yishan... you just go.

And then. Oh, the irony:

Doh! guess Yishan's post is only visible to his facebook friends... okay, so maybe semi-permeable garden, perhaps.

Mmmm, invisible smackdown.

There's a big kerfuffle (how many pointsMar 06 2008

There's a big kerfuffle (how many points do I get for that?) over Hasbro, makers of Scrabble, suing Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla over their popular Facebook application, Scrabulous.

Mark Zuckerberg On '60 Minutes'Jan 14 2008

Lesley Stahl of '60 Minutes' did a big piece last night on Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (It followed Anderson Cooper's horrifying story on rape in Congo and the spillover of Rwandan terror into the country; unreal.)

The worst part (about 3 minutes in, on the online video) came when Stahl said Facebook was the new Google. "You seem to be replacing [Google co-founders] Larry and Sergey as the people out here who everyone's talking about," she said. Zuckerberg didn't say anything. "You're just staring at me," she said, almost immediately. "Is that a question?" he asked her. Then: "We were warned he could be awkward," she said in a voice-over. Actually no, Lesley, that was a savvy response to a terrible, no-win question.

FacebookazineDec 06 2007

A yet-to-be-released Facebook magazine/book hybrid "will be bought by Facebook experts and novices alike, as it covers everything from a step by step guide to getting started through to smart security tips." Presumably, the bookazine will include tips for responding to zombie pokes of your friend's friends' favorite nonprofit topless $1 gift wall petition.

The effect of ditching my Facebook account last week didn't register as much as it may have for some (sorry about that, my nine Facebook friends with whom I never otherwise communicate), but it's been interesting to see the current backlash manifest itself. Deleting your Facebook is the new Facebook. (via hysterical paroxysm)

Facebook vs. AOL, reduxJul 01 2007

I wanted to clarify my comments about Facebook's similarities to AOL. I don't think Facebook is a bad company or that they won't be successful; they seem like smart passionate people who genuinely care about making a great space for their users.1 It's just that I, unlike many other people, don't think that Facebook and Facebook Platform are the future of the web. The platform is great for Facebook, but it's a step sideways or even backwards (towards an AOL-style service) for the web.

Think of it this way. Facebook is an intranet for you and your friends that just happens to be accessible without a VPN. If you're not a Facebook user, you can't do anything with the site...nearly everything published by their users is private. Google doesn't index any user-created information on Facebook.2 AFAIK, user data is available through the platform but that hardly makes it open...all of the significant information and, more importantly, interaction still happens in private. Compare this with MySpace or Flickr or YouTube. Much of the information generated on these sites is publicly available. The pages are indexed by search engines. You don't have to be a user to participate (in the broadest sense...reading, viewing, and lurking are participating).

Faced with competition from this open web, AOL lost...running a closed service with custom content and interfaces was no match for the wild frontier of the web. Maybe if they'd done some things differently, they would have fared better, but they still would have lost. In competitive markets, open and messy trumps closed and controlled in the long run. Everything you can do on Facebook with ease is possible using a loose coalition of blogging software, IM clients, email, Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader, etc. Sure, it's not as automatic or easy, but anyone can participate and the number of things to see and do on the web outnumbers the number of things you can see and do on Facebook by several orders of magnitude (and always will).

At some point in the future, Facebook may well open up, rendering much of this criticism irrelevant. Their privacy controls are legendarily flexible and precise...it should be easy for them to let people expose parts of the information to anyone if they wanted to. And as Matt Webb pointed out to me in an email, there's the possibility that Facebook turn itself inside out and be the social network bit for everyone else's web apps. In the meantime, maybe we shouldn't be so excited about the web's future moving onto an intranet.

[1] And I'm definitely not, as more than one person has suggested, "bitter" about Facebook's success. Please. Just because you disagree with something doesn't mean you're angry. The only reason I even wrote that post is that I got tired of seeing the same people who think AOL sucked, that Times Select is a bad business decision for the NY Times, that are frustrated by IM interop, and that open participation on the web is changing business, media, and human culture for the better trumpeting that this new closed platform is the way forward.

[2] Aside from extremely limited profile pages, which are little more than "hi, this person is on Facebook and you should be too" advertisements. Examples here.

Facebook is the new AOLJun 29 2007

Earlier in the week, I made a comment in passing in a post about Vimeo:

you do know that Facebook is AOL 2.0, right?

A few people picked up on it and speculated what I might have meant by it. In reading those posts and poking around a bit, I found a post that Scott Heiferman made just after Facebook Platform launched in May:

While at Sony in 1994, I was sent to Virginia to learn how to build a Sony "app" on AOL (the #3 online service, behind Compuserve & Prodigy at the time) using AOL's proprietary "rainman" platform.

Fast forward to Facebook 2007 and see similarities: If you want access to their big base of users, develop something in their proprietary language for their people who live in their walled garden.

Scott pretty much nails it here. I've no doubt that Facebook is excited about their new platform (their userbase is big enough that companies feel like they have to develop for it) and it's a savvy move on their part, but I'm not so sure everyone else should be happy about it. What happens when Flickr and LinkedIn and Google and Microsoft and MySpace and YouTube and MetaFilter and Vimeo and Last.fm launch their platforms that you need to develop apps for in some proprietary language that's different for each platform? That gets expensive, time-consuming, and irritating. It's difficult enough to develop for OS X, Windows, and Linux simultaneously...imagine if you had 30 different platforms to develop for.

As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It's called the internet and it's more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.

Update: I've clarified my AOL vs. Facebook thoughts here.

Congrats to the Vimeo team on theJun 27 2007

Congrats to the Vimeo team on the launch of the latest version of the site. Here's the announcement post. The login/signup page is awesome. I also like how Vimeo has found room in the crowded video-on-the-web field, even though YouTube dominates the space. Vimeo is to YouTube as Facebook is to MySpace...not in terms of closed versus open (you do know that Facebook is AOL 2.0, right?) but in terms of being a bit more well thought out and not as, well, ugly (and not just in the aesthetic sense).

Facekicking, n. The act of accessing FacebookJun 06 2007

Facekicking, n. The act of accessing Facebook from your T-Mobile Sidekick. Coined while chatting with Jonah the other night...we decided that "facekicking" was more exciting to say than "sidebooking".

Back in August 2005, I gave Google aJun 01 2007

Back in August 2005, I gave Google a good shot at developing a WebOS of sorts, a browser-based platform on which would run a suite of apps to replace a bunch of the most commonly used desktop applications. Google Gears is a another small piece of the bigger puzzle, a browser extension that allows web apps to provide offline functionality. I don't think the offline thing is as important as it was two years ago; people have gotten very comfortable using web apps and web access, especially among heavy users, is almost continuous and ubiquitous. That and if the hype about Facebook's new platform is accurate, working online together is more compelling than working offline apart.

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