Facebook, Trust, and the Clueless Engineer

I do this research every day.
I do this research every day.

So I’m guessing you’ve heard about this. tl;dr : Scientists at Facebook manipulated the posts they showed certain users and then evaluated the posts the people being manipulated made. Then they published a study on the results.

A lot of people are reacting very strongly to this news.

Some people are pissed at the idea of being manipulated. While I empathize and agree, I think a lot of their anger is based on a contract with Facebook that Facebook abandoned a long time ago. Many people seem to think that Facebook is designed for them to share things with their friends, while their friends share things with them.

It doesn’t work that way anymore. It hasn’t for a long time.

Facebook has been manipulating how things are displayed in the “timeline” for literally years now. They are manipulating it to sell more ads. Deal with it. (Seriously, please deal with it and stop complaining. I wish FB could figure out how to hide those complaints from me.)

So, while the research strikes me as incredible unethical, the idea that they manipulated what people see on their timelines surprises me the way that night following day surprises me.

Meanwhile, another group of people seem to think what Facebook did is equivalent to the A/B testing that many websites do all the time and are surprised at the people that are pissed.

At first I thought Andreessen was mocking the idea that what FB did was publishable research, but later, in a debate with another person:

Normally I consider Andreessen to be insightful and a bit of an iconoclast (as well as pathologically compelled to swipe at Piketty at least 20 times a day – I wonder what a psychological study on that would reveal? But I digress…), but he really jumped the shark on this one. I don’t know if he’s being deliberately disingenuous or is really as clueless as he comes across here.

Of course his point is completely correct. Just like the engineer talking to the balloonist, his description of what happened is completely accurate. Advertisers (at least the good ones) have been adjusting, tweaking, and optimizing, their offers for as long as there has been advertising.

And the mechanics of Facebook’s “research” was largely the same as “normal” A/B testing: show different pages/posts to different people and measure the varied results. So to an engineer that only knows how to think like an engineer, what FB did might seem like the same thing.

But, as I outlined above, people don’t realize they are being advertised at when they go there. They think Facebook is for sharing pictures of their kids, their cats, and their meals, and if they don’t “get it” they’re just stupid users. But alas,  that annoying little thing called “ethics” means that we should, dramatic sigh, worry about why people are looking at the things we put in front of them.

It’s easier, of course, to not worry about why people are on our websites. It’s almost as easy to pay a lawyer or fifty to take the phrase “caveat emptor” and stretch a few thousand unintelligible words from it that no one will ever read, and then hide behind them when you get caught doing something unethical or, bizarrely, decide to publish the result of something unethical.

But having a lawyer, or even the world’s most popular website, is not a substitute for ethics. Skepchick covers the ethics behind what’s wrong with FB’s research better than I ever could over here. (Hint: there’s this thing called “informed consent” that doesn’t apply to sign up pages for websites or ads for Cialis, but does apply to research.)

It seems obvious to “say” it out loud, but the ‘Net is almost completely intertwined into our lives now. If you’re using it it’s important to realize that free stuff is never free. Whenever you visit a website or tap on a phone app you’re accepting a contract and you have no reason to believe that that contract is equitable, fair, or ethical.

Meanwhile if you are an engineer or entrepreneur, being successful online requires an understanding and appreciation of how other think and how they might react to something that you think is completely normal. Unless of course, your definition of success doesn’t include how you effect other people. If that’s the case, just carry on. You’re already doing a great job.


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