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.


The Porsche Professionals Guild

malletA man walks into a repair shop. He has a 1968 Porsche 912 that will no longer reverse.

“Excuse me,” he says to the man at the counter, “I need help with my Porsche.”

“Of course! We here at Gentle Motors would love to help you. We offer friendly force free repairs for all Porsche automobiles.”

The man seems a little confused at this response, but continues. “My car will no longer reverse. I’ve put up with it for a while, but it’s a real problem n–”

“We can certainly fix that sir! My car did the same thing! I’m confident I can fix that without scratching your paint.” The mechanic beams back at the car owner.

“Without scratching my paint? That’s great, it hadn’t really occurred to me that you might. I really like this car a lot. I had always dreamed of owning a classic Porsche. What qualifications do you have to work on them?” The car owner seems a little more confused.

“Well sir, I am a proud member of the Porsche Professionals Guild. The Guild holds us to the highest ethical standards! I am sworn to fix Porsches without damaging paint, carpet, or upholstery, and we never, ever, use steel mallets or sawzalls.”

“That’s great to hear. But have you worked on a 912 before? Have you taken any training with Porsche? I’d like to be sure that my car is fixed correctly and that I won’t have any more troubles. Transmission problems can be danger–”

The mechanic pulls a large mallet from his desk. “Did you know the guy down the street uses one of these?!? It’s unbelievable. I don’t even think all of his clients know! Back in the day we used hit transmissions with these, just to see if it might knock the synchros back into place. But not anymore.”

The man looks at the mallet, flummoxed.

Suddenly the mechanic looks afraid. He jams the mallet back into the drawer and slams it shut. “Please don’t tell anyone you saw that. If the guys find out I even have one they’ll be ethics charges.”

“This has been fascinating, but I really just need some sort of reassurance that you are qualified to fix my car.”

“Of course I am! I even own a 912 myself.” The mechanic points to a beautiful red 912 parked in the back, its front wheels on small ramps and a stone wedged against the back tire.

“What are the ramps for?”

“Sometimes it needs help getting started in reverse. I don’t trust the guy down the street to fix it, so I am managing the situation until I finish an online class on transmissions. It’s called BAT: Bushing Adjusted Transmissions.”

The man leaves. His car was fixed a few days later across town. His carpets looked a little cleaner when he got it back, and the car was also waxed beautifully. He never had transmission issues again.


How To Be Indispensable

I just finished Seth Godin’s Book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? It’s a book that I will need to read at least two more times to fully digest. It’s also a book I think everyone should read.

If you haven’t heard of Seth Godin, look here. I’m not even going to try to cover his accomplishments in a blog post that I already know is going to be longer than I want. His blog is worth subscribing to, regardless of what you do or who you are. (You can get it delivered right to your inbox.)

The title of this book implies that it’s about being an indispensable something, and since the book is often found in the Business and Self Help categories, you might assume that the book is about being an indispensable employee, entrepreneur, or business owner. You’d be right, but you would also only be scraping the surface. Godin’s definition of a Linchpin is someone who creates art. He then defines art as a gift that is intended to create change.

If this sounds like a broad definition, that’s because it’s intended to be one. A lot of Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? is about what techie types like me refer to as “soft-skills” and how, when viewed with Godin’s definition of art, those skills finally seem as important as they really are. Art might be creating what we “traditionally” think of as art, such as painting, writing, or film. But it can also be creating something something more “technical” like software. Or it can be as simple as  making life better for someone.

The graph below, which I adapted from Godin’s hand draw version in the book, is a great example of what the book has to offer.

Four Different Quadrants
The Linchpin Scale

On the horizontal access we have a measure of passion. How much effort are you willing to put into your art? What sort of obstacles are you willing to overcome?

On the vertical access we have a measure of attachment. Attachment can mean attached to a set of rules, a specific outcome, or a specific solution. I was tempted to change this axis to neasure “flexibility,” but decided to stick with Seth Godin’s definitions. It’s his book.

On the lower left hand side we have the Whiner. The Whiner is attached to his world view and to how he thinks it should be, but he’s stuck since he has no passion – he lacks a willingness to create any change. The battle cry of the Whiner is “It’s not fair!”

On the lower right hand side we have the Fundamentalist. Regardless of what community you are in the Fundamentalists are easy to find and probably well known. Combine a rigid attachment with a lot of passion and noise is always part of the result. Often the only result. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) not a lot of change is likely, since that rigid attachment almost always precludes even talking to someone with a different view, let only working together to make something happen.

The upper left hand corner is interesting. What happens when you combine a lack of passion with a lack of attachment? You get a Bureaucrat. When in doubt, fall back on rules and “It’s not my decision/fault/problem.” You know where to find them.

The upper right hand side is the home of the Linchpin: a passion to affect change combined with an ability to discern what a successful outcome can look like. Where the fundamentalist is focused on a rigid definition of success, the Linchpin is looking at what some might call the “big picture.” A desire to make things happen, combined with an ability to adapt is a recipe for results.

Where are you on this graph? Is your position always the same for every situation you are in? I know I tend to shift around, but now that I have it for a frame of reference, I think it will improve my ability to get things done.

This is a lot to try to cover in 500 words, and I am already well over that. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? is worth your time and your money. If audio is your thing, there’s an edition read by Seth himself.

Trust, But Verify…Aw Hell, Don’t Trust Either.

Impressive, isn't it?
Impressive, isn’t it?

It took about 5 minutes to make this. It would have taken less if I hadn’t messed about with the fonts.

One reason to distribute quotes this way is that images are easier to share than text, so it more likely that it will go “viral.” Another seems to be to make it more memorable or even more credible.

We love quotes, especially when they validate what we already believe. We really love it when the quote comes from someone we already trust or are already seen as an authority in whatever arena the quote covers.

But when you see a quote online try to remember these two things:

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” — Oscar Wilde

“The problem with internet quotes is that you cant always depend on their accuracy” — Abraham Lincoln, TED 2013

Haters Gonna Hate. And Get Nothing Done.

I didn't get a harrumph outta that guy.
I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy!

Poke around the ‘net for more than a few minutes and you’ll find plenty of blogs, pictures with inspirational text, tweets, and statuses, telling you how you have the power  to change the world.

I’m not here to debunk that. Absolutely not. I believe you do have that power and if we disagree on anything, it’s probably about scope. But that’s a different conversation.

However, I do think that changing the world does start with a proper mindset. You have to set your mind on what you want to create. It can’t be about what you want to destroy. This might sound a little woo-like for me, but I actually have some practical reasoning behind it.

Changing just about anything more all-encompassing than your sheets requires cooperation from other people. You can get people to buy in to negative cause for a while but it’s not a sustainable, world-changing strategy. Hating things is tiring, and when the hate doesn’t translate to action it’s easy to throw up your hands and give up. Or redirect the hate in a different direction.

Witness the U.S. election cycle for the past few decades. It’s up-and-down, back and forth. Someone wins with a negative message, rules one of the roosts for a bit, gets little done because there is no one to work with, and then gets knocked off the roost by the other group’s negative message. Repeat until we are frozen in a struggle…to destroy the other guy while getting nothing else done.

There’s another, more dangerous, reason why an endeavor based on destruction is doomed to fail. When you base your effort on stopping the other guy there’s a tendency for everyone to become the other guy. Even your allies.

History is rife with examples of this happening. Pick any religion and look at the different sects and how and why they were formed. Look at the current state of any political party that is in the minority.

If you are a dog trainer, take a look at young dog trainer’s group whose raison d’etre is a list of things they don’t approve of and the internal strife that they are currently suffering. They won’t be the first group founded on similar principles that will ultimately slide into obscurity after turning on themselves. It’s all about the foundation.

If you want to change the world you need to be for something. On the surface it may seem like a word game, but when it comes time to find and collaborate with other people, it just might be the only common ground you have – or need.

Outrage Fatigue

Yes, a variation on XKCD's Duty Calls. Decided to be a little different.
Yes, a variation on XKCD’s Duty Calls. Decided to be a little different.

Somewhere on the Internet, right this very second, someone is writing a post or comment that you would find utterly unacceptable and outrageous.

I’ll give you a second to get over that.

Ready now? Good.

The upside to the Internet’s gift of near instantaneous communication to people almost anywhere in the world is that we can share our thoughts and opinions.

But of course, the downside to the Internet’s gift of near instantaneous communication to people almost anywhere in the world is that we can share our thoughts and opinions.

All this sharing and feeling inevitably leads to outrage. Outrage over what the politician said. Outrage what the actress did. Outrage over what the dog trainer did.

Lots of outrage. 

And then, at least for some of us, we end up with outrage fatigue. We stop getting outraged, because we just stop caring. In some ways this is good – maintaining a near-constant state of outrage isn’t mentally or physically healthy. In other ways it can be bad – while outrage might not be productive, caring certainly can be.

So the question is, when should you care? Obviously things that directly effect you and people you care about are things you should care about. Maybe drawing a line at things you can or cannot change and at actions that will or will not change them is a start? Can you stop those celebrities from hitting each on elevators? Can you get a TV show cancelled? Will posting post yet another video excerpt from that show help get it cancelled…or maybe get it more viewers? Will linking to yet another rant from thinkprogress.org or drudgereport.com change minds or start another fight?

Remember, the people buying ads don’t care why they get eyeballs, only that they do get them. Spreading outrage doesn’t hurt them – it’s part of their marketing plan. That applies to reality show producers, politicians, and A&R executives.

I am far from being able to say that I am taking my own advice here. You don’t have to dig deep in my timeline to find an Internet mortar shell or three. But I’m working on it.

What are your thoughts? How do you decide when it’s worth getting upset or fired up over something?

How to Not Be Happy and Share It Far and Wide

Check out this comic. If you click on the image below, the entire strip will show up on the original site. You may have to click on it again to zoom in. (It will open in a new window.)


This strip is from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. SMBC is one of my favorite web comics. It’s aways different, usually funny, and sometimes very thought-provoking.

The obvious metaphor here is for religion, and it is certainly apt. An important part of some religions is to “share” it with people. Even if sharing requires a sword, a gun, or a law outlawing things your religion doesn’t approve of.

Even if your religion doesn’t remove the rock from your head it might be your job to share it because, similar to the cartoon, if it doesn’t remove the rock from your head you must be doing it wrong.

But I think it’s about a lot more than just religion. Or, to put it another way, we have more religions than just religion.

Your “rock” might have been needing to lose weight and a Paleo (a diet I believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses created) might have been what “got rid” of it. It might have been needing to train a dog, and a clicker (Testify!) might have been your fix. It might have been being unhappy, and religion might have been what made you happy. It might have been having no customers and Twitter, a blog, or Google+, might have been what generated some business for you.

It’s natural to want to share a solution for a problem with our friends, and it seems natural to assume that if it doesn’t work for them, they must be doing it wrong. In this strip there’s a little problem with that though: our hero didn’t really understand what made him happy and shared the wrong thing.

This happens to us too. Did changing what you ate make you lose weight, or was it the process of paying attention to what you ate and how much? Did a clicker train your dog, or was it you learning about behavior that did it? Was it religion that made you happy, or was it taking the time to examine your life, your relationships, and how you treat people? Did Twitter get you clients, or did thinking about how to talk to people in terms they understand do it?

But the real important question is this: does the fact that it worked for you make it universal?

Which takes me another point that this strip brings up. Our hero never figured out what made him happy again and as a result his teachings were by definition flawed. Despite having the purest of motives, he never managed to help anyone. Success does not make one an expert.

So what did his followers think? That it was their fault. If he’s happy and I did what he says and I am not happy, I must be doing it wrong.

You’re doing it wrong is a very powerful phrase. So are You’re not trying hard enough and You just don’t want it to work. They all divorce the teacher from responsibility and put the onus on the student to teach themselves. Good teachers use these phrases sparingly, if at all.

But you can build an entire religion on you’re doing it wrong.

I’m going to leave it there because I still have a bunch of rocks in my head and the last thing I want to do is risk sharing the wrong one.