Tag Archives: Social network

Break Up Facebook

I’m a capitalist. I’m a big believer that the free enterprise system should be left to work pretty much without outside interference. We can have a lively discussion as to whether that really ever happens (I don’t think it does) but I think we can agree that where the free enterprise system needs to have some controls imposed are when the system results in anticompetitive and/or anticonsumer behavior. Historically, the government takes action at that point, as it did with Standard Oil and with original AT&T. I think we’re at that point again with Facebook and I think the company needs to be broken up.

Many of you don’t remember the old AT&T. It controlled local phones, long-distance services, and the manufacture of most telephone equipment. You can read a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of the breakup here but the net result was that phone services got more competitive, equipment improved, and the number of wireless services and broadband providers we have now is a result. AT&T was a  monopoly, and when its monopoly power was removed, it struggled.

Facebook is a monopoly. They’ve become so massive that you can’t escape their data collection system. They’ve bought any company that seems as if it might become competitive. They aren’t “winning” because they have a better product; they’re doing so because we don’t really have a choice or because they’ve cheated. Facebook bases its business model on anti-consumer behavior and, frankly, lying. They lied to publishers. They lied to video creators.  They lied to the government about data collection and the role they played in spreading misinformation and propaganda while accepting money to do so. They’ve lied to you. Think about the number of times you’ve read about some horrible thing the company has done only to promise it won’t happen again and they’ll be better. Until the next time.

Germany just did something that could show us the way. Germany’s antitrust regulator has told Facebook it must stop forcing users to allow it to collect and combine their data from sources outside Facebook. Among such sources are Facebook-owned apps like WhatsApp and Instagram as well as third-party websites that include Facebook features like the “share” button. Since Facebook derives 99% of its revenue from advertising based on that data collection, this is a great first step.

The last straw from me was the realization that Facebook is monetizing data from people who don’t even have a Facebook account. When people navigate around the internet, sites that use Facebook’s advertising pixel or other social APIs linking back to Facebook (like the “Like” button) send data about those site visits back to Facebook. Facebook collects that data on everyone who visits these sites, whether they’re a registered user or not. You might not be on Facebook but that doesn’t stop them from selling your data. It’s also why any ad-based digital publishing business is probably going to have to survive on crumbs since Facebook scarfs up most of the ad dollars since they have most of the data. Yes, I know Google grabs just as much but it’s a different business model. Search isn’t display.

Break up Facebook. The digital world needs its walls to crumble so that new businesses – better and more ethical businesses – can survive. Start by breaking off Instagram and What’s App. Don’t let them make any new acquisitions of competitors. That’s where I’d begin. You?

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Facebook Adds Friction

If you’ve been led to this post via my Facebook profile, welcome. It wasn’t as easy as usual to get you here and I’ll explain why in a moment. The circumstances for that raise a good business question, though, and that’s what I want us to think about today.

I received an email from WordPress the other day. The screed is published on the WordPress platform, as are thousands of other sites. When I write a new post, it appears on my site as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Those are decent sources of traffic for me and even if readers don’t click through to the source I can impart my thoughts via those other platforms to a certain extent.

Back to the email. WordPress notified me that as of today, August 1, 2018, a change to Facebook’s API means that third-party tools can no longer share posts automatically to Facebook Profiles. This includes Publicize, the tool that connects my site to major social media platforms like Facebook. Obviously, I can still do the posting to my own profile manually, as I’ve done today, but it’s certainly less convenient. Interestingly, they’ll still allow the tools to post to Facebook Pages, which tend to be used by businesses and groups. Of course, commercial entities such as pages have greatly reduced visibility in the News Feed unless you’re willing to pay to promote the post.

Why would Facebook do this? On the surface, it’s with good intention. They say it’s to prevent spam and nefarious actions on the site by making it harder to post across multiple profiles simultaneously. Some of the other changes they’re making that affect me less but some people a lot more are to protect user privacy. All laudable, right?

Maybe not. Here is what WordPress has to say:

While Facebook says it is introducing this change to improve their platform and prevent the misuse of personal profiles, we believe that eliminating cross-posting from WordPress is another step back in Facebook’s support of the open web, especially since it affects people’s ability to interact with their network (unless they’re willing to pay for visibility).

What if the moves are just to further insulate the Facebook platform from external content and/or actions? What if it actually is about solidifying their monopoly in the social media space? I won’t bore you with all of the API changes but some are pretty significant, including restricting a lot of the data pages get. Can you pay for it? I’ll willing to bet you can.

I guess my business question to you all is about where any of us draw the line in protecting our business. We’re living in a world in which reducing friction – the choke points within our daily lives where things stop flowing smoothly – is becoming expected. Facebook just added friction to adding content to their platform, a platform that would become almost useless without users doing exactly that. I’ve got trust issues with Facebook based on their behavior over the last decade with respect to everything from data privacy to their openness about what they’re doing. When traffic my stuff drops off, will I even bother posting there?

Do I think Facebook is going to go out of business without the screed generating engagement for them? No. Might they if it becomes too much trouble for anyone with engaging content to post on the site? Could be. I’ll guess we’ll all stay tuned right?

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Zuckerberg Unbound

Philip Roth wrote a series of books in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The middle one is called Zuckerman Unbound and deals with the relationship between an author (Roth’s alter-ego Zuckerman) and his creations. It’s not a great relationship although it is a pretty good book. Roth’s character seems to express regret for the books his younger self brought into the world, and at one point he finds out that a book he wrote has caused his mother a great deal of pain and suffering.

English: Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Fac...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought about Zuckerman as I watched (and am watching as I write this) another Zuck – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook – testify before Congress about how his creation, designed to bring people together, has morphed into something that has blown many people and institutions apart. I doubt any of you reading today’s screed touch billions of people every day the way Facebook does, but I think there are some lessons to be learned here.

One thing that rings hollow for me is the apology offered to the committees. I and many others have been writing about Facebook’s lack of privacy and transparency for years. This isn’t something new nor is it something about which Facebook was unaware. One might suppose that they, like so many others in business, were of the mindset that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Bad call, and they’ll be doing a lot of begging as the inevitable new regulations on the use of data are put into place. That’s lesson one.

My favorite moment of yesterday’s hearing came when one senator informed Mr. Zuckerberg that Facebook’s “user agreement sucks.” It does, but it’s far from alone. I’d also argue that any “simple” agreement that links out to a dozen other pages for further explanations of things not explained in the initial policy is far from simple. I doubt I could pass a quiz on what Facebook can and can’t do with my information and I’ve been on the platform since 2006. Anyone that generates data that you’ll use to benefit your business should understand what they’re giving you and why. Lesson two.

I do know that Facebook gives the user a lot of control over who sees what although it really doesn’t do so by default. I’m less clear as to what they gather although I’ve downloaded my data and gone through it. Some of what is in there comes from activities off of Facebook, probably either through my use of a Facebook ID to log in or via the Facebook Beacon. How many users understand that they might be tracked EVERYWHERE by Facebook and not just when they’re using the service? Facebook would argue that you’re using the service when you use your Facebook ID to log in elsewhere but I think that’s specious. Yet another lack of transparency, and lesson three.

I wonder where Facebook goes from here. As far back as 2010, it’s been under attack for its privacy failures. It’s a business founded by a man who called users “dumb f^&ks” for giving him their information. Maybe like Zuckerman, he’ll come to realize that he needs to be unbound, cut loose from everything that made him what he was and fix the problems in a way that fulfills the promise of connecting the world that he espouses. At the moment, it appears that others may step in and take steps that alter his world forever.

What’s your take?

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Keeping It Real

Back in 2015, an engineer at Twitter asked his security team to look into fake accounts. He said he was stunned to find that a significant percentage of the total accounts created on Twitter had Russian and Ukrainian IP addresses and he also found that they were, for the most part, fake. They were “bots”.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

No, today isn’t a political rant about how our Democracy might just have been hijacked by a foreign power. Rather, what happened next, as told in this piece by Bloomberg, is instructive to any of us in business because it raises a few issues that are common to us all.

The engineer was part of the security team. That team was tasked with keeping the platform secure. He took his findings to another team – the growth team – which had the responsibility for increasing the user base. That user base number is critical for every business since how the business is valued is based in part on how many users (we can’t really say people in this case, can we?) are active. Discovering that a significant percentage of the user base was fake could have a negative effect on the business’ balance sheet, and in this, we begin to see the problem.

There is a misalignment of goals. If part of security is keeping the platform free from spambots, the people responsible for deleting the spambots can’t have any goals which make deleting those bots counterproductive. In this case, the engineer was told to “stay in his lane”. In other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain – the reality of our user numbers – it’s not your job.

No organization should have these kinds of silos. No organization can base its public statements about growth and user engagement on numbers it knows are fake. It’s one thing for users to inflate their follower numbers by buying fake followers but it’s quite another for Twitter itself to be aware of these non-human accounts and to do nothing about them because they want to keep their user numbers up.

I don’t mean to single out Twitter. The same issue persists on Facebook and other social platforms and it’s way more insidious than research can find. There is a term – dark social – that refers to sharing activity among the network’s members that isn’t easily measured. Let’s say a fake account spreads a lie and maybe even buys an ad to do so. We can see how many impressions the ad had or how many followers the fake account has. What we can’t easily see is the network effect. I see the post and am outraged about it. I tell five friends, who tell five of their friends, etc., particularly when it’s shared off the network itself via email or text.

I am fairly certain that each of these networks could identify and stop this activity despite what you might have seen in Congress last week. Those were the lawyers testifying, not the engineers. The point for your business is to keep everyone’s goals in alignment, don’t build silos, and to be honest with yourself and with your investors. These are public companies who might just be committing fraud, but every company has the same responsibility for honesty and transparency.  You with me?

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Are We In An Information Death Spiral?

Sometimes I wonder if we’re in an informational death spiral. That’s when an aircraft is out of control, loses lift, and heads in a corkscrew motion toward the ground. My pilot friends say they usually begin with a random, increasing roll and airspeed. That’s where I think we all just might be with respect to information. We’ve had a random, increasing rolling of what “real” information is and the speed at which it is generated is increasing.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Why this matters to you, both in business and in life, is that it’s becoming increasingly impossible to tell fact from fiction. The revelation that the Russian government created thousands of fake accounts across the social sphere to generate and amplify “news” items that were made up out of whole cloth is devastating to anyone who tries to figure out fact from fiction. That devastation is multiplied by the findings of this year’s Pew study which found:

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) use Facebook, and a majority of those users get news on the site, similar to 2016. Looked at as a portion of all U.S. adults, this translates into just under half (45%) of Americans getting news on Facebook. While a large share of its users get news on [Twitter} (74% say they do), its audience is significantly smaller overall. This means that overall, fewer Americans get news on Twitter (11% of U.S. adults).

In other words, we’re increasingly relying on the least reliable sources for news and information. Imagine if you were doing this in your business. Rather than looking at actual revenues, you based your appraisal of how things were going on how full your warehouse seemed or how busy your staff was. Sure, a warehouse that’s becoming empty can signal great sales but it can also signal an issue with your supply chain or with your accounting department who hasn’t been paying suppliers. Maybe it’s a collections issue. You don’t know until you get the real facts.

Being able to separate fact from fiction is the basis of being an educated, competent person. When others are out there trying as hard as they can to mask facts or to impose fiction, that job is thrown into a death spiral. When Facebook changed from being a place when you could focus on friends and family to a platform for news and information, the spiral began. When their algorithm began to reward the click bait that was able to deceive enough people by being outrageous, our collective noses headed toward the ground.

Don’t be fooled by fake news, either in the office or out of it. Find the facts, level off your wings, and fly on.

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Be Inefficient – It’s Better For Your Business

Representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been summoned to Capitol Hill to explain what they know about how Russia used their platforms to interfere in the last Presidential election.  Their testimony began yesterday, and there was a recurring theme that I think has implications for any business. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with serving your customers.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may remember something from a few months back. There was a kerfuffle about Facebook using human editors on the News Feed who had a liberal bias. Whether that’s true or not is immaterial to our discussion. Facebook removed human editors from the “trending topics” feature seen in the news feeds of users. Given the decreased human oversight, gaming Facebook’s algorithm became easier, as demonstrably false news reports spread with increasing speed during the election. As Recode reported:

Sen. Jeff Flake is asking Facebook how it monitors its service — humans or artificial intelligence or both? Stretch (note: Facebook’a lawyer) said both, and explained a bit about how algorithms can detect non-human behavior, like someone creating many accounts in a very short amount of time. But while software can detect some of this stuff, humans often need to make a final decision on whether or not contents should be removed. Twitter and Google confirmed they have similar setups.

Fewer humans means fewer edits, apparently. What caught my attention yesterday was that each of the three platforms testified that putting in human-based solutions are inefficient for their business. What about the people on their platforms? A significant percentage of young people get their news only from Facebook. How can they be expected to understand the issues when the facts that are presented to them may be propaganda and not news or factual at all?

None of us in business can afford to make decisions solely on the basis of what’s good for the business. We need to stay customer and consumer-centric. After all, you wouldn’t want doctors in an ER failing to administer expensive drugs because it’s inefficient for the hospital, right? The restaurant that cuts the quality of their ingredients or service because they need higher margins won’t be around for very long.

Like most of you, I use these three platforms every day. Twitter is a cesspool, in my opinion, filled with trolls, hate-speech, and spam, but it’s also critically important. It’s a shame that they use the “free speech” argument to ignore that crap. There are limits on speech – try yelling “fire” in a theater and see what happens to you – and Twitter needs to clean up its act. All three of these companies need to quit using the profit motive and their responsibility to shareholders as excuses to let the bad actors do their thing. Be a little less efficient and more customer-friendly. Facebook admitted they knew something was going on and did nothing, allowing the “fake news” and propaganda to disseminate. That’s not consumer-friendly, is it?

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Do We Really Want Mullets?

Anyone remember the mullet? You know what I’m talking about: the haircut that’s “business in the front, a party in the back.” I think the last time the mullet was popular was when it was sported by members of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they won The Stanley Cup in the early 1990’s. Since then, it’s become more of an object of ridicule than a hairstyle to be admired. I think we’ve come to recognize that we can’t be both businesslike and a party at the same time.

I thought of the mullet the other day when I read that Facebook was testing resume-building features so that users can share their work history with their Facebook friends. They’re obviously trying to hone in on a space dominated by LinkedIn. The curious thing is that your “resume” doesn’t really display. It seems as if Facebook is simply gathering the information which one can assume they’ll use to fuel a service for headhunters and active job seekers. There’s actually a couple of points we can think about here.

The first is that most of the people I know (myself included) use different social sites for different purposes. Many of my Facebook friends are not work-related. We’re not generally connected on LinkedIn. I don’t cross-post (other than the screed) content on the two sites since I don’t especially think my business contacts care about what food I’ve eaten or what concerts I’ve attended or my political views. Conversely, I don’t bore my non-work friends with the three or four business-related articles I might come across that I find interesting.

From what I can tell, most users can distinguish between the appropriate content for the two sites. Frankly, I think Facebook knows way too much about each of us anyway, and I’m not sure that I want them to know much more about my work life, my contacts, or anything else I keep in the workplace. I certainly don’t want potential clients considering anything other than the professional qualifications available to them on LinkedIn – not my musical tastes, not my politics and not my sad attempts at humor with friends.

More importantly, every business needs a focus. Facebook, in particular, seems to have decided that anything is fair game. They’re trying to out video YouTube, to out marketplace Amazon, and to compete in areas such as food delivery. In the meantime, they can’t even decide if they’re a media business (hint: they are).  Each of us needs to figure out what business we’re in so we can channel our resources, focus on our competition, and understand what problems our solutions can solve to serve our customer base. Chasing the next shiny object or growing beyond our core competence generally is more trouble than it’s worth. That’s how we end up with a mullet and is that what we really want?

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