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Mar 26 2018

Facebook As The Ultimate Surveillance Machine

Whenever someone tells me about the progress humans have made, I remind them that since the beginning of humans, man has been trying to kill his neighbor to take over his backyard. And yes, as Amy likes to regularly remind me, it’s often men doing the killing.

Simultaneously, governments around the world have spent zillions of dollars building surveillance systems since the beginning of – well – humans. Or at least since the beginning of governments.

In 14 years, Facebook has created the most incredible and effective surveillance machine in the history of humankind. And we, the humans, have given the machine much of the data. John Lanchester has the best article on this I’ve read to date titled You Are the Product in the London Review of Books. It’s long – 8674 words – but worth reading every one of them. The magical paragraph is in the middle of the article and follows.

“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.”

Jean-Louis Gassée, always the provocateur, is blunt: Mark Zuckerberg Thinks We’re Idiots. It’s another article worth reading, but if you just like pull quotes, the best one shows up early in the article.

“As Facebook’s leader, Zuckerberg resolves to get things straightened out in the future (“it’s my job, right?”) while he delivers a callcenter-style broken record reassurance: “Your privacy is important to us”. Yes, of course, our privacy is important to you; you made billions by surveilling and mining our private lives. One wonders how aware Zuckerberg is of the double entendre.”

For a more balanced, but equally intense view, Ben Thompson at Stratechery has a long post titled The Facebook Brand. It explains, in detail, how easy it was for any developer to get massive amounts of data from the Facebook Graph API between 2010 and 2015 (where Ben suggests that Facebook was willing to give everything away.) If you don’t want to read the article, but are interested in an example of the Facebook Graph Extended Profile Properties,  here it is.

Ben’s conclusion is really important.

“Ultimately, the difference in Google and Facebook’s approaches to the web — and in the case of the latter, to user data — suggest how the duopolists will ultimately be regulated. Google is already facing significant antitrust challenges in the E.U., which is exactly what you would expect from a company in a dominant position in a value chain able to dictate terms to its suppliers. Facebook, meanwhile, has always seemed more immune to antitrust enforcement: its users are its suppliers, so what is there to regulate?

That, though, is the answer: user data. It seems far more likely that Facebook will be directly regulated than Google; arguably this is already the case in Europe with the GDPR. What is worth noting, though, is that regulations like the GDPR entrench incumbents: protecting users from Facebook will, in all likelihood, lock in Facebook’s competitive position.

This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.”

In the meantime, Facebook is arguing with Ars Technica about whether or not Facebook scraped call, text message data for years from Android phones. Facebook is pretty insistent that it isn’t. But, given that Facebook quietly hid webpages bragging of its ability to influence elections, it’s hard to know who to believe.

In shocking news, Facebook is now under federal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. I’m sure they will get to the bottom of this quickly. I wonder if the NSA is going to have to delete all the Facebook data they’ve slurped up over the years after this is over.

Jun 22 2007

The Facebook Problem

I’ve had an account on Facebook for a while. Until a month ago – around the time of the F8 Platform launch – I checked it once a month.

In the last 30 days, I’ve been checking it once a day.  My friends list has exploded, I’ve added a bunch of apps (just to play around – hint – important reference to a note below), and exercised most of the features that I could find.  VCs and entrepreneurs have “discovered Facebook” – everyone is talking about it on blogs and in pitches (as in “we are going to build a Facebook app for X.”)

A week ago, I started thinking that there was a key problem with Facebook.  This problem is directly linked to the absolute strategic brilliance of the Facebook folks around the launch of the Facebook platform.  This problem is clearly articulated in in the post “I have 250,000 users, now what?”


Be patient – you get to hear the problem in two paragraphs.  Last week, I started saying to people “Facebook is a substitute for television.”  I don’t think I made this up (I’m sure someone else said it first), but for the last decade many people involved in the Internet have been searching for the pure substitute for TV – what will you spend your online time playing with instead of sitting and passively watching TV.  Facebook finally seems to be the tipping point for this.

Granted – Facebook is active, not passive, so it’s theoretically better for the human brain.  However, in my interaction with Facebook, I’m still in “complete playing around mode” – I haven’t been able to derive any real discernible value from any of the hundreds of ancillary applications that are appearing.  Some are just plain silly (but often clever) time wasters; others are just republishing of content or reorganizing capability that I have through some other application.  None of this is the “problem” – but it’s the root cause of it.

The Problem: As of today, Facebook is deriving massive benefit in all the application development that they’ve enabled.  They’ve brilliantly created an open community that allows developers to quickly create applications that can rapidly acquire hundreds of thousands of users.  This dramatically extends the functionality of Facebook by offloading the R&D and feature development to the apps developers.  (How about all of them there adverbs – I sound like a press release.) However, as far as I can tell, none of these Facebook apps developers are deriving any real benefits (if you are a Facebook apps developer and ARE deriving a tangible benefit, other than customer acquisition within the Facebook infrastructure, please weigh in.)  In addition, Facebook has shifted all of the infrastructure costs to these apps developers, creating the “I have 250,000 users, now what?” problem.


It seems like Facebook could easily turn on CPM based ads on all of the Facebook apps pages and do a revenue share with the application developer.  Suddenly, the application developer would get paid for the massive new page views they are getting (as would Facebook), and Facebook would create a real incentive for the publishers to stay with their apps and grow them. 


In the absence of this, Facebook is going to need to address the “value to the apps developer” quickly, before some of the larger apps vaporize due to the developer saying “I’m not willing to keep paying for servers and bandwidth.”  I can think of a couple of other approaches here, including Facebook building an in-the-cloud infrastructure for their developers that they make available to one’s that reach a certain level of popularity.  But – the straight “we’ll make more money and share it with you” seems the most logical approach to me.

Mar 6 2019

Book: Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe

I read Roger McNamee’s book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe the day it came out. While likely uncomfortable for a lot of people, it was excellent, provocative, and challenging all at the same time.

I have not, nor have I ever been, an investor in Facebook. However, I benefited indirectly from, and indirectly contributed to, the rapid rise of Facebook as an early investor in Zynga. I remember being amazed at the pace of growth of both companies and, in an effort to understand it better, went deep on how each company’s product intersected with the psychology of humans.

If you hung around me during the 2007 – 2010 time period when I was on the Zynga board, you would have heard me talk with amazement at how easy it was to manipulate people into spending huge amounts of their time tending their virtual farm on FarmVille. I spoke with pride about the data that Zynga collected on every user, much of which came directly from Facebook and had nothing to do with what Zynga was doing, but was readily accessible to them via the Facebook API. Zynga endured endless Facebook TOS rewrites as they evolved their business model and tried to capture more of the revenue from companies like Zynga, including what I have come to refer to as the Facebook-Zynga Cuban Missile Crisis which ended in detante.

All of this happened a decade ago. I left the Zynga board just before they went public at the end of 2010 (as is my, and my partners’ at Foundry Group’s approach.) I continued to be a user of Facebook, but even that drifted away from me, as I never really felt that connected to it (I was more of a Twitter person.) I wasn’t surprised when the Facebook data privacy scandals started in 2017, but I was surprised at how timid the backlash was. I stopped using Facebook in 2018 and deleted my account in August.

McNamee has a deeper relationship with Facebook, as he was a mentor for Zuckerberg early in Facebook’s life and then an investor (first personally, then via his fund Elevation Partners) while Facebook was a private company. His experience has more emotion in it than mine (both good and bad), but his journey that led to this book started just before the 2016 US Presidential Election as McNamee was concerned that “bad actors” could be using Facebook to manipulate the election.

The book is riveting. McNamee moves between Facebook, his experience as an investor, his efforts to get through to the Facebook leadership team about his concerns, and his subsequent journey to make public his views about the negative impact Facebook is having on society and democracy in general. McNamee is not taking a cynical approach, but rather takes responsibility for his own lack of foresight into the potential problem, and explains his search for understanding and solutions.

I think this book is merely a preamble for what is coming in the next twenty years. As a species, we have little understanding of the complexity that we are creating through technology. This complexity cannot be solved, as complex adaptive systems don’t have a single solution – they adapt and evolve. Instead, we can only interact with them and, when they evolve at a rate much faster than we can understand and respond to, it’s can lead to an untenable situation.

We haven’t really begun to understand the implication of what we are creating. Regardless of the long-gone “Do No Evil” slogans of progressive technology companies, profit and power motives dominate behavior. And, with profit and power comes significant defenses, including denial about second order effects that result, and then the third order effects that result from the efforts to control the profit and power.

McNamee’s book is a taste of this. Read it and start to prepare your mind for what is to come.

Mar 21 2018

Privacy and Facebook – The Non-Surprise

In 2008, I gave a talk at my 20th-year reunion at MIT Sloan. The title of the talk was something like “Privacy is Dead” and my assertion, in 2008, was that there was no longer any data privacy, anywhere, for anyone.

I’ve been living my life under that assumption since then.

The current Facebook scandal around Cambridge Analytica, and – more significantly – data privacy, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. All of my experiences with companies around Facebook data over the years have been consistent with what is nicely called “data leakage” from Facebook out into the world. Facebook’s privacy and data settings have always been complex, have changed regularly over the years, and are most definitely not front and center in the Facebook user experience. And, that data has been easily and widely accessible at many moments in time to any developer who wanted access to it.

Answer the following questions:

  • Do you know what your Facebook privacy settings are?
  • Are your Facebook privacy settings to your liking?
  • Do you understand the implications of your Facebook privacy settings?
  • Do you think your data has always been subject to these current settings?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, good on you. But, my answers are no to all of them and, unless you do some real work, you probably are answering no to at least two or three of them.

I haven’t used Facebook for a while. I broadcast my blog posts to it, but I’ve never really figured out how to engage properly with it in a way that is satisfying to me. Periodically I think about deleting my Facebook account, but since I’ve been operating under the assumption that privacy is dead since 2008, it doesn’t really bother me that my Facebook data is out in the world.

As I read articles about the current version of the Facebook Data Privacy Meltdown (or whatever name it is ultimately going to get this time around), I’m fascinated by the amplification of “nothing new going on here, but now we are outraged.” A pair of  articles that are a little off the beaten path (just watch CNN if you want the beaten path on this one) include:

The meme of #DeleteFacebook is making the rounds but it’s not new either. Here’s one from 2012.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I do know that I’m not surprised.

Aug 16 2018

Deleting Facebook

Yup. I’m done with Facebook. However, it’s tough to delete your account. Read the message above. I exited out of this screen, suspended my account instead, but then went back 15 minutes later and actually deleted it. Well – I started the deletion process. I don’t know what day I’m on, but I think I’m close to 14 days. So, I’m still “deleting” apparently.

The only inconvenience I’ve noticed so far are all the sites where I used Facebook as the sign-on authenticator (rather than setting up a separate email/password combo.) I think I’m through most of that – at least the sites I use on a regular basis. For the first few days, I accidentally ended up on the Facebook login screen which was pleasantly filled out with my login beckoning me to log back in. I resisted the siren song of restarting my Facebook account before the 14 days was up.

I have never been much of a Facebook user. About once a year, I try to get into it, but I always stall out and use it as a broadcast-only network for my blog and links that I find interesting. I went through a phase of tightening up my security, pruning my friends, using it more frequently from my phone, deleting it from my phone, checking daily in the morning (as part of my morning routine – which has evolved a lot since I wrote this post in 2007), and then giving up again and never looking at it.

Recently, I decided to rethink Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Facebook was the easiest. While it had already become a walled garden, I suddenly noticed that the walls we were going up very high, being justified by Facebook’s new effort to get all their privacy and data issues “under control.” For example, you can no longer automatically post your Tweets to your Facebook profile.

And, Facebook recently killed automatic WordPress publishing to Profiles. So, my one (and only) current use case for Facebook, which is to broadcast from my blog, disappeared. Sure, I could create a public page, go through all the authentication stuff, and theoretically post to my new public followers, but who cares. If they are really interested in what I write, they can subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter (at least for now, until I figure out how I’m going to engage with Twitter long-term.)

Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now tipped me over into thinking harder about this. Now that I have decided how to deal with Facebook, at least for now, it’s time to move on down the road to Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m about a month into a different way of engaging with LinkedIn and we’ll see if it sticks. When I reach a conclusion, I’ll definitely write about it.

Aug 5 2007

Fascinated with Facebook

Are you fascinated with Facebook?  If so, it’s worth following the blog of the J-Squared guys.  They are now actively blogging their Facebook lessons with posts including:

J-Squared is one of the TechStars teams.  Their first Facebook app – Sticky Notes – is already over 1.2 million users, app #34, and continuing to grow at a rapid pace every day.  They’ve got another cool one in the works, have turned on the revenue spigot, and are watching the dollars fly into their bank account.

Fascinating stuff.

Apr 15 2018

The Price of Free is Actually Too High

I loved this quote by Tristan Harris in the New York Magazine article The Internet Apologizes …

“We cannot afford the advertising business model. The price of free is actually too high. It is literally destroying our society, because it incentivizes automated systems that have these inherent flaws. Cambridge Analytica is the easiest way of explaining why that’s true. Because that wasn’t an abuse by a bad actor — that was the inherent platform. The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

The article ends with a parallel quote from Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web

“The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale.”

I just read the article and all of the attached long-form interviews. I think my favorite, only because it’s so provocative, is the one with Roger McNamee titled ‘You Have a Persuasion Engine Unlike Any Created in History’

There are a few mentions of Zynga (which we were investors in) in the various article chain which caused me to reflect even more on the 2007 – 2010 time period when free-to-consumer (supported by advertising) was suddenly conflated with freemium (or free trials for enterprise software). The later (freemium) became a foundational part of the B2B SaaS business model, while the former became an extremely complex dance between digital advertising and user data.

Tristan’s quote “the price of free is actually too high” is important to consider. What is going on here (“free services”) is nothing new. The entire television industry was created on it (broadcast TV was free, supported by advertising, dating back well before I was born.) Nielsen ratings started for radio in the 1940s and TV in the 1950s. The idea of advertisers targeting users of free services based on data is, well, not new.

Propaganda is not new either. The etymology of the word from Wikipedia is entertaining in its own right.

“Propaganda is a modern Latin word, the gerundive form of propagare, meaning to spread or to propagate, thus propaganda means that which is to be propagated.Originally this word derived from a new administrative body of the Catholic church (congregation) created in 1622, called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), or informally simply Propaganda. Its activity was aimed at “propagating” the Catholic faith in non-Catholic countries From the 1790s, the term began being used also to refer to propaganda in secular activities. The term began taking a pejorative or negative connotation in the mid-19th century, when it was used in the political sphere.”

So what? Why the fuss? A cynic would say something like “this is not what the hippy-techies of the 60s wanted.” True, that. But the arch of human society is littered with outcomes that diverge wildly from the intended actions. Just watch Game of Thrones or Homeland to get a feeling for that, unless you struggle with conflating fact and fiction, which seems less of a problem for many people every day based on the information we consume and regurgitate.

I think something more profound is going on here. We are getting a first taste of how difficult it is for a world in which humans and computers are intrinsically linked. Tristian’s punch line “The problem with Facebook is Facebook” hints at this. Is the problem the leadership of Facebook, the people of Facebook, the users of Facebook, the software of Facebook, the algorithms of Facebook, what people do with the data from Facebook, or something else. Just try to pull those apart and make sense of it.

I think this is a pivotal moment for humans. I’ve heard the cliche “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle” numerous times over the past few weeks. Any reader of Will and Ariel Durant know that the big transitions are hard to see when you are in them but easy to see with the benefit of decades of hindsight. This might be that moment of transition, where there is no going back to what was before.

Aug 18 2007

Fun With Friends

After waking up from a nap dreaming about Social Graphs (ok – not really) I realized I’d never tried to integrate my Outlook contacts into “the other stuff I use on the web.”

I figured I’d start with Facebook since it’s all the rage these days.  I have 423 friends on Facebook.  I’ve been pretty careful about only accepting folks that I know (although the “Facebook friend spam” has definitely increased in the past few weeks.) 

I ran the Outlook Contacts uploaded (export your contacts to a .CSV, upload into Facebook – hmmm – smells like an opportunity.)  Facebook found 325 contacts of mine that also had Facebook accounts (via the email address.)  I then sent out automatic friend messages to all of them (although Facebook wouldn’t let me customize the message.) 

Facebook then told me that I had 3733 contacts that weren’t in Facebook and did I want to invite them in.  I declined since my 3733 contacts that aren’t used to Facebook spam don’t need it.

While there doesn’t seem to be a great way to monitor who has joined as a result of a particular invite, I just checked my recently added friends list and have four that have already accepted my request (in the eight minutes that it took me to type this post.)

Fascinating.  Plaxo is up next.

Jul 26 2007

Facebook Email Sucks

I’m an email junkie going back as far as I can remember.  It’s by far my favorite way to communicate. 

I’m utterly and completely baffled that Facebook email (ok – “Inbox”) is so poor.  No forward a message.   Can’t add people to a thread.  No way to sort or manage the messages.  And now Facebook apps are customizing the email form with message bling.  Gack.

Now, before you tell me “that’s not how Facebook works” I know that.  However, more and more of my new Facebook friends (those of the between 30 and 45 age group, mostly tech nerds but some others) seem to be enjoying sending me emails on Facebook.  I’ve started cutting the page with the Microsoft Snipping Tool and forwarding it back them via email to continue the conversation.

At least my friend Jared Polis and the gang at Confluence Commons are trying to build a solution to this.  Hurry up guys – this is silly.

Jun 16 2007

Facebook Groups

Unless you’ve been on vacation and off the grid for the last two months, you’ve probably noticed the explosive growth with Facebook with a new and exciting demographic – all the web / tech nerds that previously weren’t using Facebook.  I went to my Facebook account this morning to try to figure out when I originally created an account and can’t remember, but there’s been a rapid growth in my friends since the Facebook F8 platform launch.

I’ve gone from checking my Facebook account once a week to once a day.  I still haven’t clicked on any of the ads, but I’ll assume that a lot of the advertising is CPM-based instead of CPC-based which means they are making more money off of me at this point.

In addition to my account (feel free to friend me if you are a Feld Thoughts reader), please join the Feld Thoughts group.  If you read AsktheVC, please join the AsktheVC group.  And – if you are interested in the Implicit Web and/or the upcoming Defrag conference, join the Implicit Web group.

As a special bonus feature, I’ve been twittering for a while as part of my socialogical experiment to see how much boring content I can generate for The Internets.  I’m now looking for a crack programmer to write a quick script that generates random twitters off of a pre-canned database of commentary that I create.

Yes – it’s all fascinating, at least to me.