How much will you pay to be listened to on Facebook?

Facebook is having a Red Barn moment. If you ever played Farmville you’ll know what I mean. Farmville was fun for the first little while, planting, pulling in friends to pet your cows or whatever they were doing. Then at some point you realize the game has a limit beyond which you need to pay to do better. You can’t get the red barn unless you put down some actual real world dollars.  It’s a great way to make money if people like your game enough but it breaks your whole idea of what the game is, that if you play better you will do better than others.

Of course, Facebook isn’t a game, right?  Facebook is an ongoing, cacophonous discussion of the things going on in our lives amongst friends. On the sides of that discussion we have grown to accept that there are targeted advertisements trying to grab our attention. Increasingly, these advertisements are even within the stream of updates itself. But these ads are marked as promoted and they are easily identifiable as such. We can click on them or choose to ignore them.

Well, apparently now Facebook wants to turn itself into a kind of game, and just like Farmville you’ll need to pay to play well at it.

Facebook just rolled out their ‘promote’ feature to everyone. It was already available to Pages and brands but the way it is implemented now is kind of strange.  Up until now, a Page which you follow (sorry, _subscribe to_, in Facebookese) could pay for their status updates, marked as “Sponsored”, to rise higher in your feed. But now anyone can sponsor updates. So if a politically active acquaintance that you added to Facebook has some extra cash they can ‘promote’ posts from their favourite political party or their own personal status updates with links to news articles. Any updates at all can be promoted.

Is this what we want? The power of the market is great and all but this is weird.  What Facebook is doing with this one change is changing the very nature of their Social Network.

Last week Facebook was a place where you chatted with friends and tried to ignore adds coming from corporations, charities and political parties. Today it is a place where the very conversations you hear are influenced by money put up by normal people you follow in order to be heard above the clamour.  Do we really want to monetize conversation to the extent where it becomes normal to be expected to chip in a bit of cash to get our voices heard? Shouldn’t our thoughts rise up to prominence because many people find them compelling rather than because we have extra money to spend on having people hear us on Facebook?

The more I think about it the more disturbing this is. This is a subtle conversion of the entire meaning of what a personal Facebook update is.  It’s like that moment in Star Wars I where Qui Gon Jinn mentions midi-chlorians.  It has no connection to anything else that came before and actually changes the entire meaning of the story. Is the Force a benevolent, mystical energy permeating the universe or is just it a physical field extruded by parasites inside us? Now, every time we see updates from someone we don’t talk to so often we’re going to look closer to see if they chose to ‘sponsor’ the update. What will it mean if someone does that? How will I judge them?

We’ll see how this plays out, maybe people won’t use it. But if I start seeing a lot of this I mark start marking all of it as spam.

Don’t Judge a Social Network by it’s Book Price

Far be it for me to defend Facebook…I think Google+ is a far superior tool for discussion and community and even Twitter is unmatched for certain types of interaction, as the Olympics showed clearly.

However, news of the impending death of Facebook because their share price is falling, are greatly exaggerated and miss the point.

Facebook does still have 1 billion users, and they’re active. Most of the people who use Facebook now are not early adopters or particularly savy with technology. They go to Facebook because all their friends and family are there. They aren’t going to leave even if something better comes along because there’s no reason to. You don’t go Facebook because it’s the Social Network you like best, you go to it because it’s Facebook.  So Facebook isn’t going to go away like GroupOn or MySpace anytime soon. (Even these supposedly  ‘dead’ sites  still have loads of users in fact.)

So this idea that since the share price of Facebook has dropped like a rock that the company is in trouble or that they are switching to ‘survival’ mode, seems ridiculous to me. Maybe Facebook isn’t a great investment right now, but that’s not because no one uses it. It’s a bad investment because it was insanely overvalued at the start.

NPR’s _Planet Money_ show had a great discussion about Facebook’s IPO the week after it happened (listen to it here:

They had one bit of analysis that went something like this, I’m paraphrasing: ‘In order for the initial IPO price of Facebook to be an accurate valuation of the company’s future profit Facebook would need to take over 90% of the advertising industry, not web advertising, ALL advertising worldwide including magazines, tv, newspapers, billboards.’

That’s simply ridiculous.

The initial price they were putting forward was ten times what you would expect from a reasonable web advertising play assuming you could squeeze as much money out of your stream as Google.  That means the people at Facebook thought they could do ten times better than Google at making users click on ads. It’s fine for them to believe that, go ahead, shoot for it, maybe Facebook can really invent a new concept of advertising that unlocks new, untapped money.

But the problem is  investors and pundits like the writer of this Globe article seem to think that initial price must have been a somewhat reasonable extension of current methods, but it wasn’t. So to their minds, if the price goes down by 50% from the initial price then it’s all over for the company. But 50% is still an overvaluation.

A decline in the stock price of Facebook to $10 or less does not mean they are dead. You know why? Because 1 billion people will still be using the site and clicking on some ads. And those people won’t want to switch to another network even if it is better. However, it does mean eventually Facebook is going to need to either find a way to make more money or accept a more modest chunk of the worldwide advertising pie.

Machine Morality

This post started as a response to a provacative question by David Brin on Google+:

It was in response to this fantastically titled article: “The Case Against Autonomous Killing Machines”

I don’t think we should be designing machines that kill people, period. But if you are going to have machine’s that kill sometimes and military uses fund a lot of this research they may not be willing to encode the Asimov laws. At least not in the same ordering (ie. following human orders will be more important than saving lives).

But a bigger question right now is whether an AI could reliably evaluate moral laws at all, even if it isn’t literally a killing machine. How sure does the system need to be that there is a human near by or that the machine’s actions will cause harm? How much failure are we willing to accept if it’s only 99% sure what it’s doing won’t cause harm?

Think of google’s self driving cars. That’s the nearest, potentially deadliest robotic systems we need to worry about in our daily lives. Any wrong move while driving could harm the passengers as well as people in other cars. You can never be _sure_ you won’t get into an accident. So how sure do you have to be? Then every once in a way someone will get killed anyways, who’s the blame? The robot? The engineer? No one? If we define these laws too strictly we may stop ourselves from creating amazing technologies that change the world. But if it’s too loose or not present at all then we enter this moral grey zone where accidents happen even though they might not have happened with more processing time.

It’s that time of year again…password changing season.

If you use the popular professional social network LinkedIn you should go there right now and change your password to a new one, apparently some russian hackers got a few million passwords off their systems. Even if it’s a false alarm it’s a good idea to change your passwords every once in a while.

I would suggest coming up with a new password entirely. Why? because if you are like a lot of people you reuse a few passwords in many places, maybe even just one password. So the next thing you’ll want to do is go to every other important website,bank,computer you use with the same password as LinkedIn and change them too.

Having trouble coming up with a new password, here’s some good advice from XKCD:

If you want to know if your password was taken you can also try to check your password, you may want to compute your password hash offline though rather trusting their site. If you have python installed (if you have a mac or linux machine this should be true by default) you can run the following on the command line to get your password encrypted and enter the resulting string into the LeakedIn website. Replace “password” with your password:

python -c 'import hashlib; print hashlib.sha1("password").hexdigest()'

(Thanks to Nathan Taylor for that snippet of code)

Interesting Thought : Our Social Network Is Becoming an Agent for Us

Link: Discussion I got into on an article about automatically feeding your google+ content out to twitter and elsewhere

I’ve thought along these lines a bit, but it is an interesting idea to flesh out sometime. As we build ever more complex automated actions flowing out of our social network activity we will begin to form an agent that interacts on our behalf. This is already happening but it’s mostly static. Sites like and others are starting to have more logic. One of the huge impacts that widespread computational thinking in the population could enable is the ability to create services that describe loops, functions and recursion on our activity and and build or grow agents that behave ‘like’ us even beginning to carry out conversations on our behalf. It sounds like wild Singularity thinking, but each step along the way is not nearly as impossible as it used to seem. Worth thinking about.

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