Thoughts on Chris Hughes’ call to break up Facebook

I took my own sweet time to read this story, collecting some of my ideas and publishing them here. I’ve already had a lot of online and offline conversations around the topic, but posting these thoughts here for posterity and discussion makes sense to me.

Opinion | It’s Time to Break Up Facebook

Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.

The F.T.C.’s biggest mistake was to allow Facebook to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. In 2012, the newer platforms were nipping at Facebook’s heels because they had been built for the smartphone, where Facebook was still struggling to gain traction. Mark responded by buying them, and the F.T.C. approved.

Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s stories and disappearing messages proved wildly successful, at Snapchat’s expense. At an all-hands meeting in 2016, Mark told Facebook employees not to let their pride get in the way of giving users what they want. According to Wired magazine, “Zuckerberg’s message became an informal slogan at Facebook: ‘Don’t be too proud to copy.’”

They create immense amounts of data — not just likes and dislikes, but how many seconds they watch a particular video — that Facebook uses to refine its targeted advertising

One big question is, of course, who owns this data? The data would not exist on a platform which doesn’t have the technology to track your time in seconds. The data is also not really relevant to you in a meaningful way. So unless there’s a way to make it meaningful, there is no point in us users claiming ownership of it. Even if we did, in most aspects, the data is owned by Facebook and that is the basis for them not deleting it even after you’ve asked for ‘all’ of your data to be deleted. In that context, ‘all’ is all of the data you’ve given to Facebook, not the data they’ve generated on you.

he went even further than before, calling for more government regulation — not just on speech, but also on privacy and interoperability, the ability of consumers to seamlessly leave one network and transfer their profiles, friend connections, photos and other data to another.

Chris Hughes says in the next line that these proposals were not made in bad faith, but from where I am seeing, these are nothing but bad faith. One can only say these things from a position of privilege, of power. Where were these ideas when twitter launched periscope with Facebook friend-finder integration?

The fact is that what Zuck is proposing here is nothing different from what Microsoft did for Apple all those years ago to head off anti-trust investigations. Why not head off an investigation by propping up a few lame-duck competitors who Facebook can kill off in the name of API changes whenever it feels threatened?

Zuckerberg’s words may seem like music to your ears, but they are nothing more than an empty promise. Already, you can export your Facebook data, and there are services built around importing it and doing stuff with it. So how is his proposal any different?

Will Facebook provide an API to easily move all your data and conversations, and photos off? Will Facebook provide precious server time required to sync out every last bit of data through a legit API? I don’t think so.

Even if they do, the point remains that he’s doing this just to save his own hide. Paying lip service to the open web and interoperability is the easiest thing he can do as CEO.

Besides, Facebook’s value isn’t in the data you provide it with. It’s in the data they generate about you. Today, your uploaded data might be in the couple hundred MBs. But I can assure you, the data they’ve generated about you, and the data you don’t know you’ve uploaded (including stealthy location tracking, cookies, and third party browsing data they’ve bought about you), probably stands in the GBs.

That vast difference is something Facebook will never give you access to, since they can legally claim that it is data they have created and they own. You taking charge of that data is the real threat to Facebook.

Zuck knows this only too well and is trying to ward it off.

Imagine a competitive market in which they could choose among one network that offered higher privacy standards, another that cost a fee to join but had little advertising and another that would allow users to customize and tweak their feeds as they saw fit. No one knows exactly what Facebook’s competitors would offer to differentiate themselves. That’s exactly the point.

Another example of hypocrisy from Chris. We know there are social networks out there today that do all of these things. There are exceptional services built by dedicated people who believe in the ideal of an open web. Just recently an instagram replacement was kickstarted. It took a long while to get it to the bare minimum it needed to fund successfully.

Why? Why did Chris Hughes not put his money where his mouth is? Why not fund all these competitions as an outsider? He’s arguably for the money for it.

App.net was kickstarted by the people, but along the way they took funding from a VC firm. Some people saw that as a betrayal of the idea with which it began, and ADN ended up shuttering under a year later.

Hughes doesn’t need to singularly fund social networks and exert control as a VC or angel investor. He can fund them as an individual and just use his voice to amplify the message – that open web ideas do exist and have the potential to be disruptive.

The thing is, that Silicon Valley is about control. Right now, the definition of control is Facebook. It’s a behemoth that can eat up most of the things in its path, whether it’s WhatsApp and Instagram, which it acquires and turned into its pawns, or Snapchat, which it is trying to destroy by replicating it and using its networking effects against.

Look towards the (inter)networking world – everyone needs networking and so it’s not that sexy a field. But even though there’s a behemoth, Cisco, it can’t eat everything up. Every few years a company springs up that can cause serious competition to it based on new technology, or better production cycles, or just a fresh pair of eyes on the same ideas networking has been revolving around since the last decade.

So Facebook doesn’t need to be broken up in order to be made irrelevant, be it the right approach or not.

The F.T.C. should have blocked these mergers

Its first mandate should be to protect privacy.

It’s interesting to talk about privacy only in terms of Facebook, but it is infinitely more important to talk about privacy in a broader sense.

The US needs an agency that actively works with companies and individuals to thwart attacks on our data, to help secure information, and to educate the people about these topics. Right now, there’s a haphazard group of organizations doing this, led perhaps by the FBI, which steps into the case when hospitals and other organizations are attacked.

There needs to be an organization that ‘polices’ the use of data. Of course, there’s no reason to stifle new growth, but this org would work with, and actively target companies that are becoming big, and perhaps even white hat attack them to show weaknesses.

This latter role has been left to private entities till now, and that has worked out fine for most people. But formalizing it means making sure that the US has a pulse on cyber warfare in the civilian realm, which is where it is more active and deadly currently.

Imagine a CDC for cyber warfare and privacy issues.

But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence

Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.

Can they, though? Can either Zuck or any government in the world ‘fix’ Facebook? As an industry, social media can be regulated. As a company, Facebook can be fined and controlled. But as an idea, as a part of the Internet, and as a trend, Facebook is more difficult to control. What needs to happen is that along with the threat of government sanctions, Facebook also needs internal pressure to restructure. That pressure will never come until golden boy is removed from the helm. It was only till Biz Stone and Jack were shown to be totally inept at handling twitter, that people understood that twitter needs some serious work. It’s a great feeling to follow an enigmatic or often just an esoteric leader and believe that they’re doing the right thing. But Facebook’s investors, specially those who care about the effects of the company on the world, should break through that spell and focus on forcing the company to rebuild.

Zuckerberg himself should realize that it is under his own helm that bad things have happened, and we’ve long given him a huge platform to grow and become a leader. But just like Rahul Gandhi, growing on the job is not possible for someone who controls the fate of a billion people. That just doesn’t work. He would be better off stepping away from the plate and letting someone else play while he rebuilds himself and finds out what he believes in beyond just the dominance of Facebook.

Automatic app updates out, this method in.

Automatic app updates are a bad idea. Apple should recognize this by now. In case you, dear reader, aren’t convinced of that, here are some simple reasons why automatic app updates are just no good –

  1. Software is buggy – how many times have you heard that “we shouldn’t get the dot zero version of that software”? It’s almost a maxim in the enterprise world – unless you deeply trust it to not break your current setup, don’t get that update. So why should we be so cavalier about software updates for our personal devices? We shouldn’t let developers decide the de facto time when we get an update.
  2. It’s a vehicle for disruption – and not the good kind. App updates are great if they’re well thought out, streamlined, and work. But more often than not, they introduce changes which wouldn’t sit well with you and your workflow. How many of us regret updating to some version of iOS that slowed down our devices to hell and there was no recourse? Why do we trust third party developers more than we trust Apple in this instance? If I don’t know exactly what is going to change in the update, why should I update it? Which leads me to the next point…
  3. Automatic app updates are evil – Yes, they’re evil. How many times has Facebook slipped in something nasty and you didn’t even know it till you got the update? There are two types of nasty Facebook has slipped into your devices over time – the first is when they change the user agreement. So often, we would go to the website and Facebook would make us check a box and hit Accept before letting us burst out our Likes and jealousy. We’ve all brushed past those to chat with our friends. The same applies to app updates. You open the app to answer the call of a notification and an annoying pop up tells you to just say YES before you can do what you came here to do. What option do you have other than to stab that yes button? The second nasty is the more insidious version – Facebook has been able to slip in all kinds of dirty code, tracking features, and nasty experiments into our apps simply by adopting frameworks that let them remotely update our apps, and by using vague release notes that just said “making some improvements”, even when they were shipping major changes to your Facebook and Instagram experiences. This must stop, and the easiest way to make them stop (even though we’re too far gone now thanks to their remote app update frameworks), is to stop automatic app updates.
  4. It’s bad for security – This goes against everything you’ve ever heard. “Automatically updating software is great! It keeps things secure!” Until, it doesn’t. Software is eating up our life and yet, pretty much all of us are rather careless about the security of our apps and services. For most technophobes, automatic app updates are both a boon, and an excuse to hide behind. “Hey, I keep my apps updated, but I still got hacked!” Well, did you consider 2FA? Did you try to understand whether you’re using insecure communication over insecure networks? Did your app have the requisite features to protect your privacy, like data encryption? Are you using the same password for fifty services? We would all be more knowledgeable about all those questions if we bothered to understand what goes on in the making of our apps, the design decisions taken by the devs, and the shortcuts they take to ship sooner. Which leads to the next point –
  5. It’s a surprise! – it feels great to open an app the first time in the day and notice that something has changed overnight, but more than once, I’ve been bitten by apps that changed their business models, removed features, and made decisions that affect me, without so much as bothering to explain that a change is coming. This attitude is a right that a developer feels about a piece of code that they’ve written, but it’s a piece of code that I licensed from them and is running on my machine. They should not be able to decide how that code changes for me. By removing automatic updates, we’re forcing developers to explain why we should be getting this new update, rather than letting them get away with “we removed bugs!” or the boilerplate crap big tech companies throw at us.

Until things change and developers become better documentation writers, and tech companies stop lying about the code they’re sneaking into our machines, I have one suggestion –

Don’t do automatic app updates. Do expiration-based ones instead.

Right now, automatic app updates are an all or nothing deal. You either trust Apple and third party devs completely, or your don’t. I fall in the latter category and I couldn’t be happier! I know that I’m gonna get exactly what I paid for an app (especially if it’s free), and it’s going to work exactly as I expect it to for a long time to come.

Well, almost. Apps often have massive API changes, or security updates that are absolutely essential. The only way for devs to push those through is to expire the version of app currently installed on your devices, and force you to update (when you open the app the next time, at the crucial moment when you actually need the app). I’ve seen a lot of important updates like this, like when my banks update their APIs, or my insurance firm tells me to get the update else I won’t get continued service, or my grocer decides that I can’t get to my weekly ‘one dollar off’ coupons until I get the latest and greatest app update they’ve pushed out.

OK, that last one is silly. Apps like my grocer and my insurance app should always work. If I’m in front of a cop who’s asking for my insurance info, it would suck if I have to tell her that I have to update my darn app before I can show it to her. Also, why the heck does my grocer need to update the app once a month? Haven’t they heard of APIs?

Situations like those cause me to propose the solution I’m presenting, though, it’s obvious that it should be taken with a pinch of salt, since it’s not the perfect solution.

Here’s what we should do –

Apps shouldn’t get auto-updated. Instead, this should be a deliberate process. We need to be able to approve everything that goes into our devices. Yet, some apps are essentials, and though I don’t open my insurance app every day, when I open it, I expect it to work instead of showing me a banner to update the app before I can continue. So those essential apps should have two options – either I let them auto update completely, or I let them update only when the app is marked as ‘expired’ by the developer. The benefit of the latter approach is that devs should have a legitimate reason, such as changing their API drastically, that should drive app updates. Does this put more strain on Apple’s app approval process? Yes. Let’s make them earn that 30% they take from the devs, and the hundreds of dollars of Apple tax they collect from us.

I’m not interested in the smaller updates. I’m interested in keeping my apps available when I need them. So if I can skip the small ones and only get the big, breaking news updates, I’ll be a happy camper.

But this may not suit everyone. Some people don’t care about how and what changes are coming to their devices, but that’s what got us into this mess before with Apple and the battery issue which Apple effectively cheated and lied to us about, and Facebook and every privacy scandal they’ve been able to walk away from.

I believe that if you want to remain that kind of person, you have the full right. So I would love to see all of these options incorporated into the next iOS, or the one after that. The future is customization and personalized feature sets for everyone. It’s more expensive due to that, but that’s just where we’re headed. Hopefully, we’ll get to enjoy some good software on the way.

Falling into Faith — Acko.net

The following is a critique of a post I recently came across in my RSS feeds-

 

This is augmented by the ease of concerted flagging and other public shaming campaigns, which create a guilty-until-proven innocent environment.

Source: Falling into Faith — Acko.net

This is a weird post, and it set off all kinds of alarms in my head. But I read through the author’s convoluted logic till the end. Some of it doesn’t make any sense, the rest of it makes sense, but is faulty logic. It’s clear that it’s a rambling, onerous post about somehow not protecting white privilege, but also not condemning it. It seems to want to put logic above everything else but the relationship between the example and the conclusion is tenuous.

This line above was the one that sprung out to me the most. The author seems to want to say that the constant vigilante justice meted out on social networks stifles free speech. But forgets a couple of things –

  1. Every example the author gives – James Damore, SubscribeStar – is one of extremism from the right. These are harmful rhetoric, and conspiracy theorists whose right to free speech is somehow being taken away by the people. Somehow, the ‘people’ having the right to decide who gets to live in the public sphere is not acceptable to the author. Instead, pure logic and pure freedom are the only things important to the author. This is, of course, the wrong approach, because there is no such thing as pure freedom. All of life is about the exceptions to the rule. The exception to the rule of free speech is one where someone means someone else harm.
  2. The author seems to want to criticize public movements on social media. But here’s the thing – it’s not like there’s a recourse. Elsewhere in the post, the author criticizes the left for controlling the institutions that mediate over ideas on social networks, namely the Trust and Safety Boards –

bootstrapping their own inquisition in the name of Trust and Safety

This means that the author doesn’t trust the devices created to remove negative influencers from social media, and doesn’t accept that people should be able to run their own campaigns to remove such people from there either. So what’s the recourse? What can people do to root out truly evil ideas from the public sphere? The author falls silent on that aspect. As it is, the tools that Facebook and Twitter (and WhatsApp) have created to combat misuse are woefully shortsighted and pathetic attempts at appeasement. That leaves the users to fend for themselves, so why would they not band together and attack the trolls and bad actors? Yes, they would get a few folks wrong and that’s where the author jumps in again to criticize, but not to give solutions –

Nuanceless policing bots and scripts make it trivial for innocent bystanders to get hurt.

All in all, a frustrating read to go through. Why did I? Well, for some reason, I’m subscribed to this person’s RSS feed and this was a recent article on there. Everything else by the author is purely about technology.

Also, it’s a good exercise in spotting every logical misconception that the author has made. Which ones did I miss?

 

Giving up on WordPress embeds

Back in 2012, I wrote a post called Conversations as a future of blogging. Well, I say I wrote, but actually I must have had a conversation on this up-and-coming platform called branch.com with a few people I invited to it from twitter. Using their tools, I embedded the conversation to my blog on the link above. I thought the embed would last forever, because a) where is branch going to go, and b) WordPress usually gracefully downgrades embeds, right?

Nope. branch.com died three years after launch. They gave us a period of time to request backups of our conversations. I remember doing that, but I never received one in my email. Perhaps they expected me to come back to their site to download the files? I asked all the other people involved in the conversation and none of them cared to request a backup of the copy. This goes back to my posts here about the futility of exporting your data from online services, even though in this case, a full backup was exactly what I needed to recover my blog post.

I was further wrong in that WordPress does no such thing with embeds. In the case of officially supported embeds, I’ve seen the system do this once before and I thought that was standard behavior, but in the case of link embeds, there’s no clear way for it to be possible.

Recently, I introduced a random post finder to my blog. With it, I’ve been discovering a lot of great and terrible posts I’ve written over time. It’s my way of getting closer to my blog.

But it has also left me reeling from all the broken links and embeds that I trusted to work forever. The branch.com embed, images and links I’ve linked to, PDF files I thought would never go away. Heck, even Facebook CDN stuff has disappeared and that company doesn’t let go of any data!

Recently, Automattic introduced inline GIFs from giphy through Jetpack. The model they’re following is pretty neat – they shipped the Gutenberg editor within WordPress 5, and have been extending it using Jetpack with blocks that allow various kinds of content, including GIFs. It shows the scope that Gutenberg has in the future.

Coming back to embeds, Giphy, the company Automattic is leaning on, came into existence in 2013, and I suspect will be out the door before its 10 year mark. Such is the way of life on the Internet. All of these are fads and fads can raise millions, but they eventually all die. Automattic will simply pull out the block from Jetpack and replace it with something else, but we users will be left with broken links and missing context on our blogs.

When the block was introduced some time ago, I played with it and added some GIFs to a blog post. It’s a lot of fun to express ourselves visually. But if branch.com is any indication, embeds come back to bite us later on.

Therefore, I’m getting off embeds. I’d rather download the GIF and upload it to my media. I’d rather take a screenshot of a webpage than to iframe it and hope it sticks around a few years from now. Jetpack already has a massive CDN operation behind them, so you’re never really serving your content directly from your site if they can help it. So there’s no need to worry about storage and bandwidth issues.

As I go through my site, rediscovering old posts, I’ll keep coming across these embeds. Whenever I have context, I’ll try to replace it with relevant information. But, as in the case of branch.com, I will just put a note that explains what happened there, some general thoughts on the topic, and move on. Once bitten by embeds, twice shy now.

A year with Facebook

A year ago, I decided to change my relationship with Facebook. I decided to be more active on the network, but not in the way Facebook would want me to be – commenting, liking, browsing, and clicking more.

I wanted to use Facebook to put out my thoughts more. So I actively started blogging more and putting it all on Facebook, a practice I had stopped for a while because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I did another thing – something I’ve often been told off for, but I just wanted to experiment with – I connected my twitter account with Facebook. The benefit? All my tweets (and quote tweets, which is a little silly) started getting posted to Facebook. This meant that each passing, silly thought, which we often toss into the void, became instantly visible to my real life friends.

In a way, I did do all the things that would be considered an increase in Facebook activity – I have spent the past year listening to a podcast called Philosophize This! The podcast has an accompanying community on Facebook. Though I didn’t interact with the community much, I did become a part of it. I also found a community relating to an app I use a lot – Day One. The community also chugs along, though I’ve not derived as much value from it as I would like.

I also started using Facebook a lot more. There was a time when I would gleefully count the stupid notification counter on the Facebook website approach 99. I call it stupid not because I have prejudice against it. I like notifications. They’re an excellent approach to garnering attention. But somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that I am not a worthy enough user of their service and they downgraded my experience. They made the counter stupid by pushing every little activity to it. Things which belong in the newsfeed – someone posted something, someone liked someone else’s post, someone had a birthday – were suddenly in my notifications. But at the beginning of the year, I decided to be more proactive, hoping that the algorithm would notice this and rid me of the stupid notifications and only give me the smart ones. I’ll let you know that the algorithm is not smart. It never did recognize my contribution and that portion of the experiment quickly bombed. Now I don’t care what the notification counter says. Whenever it irks me, I click it to reset it and ignore the notifications. (They’ve added even more notifications now – friend suggestions, community posts; heck they’ve even added Facebook notifications to the Instagram app, because why ruin just one social network when you can ruin two?)

I even went ahead and actively started using Instagram. I thought, maybe one Facebook property will feed into the algorithm of the other? See above regarding algorithm smartness.

But the last thing, that of posting more, I did religiously. After my initial December 20th, 2017 post, I’ve posted 25 public posts on my blog, a marked increase over the 13 posts I made in 2017. The plan was that all of the posts would be posted to Facebook and the ensuing conversations, controversy, and opinion would all happen in Facebook. After all, only if I contribute more to the platform, will I reap the rewards of the happiness that are supposed to come from it.

I also definitely did not delete any (well, most) of the tweets that got pushed from twitter to Facebook. I don’t like posting about political stuff openly. It’s like religion, everyone has one, and it’s best kept personal. But some tweets do get out once in a while. I believe I deleted those from Facebook. About 70 tweets made it to Facebook before disaster struck.

In the words of Hillary Clinton,

What Happened?

Well, the year started off nicely. Posting to Facebook is certainly a good way to garner attention. Friends who often forget that I have a blog were reading my posts and sometimes even clicking through to come to my actual website to check it out. The fact that Facebook discards in-text HTML, thus removing all URL references from a post both helps and hinders. It removes all context, but it also means that astute readers realized they had to click through.

I don’t have a lot of unknowns on my Facebook account. I do have a bunch of acquaintances, and people I haven’t met in years. I’m not a particularly social person irl. But everyone on there is someone I know or knew once. So it’s not like I was able to appeal to the masses and drive ‘traffic’ to my blogs. What I did achieve is a meager amount of conversation – a few likes and comments per post.

This extended to both types of posts. Folks who had never heard me express things about the random topics I post about on twitter and other microblogs, suddenly had access to my thoughts. Some reacted like idiots, some had positive or negative comments, and some just hit like and moved on.

All this stopped on August 1st. The declaration came in the form of a blog post by Facebook on their developer portal on April 24th. It was hidden between a bunch of other deprecated APIs, which I’m sure broke a lot of other things for other people. At the time, a huge noise rose, specially in the WordPress world about this. A lot of blogs depended on this API to post to Facebook using either the Jetpack plugin or the dlvr.it service (or other, similar services). Matt Mullenweg commented on the change, hoping that Facebook will reverse their decision and re-embrace the open web, to which this decision shuts the doors. But that’s not Facebook’s way. I reckon they heard him once in 2017, so they’re done listening to him for a decade.

I didn’t bother with finding workarounds to this problem. Smarter and more dedicated people than me would have found ways if there were any. Regardless, I wrote a blogpost on August 2nd and manually posted it to my Facebook profile on August 11th. This was my last cross-post from twitter or my blog to Facebook. It did not get any likes or comments.

According to some people, removing this API is important in helping fight the corruption that was revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But from what I can see, removing the ability for content to come in through legitimate sources is certainly not the way to go if you want to increase trust in your system. This was just a random move by Facebook, which is running around in headless chicken mode right now. It would be better if it were actually headless right now though, because the current head is part of the pattern of problems that Facebook manifests in this world.

Regardless, my year-long experiment ended mid-year.

The outcome of this experiment was this – I fell in love with the written word again. I also fell in love with my blog again. Though I now have newfound respect for a few things – first of all, I’m glad that my twitter is no longer connected to Facebook. The stream of consciousness that goes into twitter is not at all suited to Facebook, even though it should be, and for a majority of the world this has been a learning curve. Rants and raves belong to the place where outrage is common. You put it on Facebook and you alienate friends and get fired from jobs. While none of that happened to me, the effect was clear – people who I’ve never bothered to talk to my every day thoughts about were suddenly talking to me about them whenever I met them. This was… awkward. So I’m glad it’s no longer happening.

The second thing I’m glad of is discovering a rather important aspect of WordPress – private blog posts. While I’d like to talk about this more in another post, the overview is this – when you see 24 published posts for the year of 2018, I see 58. My process used to be that I would write a post and just leave it in drafts if it didn’t feel ‘complete’. This was wholly unsatisfying. Now, I privately publish my posts, giving them a timestamp that helps me date my thoughts. I also believe deeply in the concept of the blog as an Outboard brain as once proposed by Cory Doctorow. Though not as vibrant and well published as his blog, Boing Boing, my blog is my space, and having things published and showing up on the home page of my site when I’m logged in means I get to think about those things more.

What happened on the Facebook end of things? I noticed that the folks who interacted most with my posts were the same over and over – friends in the US who share my time zone, and some in India who I frequently interact with on Facebook. But what happened when the posts stopped? Nothing.

No one noticed. No one pinged me and asked me what was wrong with my blog and my tweets. Part of this is just the way the internet operates. Even with the extensive RSS setup I have, where I follow a lot of amazing blogs, if one slows down, I don’t have an easy way to figure it out. Time spent on the internet gets filled up by whatever is available.

The other half of this, I blame on Facebook. Their algorithm has become too smart for themselves. A willing user such as I should be able to push my posts to my friends without acting like an SMB and paying them money. In the same breath that they turned off the wall feeds, they promoted creating a separate page for one’s blog. This is a bad approach. For Facebook, it makes perfect sense – they can easily show hundreds of thousands new pages being created within the year, with all that untapped potential for paid promotions. That money will never come. A blogger such as I would rather trust the open web as a source of feedback and views than Facebook, whose track record for respecting ad spend is poor if not terrible. Facebook is a hungry beast, always looking for its next fix.

I’m tired of being Facebook’s fix. I don’t care for it any more. I have had an intense love for it as a platform at one time. I’ve been in awe of the leadership at one point. But now the spells are broken. 2018 was a journey, both public and private, in trying to see where Facebook goes. For me, it’s led itself to a dead end.

postscript – I opened Facebook recently, after perhaps a month, and a few things jumped at me. First of all, Facebook wished me for being with them since ten years. I think that’s serendipity. No social network online has a good life of more than a decade. Facebook should be no exception. While the company has morphed and plundered and established itself as the place to go to steal access user data, it should know that its main platform is tired and done for. I will slowly stop visiting and interacting with it. I know a lot of people have done this in 2018, but I still have derived some utility from it, so I’m sure it’ll feel somewhat bad to do so. On a new device I setup recently, I specifically made it a point to uninstall Facebook (it came preinstalled for some reason), while I did install Instagram. I know this is counter intuitive, but this is a signal from me to the company that it’s time to retire your aging platform or at least break it up instead of amalgamating into it. Facebook’s ugly attempts at driving people back towards their main property are so transparent that they should accept that it’s time.

The second thing I noticed was that Facebook had killed off an ugly experiment it has forced me to be a part of since two years – the Facebook marketplace and Video tabs. The main app has had these tabs since the beginning of 2017 for me (ymmv) and I never used them. I’ve looked forward to the day Facebook does *one* smart thing and recognizes that users would like an experience that’s suited to their needs instead of Facebook’s. By the way, for a brief time last year, when I discovered the Facebook groups app, my daily activity on Facebook actually increased, because I was able to get an ad-free, clean, groups-only experience of Facebook. Then FB killed off that app. So it goes. I’m glad that Facebook has removed its craigslist clone from my Facebook experience, but I didn’t celebrate it the day I saw it. Too little, too late.

Changing my relationship with Facebook

I’ve come across two posts today that are of high interest to me (and probably to you, dear reader).

First is this official Facebook blogpost here. It talks about how Facebook has discovered that those who use social media passively, just for browsing, end up sadder than those who use it actively, commenting and chatting with friends. I’ve seen people use Facebook for posting material which I sometimes thought was too long or too short or too general to be posted on what is supposed to be a rather private network. But if it brings joy to them, and helps me connect with them, then why not, right?

The second post is here. It’s a heartbreaking tale about how the algorithm destroys relationships and makes us devoid of important information. The algorithm is prioritizing information for us and in the process is making us less human. Please do read it.

I’ve been thinking about Facebook’s blogpost and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to game the system. What does that mean? It means to post frequently and interact with people. It means to force the algorithm to think that I’m some sort of high value poster. Till date, I’ve refrained from cross-posting my tweets to Facebook. I believed that Facebook is reserved for longer posts, meatier ones that mean something to the people to whom I’m posting. But the algorithm doesn’t think like that. The algorithm rewards those who post often instead of those who post things of value. So I guess that ends now. Thoughts are thoughts, no matter how small they are. I’ll post them on Facebook simply so that one day, when I want to post something of value to my friends on Facebook, the algorithm deems me of enough value to make sure they see my posts.

Some of you may object to this on the basis that you see my posts on twitter (and other places). Well if you do and do not interact with my posts on Facebook, the algorithm will downgrade me for your experience. In that way, what Facebook does to control our lives is highly personal and deeply disappointing. Hopefully, you’ll see that.

To all others, I hope you like my short gripes which I send out every once in a while. I’ll try this for the year of 2018 and share the results with you at the end of the year. I posit that inputting more to Facebook will mean I’ll also get more output from it. Let’s see if that turns out to be true.

Facebook’s biggest mistake with Snapchat

Facebook has a problem. No, not Snapchat. Snapchat is competition.

Facebook’s problem is SnapCreep. After failing to buy out their competition, Facebook has steadily been trying to steal the best (or worst, depending on who you ask) parts of Snapchat and integrate them into their own apps.

This invasion has been reflected on Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and now the main Facebook app as well. But for all that work they’re putting into copying for their competitor, they’re rather unsuccessful in making it obsolete.

This is because Facebook doesn’t seem to understand that the markets they’re looking at are different. People who want the notorious features of Snapchat doesn’t want it in the same apps as they use to keep in touch with their high school frenemies. They want to keep those worlds separate. Similarly, people who want to use WhatsApp to communicate with family and close friends don’t want to post silly photo updates. They already use the camera functions rather well.

Facebook seems to think that it can meld certain features into existing apps and wish away Snapchat. But that’ll not happen because of the way these apps are setup and used. That’s Facebook making a big bet and trying to change the rules on the racetrack after the race has begun. WhatsApp is a cure for traditional SMS. Facebook is the social network of default. Instagram is photo-sharing on drugs (which is why people certainly seem to be taken by the daily stories features, but they’re loathe to use things like disappearing pics or face filters). All of these have set functions, set features and that’s why they sort-of go together. That’s also why Facebook has been able to integrate the users in all these apps together, though I do have a complaint about pushing the same users over to WhatsApp and Instagram as I already have in my Facebook lists.

Snapchat is a slightly different beast. It has a precedence, no doubt. Yahoo Chat, melded with Omegle. But neither the use case, nor the customer base lends itself to a traditional keep-up-with-your-friends social network. Which is why Facebook will not beat Snapchat by pushing similar changes to their current customers through these apps. They’ll only end up alienating smart users who have looked at Snapchat and notice the pattern.

Instead, Facebook needs to do something they’ve not done in a long time – start from scratch. Take a page out of Meerkat’s book (no Facebook, this does not mean go and buy that company) and build something from the ground up, the app and it’s user base. Let your experiments go under the radar, and fail often. But please, keep these out of the glaring view of the media and your own idiosyncrasies until it’s actually a product and not just patchwork.

Your problem with Snapchat isn’t that Snapchat exists, it’s that you’re trying to replicate it, without actually making the effort of building something new. The solution is clear to your users – go and build it. They might come.

License, don’t acquire

Silicon Valley has a bad habit – that of buying outright any company that might prove useful to them and the tech community. When Google bought Waze, Facebook bought Spool and Pinterest bought Icebergs, they all did it to bring to their platforms, users and companies, ideas, technologies and features that they believed would be a good fit with their own setup.

But they did it wrong. Waze is a great app and when it finally disappears (as do all Google acquisitions), it will be a great loss for it’s users. Waze has a unique UI, a dedicated user following and features that are not at all present in Google Maps. While the integration went well, Google Maps is an overloaded app with too many features. Eventually, they’ll simplify and drop a few features, getting rid of many core things that Waze is known for. In no circumstance will Waze ever recover from this setback.

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Facebook Messenger’s Genius Inputs

Ah, Facebook! You’ve been at the center of so much controversy about privacy, callousness towards users and crappy advertising strategies. But if there’s one thing you do well, it’s the ability to slip in some gems of code into your apps and platforms. The latest one, I discovered recently, is the variety and innovation of inputs in your iOS Messenger app. Chatting is something that comes naturally to people. The quick and painless flow of information (hey, gossip is information) is vital to relationships and of late, we’ve been doing a lot of that on mobile phones. iOS, in it’s standardizing tone, has set up the following method of sending information to others – fire up an app, type something you want to send and hit Enter. If you want to send a photo, press a dedicated button to select a few images or take one and send it. If you want to send emoji, press a dedicated button, select the emoji and it’ll be added to your text input. All of this is fine, except the photo sharing part. Recently, I was looking at how redundant that is. The entire process of selecting photos to send (and many apps only allow one photo at a time) and the process of using a single Camera UI to decide if you want to upload old pics or take a new one, is restrictive and kludgy. In comes Facebook Messenger, with the following UI – Continue reading

Notes for Week 2 of 2014

So, it’s been an interesting week. Some observations –

Social

Found this gem of a Difference between Facebook and Twitter –

Facebook – 

“Best Practices

Making API calls directly to Facebook can improve the performance of your app, rather than proxying them through your own server.”

Twitter – 

“Caching

Store API responses in your application or on your site if you expect a lot of use. For example, don’t try to call the Twitter API on every page load of your website landing page. Instead, call the API infrequently and load the response into a local cache. When users hit your website load the cached version of the results.”

< p>Turns out, when not losing market share to a third-party app, Facebook is actually quite nice to developers as compared to Twitter. To be fair, tweets constitute a lot more volume and processing, so it would make sense for Twitter to want the devs to cache their data. Also, even ADN  has rate limits but at least their limits are more generous than Twitter.

Seriously though, twitter has millions of dollars for servers and all I have is a 128MB VPS. What the heck, Twitter?

Google(+)

Google is no longer Google. It’s Google(+). Everything we love about Google and it’s services is being slowly replaced by Google+ and the latest victim is GMail. Now anyone on Google+ can email you without knowing your email ID. As a communication tool, this makes GMail more open. But that’s exactly what people don’t use GMail for. They use it for Email. Big difference there Google. You can opt-out, but what’s the bet that option will be going away soon?

What Google should actually do –

Google understands one thing and one thing alone – Search. Pushing Google+ isn’t going to help them overcome the social networks of the world. But there is one thing I covet – the Search API. Seriously, why don’t we see third-party Search apps that innovate the way we see our Search results. That’s one data stream we’ve not targeted yet. Google needs to let people in, do their thing and pretty soon we’ll see people integrating Search with  social platforms. Oh, you wanna see which of your Facebook friends searched for the latest Tom Hanks movie and then clicked on IMDB? Here’s the data to that. Seriously Google, stop letting one segment of the business take over the other, specially since we know you’ll kill Google+ a couple of years from now.

Advertising

Ah, advertising! The Bane of TV show lovers binge-watchers. Advertising has slowly crept in everywhere on the Internet, from YouTube to Hulu. Towards YouTube, go find YouTube5. It’s an extension that replaces the usual YouTube player with a cool HTML5 one and kills all ads in the process. Enjoy.

To Hulu, I say, well, get rid of the “Brandon Switched to Ford” ad. Seriously. It’s a stupid ad, I’ve seen all too much of it and Brandon looks like a total douche for being the black sheep who abandoned the family tradition and switched from a Honda to a Ford. If ever Hulu fails, it’ll be because they keep repeating the same ads over and over again. I do not want to be bored by ads, I want them to be innovative and interesting. (Coincidentally, Samuel L Jackson staring in my face is not innovative. I’m looking at you, Capital One.)

I finally also saw the KFC ads that look like some woman with a video camera uploaded to YouTube. That’s supposed to be innovative? Nope. She looks drunk/high/both and you’re not fooling anyone with these ads KFC, those are scripted (or worse, they’re not!).

Finally, saw a teeth whitening strips ad on Hulu that said, very specifically, “If your teeth are not getting white, they’re getting yellow”. Ok, first of all, yellow teeth are perfectly normal and more an indication of stomach trouble than a medical emergency. Second, the ad targets people women who drink coffee. First it was guys who smoke who were targeted and now this. Finally, that text up there. That’s a scare tactic. Pretty soon, they’ll come up with a white paper saying that yes, your teeth getting yellow is a medical problem and you need to use teeth whitening strips in conjunction with toothpaste. All of this will be driven by only one thing – Sales telling the Marketing team to get innovative with the ads. There’s no real medical issue that they’ve tried to resolve.

That concludes the rant session on advertising.

Clients from Heaven

I’ve been building a web app for my brother and he mentioned that the text on the screen doesn’t ‘look black’. For a second, I tried hard not to wonder if my brother is a typical MBA Client from Hell but as it turns out, he was right, the text was actually #2C3E50 which is actually a weird dark blue. Thanks Bootstrap for making me look bad in front of my brother!

WordPress

It was an exciting week to be a WordPress user. Snaplive, a front-end text editing solution was showcased to a few who had signed up for updates. It seems to work really well with WordPress, so expecting some really good things in the future.

Ghost had promised to revolutionize WordPress, but instead it went and setup shop elsewhere. That’s ok, since we have Gust, which is a plugin that ports the awesome Ghost Admin panel functionality to WordPress. Mind you, this just released, so if you’re not ready for bugs (which software doesn’t have bugs?), don’t install this yet.

Finally, a shout out to whatweekisit.com, which I used to, umm, calculate which week of 2014 we’re in. Yeah, I should have just looked at a calendar.