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In search of a social site that doesn't lie

Mike Elgan | Aug. 4, 2014
Mike Elgan would like to find a social network that doesn't lie to users, doesn't experiment on users without their clear knowledge, and delivers by default all the posts of the people they follow.

Imagine a splash screen that pops up each month on these sites that says: "Hi. Just wanted to make sure you're aware that we do experiments on people, and we might do experiments on you. We might lie to you, meddle in your relationships and make you feel bad, just to see what you'll do."

No, you can't imagine it. The reason is that the business models of sites like OKCupid and Facebook are based on the assumption of user ignorance.

Why OKCupid and Facebook think it's OK to mess with people's relationships

The OKCupid admission and the revelations about the Facebook research were shocking to the public because we weren't aware of the evolving mindset behind social websites. No doubt the OKCupid people and the Facebook people arrived at their coldly cynical view of users as lab rats via a long, evolutionary slippery slope.

Let's imagine the process with Facebook. Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard, moves to Silicon Valley, gets funded and starts building Facebook into a social network. Zuck and the guys want to make Facebook super appealing, but they notice a disconnect in human reason, a bias that is leading heavy Facebook users to be unhappy.

You see, people want to follow and share and post a lot, and Facebook wants users to be active. But when everybody posts a lot, the incoming streams are overwhelming, and that makes Facebook users unhappy. What to do?

The solution is to use software algorithms to selectively choose which posts to let through and which to hold back. But what criteria do you use?

Facebook's current algorithm, which is no longer called Edgerank (I guess if you get rid of the name, people won't talk about it), is the product of thousands of social experiments — testing and tweaking and checking and refining until everyone is happy.

The result of those experiments is that Facebook changes your relationships. For example, let's say you follow 20 friends from high school. You feel confident that by following them — and by them following you — that you have a reliable social connection to these people that replaces phone calls, emails and other forms of communication.

Let's say you have a good friend named Brian who doesn't post a lot of personal stuff. And you have another friend, Sophia, who is someone you don't care about but who is very active and posts funny stuff every day. After a period of several months during which you barely interact with Brian but occasionally like and comment on Sophia's posts, Facebook decides to cut Brian's posts out of your News Feed while maintaining the steady stream of Sophia posts. Facebook boldly ends your relationship with Brian, someone you care about. When Brian posts an emotional item about the birth of his child, you don't see it because Facebook has eliminated your connection to Brian.


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