You are what you consume: Facebook v. Twitter


You are what you read, watch, and listen to. The content you consume changes how you think about the world, and determines what topics you’re aware of and concerned about. Over the past century, countless thinkers have explored this idea, and from a variety of perspectives.

McLuhan focused on the media type (i.e. books vs. television), and asserted that the medium through which content is delivered changes how the content is encoded by the creator, and decoded by the recipient. More recently, Nicholas Carr argued that ways digital media affects our ability to focus and follow complicated arguments. Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble to describe the way social media is designed to show us content we already agree with—clustering us into like-minded groups infrequently exposed to ideas that challenge our existing attitudes and beliefs.

But what if social media, the same technology that helped create today’s highly polarized political environment, could be used to reverse the trend? What if you could assemble a custom feed of diverse thinkers representing an eclectic range of voices from across the political spectrum, or whichever thing you’re into. And since your thoughts are influenced by the content you consume, this could help your thinking be more inclusive of a range of views. It’s a personalized news feed more directly curated by you, rather than Facebook’s engagement algorithms.

That’s how I use Twitter. I follow an eclectic mix of artists, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and startup influencers, and political thinkers from both sides. When I open my Twitter homepage, I’m exposed to views I agree with and those I do not. It’s a way to take me out of my bubble every once and awhile, and remind me that “the other side” often has good points to make and  deeply held beliefs to defend.

I suppose I could use Facebook to achieve a similar result. But in my experience, this isn’t how that service is used. Facebook is more for private, personal news and achievements; people seem to be acutely self-conscious when posting there. Twitter is more free-form, public, and informal. Twitter starts with the assumption that you’ll follow people you might not know (i.e. famous people); Facebook is based on precisely the opposite premise.

And really, you could achieve this type of thought diversity by reading different books, picking up magazines from “the other side” every once and awhile, etc. But the cost of engagement is lower on Twitter; all you have to do is click the “follow” button.

An Act of Privacy

I’ve been creeped out and generally dismayed about Google for quite awhile now. They shut down popular services. They limit your potential to see interesting things via filter bubbles.

They distract us from their real intent (and real profit engine) with self-driving cars and floating internet balloons {npr}.

It seems their desire to learn everything about us so they can sell that information back to advertisers is limitless.

Enter Google Mine {an unofficial google blog}, a new service that wants to know everything you own and want to own:

Google Mine lets you share your belongings with your friends and keep up to date with what your friends are sharing. It enables you to control which of your Google+ Circles you share an item with. It also lets you rate and review the items, upload photos of them and share updates on the Google+ Stream where your friends get to see and comment on them.

Via {daring fireball}.

Like I said, I’ve been skeptical about Google and their true intentions before. But the recent NSA leaks have accelerated my desire to limit my digital footprint, especially the one I leave behind with Google.

I’ve been using DuckDuckGo for search instead of Google for a few months now. It takes some getting used to, but I rarely switch over to Google to find what I’m looking for now. And apparently I’m not the only one: DuckDuckGo has been experiencing a surge in traffic {npr} since the controversial NSA program was revealed.

I moved all my mail from Gmail to my own server. I suppose the NSA can still track my emails, but it’ll be more difficult now. Besides, Gmail is free because Google benefits from the data it hosts. My data.

I don’t have much information on Facebook nor do I use the service very often, and I plan on keeping it that way.

Then there’s Apple. Yes, they were implicated in the recent NSA revelations. But check out their statement on the matter:

Apple has always placed a priority on protecting our customers’ personal data, and we don’t collect or maintain a mountain of personal details about our customers in the first place. There are certain categories of information which we do not provide to law enforcement or any other group because we choose not to retain it.

For example, conversations which take place over iMessage and FaceTime are protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can see or read them. Apple cannot decrypt that data. Similarly, we do not store data related to customers’ location, Map searches or Siri requests in any identifiable form.

Apple is a company that makes money from selling us cool new stuff. Google and Facebook make money from our information.

I’m much more comfortable with the former.

Location-Aware News

NPR is testing a new service on their site; embedded local news, delivered based on your current location. So if you’re in, say, Philly, you might see the following column embedded on the “regular”/national NPR site:

And when you hover over the “What’s this?” button you might see this:

It’s part of NPR’s broader effort to target its news to the reader/listener, an approach they’re also trying out on Facebook. As an earlier article from the Nieman Journalism Lab reported:

[NPR] found that geofocused posts to the Seattle region usually had a much higher engagement rate than links shared to the global NPR Facebook audience.

For example, the KPLU story “Is Seattle a great but lonely place to live?” was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 6 to a geofocused Seattle audience. This story achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other local posts.

I think this is an awesome way to use semi-creepy technology (“hey I know where you live,” is essentially what they’re saying), to serve up a genuinely better user experience. Imagine if NPR tracked user preferences and behaviors like an advertising company. But instead of using that information to sell targeted ads, they could present a tailored news experience, including stories that they know you probably wouldn’t want to read, but should. They could create an algorithm that would work against the filter bubble, making sure you’re consistently surprised by viewpoints you don’t agree with.

It’s hard to tell what kind of biases an algorithm like that would have. After all, who determines that an article should be read? And I don’t think NPR is headed toward implementing something like that. But it’s an idea worth entertaining… kudos to NPR for experimenting.

Now what?

A media narrative has emerged around Steve Jobs since his passing two days ago. Through the filter of my personal media bubble, it goes something like this.

Jobs’ brilliance was to take technology reserved for the realm of geeks, eliminate complexity, and produce a product that’s intuitive enough for everyday humans — from children to the elderly — to pick up without consulting the instruction manual. Examples of this singular, simple ideal are evident throughout Jobs’ career.

He saw in the mouse and graphical user interface what Xerox PARC didn’t, and created the personal computer. He saw the promise behind the portable MP3 player, and made an interface that’s easy-to-use, forging relationships with the companies who own the content.

In the vein of the Godin post I linked to earlier today — what can we do with Steve’s view of technology and the world? What sliver of an invention is out there today, waiting to be transformed into a simple, delightful product?

The Facebook Echo Chamber

Much has been written about the internet’s tendency to group its users into like-minded hordes. The internet makes it easy to find news sources and communities who have the same views as your own, effectively eliminating exposure to opinions you don’t agree with.

Aside from being boring, the phenomenon can’t bode well for our politics either.

On last week’s On The Media, Eli Pariser, former director, pinpoints the creepy extent Facebook goes to keep users on its site.

For example, they [Facebook] know that if you’re a 30-something woman and you see that your female friends have uploaded pictures of themselves, you’re likely to upload a picture of yourself in the next month. And they know that if you do that, that your male friends are very likely to comment on that picture, and they know that if your male friends comment on that picture, they’re likely to stay on Facebook for months to come.

And so, what Facebook does, according to one person I talked to there, is they actually kind of run that in reverse. They say, oh, this guy looks like he’s kind of getting bored of Facebook. Let’s find one of his friends, show her pictures of her friends that they’ve uploaded so that she uploads a photo so that he comments on it so that he stays on Facebook more.

On the Media — “The Filter Bubble” {transcript}