Big Brother is watching you . . . in outer space

As Kerry Katona and her housemates passed a few weeks in the Celebrity Big Brother house, a much more ambitious version of the game was drawing to a close in Moscow. Mars500 is run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and is testing, among other things, just how difficult it might be for astronauts to live with each other during a mission to Mars.

ESA's partner in this project is the charmingly named Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. When it comes to spending a year or more in a tightly confined Mars mission craft, problems there will undoubtedly be. The mission involves being cooped up in a spacecraft for roughly six months each way. The astronauts will be exposed to cancer-inducing radiation and bone-weakening lack of gravity. However, it is the unknown psychological effects that worry the space agencies.

The astronauts' sense of isolation will be unprecedented. The further along their trajectory they go, the worse for them it will get. By the time they reach Mars, radio communications will be suffering delays of up to 20 minutes because of the distances involved. Spoken communications with earth will be replaced by email.

To see how astronauts might deal with this situation, ESA has crammed six men - three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese - into an isolation chamber for 520 days. The "travel" phase began in June 2010. On the first day of February this year, they were allowed to open the hatch to the "Mars lander". Eleven days later, they simulated landing on Mars. For just over a week, they wore their spacesuits and conducted experiments on a reconstruction of the planet's surface.

At the moment, the crew is in the "return to earth" phase. The simulation will end on 5 November. After the debrief, we will have a unique insight
into what happens in the minds of those condemned to spend too long in inescapably close proximity to other human beings.

We already have some clues. Without intervention from ground control, things can get far enough out of proportion for astronauts to go on strike. That was how the crew of Skylab responded in 1973, when they felt that those on the ground were asking too much and offering too little support.

Life on Mars

Schisms and cliques form easily in isolation, too. Mars mission enthusiasts who camped in the Arctic and simulated performing simple tasks eventually went tribal, falling into groups that seemed willing to let members of other groups die unnecessarily. When the member of one group had a leaking (pretend) helmet - certain death on Mars - another group refused to let him take priority in the (pretend) airlock.

It all sounds amusing, but schisms are a grave threat, given that the likely make-up of a Mars crew will be as diverse as the population of the Big Brother house. The mission will need pilots, engineers, geologists and medical personnel. The chances of tribalism arising seem rather high.

So far, however, reports from the Mars500 crew suggest that those with the right stuff will survive the proximity. At least they don't have Jedward on board, so it's not a test of the extreme limits of endurance. We can only ask so much, even of our astronauts.


Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.