Don't fear Facebook, pity it. It's a datavore with no data

Facebook can draw inferences from your likes. But who has any likes anymore?

Our very own Helen Lewis has a piece in today's Guardian where she throws cold water on the fears that Facebook's users were giving away more than they meant to by liking pages. She writes:

Dig a little deeper and some of this soul-scrying voodoo becomes slightly less terrifying. One of the TV-show likes that's a predictor of female homosexuality is The L Word – a drama about lesbians. Two of the pages associated with being a gay man are Wicked the Musical (no comment) and the No H8 campaign, which advocates equal marriage. I'm sure you could guess my gender from my self-declared love of Jane Austen and the history of fashion on Facebook. Or you could just look at my name.

But there's a bigger reason why we oughtn't be that concerned: who the hell clicks "like" anymore?

Facebook is designed to be used in a way that corresponds with the actual use patterns of fewer and fewer of its members. Even "active users"—its new preferred metric, since the total number of registered users is now limited by the population of the earth—may not be active the way it likes us to be.

The perfect Facebook user checks in whenever they go somewhere; they like the pages of all their favourite bands, movies, TV shows, and even their dentist; they tell Facebook where they work and went to school; they visit other sites through apps on Facebook; and they never, ever change their privacy settings from the default.

Does that describe you? Does that describe anyone?

The fact is that for an increasing number of people Facebook is basically a glorified webmail service. There's still a lot of money to be made in that—targeted ads served against keywords culled from your messages and events is the reason why Google runs Gmail, for instance—but not enough to justify Facebook's market cap, and certainly not as much as Mark Zuckerberg would like.

The company's been big at giving users new ways to get data out of Facebook, such as redesigning its news feed and introducing Graph Search; but it has yet to touch on any changes which would make people more likely to put data in. As Buzzfeed's John Herrman writes, Facebook "is demanding more and more of a graph that is able to provide less and less."

The real problem we all face isn't that the information we put out on the internet might be used against us. Despite looking like it was going to be ubiquitous, the fad for documenting every aspect of one's life is dying off. Foursquare has pivoted to be about providing data, rather than encouraging check-ins; Instagram, which provides ephemeral, context-free images, was poised to overtake Facebook as the leading photo service on line (until it became Facebook); and when was the last time you "liked" something?

We don't have to worry about what we put out on purpose; the problem is what we put out without knowing. It's not scary if Facebook can tell you're gay because you choose to like certain pages; it's more concerning that Google can tell your age because of your search habits; and it's downright worrying that Target can find out a teenage girl is pregnant before her own father based on what she buys.

If you choose what data to share, you are probably not too concerned about the inferences that can be drawn from it. But very little of what we share is done voluntarily these days; and as Facebook struggles to get us to give it the information it wants, they too may start taking it from us without asking. That's when it gets more concerning, because that's when it gets harder to fight.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.