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.

Photo: Getty
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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