Facebook as a replacement for the community formerly found in church and Little League

In a recent speech in Chicago, Zuckerberg explained his vision for Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook groups to play an important role that community groups like churches and Little League teams used to perform: Bringing communities together…

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users who’ve built large community-support groups on the site. “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”

He added, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”…

“A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

One of the best things about the Internet and social media is that it allows people with specific interests to find each other in ways that can be difficult offline. Yet, it is less clear that these online groups can be full substitutes for offline social groups. A few specific questions about this based on what Zuckerberg said:

  1. It can be interesting to ask about the purpose of religious groups: how much are they about religious activities versus social activities? The answer might depend on whether one is a person of faith or not or an insider or outsider to such groups.
  2. Religious groups are unique in that they are often focused on a transcendent being. Other social groups often have an external focus but not quite the same kind. Is a Facebook group focusing on the same kind of thing as a religious group?
  3. Zuckerberg is hinting at the need humans have for social and spiritual connection. Can such spiritual connection be filled in an online setting in the ways that it occurs offline?
  4. Zuckerberg is right about the decline in civic membership but can this trend be easily reversed? For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone points to a whole host of factors (from suburbanization to television watching) that led to this. If people are willing to join online communities in large numbers, is this because these communities offer different requirements than civic groups?

A reminder: this is not a new development. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been clear from early on about his goals to use the platform to bring people together. See an earlier post about this here.

The cultural bubbles of popular TV shows tell us what exactly?

This is a cool set of maps of the popularity of 50 different TV shows across zip codes in the United States. But, what is the data and what exactly can it tell us? Here is the brief explanation:

When we looked at how many active Facebook users in a given ZIP code “liked” certain TV shows, we found that the 50 most-liked shows clustered into three groups with distinct geographic distributions. Together they reveal a national culture split among three regions: cities and their suburbs; rural areas; and what we’re calling the extended Black Belt — a swath that extends from the Mississippi River along the Eastern Seaboard up to Washington, but also including city centers and other places with large nonwhite populations.

Some quick thoughts:

  1. Can we assume that Facebook likes are an accurate measure? How many people are represented per zip code? Who tends to report their TV show preferences on Facebook? Why not use Nielsen data which likely has a much smaller sample but could be considered more reliable and valid?
  2. How exactly does television watching influence everyday beliefs and actions? Or, does it work the other way: people have certain beliefs and behaviors and they watch what confirms what they already like? Sociologists and others that study the effects of television don’t always have data on the direct connections between viewing and other parts of life. (I’m not suggesting television has no influence. Given that the average American still watches several hours a day, it is still a powerful medium even with the rise of
  3. The opening to the article both suggests TV viewing and the related cultures fall along an urban/rural divide but then also split across three groups. The maps display three main groups – metro areas, rural areas, and areas with higher concentrations of African Americans. I would want to know more about two areas. First, political data – and this article wants to make the link between TV watching and the 2016 election – suggests the final divide is really in the suburbs between areas further out from the big city and those closer. Can we get finer grained data between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs? Second, does this mean that Latinos and Asian Americans aren’t differentiated enough to be their own TV watching cultures?
  4. The introduction to this article also repeats a common line among those that study television:

In the 1960s and ’70s, even if you didn’t watch a show, you at least probably would have heard of it. Now television, once the great unifier, amplifies our divisions.

We certainly are way into the cable era of television (and probably beyond with all of the options now available through the Internet and streaming) but could we argue instead that the earlier era of fewer channels and viewing options simply papered over differences? As numerous historians and other scholars have argued, the 1950s might have appeared to be a golden era but most of the benefits went to white, middle class, suburban families.

In other words, I would be hesitant to state that these TV patterns are strong evidence of three clearly different cultures in the United States. Could these television viewing patterns fit in with other cultural tastes differentiating various groups based on class and race and ethnicity? Yes, though I’d much rather see serious academic work on this developing Bourdieu’s ideas and encompassing all sorts of consumption items treasured by Americans (homes, vehicles, sports fandom, making those hard choices like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King or Walmart and Target). Also, limiting ourselves to geography may not work as well – this approach has been tried by many including in books like The Big Sort or Our Patchwork Nation – as it did in the past.

Reminder of Facebook’s goal: “to make the world more open and connected”

What exactly is the purpose of all these social media sites? A recent letter to a Senate committee clearly lays out Facebook’s aims:

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

The rest of the document provides insights into how Facebook selects Trending Topics but the reminder is helpful: the company has broad aims with the goal of having more and more interactions between people around the world. While Zuckerberg has been pretty open about this from the beginning, it is less clear whether this goal is accomplished. My own research with data from the mid to late 2000s suggested users primarily friended and interacted with people they already know or were in some proximity to. If users aren’t making personal connections, perhaps they are more aware of the world through viral videos, news stories, and information that rockets through networks. Does that make the world (1) more open and (2) connected or is there an element of personal connection that also would help?

Claim: Facebook wants to curate the news through an algorithm

Insiders have revealed how Facebook is selecting its trending news stories:

Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office…

The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.

According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”…

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

The angle here seems to be that (1) the journalists who participated did not feel they were treated well and (2) journalists may not be part of the future process because an algorithm will take over. I don’t know about the first but is the second a major surprise? The trending news will still require content to be generated, presumably created by journalists and news sources all across the Internet. Do journalists want to retain the privilege to not just write the news but also to choose what gets reported? In other words, the gatekeeper role of journalism may slowly disappear if algorithms guide what people see.

Imagine the news algorithms that people might have available to them in the future: one that doesn’t report any violent crime (it is overreported anyway); one that only includes celebrity news (this might include politics, it might not); one that reports on all forms of government corruption; and so on. I’m guessing, however, Facebook’s algorithm would be proprietary and probably is trying to push people into certain behaviors (whether that is sharing more on their profiles or pursuing particular civic or political actions).

Facebook wants global guidelines but has local standards

A recent addition to Facebook’s standards in Spain highlights a larger issue for the company: how to have consistent guidelines around the world while remaining respectful or relevant in local contexts.

For Facebook and other platforms like it, incidents such as the bullfighting kerfuffle betray a larger, existential difficulty: How can you possibly impose a single moral framework on a vast and varying patchwork of global communities?

If you ask Facebook this question, the social-media behemoth will deny doing any such thing. Facebook says its community standards are inert, universal, agnostic to place and time. The site doesn’t advance any worldview, it claims, besides the non-controversial opinion that people should “connect” online…

Facebook has modified its standards several times in response to pressure from advocacy groups – although the site has deliberately obscured those edits, and the process by which Facebook determines its guidelines remains stubbornly obtuse. On top of that, at least some of the low-level contract workers who enforce Facebook’s rules are embedded in the region – or at least the time zone – whose content they moderate. The social network staffs its moderation team in 24 languages, 24 hours a day…

And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework – one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.

I like the shift in this discussion from free speech issues (mentioned later in the article) to issues of a particular moral framework that corporations have and promote. Some might argue that simply by being a corporation there is a very clear framework: Facebook needs to make money. How exactly can the company claim to be truly about connection when there is an overriding concern? On the other hand, various companies across industries have had to wrestle with this issue: when a company expands into additional culture, how do they balance the existing moral framework with new frameworks? Customers are at stake but so are basic concerns of dealing with people on their own terms and respecting other approaches to the world.

But, with a global capitalistic system where Facebook play a prominent role (in terms of rapid growth, connecting people, and market value), can it truly be “neutral”? Like many other behemoth companies (think McDonald’s or Walmart), it will certainly encounter its share of dissenters in the years to come.

How many Facebook friends can you depend on?

A new study suggests most Facebook friends cannot be depended on in times of trouble:

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, undertook a study to find out the connection between whether people have lots of Facebook friends and real friends.

He found that there was very little correlation between having friends on social networks and actually being able to depend on them, or even talking to them regularly.

The average person studied had around 150 Facebook friends. But only about 14 of them would express sympathy in the event of anything going wrong…

Those numbers are mostly similar to how friendships work in real life, the research said. But the huge number of supposed friends on a friend list means that people can be tricked into thinking that they might have more close friends.

The last paragraph seems key: online or offline, people have a relatively small number of close relationships. As the saying goes, you learn who your friends are in times of trouble. Simply having a connection to someone – whether knowing them as an acquaintance or friending them on social media – is at a different level than having regular contact or providing mutual support. Using the words “real” and “fake” friends tries to get at that but it would be better to use terms close friend, acquaintance, family member, or other terms to denote the closeness of the relationship. Of course, when Facebook chose to use the term friends for everyone you link to on Facebook, this was very intentional and an attempt to prompt more connections and openness.

The Dunbar here is the same researcher behind Dunbar’s number that suggests humans can have around 150 maximum stable relationships.

Cruz campaign using psychological data to reach potential voters

Campaigns not working with big data are behind: Ted Cruz’s campaign is working with unique psychological data as they try to secure the Republican nomination.

To build its data-gathering operation widely, the Cruz campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, a Massachusetts company reportedly owned in part by hedge fund executive Robert Mercer, who has given $11 million to a super PAC supporting Cruz. Cambridge, the U.S. affiliate of London-based behavioral research company SCL Group, has been paid more than $750,000 by the Cruz campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

To develop its psychographic models, Cambridge surveyed more than 150,000 households across the country and scored individuals using five basic traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. A top Cambridge official didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Cruz campaign officials said the company developed its correlations in part by using data from Facebook that included subscribers’ likes. That data helped make the Cambridge data particularly powerful, campaign officials said…

The Cruz campaign modified the Cambridge template, renaming some psychological categories and adding subcategories to the list, such as “stoic traditionalist” and “true believer.” The campaign then did its own field surveys in battleground states to develop a more precise predictive model based on issues preferences.

The Cruz algorithm was then applied to what the campaign calls an “enhanced voter file,” which can contain as many as 50,000 data points gathered from voting records, popular websites and consumer information such as magazine subscriptions, car ownership and preferences for food and clothing.

Building a big data operation behind a major political candidate seems pretty par for the course these days. The success of the Obama campaigns was often attributed to tech whizzes behind the scenes. Since this is fairly normal these days, perhaps we need to move on to other questions: what do voters think about such micro targeting and how do they experience it? Does this contribute to political fragmentation? What is the role of the mass media amid more specific approaches? How valid are the predictions for voters and their behavior (since they are based on certain social science data and theories)? How does this all significantly change political campaigns?

How far are we from just getting ridding of the candidates all together and putting together AI apps/machines/data programs that garner support…