Unexamined Privilege is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”

UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”—a feature conceived and designed by a group to whom nothing terrible has happened yet. A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features.

I’m not saying that these brilliant young designers are heartless, or that individuals among them haven’t personally experienced tragedy—that would be mathematically impossible. I have taught some of these designers, and worked with others. Those I’ve known are wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. And in theory (and sometimes in practice) a platform like Facebook lets them do that.1

But when you put together teams of largely homogenous people of the same class and background, and pay them a lot of money, and when most of those people are under 30, it stands to reason that when someone in the room says, “Let’s do ‘your year in review, and front-load it with visuals,’” most folks in the room will imagine photos of skiing trips, parties, and awards shows—not photos of dead spouses, parents, and children.

So it comes back to this. When we talk about the need for diversity in tech, we’re not doing it because we like quota systems. Diverse backgrounds produce differing points of view. And those differences are needed if we are to put the flowering of internet genius to use actually helping humanity with its many terrifying and seemingly intractable problems.

If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.


1 Of course, not all my former students and employees work at Facebook; most don’t. But those who have gone there had other, equally lucrative options; they took the job to make Facebook, and maybe the world, a little better.

Facebook goes native

“IF I WERE advising them on these decisions, I would have had them look at what people actually want from Facebook — fast access to their friends’ photos and posts — and … helped them design an HTML5 web experience that actually works for mobile.”

.net magazine: Facebook iPhone app to go native By Tanya Combrinck on June 28, 2012

Facebook: the real semantic web?

Longtime tech pundit and thinker Esther Dyson posted on Twitter today that Facebook was launching the “semantic Web” without calling it that. Good, because hardly anyone ever understood what that meant. But Zuckerberg in effect summarized it in common parlance and defined what the semantic Web is: “Last year we announced the open graph, so you could connect to all the things in the world. This year, we’re taking the next step—we’re going to make it so that you can connect to anything you want in any way you want.” The original idea of the semantic Web, promoted most of all by Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, generally omitted people. Perhaps only Facebook, based on genuine identity, could build a real semantic Web that centers around people and what they do.

Facebook’s Changes—It’s All About the Platform – Forbes.

This media life – and death

IN A GORGEOUSLY PACED ESSAY at n+1, “the magazine that believes history isn’t over just yet,” an amazing young (22?) writer named Alice Gregory reviews a novel by Gary Shteyngart while simultaneously describing her exhausted and shattered mental life as a Twitter- and Tumblr-following, iPhone-carrying, socializing-while-isolated Internet addict, i.e. modern young person:

This anxiety is about more than failing to keep up with a serialized source, though. It’s also about the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation. That’s why the Facebook newsfeed is no longer shown chronologically. Refresh Facebook ten times and the status updates rearrange themselves in nonsensical, anachronistic patterns. You don’t refresh Facebook to follow a narrative, you refresh to register a change—not to read but to see.

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does.

Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine.

I urge you to read every word of n+1: Sad as Hell. Hat tip: New York designer Darren Hoyt.

Migrating from a conventional Facebook account to a public figure (“fan”) page – a report from the trenches

BECAUSE FACEBOOK LIMITS USERS to 5,000 contacts, I had to migrate from a conventional user account to what used to be called a “fan” page and is now called an “Artist, Band or Public Figure” page. (Page, not account, notice.)

There’s a page on Facebook called “Create a Page” that is supposed to seamlessly migrate from a conventional user account to a public figure (aka “fan”) page.

The page says it will only migrate your connections—it will lose all your content, photos, apps, and so on—and Facebook means it. After migrating, all my stuff is gone. Years of photos, wall posts, blog posts, tweets, you name it. Even the “help” page link is gone once you’ve migrated, so you can’t refer to any help documentation to find out where all your stuff went and if any of it can be saved.

Custom URL breaks on migration

Because of an idiocy in the database, you can’t keep your existing custom URL, since, when you request it, Facebook tells you it is “taken.” My Facebook page was “jzeldman,” but that URL is “taken” by a fellow named “Jeffrey Zeldman,” so I can’t use it on my Jeffrey Zeldman page. So I had to change to a new URL (“JeffreyZeldman”) and now all my admin links (for instance at facebook.com/happycog) are broken, as they point to the old user page instead of the new fan page. At the very least, Facebook should seamlessly redirect from facebook.com/jzeldman (my old URL) to facebook.com/JeffreyZeldman (the new one), but it does not.

So all my other social media sites that point to the old Facebook account need to be updated by hand, and any third-party links will now be broken because Facebook doesn’t let you keep your custom URL during a migration.

Third-party apps disappear completely

Likewise, none of the third-party functionality (Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, RSS, and so on) has migrated from the user page to the fan page, and there is no information explaining how to reconnect these apps.

No reasonable app like the ones I’ve mentioned appears in the “apps” section of the sidebar on my new page. When I look for additional apps, I get treated to a bloated browse of crappy apps nobody on earth uses, whose creators probably made deals with Facebook in hopes that newbies would be persuaded to hook up these contraptions. You can find “PhotoMyButt” but not Flickr.

I, however, use Flickr.

So, since I can’t find it in the big dull browse, I resort to Facebook’s Apps’ “Search” box. Typing Flickr in that box is exciting. Instead of being taken to the Flickr apps on Facebook, I’m treated to endless redirects courtesy of a broken PHP script that loops infinitely forever suffering like Christ on the cross world without end amen while never actually resolving. Each new partial page that loads for an instant before being replaced by the next is undesigned and unbranded and contains only the sentence fragment, “Please stand by, redirecting…”

The devil will see you now.

So much for content

My photos are gone. My existing writing is gone. Facebook does seem to be migrating human beings who were “friends” on my old page, but nothing else works.

Oh my God, I can’t Admin my own page

I can’t Admin my new Facebook page because the “Admin” is “jzeldman” (me at the old account, which Facebook deleted). Perhaps this is why it’s impossible to post content, no apps work, etc. Nice.

Kids, don’t try this at home

All these bugs are probably known to Facebook, and there are probably nice people at Facebook whose job is to execute known secret internal workarounds when helping an actual “celebrity” migrate his or her page. I’m just guessing of course, but it stands to reason that Ashton K or Lady Gaga, if they want a Facebook page, probably don’t have to deal with all this frustrating brokenness. They have people for that.

But I don’t. I’m a web guy. And web stuff should just work.

Like and Friend are broken in Facebook.

I CANNOT LIKE Happy Cog’s new Facebook page, due to Facebook’s unexplained and arbitrary limitation on how many things a user is allowed to Like. In Facebook’s world, it seems I Like too many things, and that’s bad—even though a chief value of Facebook to advertisers is as a platform where users connect to brands by “Liking” them and encouraging their friends to Like them. Breaking the user/Like connection arbitrarily not only frustrates the user, it also runs counter to Facebook’s business model. Moreover, the vaguely worded error message is a lie. No matter how many things I remove from my pile of Likes, I still cannot Like anything new.

So the real problem may be that I have too many “friends” (i.e. colleagues, business contacts, actual friends, and family). I’m allowed 5000 and I have 5000. If you have 5000 friends, you can’t add more friends, because God forbid you help Facebook grow its network beyond an arbitrary cutoff point. Moreover, if you have 5000 friends, you apparently aren’t allowed to Like anything. You have to choose: friends or brands. Like anyone, I choose friends. As a result, I lose value to Facebook’s advertisers, whose products I can no longer Like. This inability to simultaneously Like people and things maps to nothing in the real world and makes no business sense, but here we are.

So Happy Cog has a Facebook page, and I founded Happy Cog, but I cannot like Happy Cog’s Facebook page. Even if I remove everything else I Like from my list of Facebook likes, I will still not be able to Like Happy Cog’s Facebook page, unless I start removing contacts, which I’m unwilling to do for obvious reasons.

If Facebook were an eager young startup, they would quickly fix this problem, which runs counter to all their business interests and is not based on any real system constraints. But, as we all know, Facebook is an insanely successful company, so they have no incentive to fix the things that are broken in their user experience.

I like Facebook. I don’t mind the brain-dead broken parts of Facebook; all web apps have broken, brain-dead parts. That’s what testing and user feedback are for: to find fix broken, brain-dead stuff. I hate, hate, hate thinking Facebook will never fix what is broken and brain-dead in its site used by half a billion people. Say “Amen,” somebody.

Support the families of the fallen, if Facebook lets you.

ONSTAR WILL DONATE up to $250,000 to the families of police officers killed in the line of duty. For every person who fans OnStar, they will donate a dollar to the families. This is a great cause; I encourage you to fan Onstar and help the families of the fallen.

Sadly, I can’t do so myself, as Facebook has told me I have too many friends and fan pages.

How many friends is too many? Whom should I remove? Which fan pages should I unlike, if I could manage Facebook likes?

Here’s the nuttier part. Although I can’t add friends or pages, people can still add me. Every day at least half a dozen people do so. Some of them may have attended An Event Apart. Some may like A List Apart or A Book Apart. Others may have read Designing With Web Standards. Or this website. In some cases I know why people are reaching out to me; in others I don’t. This doesn’t bother me. I pretty much always say yes to new Facebook friends.

My reward for contributing significantly to Facebook’s content and networks is that I can never add another friend or fan another page (although anyone can add me as a friend).

Fanning Onstar to help the families of the fallen is much more important than this silly problem. I don’t lose sleep worrying about the friends I can no longer make on Facebook. I’m not complaining for personal reasons. I just wanted to point out—for my friends who work at Facebook and read this site—that Facebook’s rules about friends are arbitrary, incomprehensible, and broken. And in this case, this foolishness hurts (however slightly) the families of fallen officers. And that’s really not right.

Social Network Creep

The Social Network, a David Fincher film.

If you’re intrigued, as I am, by the trailer for David Fincher’s upcoming The Social Network, and if part of what compels you about the trailer is the musical score—a choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep”—you’ll be happy to know you can purchase said song via emusic.com: On The Rocks is the album, “Creep” is the track, and Scala, a Belgian all-teenage-girl choir, are the artists. Highly recommended.

P.S. If emusic.com had an affiliate program, I’d have free music for life.

Like Buttons Falling From the Sky

CNN announces what you should know about Facebook’s changes:

Buttons with the word “like” and a thumbs-up icon on them are going to start popping up all over the Internet [web]. By clicking one, you indicate that you find the content interesting, relevant or helpful. Basically, you would recommend it to a friend.

Before Wednesday, “like” buttons only were on Facebook. Now, they’ll be all over the place… When you click one, you post the item — whether it’s a blog post, photo or celebrity web page — to your Facebook news feed.

So how will this differ from what we have currently? For instance, how will it differ from things like the Retweet button and the social toolbar (featuring buttons for Tumblr, Facebook, Digg, and so on) found at the bottom of this post and on millions of other websites?

It will differ in three ways:

  1. The “like” button differs from a Facebook button in that it isn’t a gateway to the Facebook website; it’s a piece of the Facebook website stuck on other sites. Conceptually, this makes those sites “pages on Facebook,” and makes Facebook a dominant platform.
  2. Unlike with ordinary social buttons, you won’t have to enter a user name and password. If you’ve used Facebook recently, you’ll be able to click the “like” button on Joe’s website and have it show up in your Facebook news feed—no further action required. Again, the concept is that every site on the web is merely a page or section on Facebook; that Facebook, instead of a walled garden hidden from the web, is now the firmament on which the rest of the web rests.
  3. Finally—and here’s the part that freaks some people out—your friends’ faces will show up on websites where they’ve clicked the “like” button. Think about that. You’re on Joe’s website. You see your wife’s, girlfriend’s, and minister’s faces smiling at you from Joe’s website. The people who matter to you, and who you thought you had compartmentalized in the privacy of Facebook, a non-public-facing, password-protected website, are now out in the open. (Of course, they are out in the open to you. Achmed will see his friends, not yours. Still.)

So what will this Facebook’s redefinition mean, ultimately? No clue. But most of us, if we think about it, have seen Big Things like this come and go on the web. Remember when every third website required Microsoft Passport to unlock features or let you log in? And Mac and Linux users were angry, because the web is supposed to be an open platform, not a dominant vendor’s sandbox? Remember? Probably not. It was quite a big deal at the time, but almost nobody thinks about it now.

Just saying.


Facebook, Twitter, and Bird Flu

If “Our Broken Borders” should someday turn into a ratings loser for CNN’s Lou Dobbs, perhaps he can switch to “The Dwindling Productivity of the American Worker: Is Facebook Sapping Our National Vigor?”

Like comic books, rock and roll, heavy metal, gangsta rap, gaming, and MySpace, the web is no longer an easy card for parent-scaring pundits and politicians to play. But social networking sites AKA community-focused web applications AKA “web 2.0″ can still be blamed for a variety of social ills. That they are actually blameless doesn’t matter. The truth never matters in this game.

And since it’s easier to say “Facebook” than “the aggregate of new social networking sites and applications such as Flickr and Twitter,” there’s every chance that Facebook will take the whipping for the entire category.

That this will actually increase Facebook’s market value is known but won’t matter to the people who pretend to be outraged about “the Facebook generation” or “social not-working” or whatever the pundits end up calling the “crisis.”

The same thing happened when religious authorities tried to ban “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Exorcist,” “Hail Mary,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” In every case, people who otherwise wouldn’t have bought tickets for these films, showed up, lined up, and even bought popcorn.

At least “The Exorcist” was entertaining.

And of course, parental outrage and the PMRC have sold plenty of rap and metal.

If Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking apps get boosted by fake outrage, they’ll acquire more investors. And they’ll need them, since all these applications run at a loss, and all of them suffer from terrible scaling problems.

The scaling problems will grow worse as the apps become more popular; investors will buy smaller and smaller pieces of a less and less viable business concern; and when it pops, we’ll be back to the bird flu movie of the week.

So the planet warms and the Kenyans kill their neighbors and we tweet about nothing and hope the servers hold out.

[tags]socialnetworking, loudobbs, cnn, facebook, twitter, web2.0, applications, webapps[/tags]