Think you somehow "own" your social media presence? Think you control the updates you see, and how others see you? Think again. From recent Twitter's changes to the its visual experience to Facebook's inexplicable culling of friend updates, we truly are the product, not the customer, when it comes to our online identities. Sadly, Big Data and a big need to maximize advertising revenues will only further diminish our tenuous control of our online experiences.
"When I Was Young We Controlled Our Twitter Stream"
For some, Twitter's "upgrade" was an unwelcome intrusion on their Twitter experience. But then, every change to Twitter, Facebook or other social media is generally met with howls of anguished disbelief. "How could they change this thing that I don't pay for but somehow believe I'm entitled to?"
Well, they can and do precisely because they need to make money, and giving the world data center-hungry platforms without any way to recoup the costs only counts as a good business model with venture capitalists. Once Facebook went public it was a foregone conclusion that it would look for ways to turn friend updates into advertising opportunities. Ditto Twitter, as it prepares for an IPO.
And yet, we're unlikely to convert our howls of protest into actual defections from social media, as Joey Marburger, director of Digital Products and Design at The Washington Post, humorously points out:
@mathewi Welcome to the complain about Twitter but never stop using Twitter era. Aka Facebook.— Joey Marburger (@josephjames) October 30, 2013
We just can't break away from our desire to see and be seen. And so long as we're simply paying with our participation, we should expect to have the experience controlled in ways that favor platform monetization, not our social good. Sometimes, fortunately, the two go together.
Big Data To The Rescue?
While I don't love Twitter's visual changes, I'm much more troubled by Facebook's algorithmic "optimizations." It has been years since I've been able to see my friends' updates. Facebook allows us to mute certain "friends," hide specific posts and more. But in my experience—and in that of countless others—Facebook gives me a highly limited, algorithmic view of what my friends are up to.
Given the heft of Facebook's Big Data resources, this shouldn't be happening. After all, if Big Data is so great, why is your Big Data-driven Facebook friend feed so bad? Facebook processes mountains of unstructured data—clicks and updates and more—to optimize ads and enhance its user experience so that we see content that will encourage us to engage with Facebook more deeply. Yet far too often the result is to bury posts from friend we care about and highlight updates from people we don't.
Is this Big Data at its best?
Maybe. After all, few companies can match the brain or processing power that Facebook brings to data. And yet the result is often far short of what we expect, suggesting that we're a long way off from realizing the promise of Big Data. Every time we hear "Did you see my post? and we didn't, despite slavishly living our lives on Facebook, it's a failure of Big Data, and of Facebook's data-driven attempts to control our experience for its own good.
It's All About Control
Ultimately, Facebook hopes to show only what will keep us reading and clicking, as this translates into more advertising revenue. Twitter will almost certainly follow suit, which probably would be less annoying, as missing posts from random strangers will likely rankle less than missing posts from my mom.
But ultimately, my concern is really about control. Given the amount of time I and others invest in social networks, I'd like them to be, well, more social, allowing me to see posts from the people I want, how I want. But this doesn't always comport with the revenue goals of the social networks.
This week I woke up to Facebook texting me comments from complete strangers. I had commented on a post and Facebook wanted to ensure I got every single follow-on comment. Never mind that I had never signed up for this notification "service." It's Web 3.0, the architecture of forced participation, a complete bastardization of Tim O'Reilly's architecture of participation.
Get used to it. You're not in control of your social media. They are.