Winning the Internet

What’s Facebook doing with our data?

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.

Privacy and data usage are topics that come up constantly with social media, and perhaps most frequently with Facebook. Perhaps the most notable blunder of the past few years being Facebook Beacon.

The other side of that coin is access to information. We all know that every day Facebook is making decisions about what information to show you based somewhat on choices you’ve made (show me more of person X and less of person Y), but primarily on their proprietary algorithms. Eli Pariser wrote an entire book about this concept called The Filter Bubble.

As organizers we spend a lot of time trying to stay up on the best ways to reach our audience and expand it. So how Facebook chooses to show information to all it’s users is a topic you’ve got to stay up on.

There was an interesting piece that came out recently about a team at Facebook simply named The Data Science team. What they have at their disposal is the largest database of human interaction and social behavior ever assembled. So this piece has some interesting insights into how they view their work and what their motivations are.

Of course one of the motivations, if not the primary motivation, is going to be figuring out how to serve you more ads and make more money.

An early study looked at what types of updates from friends encourage newcomers to the network to add their own contributions. Right before Valentine’s Day this year a blog post from the Data Science Team listed the songs most popular with people who had recently signaled on Facebook that they had entered or left a relationship. It was a hint of the type of correlation that could help Facebook make useful predictions about users’ behavior—knowledge that could help it make better guesses about which ads you might be more or less open to at any given time. Perhaps people who have just left a relationship might be interested in an album of ballads, or perhaps no company should associate its brand with the flood of emotion attending the death of a friend. The most valuable online ads today are those displayed alongside certain Web searches, because the searchers are expressing precisely what they want. This is one reason why Google’s revenue is 10 times Facebook’s. But Facebook might eventually be able to guess what people want or don’t want even before they realize it.

But there’s also potential to really shape the way we view events and even our own social circles:

But the study also reveals the power Facebook has. “If [Facebook’s] News Feed is the thing that everyone sees and it controls how information is disseminated, it’s controlling how information is revealed to society, and it’s something we need to pay very close attention to,” Marlow says.


About Raven Brooks

Executive director of Netroots Foundation and Netroots Nation.

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