Dr Strangepost, or How I Learned to Accept the Facebook API and Love Social Media

I’ve been spending a good part of the last week or so building social media tools for my employer. We’ve come to the conclusion that services like Facebook provide some of the most immediate and detailed sources of information on important events in the Pacific. I’ll go into this in more detail in an upcoming discussion paper, but for the moment, suffice it to say that Facebook’s ubiquity and its accessibility via mobile devices makes it one of the most compelling means of transmitting information quickly and easily to large numbers of people.

We track a number of public groups, and they’ve provided us with invaluable information. Probably the most vivid example of this is PNG’s Sharp Talk group, which has more closely tracked a number of events in PNG politics than even the most resourceful of the traditional media.

Our work is predicated on the idea that dialogue leads to better understanding. So, naturally, we want to understand how people think and feel about events in the world around them. We also want to be able to record these voices for posterity, and to use the most compelling amongst them to educate others.

So with that in mind, I set out to use Facebook’s programming interfaces to allow staff to flag posts and comments, and to track and store important threads in a local database. This way, we could have a record of commentary as it happened, and we’d be able to perform key word searches, statistical analysis and a few other kinds of research that would (we hope) lead to a better understanding of current issues and how they were perceived.

I struggled. I struggled a lot. It’s kind of an unfamiliar feeling, after 20 or so years in the data-mangling game. There were a number of all-too-familiar issues: Documented approaches that were no longer supported, new approaches that required undocumented steps. These are, for better or for worse, the stock in trade of a lot of web services. Things move quickly, so stability is more of an aspirational goal than anything else.

But there were a few things that, taken together, brought me to a complete stop.

First, it’s nearly impossible to obtain access to the site without an interactive login. I get why Facebook do this – they want to make it hard for spyware and other malicious programs to fake the approval process. And that’s okay, as far as it goes, but it assumes that apps using their programming interfaces are interactive – that is, that someone is sitting in front of the thing, driving it. But that’s precisely the opposite of what I’m trying to do. I want our staff to be able to flag something as interesting and NOT have to sit around reading the bloody page all day long.

Second, the thing just doesn’t work half the time. About 50% of the queries I post to Facebook’s graph service either time out or return an empty data set. Still, with a bit of persistence, I suppose I could manage. Just program the software to retry the query until it gets useful results. This has a few nasty implications – for example: how will I know when I’m supposed to get an empty result set? But I’ve dealt with worse in my time.

The third problem is much bigger. Facebook’s results work the same way Facebook own interface works. In other words, rather than getting the complete set of comments on a given post, they give you the most recent few, and a ‘next’ link to get a few more. Again, they’re assuming that you’re using the data interactively.

I spent a while pondering how to make my proposed service work, puzzling out scenarios and trying to find computer logic that would cope with the shortcomings. And then I had my eureka moment. Facebook doesn’t want people to write apps like mine.

The more I dug into other people’s coding projects and programming interfaces to Facebook’s service, the more I came to realise that it’s actually possible to reliably push things onto Facebook, but it’s quite hard to get them back out. Posting photos, links, likes and comments is pretty straightforward, but trying to make sense of them once they’re on the site is another task entirely. If Facebook were to make it easy to perform automated analysis on their content, they’d be undermining the stickiness of their own service. By allowing it to become commoditised, they’d face losing their identity. In short, they’d become a platform, not a brand.

For Facebook, the idea of someone seeing Facebook data wrapped in someone else’s interface is worst thing in the world.

This made me very sad.

Easily interchangeable data is the very essence of wealth in the knowledge economy. It’s taken me a while to realise it, but some people don’t understand that sharing that wealth creates more for everyone. As far as information is concerned, apparently, most of us have yet to see the merits of free trade. We’re still back in a world of monopolies, hoarding and guilds.

But that’s okay. This will change. The Internet is a porous medium. Generally speaking, information will leak out, and the commodification of social data will eventually happen.

In the mean time, I’ll get to work on building a different set of tools to make sure that, in our little patch of the world at least, the leaking happens sooner than later.

Blogging for Dollars

Over at the Wired Epicenter blog, people are speculating that Next Monday’s big announcement from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will be a webmail client, aimed directly at stealing Google’s technological thunder.

Reaction from commenters was universally negative. People complained about privacy concerns, made silly FailMail jokes and observed that Google would be pretty hard to beat in terms of simplicity, reliability and functionality.

But the comment that caught my eye was this:

“I’ll sign up at Failmail when Zuckerberg personally starts sending my PP around 40$ a month.”

Haha, very fu- Hang on a sec….

On reflection, that probably would work, wouldn’t it? Zuckerberg could do that, too. Well, not for everyone, certainly not all the time. But think about it: Knowing what we do about human nature, what’s to stop someone from creating a social networking site that operated using cash as a measure of social connectedness and success?

The mechanism would be simple enough. Members join for a nominal fee, not high enough to be painful, but enough so that someone would have to make a deliberate decision to join. More to the point, it would have to be enough that, for many, peer pressure would be necessary to drive them into the fold. Once there, an algorithm would identify the most connected, popular and useful members of the community and award them a share of the pot.

Call it a Social Credit Union.

Right, you’re probably thinking. Exactly how many seconds would it take for someone to begin gaming the system for money? The answer is alarmingly simple: as long as people like something and/or find it interesting, who cares? As Randall Munro so aptly put it: “Mission. Fucking. Accomplished.”

Seriously, as long as the integrity of the metrics and the security of the cash flow are not compromised, it won’t really matter how someone connects with others, impresses and/or influences them. I’ll grant you, the potential for absurdity is very high, especially when one considers just how stupid people are willing to be for free.

Humanity may have some spectacular examples of its inanity, its shallowness and its capacity for self-deception. But they are, happily, in proportion to its ability to explore beauty, wit and learning. A social credit union would reward each without fear or favour.

The capitalists in the audience are no doubt asking why someone would pay -and continue to pay- for a service that a) they could get for free; and b) which rewards others but costs them? It’s been demonstrated time and again that people will actually deny themselves in order to spite others. Surely the service would last exactly long enough for it to be castigated as a cesspool of self-promoting poseurs, a pyramid preying on the socially naive?

Yeah, that could happen. In fact, it’s as likely an outcome as any other. I’d give odds that if you started a dozen of these, 8 of them would implode within months. But here’s the thing: with the right dynamic and the right ethos, it could succeed, and those who wish they could spend more time writing, researching arcana, making fanvids… doing all of those niche activities that add spice and, occasionally, actual art to our online existence – some of them, at least, could prosper.

The vast majority of people would never get more than a few pennies back, of course. Which leads the Adam Smith devotees in the audience to ask, ‘Who in their right mind would pay for something that they could otherwise get for free, and continue to pay even after it becomes clear that they will likely never be rewarded for their use of the service?’

The answer is dead simple. People pay to phone and text; they pay for Internet; they pay club memberships; they buy people beers; they spend vast amounts of money trying to buy social credit. As long as they receive a useful level of service (for some amalgam of collective and individual perception of what constitutes service), and as long as membership is less costly than being left out, they will pay.

This is not a new Athenian Agora we’d be building[*]. The most likely people to profit will be the very same people we hated in high school: Pretty, cool, witty and self-assured, funnier and sometimes -only sometimes- smarter and more interesting than the rest of us. Nonetheless, if you’re a creative person looking for a way to survive in the 1st Century of the Internet, this is probably your best hope.

[*] Well, actually, it is. Remember that the Agora was not only where Socrates sat with his students, but where the whores, petty thieves, shysters, con men and plain old merchants all hung out.

Six Degrees

[Originally published in the Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

Everything – and everyone – is related. We’ve always known that. Philosophical treatises on the unity of, well, everything have been around for about as long as humanity has been able to chew on a stalk of grass and contemplate the world.

The only real difference between our understanding of this inter-relatedness past and present is that we moderns have scientifically developed models to lean on. One of the most easily grasped is Six Degrees of Separation. Put simply, this concept states that the vast majority of people in the world are related to one another through no more than six other individuals. A fun way to demonstrate this concept is the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, which shows that virtually every movie star working in Hollywood today has worked with someone who’s worked with someone (etc. etc.) who’s worked with Kevin Bacon.

Once you start to think about it, the only interesting part of this theory is the number – we’ve always known we were all connected, at least in some esoteric sense. But until recently we’d never been able to properly quantify that relationship.

Now that the numbers are well known, so-called social networking services such as FaceBook, MySpace and countless other sites that trade on the common tastes of ‘friends of friends’ have capitalised on that to provide services over the Internet.

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