Fixing Facebook’s privacy problem

Facebook has been receiving criticism once again for how they handled users’ personal data. Here is a quick summary: in 2013, a 3rd party developer acquired large amounts of data from about 50 million users through an old platform capability (which was removed by Facebook itself one year later to prevent abuse); this data was then used to target US voters during the 2016 Presidential Election. The issue is complex in depth and it highlights a bigger underlying problem: users’ privacy expectations are not aligned with the commitment from most tech companies.

Zuckerberg said in a recent interview with Wired, “early on […] we had this very idealistic vision around how data portability would allow all these different new experiences, and I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from our community and from the world is that privacy and having the data locked down is more important to people.”

Regardless, Facebook never committed to fully lock down users’ data, and their business model was in fact built around the value that data can have for advertisers through interest relevance and demographic targeting. Google and Facebook accounted for 73% of all US digital ad revenue in the second quarter of FY18, up from 63% two years before.

I can nonetheless relate to that idealistic vision between privacy and technology. The more information the Google Assistant knows about the music I like, the better it can personalize my listening experience. Richer actions become available too, like allowing me to control the Nest thermostat or the lights by voice. At the end of the day, I’m trusting Google with my music taste and the devices installed in my house, and I get the benefit of convenience in return.

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Facebook created a mess trying to take on Snapchat

If you use Facebook, Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp, you have probably noticed recent updates that allow you to share a picture that expires after 24 hours.

Stories, Shared Days, or Status, all different names for the same feature across 4 different apps. This is what they look like side by side:

Facebook is trying to suffocate Snap by flooding every app they own with the one thing that made Snapchat special.

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Why did you stop posting on Facebook?

Many of my friends have stopped posting on Facebook. Some have uninstalled the app and others even deleted their accounts.

They are not posting on Twitter either, and the more ephemeral Snapchat hasn’t reached critical mass among my closest friends.

Instagram is the only place where I still get a glimpse of the most intimate side of the people I love the most, but I’d say only 20% of my online friends actively use it.

What causes someone to stop sharing on social media? Is it a natural part of being over 30? Or is there an actual problem with the platform? Talking to 12 of these friends, I learned that there are several groups.

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I broke Facebook

I’m sitting on a train, on my way to Whistler, and I decide to check Facebook. I’m hoping to see what my friends did last night, or what their plans are for Thanksgiving, but this is what I see:

I don’t see almost any personal posts, or pictures that help me connect with my friends, with the people I love. Isn’t that Facebook’s mission? Instead, I get irrelevant stories.

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What’s the mission statement of your favorite tech company?

Last Saturday I found out about AlphaGo, Google DeepMind’s computer capable of beating the European champion at the game Go; it uses “deep neural networks that have been trained by supervised learning, from human expert games, and by reinforcement learning from games of self-play“, and it’s still unknown if humans can beat it.

Watching the project’s website I noticed the copyright at the bottom and thought: is DeepMind actually aligned with Google’s business goals? A quick look to their mission statement refreshed my memory:

Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

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How I fixed my News Feed on Facebook

For the last month, I’ve been doing an experiment with my News Feed on Facebook; the goal was to make it a more personal place again, and less of the news-sharing site that it seems to be nowadays.

I’m not saying Facebook is not for sharing news, or interesting websites, or memes… after all, I’ve done that same thing for a long time. The problem is that at some point I got bored of seeing my News Feed filled with these impersonal stories and I ended up visiting Facebook way less than I used to. And when I did, I would incessantly scroll through my News Feed, looking for posts that shared something more personal (an idea, a feeling, a picture), but I found very few of these.

Ideally, Facebook should provide the following option: hide all external content, including content generated by accounts that I’m not following. This wouldn’t necessarily go against the company goal, “to help you connect with the people and things you care about the most“, but admittedly, advertisers and investors wouldn’t be so happy with an option that helps users see less content.

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Do you need to be a celebrity for your app to be a success?

Why did Jelly become famous? And Medium? What about Square? What do they all have in common? They are all great products, that’s for sure, but there is something else: as it turns out, behind each of these awesome companies there is one of the co-founders of Twitter.

Are new tech products more successful when tech celebrities are behind them? Is it really possible for the same people to keep having several billion-dollar ideas? Do some of these ideas become famous businesses due in part to previous successes?

All these questions were popping in my head as I was reading the book “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal” (I loved it by the way, although I’m not sure all that drama is actually true), and I would say that the answer is probably ‘yes’ for all of them.

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Have Facebook and Twitter lost their innovative soul?

The MIT Technology Review named the top 50 smartest companies and Fast Company named the top 50 most innovative companies of the year. Not surprisingly Microsoft was not named on them as innovations stalled in part due to its soul searching. Surprisingly though, Facebook and Twitter were not on those lists either. Last year they were the poster child of innovation, where are they now?

Fast Company had an explanation as to why they were not on the list: they talked about how they didn’t do innovations, which is true, but the real question is why. One word: IPO.

Doing an IPO changes everything. Whether you like it or not, your number one priority is not your users anymore but your investors, at least for the time being. Investors want only one thing: growth. Once you show growth then you have earned your investors’ trust. Facebook’s biggest achievement last year was not coming from innovation but from revenue. Not a small task by any means, they accomplished mobile monetization. Twitter is struggling to get there too, but they are already focused on that issue.

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Will Paper kill the original Facebook app?

Facebook announced yesterday a new standalone app: Paper. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first: another reading app? what can Paper provide that Flipboard or Pulse don’t already? But then I looked at all the possibilities that Paper actually has and, well, now I think that Facebook could be on the verge of cannibalizing its main app.

 

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The social network war

Not many people were surprised when Facebook announced a couple of months ago that 751 million users connect via mobile each month (54% more than the previous year); the trend is clear: our mobile phone will soon become the main device we use to connect to the Internet (if it isn’t already). Today I will focus on two clear examples, a failure and a success.

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