Mark Zuckerberg

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If any of the current big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple) exists 50 years from now, would we even recognize it? Google seems especially anxious to remake itself in grand ways, knowing that answering queries might not always pay the bills. With focus on driverless-car software and other moonshots, it has a chance to be that very successful company that used to be a search giant. Remember when? No?!?

Facebook is a dicier proposition. In a category infamous for faddishness, it snaked its way into the American conversation, before constricting into a choke hold. It’s not foundational, though it often feels as if it is. Ello, the social-network phenomenon of the last five minutes, isn’t likely to reach Facebook status because nothing is likely to. But it’s all the rage right now due to the distrust users have for Zuckenberg as a social director. The wariness is warranted. From Ruby J. Murray at the Guardian:

“This year marks a decade since Mark Zuckerberg and his motley crew of 20 year old programmers moved to Palo Alto, California, and defined a new phase in the internet’s infant history with their soothing blue sans-serif. Facebook has succeeded by providing us with a mirror during our early development. It’s inevitable demise will stem from a problem that only starts to hit you as you grow up: the complicated nature of time.

Facebook’s core identity management strategy is its photo albums. They’re the only part of ourselves that it lets us store, search and catalogue in any meaningful way. Narcissus-like, we can organise thousands upon thousands of images of our selves down through the years. There is no similar organizing function for the identities we create as we change: our thoughts, books, links, articles and music.

Considering that Facebook claims American users spend 40 minutes a day on the site – a whopping 243 hours a year – it’s no surprise that our past selves are starting to seem oppressive and unwieldy in their muumuus.

Facebook’s most important social function, the flipside to the photograph, used to be that it truly did give you a place to connect. A shared hive mind with people you would otherwise drift away from. Then Facebook began using a News Feed algorithms and default filters to choose whose posts you saw, they were trying to slow down the wall – and boost the likelihood you’d see Britney Spears’ updates over your friends. Its overall effect was infantalising. When Facebook acts like an overbearing parent, it’s only natural that the adults will want to move out.

The constant data-collection and streams of personalized advertising added injury to the insult of what was already feeling like a tight, airless social space. The internet can seem like so much light and pulses, but its effects are real. Visually and emotionally, the self you inhabit on Facebook is still a child.”

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Trusting Facebook or Google or any large data-mining tech corporation with our information, let alone our emotions, is a mistake. And is many cases, it’s not a matter of a poor choice by us–there’s no choice at all. We’re inside that matrix now. The opening of Robert Booth’s Guardian report on Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth executing large-scale psychological experiments on unsuspecting users:

“It already knows whether you are single or dating, the first school you went to and whether you like or loathe Justin Bieber. But now Facebook, the world’s biggest social networking site, is facing a storm of protest after it revealed it had discovered how to make users feel happier or sadder with a few computer key strokes.

It has published details of a vast experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process of ‘emotional contagion.’

In a study with academics from Cornell and the University of California, Facebook filtered users’ news feeds – the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network. One test reduced users’ exposure to their friends’ ‘positive emotional content,’ resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to ‘negative emotional content’ and the opposite happened.

The study concluded: ‘Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.’

Lawyers, internet activists and politicians said this weekend that the mass experiment in emotional manipulation was ‘scandalous,’ ‘spooky’ and ‘disturbing.'”

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The Bay Area, home of Moneyball, seems to have created a market inefficiency waiting to be exploited: tech workers who’ve reached their thirtieth birthdays. A strong bias in favor of not just young employees but very young ones, a culture with values akin to Logan’s Run, has left talented people fearing their first wrinkle or gray hair. Where will these “olds” go? The opening of Noam Schieber’s New Republic article “The Brutal Ageism of Tech“:

“I have more botox in me than any ten people,’ Dr. Seth Matarasso told me in an exam room this February.

He is a reality-show producer’s idea of a cosmetic surgeon—his demeanor brash, his bone structure preposterous. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, he would periodically fire questions at me, apropos of nothing, in the manner of my young daughter. ‘What gym do you go to?’ ‘What’s your back look like?’ ‘Who did your nose?’ In lieu of bidding me goodbye, he called out, ‘Love me, mean it,’ as he walked away.

Twenty years ago, when Matarasso first opened shop in San Francisco, he found that he was mostly helping patients in late middle age: former homecoming queens, spouses who’d been cheated on, spouses looking to cheat. Today, his practice is far larger and more lucrative than he could have ever imagined. He sees clients across a range of ages. He says he’s the world’s second-biggest dispenser of Botox. But this growth has nothing to do with his endearingly nebbishy mien. It is, rather, the result of a cultural revolution that has taken place all around him in the Bay Area.

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. ‘Young people are just smarter,’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its ‘careers’ page: ‘We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.’

And that’s just what gets said in public.”

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“There’s just one catch…”:

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I admire Google for its Bell Labs-sized ambitions, but Larry Page telling us to trust his company with our private information is only slightly less ludicrous than Mark Zuckerberg lecturing the President about the NSA. It’s just a ruse to try to convince the more gullible among us that Silicon Valley isn’t Big Brother-ish. That’s a lie, of course. The government and Google and Facebook and, to a good extent, the rest of us, are all working in the same direction: to gather as much data we can to survive in the Information Age. Page and Zuckerberg want what’s inside your head; they even want to implant information there. I don’t doubt that Page has plenty of noble intentions, but a publicly traded behemoth’s largesse only goes so far. The beast must be fed.

From a WSJ report of a conversation between Page and Charlie Rose, a handsome robot who once had an epiphany on a tennis court:

In what has become a Silicon Valley ritual, Page criticized electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, based on leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

‘We need to know the parameters of what the government is doing and why,’ Page said. ‘The government has done itself a disservice. I’m sad that Google is in the position of protecting you from what the government is doing.’

When it comes to individuals trying to shield themselves from private companies, however, Page said people shouldn’t be ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’

Page suggested sharing information with the ‘right’ companies is important for technology to advance, and that Google is among those companies. ‘We spend a lot of time thinking about these issues,’ he said. ‘The main thing we need to do is provide (users) choice” and show them what data will be used.'”

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Facebook, that thing that helps you pretend, turns ten today, which seems an appropriate age for the site’s maturity level. The opening of the first article written about the social network, a piece by Alan J. Tabak published in the February 9, 2004 Harvard Crimson:

“When Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06 grew impatient with the creation of an official universal Harvard facebook, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

After about a week of coding, Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com last Wednesday afternoon. The website combines elements of a standard House face book with extensive profile features that allow students to search for others in their courses, social organizations and Houses.

‘Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,’ Zuckerberg said. ‘I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.’

As of yesterday afternoon, Zuckerberg said over 650 students had registered use thefacebook.com. He said that he anticipated that 900 students would have joined the site by this morning.

‘I’m pretty happy with the amount of people that have been to it so far,’ he said. ‘The nature of the site is that each user’s experience improves if they can get their friends to join it.'”

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I have major philosophical differences with Facebook, but I seriously doubt it will be a virtual ghost town by 2017. But Princeton researchers, acting as social-media epidemiologists, disagree. So on the day that Sheryl Sandberg became a billionaire (was so pulling for her), some are predicting that the plague will soon be over. From Juliette Garside in the Guardian:

“Facebook has spread like an infectious disease but we are slowly becoming immune to its attractions, and the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017, say researchers at Princeton University.

The forecast of Facebook’s impending doom was made by comparing the growth curve of epidemics to those of online social networks. Scientists argue that, like bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out.

The social network, which celebrates its 10th birthday on 4 February, has survived longer than rivals such as Myspace and Bebo, but the Princeton forecast says it will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.

John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.

‘Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,’ the authors claim in a paper entitled Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics.”

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I think one of the sadder aspects of American culture is ageism. If you haven’t accomplished a certain thing by a certain age it seems like you’red disqualified. Just when you’re actually at a point when you can pretty much handle anything. It makes no sense. It comes as no surprise that age discrimination is particularly acute in Silicon Valley. From Andrew S. Ross at the SFGate:

“In fact, tech executives claim to have tens of thousands of jobs going begging, so much so that they need to bring in educated workers from overseas to fill them.

But if demand is outstripping supply, how come so many skilled IT professionals in the Bay Area are out of work? In a nutshell, job experience in the tech industry matters far less than it once did. In fact, it can work against you.

‘It’s been quite a shock, coming out of my last job, which I had for 11 years,’ said Robert Honma, 49, of Sunnyvale, his resume filled with senior tech positions in multinational companies and small startups. He’s been out of work for 10 months. ‘The Facebooks, the Googles are driven by the young.’

Mark Zuckerberg agrees.

‘I want to stress the importance of being young and technical,” Facebook’s CEO (now 28) told a Y Combinator Startup event at Stanford University in 2007.”

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Are you concerned that one person and an ethically dubious one, Mark Zuckerberg, is setting the course for the new connectivity? You should be, because it is concerning. But the modern ways will not be unlearned, even if Zuckerberg himself should fall by the wayside. From “Facebook: Like?” by Robert Lane Greene at Intelligent Life, an essay which analyzes fears about the social networking giant but gives equal attention to the positives it provides:

“So for all the capricious decor and talk of breaking things, Facebook is very well aware that the eyes of the world are on it as an incumbent giant, not an insurgent. Besides ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ there are signs telling employees to ‘Stay Focused and Keep Shipping.’ Visitors are greeted warmly, but also presented with the standard Silicon Valley non-disclosure agreement before they can proceed past security. A billion people connected as never before in history. But Facebook also engenders anxiety on levels from the personal to the political, worries about a world in which private lives are always on display. What is 24-hour social networking doing to our self-expression, our self-image, our sense of decorum? Have we finally landed in the ‘global village’ coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s? What if you don’t like it there? Is there anywhere else to live?

And what is Facebook, anyway? The most obvious point of historical comparison is the social networks that preceded it. First there was Friendster, the flirt-and-forget site of the first half of the 2000s. Then everyone dumped Friendster for MySpace, and MySpace was bought by News Corp for $580m. Its value soared to $12 billion, and the received wisdom was that MySpace would take over the world. Then it didn’t, and News Corp sold it for $35m, because someone else had finally got social networking right. Started by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook went from a Harvard dorm room to the rest of teenage America’s bedrooms to hundreds of millions of people all around the world—even parents and grandparents. Along the way, Facebook has fuelled revolutions in the Middle East, and inspired an Oscar-winning movie. Other social networks can only try to build out from the few niches it hasn’t already filled. Facebook is the undisputed champion of the world.

But the real comparison is not with other social networks. To give real credit to its achievement today and its ambitions for the future, it can only be said that Facebook’s true competitor is the rest of the entire internet.” (Thanks Browser.)

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Just as the cash register is being placed in our pockets more and more, we are also increasingly products ourselves, handing over what’s in our hearts and minds in exchange for “free” products. From a Daily Beast piece by Dan Lyons, the erstwhile Fake Steve Jobs, about the true cost of doing business today:

“The truth is, we have no interest in protecting your privacy, and if you still believe that we do, then you are stupider than we thought, and believe me, we already thought you were pretty stupid. Think about it. The only way our business works is if we can track what you do and sell that information to advertisers. Did you honestly not realize that?

You are not our customer. You are the product that we sell. For us to say we’re going to protect you is like the poultry industry promising to create more humane living conditions for chickens. Sure, they say that. But you know they don’t mean it.”

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Maggie gets scanned, quantified:

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Have you noticed that Google searches done from two different locations or on two different computers will return markedly different results? Or that Facebook will feed you what its algortihms have decided you want to the exclusion of all else? Personalization is all the rage, as targeted information can maximize online advertising revenue. But is there a danger in algorithms fragmenting the news we receive based solely on potential profits? Are we getting what we want rather than what we need? Because of the diversity of material online, I’m not so sure this is as huge an issue as it might seem. But Internet advocate Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, believes it’s a critical flaw in Web 2.0 and took on the issue in his recent TED Talk.

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"He NEVER friended me on Facebook." (Image by Raphaël Labbé.)

The opening scene of The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant takedown of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, features a momentous scene in which the aspiring tech titan is dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright, which leads him to begin experimenting with interactivty on the Internet. In the scene, Zuckerberg is presented as a prick and Albright as wronged, but the site Albright has started (it would seem to be real) isn’t exactly short on hubris. On the site, she describes herself as “Yes the Erica Albright who was dating Mark Zuckerberg the founder of the Social Networking website Facebook.” She mentions her long-ago beau and Facebook repeatedly. Well, milk it for all you can, Erica.

One interesting aspect of her posts is that she confirms that plenty of what happens in the movie is fiction, created wholecloth by Sorkin for his remarkably airtight script. The narrative arc of a movie has its demands, and fealty to facts has to be sacrificed. But is it ethical to fictionalize aspects of real people’s lives, especially when those people are alive and young and have most of their futures ahead of them? Zuckerberg took great liberties to achieve what he wanted, but Fincher and Sorkin also took some in making what is the best American film of the year. An excerpt from Albright’s blog:

“I went and saw the movie last night. Kind of crazy that someone is actually playing me in a movie! The movie definitely brought back some great memories….it made me miss my college years that’s for sure! (I feel soooo old) lol (: — I guess you could say the movie is ‘based on a true story’ but there are many scenarios that were soooo made up by Hollywood! As far as the two scenes I’m in, the first one is fairly accurate, we did ‘break-up’ over dinner, I do remember him ripping on my school (that wasn’t the first time)…but the second scene of me at dinner with my friends blowing Mark off never happened. (also he NEVER friended me on Facebook) lol! (:”

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"It's really AOL with a different layout." (Image by Raphaël Labbé.)

I suppose I should be losing sleep over Facebook’s questionable practices regarding privacy, but I’m not. What really bothers me about Mark Zuckerberg’s toy is how utterly prosaic a product it is. Zuckerberg hasn’t come up with anything great or original; his chief accomplishments are recognizing a niche in the market and having the brass to not sell the company to a big media conglomerate that would have bungled the whole thing. Facebook isn’t a perfect design like the iPod but a creeping mediocrity with some utility. It’s a global high school yearbook, and its success largely stems from how uninventive it is. John C. Dvorak explains further in his new PCmag.com article, “Why I Don’t Use Facebook.” (Thanks Reddit.) An excerpt:

“Which begs the question as to why anyone would use Facebook when it is essentially AOL done right? The fastest growing group on Facebook are people in their 70’s. Oldsters are flocking to Facebook the way they once did with AOL. Facebook is a simple system for the masses that do not really care about technology and do not want to learn anything new except something easy like Facebook.

Whenever someone tells me to check out something on Facebook, I recall the heyday of AOL with its keywords. ‘Go to the Internet at www.blah.com or AOL keyword: blah. This was a common comment on the nightly news or in magazines. The AOL keyword is replaced by the Facebook page name.

There is no reason for anyone with any chops online to be remotely involved with Facebook, except to peruse it for lost relatives. So, next time you log on, remember it’s really AOL with a different layout.

Welcome to the past.”

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Quentin Fiore, the graphic designer who created the book's amazing look, is now 90.

Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year made me recall an ominous passage from early in The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects, from 1967. Not that I think that things are quite this dire, but Marshall McLuhan was pretty prophetic here. An excerpt:

“How much do you make? Have you ever contemplated suicide? Are you now or have you ever been…? I have here before me…Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions–the patterns of mechanistic technologies–are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval by the electrically computerized dossier bank–that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes.’ We have already reached a point where remedial control, born out of knowledge of media and their total effects on all of us, must be exerted. How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting work force for social change? What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?”

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