Enragement Metrics

Last night 60 Minutes scored an interview with Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower behind the document leak that led to last month’s “bombshell” Facebook Files investigation. She shared internal research that confirms what we’ve known all along. Feeding users polarizing content works great at engaging people and converting them into repeat visitors and that the revenue from those engaged users is intoxicating.

For a humorous TL;DR, check out this 2018 clip from The Daily Show.

What if Facebook were a Real Place?

Engagement is a metric used by social networks to measure how often someone uses your app or visits your website. Each service counts an engaged user in different ways, new user or old, daily visitor or monthly, but it all boils down to repeat visits. An engaged user is someone who comes back, repeatedly.

If your service is ad-supported, repeat visits generate cumulative ad impressions and revenue. If you track your users and personalize your ads, the more engaged a user is, the higher their value to advertisers. It’s the old “eyeballs” metric of Web 1.0 but with higher definition. In the mobile app world, it’s called ARPU, Average Revenue Per User.

The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money. 

Whistleblower: Facebook is misleading the public on progress against hate speech, violence, misinformation

If your company’s “true north” metric is engagement, what happens if you optimize for that and run a business that, above all else, keeps your users coming back and staying longer? If you discover that inflammatory content is the nectar that keeps users coming back aren’t you then measuring the level of a post’s ability to provoke a reaction? This is what I call Enragement Metrics.

Add the quarterly pressure for a trillion dollar public company to meet and exceed revenue targets and corporate incentives can get distorted. Responsibility is foggy in a large company of distributed teams with a shared ethos of “move fast and break things.”

The pursuit of engagement and the momentum of a market that rewards it created a Faustian Bargain that distracted the leadership at Facebook from the impact it was having on not only its users but, as a source of traffic and revenue for its publishing partners, the entire media ecosystem.

“There is a perfect reverse correlation where the angrier you are, the more traffic leaves Facebook and goes to your publishing site.”

Haugen will testify before Congress where she is hoping they will regulate Facebook because, in her view, Facebook is unable to regulate themselves.

“Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety,” she said. Haugen, who will testify before Congress this week, said she hopes that by coming forward the government will put regulations in place to govern the company’s activities.

Ex-Facebook manager alleges social network fed Capitol riot

The tech and media world will be watching. As with newspapers, radio, and television, before it, a touch of regulation can build trust and improve a technology and balance the pursuit of profit with the benefit for the public good. But if there is stumbling and uninformed regulation, it will either hobble innovation or, in the worst case, favor those with deep pockets for lobbyists that will lock in their client’s dominance.

When the Haugen testimony picks up on Tuesday and they haul in someone from Facebook to explain themselves, I hope there is substantive discussion on a way forward and not the brow-beating grandstanding we so often see on Capitol Hill. I optimistically believe that no one at Facebook set out to poison the public well on purpose but that runaway algorithms and market forces drove them there.

Just as the publication of Silent Spring helped lead to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, I hope these hearings on the adverse effects of social networks will lead to intelligent discussion of the role these products and the algorithms that power them in our society.

Environmental and safety regulations give businesses a framework against which to justify expenditures that take away from profits. We need an EPA-like independent organization for social networks and machine learning algorithms to regulate an industry and create best practices and guidelines for what they can and cannot do.

Social Networks and machine learning algorithms are powerful tools that can stimulate, motivate and transform society. As with all new technology, they can be put to good use or bad. It’s up to all of us, working together to understand their power and harness it for good.

Michael Menchaca

A Cage without Borders

It was soggy out on Saturday so I took a look my NYC Museums twitter list to see what was going on. Izumi and I settled on visiting the Museum of New York City uptown and with our admission came a free pass to check out El Museo del Barrio which has an exhibit of Latinx contemporary art next door.

There were many thought-provoking exhibits, you can read about them here or here, but the one that captivated me was Michael Menchacha’s video installation, A Cage Without Borders.

Image credit: Michael Palma Mir

From the artist:

A Cage Without Borders hijacks the commercial appeal of motion graphics on social media platforms in order to critique the US carceral state. This three-channel video installation runs a synchronized HD animation on three TV’s that are vertically oriented, mimicking the visual presentation of mobile devices. This installation addresses the ways in which Big Tech is currently operating as a de facto neo-colonial project enabling racialized state surveillance to oppress the most vulnerable communities.

Michael Menchacha

The video (see embed up top) is overwhelming but that is the intent. I dare you to keep up with the commentary while assaulted by glittery animations that scroll by on the screen like a digital slot machine. Little snippets jump out at you and lodge in your brain like morsels of insight, something to chew over and ponder later in your day.

  • State-sanctioned bias bots
  • Your behavior is now their private property
  • The truth does not generate surveillance profits
  • Facebook has created a political whitelist which has exempted over 100,000 officials from fact-checking in order to maximize user engagement
  • A digital caste system
  • Digital re-incarnation
  • Become a digital vegan

With those thoughts jangling around in our heads, we sought refuge across the street and discovered the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, the perfect digestif to the technological assault we just experienced.

Another weekend adventure in our new home.

China testing Black Mirror episode IRL

You know that Black Mirror episode about how your social network ranking has a direct impact on your access to an apartment, preferred rates, a spare seat on an airline?

Nosedive is a chilling tale of a dystopian world connecting the trend lines of the technology evolving all around us. What if your online behavior and relationships had real world consequences? That is in fact what is happening today in China.

Mara Hvistendahl details in Wired how mobile payments providers are working with the Chinese government to integrate subscriber payment history, connections, and other behaviors are harvested and used to calculate a version of social credit that governs access and mobility.

The State Council has signaled that under the national social credit system people will be penalized for the crime of spreading online rumors, among other offenses, and that those deemed “seriously untrustworthy” can expect to receive substandard services. Ant Financial appears to be aiming for a society divided along moral lines as well. As Lucy Peng, the company’s chief executive, was quoted as saying in Ant Financial, Zhima Credit “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”

Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking

Chilling.