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Sep 23

The New Facebook: Good in Theory. Scary in Practice.

Facebook is trying to become me. That’s a neat idea, because it saves me time that I don’t have. That’s a horribly frightening idea, because an algorithm is trying to approximate my thought processes. My personality is what it is because of its quirks. How will Facebook’s algorithm calculate that?

Here’s what I mean: previously, I had to curate my own information. I manually shared what I wanted to share. I posted the pics I thought were relevant, and I told stories about my past that I thought were funny at that moment. I stumbled across news outlets and navigated from link-to-link, clicking on what seemed interesting at the time. All of that took time and effort. There’s no doubt about it. And sometimes, I missed sharing something because I was jammed up.

Now, Facebook is trying to curate all that data for me. Obviously, they are doing this for themselves, their advertisers, and their bottom line, first and foremost. However, I do understand that they are trying to solve a user problem. Facebook wants to free up our time.

It will push and pull data, and present it to me and my friends, ostensibly in an effort to make our online social lives more efficient. Starting with the Timeline, it’s making the assumption that I want my whole Facebook past in a searchable form so I can display it for my friends and family. With social reading and listening, it’s assuming that I want to share what I browse, and also that I’m interested in what my friends browse, to save us all search time.

Sorry. That’s just not true. Some days, I want to share what I’m reading with my Smart List of “Closest Friends.” Some days, I don’t. Some days, I want to tell you that I’m listening to Skynyrd. Other days, I don’t want to share that I’m drowning out my stress with Metallica.

That’s what makes me, me. It’s my personality. It’s what I treasure the most of my corporeal being.

I’m happy to try Facebook’s new features. I’m extremely worried that it will put forth a picture of me that, well, just isn’t me. Why? Because Facebook is trying to guess my thought process.

I can see how this feature will appear to casual users who are short on time. But the minute a Facebook’s algorithm shares something that the user didn’t want to share? When John Doe shares that he’s reading that Washington Post article about “What Makes Men Cheat?”, just as his wife is worried about their relationship? Sorry, but it’s those casual users who will be the first to scream from the virtual mountaintop, “F this!”

You’re taking a big risk, Mark Zuckerberg.  For the sake of competition, I hope you pull it off. I’m very worried that you won’t.

There has been a lot of excellent discussion on Google+ about Facebook’s changes. If you haven’t already, I suggest checking out the streams of +Robert Scoble and +Ben Parr (both overwhelmingly positive), +MG Siegler (positive, in a game changing sense), +Tom Anderson (taking the appropriate “wait-and-see” approach), and +Mike Elgan (skeptical).

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