Seven things Facebook and Google get wrong about you

The Genius of Electricity, Edison Labs, West Orange, NJ

Pride in new technology always seems laughably callow later: Thomas Edison bought the “Genius of Electricity” sculpture at the Paris Exposition of 1889 (West Orange, NJ)

Facebook’s ever-changing look, including Timeline, could be called a triumph of simplification, which is to say a train wreck for easy choices. Love it or hate it — and I, for the record, find it a turn-off — we can’t shake the feeling that things are changing rapidly and to such an arcane degree that it’s a waste of time to figure out how to harness it. Here’s some news: Facebook is applying filters across every aspect of its interface for a very good reason

Facebook’s CFO and public relations tap-dancers tell you it’s about giving you personal choice. But that’s not the most important side of the story. No, Facebook is changing mostly because it sells ads when it railroads you into a new system that limits and labels your usage.

Most of the major sites we use now purport to be able to “customize” what they show you based on what you’ve looked at before. But this worrying fascination with personalized content is built on some logical lapses about who we are and what our behavior really exposes about ourselves.

I’ll be quick since I know you have headlines to barely gloss on Twitter, but there are seven essential fallacies that the whippersnappers at Facebook think are true — but aren’t.

1. If you don’t click on a link, you’re not interested.

I can tell this just from my own web stats on this site. While my post about a cool interactive 1924 aerial map of Manhattan had lots of traffic, relatively few people took things further and clicked on the actual source map at Simply learning about the map was enough for most people. That’s the way it is with links. We read the headlines and we read the lead paragraph. Much like the inverted pyramid of newspaper tradition, we can glean the basics from the leading edge of a story without having to read further. So a click is not representative of interest, but only of a certain kind of interest. Sometimes, it’s merely an indication the headline was confusing and we needed to understand what was going on. Yet Facebook, Google, and most trendy Web media outlets use a click as their measure of us (as I wrote about in my “The Tyranny of the Click” post). It’s a fallacy.

2. You primarily want to hear from the same group of people.

So if we agree that a click doesn’t equate with whether I care or who I am, it stands to reason that my lesser-known acquaintances and friends are of interest to me even if I don’t alway interact with them. That’s why I friended them to begin with. In fact, often I use Facebook to keep tabs on people I don’t know very well yet, but would like to. If there’s one thing Facebook is good for, it’s what I call passive affection. (“Facebook’s Gift to Society: Passive Affection” is a favorite post on this blog.) Yet Facebook’s algorithms decide who is important in your life based on your interactions, and they hide all others until you happen to notice they’re missing.

3. You only want to know about things you already like.

In the old days, you’d thumb through a newspaper and even if you didn’t bother to read the articles, you at least were exposed to the headlines so you had a sense for what was going on in the world. Not anymore. Even Google’s search, which we all think of as a raw resource, delivers different results from person to person, which was exposed in Eli Pariser’s depressingly prescient TED talk about “filter bubbles.” Now, two people entering the same simple term in Google will be shown two different results page based on their past usage. This self-selection for the familiar threatens to make us all shallower and more ignorant. I despaired over this same development in “It’s Content You Want to See!“.

4. You want your activities to be turned into ads.

Of course, the reason all of this is happening is Facebook and Google want to be able to tell advertisers what you’re clicking on so they can make more money off you. That’s why they’re doing everything they can to exclude stuff they don’t think you will click on. The need for newspaper advertising was gutted once our consumer economy discovered instant Web search (I wrote about that in “How the Web Destroyed our Economy“), and now advertisers are successfully horning in where they know they’ll find us: on social media. It’s a well-worn argument that most people would rather preserve their privacy than have their activities sold piecemeal. Even setting aside privacy concerns as a matter of transition into a new digital age, the tactic of commodifying our clicks is logically flawed. Because what I click on is not necessarily representative of what I like (see Point #1), most of the time the targeted ads I’m shown are insultingly off-target anyway. I often click on things I have no knowledge about, naturally, because I want to learn about them, so it makes little sense to use that click to market to me later. It’s bad enough that I can’t find what I want in the stores anymore because the modern customer service default is, “Go look online.” Now even my own online life is being used to crowd out the things I do want to see in favor of ads for things I don’t want.

5. You care mostly about today.

This is one good thing about Facebook’s Timeline, which I otherwise hate: It allows you to go back so that stuff you said can be found. Lots of people despise this very fact about it, and it still only gives you the illusion of preservation, since none of it will ever be written down in a certifiably preserved form that isn’t subject to accidental deletion (my concern in “You Are Being Erased“). But Twitter, unlike Timeline, is intentionally temporary. It’s nearly impossible to track down a tweet once it’s a few days old, and even the most powerful programs can’t dredge up a tweet from several years ago unless an outside entity happened to archive it at the time. The result is that we are relentlessly tossing important thoughts on the discard pile simply because the design of our sites knocks them downward, off the table and out of sight. For social media to truly reflect us as humans, it must learn to be about all of us, the before and the after, and not just hook into our prurient interests.

6. Algorithms can predict intangible things about you.

Dating sites boast that their mathematical formulas can pair you with the perfect mate based on questions you have answered. But there is far more that goes into attraction. The echoes of your grade school sweetheart, the reverberation of your upbringing, the whiff of pheromones, the pang of past traumas… none of these can be quantified by a whiz kid programmer. We can’t even predict them ourselves; it’s metaphysical chemistry. We are amalgamations of our experiences. We also, it bears noting, tend to feel “on the spot” when we answer these questionnaires, and we respond with an idealized version of ourselves in mind. So because the questions miss the mark, and because they can’t be answered with the honesty and nuance required anyway, they’re extremely rough. That’s one reason it was so offensive when OKCupid sent me an email saying that from now on, it would show me fewer “ugly” people. How does it know what I find attractive? What we find seductive in others’ faces has many mysterious origins.

7. You love customizing sites.

I’m busy. So are you. I don’t have the energy or the inclination to comb through my Facebook Timeline and select cover images, prune bygone updates and photos, and set subscriptions and visibility levels for all of my friends. After all, the last two, three, and four times I went through the trouble of setting everything the way I liked it, Facebook changed everything overnight, neglected to write instructions, and buried the alert in its privacy notice. Now, nearly every site you use on a regular basis thinks nothing of radically altering its user interface, proclaiming the upheaval an improvement, and then assuming you have the will to think of every possible new privacy violation, cut off every new loophole, and search out every available preference. The people who code these sites assume you will be excited about customizing your usage because they live in a world where computer geeks are overly rewarded, so they assume you are not only tolerant of their endless retroactive patching of blatant weaknesses, but that you admire them for the changes. Your time is their toy.

Such is our era’s technological arrogance. Such are these smug, benighted programmers.