Facebook and Uncanny Valley

I grew up with Facebook, in all senses of the word. The first time I was in the US for summer school in 2004, Facebook practically didn’t exist. Just a year after, in 2005, when I was again in the US for a different summer school and actually got a .edu email address from a major college, I remember my friends being really excited that they could join this service called The Facebook. I remember vaguely looking at it, not really getting what the big deal was and casually ignoring it.

Fast forward yet another year, in 2006, I am on CollegeConfidential forums, a forum frequented by high school seniors applying to colleges in the US and I see that virtually everyone in the CMU forums are freaking out about getting their @cmu.edu email addresses simply because it’d allow them to get on Facebook.

And during the course of my studies, in a relatively short span of 4 years, I have seen Facebook evolve from this website where you would go to see if that girl in your Econ class was single or not to an alternative, second internet for a significant part of the world’s population. And maybe more interestingly, while “the-company-to-work-for” for computer science majors at CMU was definitely Google in 2006, Facebook was definitely became a much more appealing option in 2010, especially for those who wanted to work more on the consumer side of things, like yours truly.

It is not just because a significant part of my young-adult life evolved alongside of Facebook that I get more value from Facebook than the average user; I am a Turkish native who went to an American prep school in Turkey. Now a significant chunk of my friends are scattered across the world. While we maintained a Yahoo! Group for some time,for some intra-class communication, that group died a pretty quick death as people’s lives got busier, other things took priority and most importantly Facebook simple became easier to use for same purposes.

That is all to say that Facebook is very important to me, probably more so than it is to a nerd who grew up with BBSes and dial-up or casual user on it.

There is however something way more essential for me, something so valuable that I can’t put a price on it and would do anything to keep it mine; my personal life.

Those two realities, that I value my interaction on Facebook as well as my personal life would of course be irrelevant to each other had it not been for Facebook simply taking a much bigger part in both my personal and my social circle’s life. And even that would be fine; culture and our way of living will undoubtedly change with each advancing technology; but seeing the effect on Facebook my own personal life and mental well-being, I have started to actually think about how to handle this new technology better.

Moreover, I have been always interested in how technology actually changes people’s lives. While computers and all things high-technology has always been fascinating in their own right, the biggest reason I started doing what I am doing is and living where I am living is that I wanted to be around when technology when it not only it changes our lives as individuals but also as a society.

While I am not as multi-cultural as I wish I have been, I am lucky enough to have a good grasp of not just Turkish and American cultures but also the “internet” culture that I grew up with as a kid who had spent more time on his computer than being outside for a significant part of my life.

So over time, I have formed some well informed, some not so well informed, opinions about Facebook. As culture and technology are two of my favorite topics, it’s something I have talked a lot to many people about and those people have told me many times I should share those thoughts with others.

This is all those thoughts, unabridged.

Facebook is public.

This is the guiding principle of my activity on Facebook.

It should be very clear to anyone with some knowledge of advertising and marketing works is that the more data Facebook has on you, the more money they can make. So it is definitely in Facebook’s interest to get you to both put in as much as data as you want as well as making it more available to others. In fact, this horse is so beaten to dead by everyone, that I almost find typing all this pointless.

But the thing that is really worth mentioning is that I actually believe that Zuck and Co believe that they are doing something good and worthwhile, inducing us to obsessively catalogue and index every inane activity happening in our lives. Sure, it’s easy to point out how this will all make Facebook the next AOL, it takes a different, slightly twisted but in that amusingly twisted, mentality to build features so that you can mark the first time you got a tattoo on your timeline or when you recovered from chemo. While the nerds among us would pour hours and hours to organizing our Winamp playlists and no one else seemed to care, it somehow became acceptable, if not outright “cool”, to be the person who checks in not oneself but everyone around him to the hot spot that none of your friends are at, without a single care about how it might be used or abused.

However, you don’t need to look any further than the privacy kerfuffle Ms.Randi Zuckerberg raised to understand the implications of actually putting any content online. Ms. Zuckerberg posted a picture of her family, including her brother Mark, chatting around a kitchen counter. While the photograph itself wasn’t “public” in the Zuckian sense, one of Ms.Zuckerberg’s reporter friends, probably thinking it was a benign enough photograph posts it on Twitter, resulting on Randi Zuckerberg first saying how “uncool” it is, posting a couple more angst-filled tweets and then deleting them right after.

The irony of the whole situation notwithstanding, the point I am trying to get across while there is already something a bit disturbing about how a single entity having so much personally identifiable information about you, the more nuanced issue is that as long as you put any sort of information on Facebook, be it an image or a relationship status or a simple comment, you are in fact sharing that all that information with not just the Facebook’s evil privacy-hating overlords but also practically every single person who might see it on their Newsfeed. And sure, even if you somehow made your way out of the Escheresque privacy controls and you have limited the your online exposure today to your socially capable friends, you are still making a ton of assumptions, from what private means to each of your friends to their actual well-meaning, if we are going to get a bit dark.

And then what happens when Facebook actually changes their privacy policy so that you new actions don’t adhere to your old controls and your friends can now share the content if they sacrifice their youngest new-born to the gods? And of course, there’s the problem with Facebook inventing even more new ways to expose more of your activity not only on Facebook but also on any other application with their frictionless sharing. Are you going to now trust not only the judgement of the seedy app developers who’d do anything to get their user numbers app, as well as their technical competence in addition to everything else you already had to keep in mind?

Sure, it’s somewhat of a stretch for most people to be embarrassed by a photo of their dinner to be posted on national news, the chances of you having posted something on Facebook having made its way to someone other than its intended audience is higher than you’d think. I’m sure your off-the-cuff racist joke is hilarious but do you think all your friends and your-friends’s friends share your appreciation for Louis CK? And yes, you do look great in that bikini but have you ever made your way to the darker corners of the internets where creepy men share them with the rest of the other creepy men, pretty much legally?

So do the easy thing and ask yourself: would you be OK with whatever you are posting on Facebook (or any other social network, for that matter) being public one day? It’s only 2 months ago that Facebook removed the feature where you could truly hide yourself from all searches.

Facebook has more privacy controls than ever before but arguing that as Facebook hasn’t become more “public” over time or simply won’t be fully public at some point in the future is a futile discussion.

Privacy isn’t dead.

I find the new-fangled “privacy is dead, get over it” rhetoric utterly misinformed, if not outright stupid.

It’s easy, and fun if I say so myself, to be overly excited about a new way to check-in places, share your feelings and thoughts, or maybe snap a picture of a particularly attractive sunset (or a bike, if you are like me). You can argue until you can’t on Hacker News whether or not such things constitute as innovation but what you cannot argue is that mere mortals, people like you and me, enjoy them a lot.

It is however naive to think that the more of our lives we put online for others to see, the less we care about privacy. In fact, if anything, I’d say that most people I know are more aware of that nasty feeling you get whenever your privacy is infringed because it happens more and more every day.

And make no mistake; the moment when someone infringes on your privacy, when it comes to stuff that really matters, you will find yourself feeling the same way too.

Not to take any more cheap shots at Ms.Zuckerberg’s misfortune –though she probably deserves a lot more for producing the world’s most horrible show on TV–, if one can get angry over a picture of her family, just sitting around a kitchen counter being posted online, saying that we should just simply give up on privacy because it’s too damn inconvenient is not just wrong but actually dishonest.

In fact, one need to look not any further than the tech scene to find stories of people doing the craziest things, things that you’d not expect them to do, just because arguably someone invaded on their privacy. While some of them, like Google not talking to CNet for a year because they unearthed some publicly available information about its CEO is more entertaining than not, some others like the famous Ruby developer _why collecting his things and quitting the internet is more damning and dark. Barbara Streisand might not have been as foolish as we thought she was, after all.

And sure, you can again make the argument all this doesn’t apply to you because you are essentially a nobody on the internet. But simply imagine how you’d feel if one day you find a notebook on your friend’s desk where he lists the times that you leave and enter your building. And moreover, he also lists every single thing you told him, the boring stuff like your favorite book as well as the awkward stuff like what kind of skin cream you have in your closet.

Are you going to argue that he can’t sit at the cafe across the street from you and watch you literally get on the public street or simply work as a cashier at the grocery store?

While you should go ahead and reconsider your friendship with that sociopath, you might as well come out of that traumatizing relationship with an epiphany about how much you cared about your own privacy and how much it matters to you. And while it is easy to flex it here and there every once in a while, it hurts a lot, more than you think, once you lose it. And by definition, it is one of those things that you’ll not easily get back after it’s gone. So might as well keep it as close to your chest.

It is not real life.

As we spend more and more time online, digital, cyber or whatever we call it these days, our well curated online presence slowly slips into the uncanny valley. You look at someone’s online profile and get this feeling that person is living the life you wish you had been living; some shots by the beach that you will never go to or the concerts that no one invites you to.

Surely, it might just be my Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO as it is lovingly called, talking but there is something utterly non-human and almost disturbing to see someone’s life in such great detail without the perfections.

It reminds me of this time they were shooting a movie on campus, back when I was in college. As some scenes in the movie took place in a dorm room, the film crew actually build a “dorm room” in the common area of our dorm. What was amazing about the dorm room was that it was so much of a stereotypical dorm room, with the casually discarded clothes on the bed to the random containers of Cup-Noodles to Harold and Kumar posters and the Macs and every other detail being picture-perfect that you could definitely tell that it wasn’t an actual dorm room but something that was actually manufactured.

That is not to say everyone is constantly putting out an act on Facebook. The real issue is that it is very hard, if not impossible, to actually create any resemblance of documentation of one’s social world using bits-and-bytes online. Maciej Cegłowski describes the technical issues around the issue (as well as the utter pointlessness of it) much better than I ever could in his post. I am simply approaching the issue from the other, psychological end.

Ask any social psychologist and you’ll hear about how self-reporting studies are extremely hard to validate. It turns out it is surprisingly get people to give you the answers you want (or not) but extremely hard to actually get them to describe to to you how you feel. In fact, if you look at enough social psychology studies, you might very well think that the entire field is about finding a more ingenue and clever ways to trick people into giving you the true answers, instead of doing any “science” work.

And there is of course the social pressure which muddies the waters even further. Are you actually going to post about your horrible break-up when you see your friends are having the time of their lives in Malibu? Maybe fish for some easy likes and compliments by posting a joke or an Instagram. But then, why would you let anyone know that you are spending your valuable time, that time you’ll never get back, being on Facebook? And now we are back to where we started. Shouldn’t you actually be out and about in a tropical island or just be simply out to meet some new people? Maybe becoming a true Lawnmower Man and playing Farmville all day, every day is the answer, after all.

When I was looking for a new job, couple years ago, someone who I consider a good mentor told me that a lot of the really cool jobs aren’t actually public. They are not posted on companies’ websites or job boards. The only way you’ll hear about them is if someone actually reaches out to you because they think that is the right job for you and you are the right person that for that job.

I find the phenomenon extends well into social life as well. As I mentioned before, my social circle on Facebook is pretty fun and I definitely learn about new stuff happening around me. But more often than not, I get notified about the really coolstuff that is happening through boring mediums like hearing it from a friend over some beers or someone actually reaching out to me personally thinking that I’d really enjoy that really cool thing.

And I haven’t even touched upon the actual living aspect of it all in this meta-noise. Now that you have excommunicated your sociopath friend and are now shooting the shit with your best friends in Malibu; everyone is having a great time. You think this is what happiness must be like, just enjoying your friends company without a single care in the world other than your drink being a little too cold.

Would you rather be the person who’s actually having that great time or the person who is obsessively documenting everything that is amazing happening around you? Just like most things in life, there’s a line in the sand (no pun intended) that one draws here; we all want to remember the good times and have memoirs but there’s a point at which the whole enjoyment becomes a simple vehicle for documentation and the reality becomes irrelevant. Of course, this is nothing new to Facebook, but there’s no denying that Facebook’s permeance in our lives took it to unprecedented levels.

Facebook should do better.

As I mentioned before, I have no beef with Facebook, as a company or a product. In fact, I have even applied there 3 years ago for a job opportunity and have a good deal of friends, including one of my best friends from college, work there as engineers, designers, and product managers.

As an engineer myself, the fact that Facebook even works amazes me day and night. I have always considered their design team on top of their stuff, working with challenges that would make a regular designer’s head explode in a second. And moreover, I have high admiration for the speed and fervor with which they are able to ship features and change things.

In fact, I believe Facebook in and of itself is one of the places that has been operating relatively consistent and coherent manner as well as consumer focused companies go; there are deviations and distractions (looking at you, Poke) here and there but you can’t blame Zuck & Co. for doing what they said they’d be doing.

If anything, given its sheer size and how much it permeated into our lives, I am surprised that Facebook hasn’t made as much of a cultural dent as many other online properties. Granted, it has created a never-ending stream of amusing stories (mostly caused by privacy blunders) for bored journalists to sift through and the vast amount of data Facebook generates should feed generations of sometimes slightly misguided but mostly well meaning social scientists and marketers, Facebook The Company simply feels like it has been busy building features that you think it should have (as in, for example, seeing a list of all things you have “liked”), instead of doing something world-changing or jaw-dropping.

As I touched on before, Facebook did all this while creating a culture that not only nurtures but also attracts very high-caliber talent. I might be alone in feeling this way but I hope that the company actually continues on that culture after its eventful IPO, finds its true calling (and by that I mean revenue source) and invests all that back into its technology and talent and become a true tech company instead of a media conglomerate that everyone loves to hate.

End.

One friend I asked to proof-read this essay told me that there’s no point to all this. And I agree, there isn’t. These are simply my thoughts on Facebook, just like I said, some are well-informed and some not-so-much.

But there is something I want to convey and that is that your online activity, be it on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, matters as much as you want it to.

Just think about what you are doing, every once in a while.