But I’m having a tough time working out the rest of my conference schedule! Triple booked myself at least twice.
Putting aside for a moment from the actual questions the Facebook Data Team asked and the answers they got, both of which are interesting (so I will try to get to grips with them – in a later post), I think the most surprising thing about this study is the fact that Facebook publicly used itself as an experiment, and nobody blinked. What they did in the study was only a tiny, weensy bypass operation. (The experiment involved withholding some newsfeed items from its users that they would normally have seen as result of the operation of the service.) But it was surgery none the less.
My own private speculation is that Facebook experiments on itself all the time, and then quietly gets on with applying the lessons it learns by doing so. But the Data Team’s world-facing work is usually correlational and observational rather than directly experimental. So this work is different: here, they did tweak around with Facebook, and they did publish their results. And I am surprised that nobody seems to be interested in that fact. I don’t have an issue with the fact they did it. In fact, I’d be a bit disappointed if they didn’t. But then I’m an experimentalist by background.
Don’t get the wrong idea: I do care whether I see stuff that’s sent to me. When I get the post delivered from the postman each morning I don’t expect him to randomly hide some of it from me just to see what would happen. Interestingly I have heard more than one story in which it turns out that is just what (a few lone and deranged) postal workers sometimes actually do. But although this isn’t unheard of, at least as an urban myth, it’s not what I expect, and were the behaviour to be discovered, I would expect it to be stopped. Ignoring my post is my job, not my postman’s.
But my view of my Facebook Feed is different. My understanding of my Feed is that it is cooked up according to a secret sauce recipe which, although it isn’t exactly to my personal taste, represents Facebooks’ best efforts at optimising something of interest to it. And I believe the recipe for this sauce is constantly evolving, although the brand remains the same. So to find there has been a tiny systematic tweak made to it, whereby some information was hidden for some people when it would normally have been displayed, is neither a big shock, nor a bad one.
What surprises me about it is that it seems to have been so generally unsurprising. I have a few different theories about this:
1. the Eric Reis theory
The Lean Startup ideas of Eric Reis have become so pervasive and “baked into the DNA” of our culture that everyone who thinks about the matter expects to become part of some massive multivariate test whenever they encounter any application or platform.
2. the filter bubble theory
Nobody who would potentially have been offended or puzzled by having their NewsFeed tweaked around with actually understood what was happening.
Here are some screenshots I took this morning about the relative numbers of people who publicly lauded the research summary, versus the full research article.
The score is as follows. There were over 5,000 social actions performed on the summary. And 165 on the article itself.
3. the common sense theory
The change made was so non-material in its potential and actual impact that nobody in their right minds could possibly make a big deal of it.
So, no shortage of theories. But I’ve no idea which one is right. Do you? My guess about the recipe is: 20% Theory 1, 60% Theory 2, and 20% Theory 3.
The highly munchable and crunchable soundbite about the study, distributed with the summary , was that the research demonstrates that Facebook is not an echo chamber. This meme has bounced around languidly, albeit dominantly, following the release of the research. I believe that the research, while interesting, does not actually warrant this conclusion directly. But what the research does demonstrate, by its very existence, is that whether or not Facebook is or is not an echo chamber, for sure it sometimes acts like a hall of mirrors.
Who is more powerful on Facebook? 60 year olds or 20 year olds?
I’ve been thinking about this while chewing hard on an interesting nugget from the recent ‘Anatomy of Facebook’ study published by the Facebook Data Team and collaborators. (You can find a summary of the study here and a link to the full article download here.) The team selected five different age bands in the Facebook population, and for each of these five age cohorts, they looked at what age all that person’s Facebook friends were.
It’s the oldest Facebookers in the sample which have the widest variation in age range within their circle of FB-friends, and the youngest who have the narrowest.
Does this mean that if you want to achieve the widest potential reach for a message, your best bet is to target 60 year olds to spread it? That would be delightfully unexpected, if true. But I think it isn’t.
Let’s take a stroll together through a sanity check. For every 60 year old who’s FB-friends with a 20 year old, there is a corresponding 20 year old in the data who’s FB-friends with that very same 60 year old. For 60 years, the 20 year olds are noticeable, as a part of their friendship circle. But, when you look at the age distribution of FB-friendships for 20 year olds, 60 year olds form a vanishingly small part of their FB-friendship circle.
How can both these things be true? My guess about what’s going on is that the 20 year olds tend to have many, many more friends than the 60 year olds. I think that’s the main way in which 20 year olds could be important in 60 year olds’ FB-friends’ age distributions, but 60 year olds are not important (numerically speaking) to 20 year olds. This is just a guess but it’s my best guess about how these two facts could fit together. If you have other ideas let me know what they are!
What’s the consequence of this pattern of connectivity? We all know that raw connectivity and influence are not the same thing. If you’re feeling digressive and a bit geeky here’s a fun paper on the topic of how network structural characteristics affect viral distribution patterns by Kitsak et al. (Have fun but come back soon.) But without connectivity, there is no path for influence to propagate. So connectivity is interesting. It’s just not the only thing that’s interesting.
Considering the universe from a path connectivity point of view, what can we say about the relative potential power of 20 year olds vs 60 year olds? From the point of view of outbound communication, we can guess that as a 60 year old FB-friend it’s probably pretty hard to get the attention of the 20 year olds you’re connected to. Speaking purely in connectivity terms, you have to fight for attention against all those inbound comms channels from all those 20 year old age-mates. Your input is one of many.
But look at the information flow from the opposite perspective, and a tantalising possibility emerges. The 60 year olds have the most broadly balanced feed, in terms of the age range of their information sources. They will be better listeners, as their mixing deck is better adjusted to a wider range of signals from reality. They will know a greater diversity of things. They will be wiser, for structural reasons. If you think knowledge is power then you should bet on the 60 year olds. But I bet you knew that already.