Friday, June 23, 2017

- Zuckerberg As Social Engineer

“Facebook sucks”, is one of the many rallying cries of our day. The degraded narcissistic culture and the endless objectified whining of the social justice warriors (who even liberals seem to have had enough of), are both common complaints. But at the risk of being called a Zuckerberg fanboy, if you think it sucks, it’s only because you don’t understand it. I have the same cultural complaints about it that you probably do. But I don’t blame Facebook for it, and I think we should ‘give the devil his due’.

I’m not a Facebook user myself, at least not personally. But out of necessity I’ve had to learn about it from a technical perspective. And from that standpoint it’s a work of elegant brilliance. It's what I would call a semi-open system. And reminds me of a scene from the brilliant hunting movie “The Ghost and The Darkness”.

In that movie, a work gang building a railroad bridge in Africa for the British, is being attacked nightly by 2 lions who have developed a taste for humans. So they build a wall around their encampment made of thick and nasty looking African thorns. The lions could certainly push, slash and hack their way through the thorns if they really wanted to. But since they have left a portion of the fence open - the portion where two hunters are perched in trees nightly – they know the lions won’t bother.

Facebook is exactly the same.

You could, if you really wanted to, write a program to go to any users page on Facebook, read the combination of CSS and JSON data users see as the Facebook interface, and obtain all their public information. Their likes, their friends, and a variety of other statistics. It would the equivalent of the lion, slashing and hacking through the thorns. But if you do that you run the risk of any change Facebook makes disrupting your code. So it’s no way to do it, if you want it done reliably. Better would be to go through the Facebook API, their official access point for program access, which is remarkably easy to use.

But when you do, there are hunters in the trees.

To access user information through the API, there are a series of structural firewalls that you need to get permission to see beyond. Each of those permissions must be gotten from the user involved, if you want to see what’s what, and even when you do there are FB imposed speed limits. It’s an easy thing to do. Facebook even has videos on youtube that explain exactly how to do it. They make it as simple for you as it possibly can be. But then they also know precisely what you’re up to and have a variety of statistics to monitor you, and keep you from mayhem or mischief.

This is a very simplified description of course, but it will do the trick for the non-technical. And take my word for it, the elegance of this solution goes much deeper than I’m describing here. It’s so lovely that I’m compelled to go to the trouble of writing this piece about it. I quite literally can’t think of any other technical innovation in recent years that matches its poetry. Twitter, by technical comparison, is a dumpster fire that’s constantly plagued by fraud and abuse.

So. I’ve given credit where it’s due I think. Now let’s talk about Zuckerberg.

He’s a smart kid, of that I have no doubt. But smart doesn’t make you noble. Smart doesn’t give you character. IkaIka had a piece up a few weeks ago describing him as an aspiring Super Villain, and in the comment section I said that my biggest worry where he’s concerned is that he’s never had a failure. He went from Harvard, to CEO and Billionaire, without so much as even a minor setback. His biggest failure in life to date has been that some girl from BU dumped him for being an annoying little bitch.

I just don’t see how that could possibly build the kind of character we need from our cultural leaders.

As women measure men, Zuckerberg is a king. He’s one of the richest men alive, and has all but limitless power of self determination. He can ignore law, ignore custom and ignore tradition. There are so few constraints on him that he’s got more in common with Michael Jackson than the ‘man on the street’. If he decided to populate his Bay area mansion with Giraffes and Ferris wheels, all the appropriate zoning regulations and land use restrictions would be tossed out the window faster than you can say “As you wish Master!” But we all know how that turned out for Michael Jackson.

There is a cultural concern for me too. It’s no doubt that Zuck’s views are far to the left of the American center, and he’s as unlikely to see that as the next liberal. He’s a Jewish kid from a prosperous family on Long Island, who attended Harvard, and only dropped out to become one of the richest men alive. It’s very easy to imagine him strutting around in his ‘this is what a Feminist looks like’ T shirt.

Which is to say that as men judge men, he’s hardly an alpha male. He’s a low beta, with a mammoth checkbook. Women would never admit this, as is their way, but in all likelihood he could get any woman alive to move into his mansion with he and his wife, and build a harem of supermodels. But no man would ever want to be in a Foxhole with him. Except for Lena Dunham, he would probably be the very last human chosen for a task like that.

And he clearly has acquired no wisdom in his meteoric rise to the top. According to him, Facebook now has a new mission:

“For 10 years, we focused on doing everything around connecting people with their friends and family,” Zuckerberg said. “Now I think that there is a whole lot of similar work to be done around communities: Meeting new people, getting exposed to new perspectives, making it so that the communities that you join online can translate to the physical world, too.”

This is silly and obviously transparent code-speech for increased polarization - a polarization controlled by Zuck. He wants to build communities around their biases. This he believes, will give him power to influence the minds of the plebs, and he’s probably right. But I find it very difficult to believe this will be done without imposing a few of Zucks own personal biases as well.

There are better ways to do what he intends, and I’m trying to do one of them. Give me a couple of years. In the meantime, be wary of the new Facebook mission and the new Facebook 'groups'. Because Mark Zuckerberg may have had one transcendently beautiful technical idea, but social engineering is a little harder than I think he imagines it to be.

And he isn't the only smart guy in America.

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