Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Facebook creates orphans

Now there's a headline The Daily Mail would probably love to run one day, though it would almost certainly be followed by something along the lines of "... and is out to nick jobs from hard-working British families!" I, however, am talking about orphan data.

The other day, my elder daughter was updating her Facebook info, and in her musical likes kindly included an old (and occasionally still active) band of mine, Linda Heck & The Train Wreck. When I noticed she had done this, I was genuinely moved, and thanked her, but the pedantic parent in me felt obliged to point out that she had failed to capitalize "The Train Wreck." She went to the computer and attempted to correct this in her profile, but Facebook would not allow it, which made me suspect that there was some sort of static content being pointed to, somewhere. So we clicked on her link, and sure enough, it led to a page dedicated to "Linda Heck & the train wreck," with my daughter listed as the only person who liked it. In other words, by merely typing the name, a page was created, with no consent on her part.

So we conducted an experiment. I asked her to re-type the band name, but this time with proper capitalization and an exclamation mark at the end, i.e., "Linda Heck & The Train Wreck!" As she was the only person who liked the previous page, the old page was wiped and replaced with this new one. Since then, a number of people have liked it, so presumably it is permanent now, unless we all decide to unlike it, which might be another interesting experiment. Looking at similar pages which have been created around other bands, it appears that Facebook scrapes Wikipedia pages (where available), friends' comments containing key words, and "global posts" (i.e., posts by people you don't know, and who don't know you) in an attempt to auto-generate something like a relevant page.

Just for the sake of mischief, I repeated the process, but this time replacing the exclamation mark with a question mark, which has now created a new page. We could create a huge number of other pages on the same band (or anything else), using various mis-spellings, odd punctuation, l33t, etc., so that the potential for data fragmentation around this single band becomes almost infinite.

I find this simultaneously pointless and insidious. It is clear that Facebook wants to be smarter than its users, in trying to auto-populate pages without anyone consciously constructing them, or more importantly, controlling them. For a major band, this may not be such a huge issue, as the legal department can always be called in and the "official" page invoked, but my friend and collaborator, Linda Heck, is now inadvertently confronted with a page (two, actually) dedicated to an old band of hers over which she has no control or ability to edit.

As it stands, the only way for her (or anyone) to build any meaningful content into this page is to write a Wikipedia entry on the band, which would then be incorporated once Facebook crawled the site. Alternatively, she or someone else could make Facebook posts about the band, but these would have to include the exclamation point to be picked up. This seems an ass-backward way to build a community of interest, if that is the goal.

The other thing which I find disconcerting goes back to the tired old oxymoronic concept of "Facebook privacy." The "global posts" include contributions from people who probably believe that they have kept their data private. As long as they are posting something along the lines of "Wow, this Kinks video is awesome!" that may not be an issue, but what if their post consists of "Dude, remember this song from that Kinks show where we took mushrooms and crashed your dad's car on the way home?" Forget that career in law enforcement.

As with many of the recent revelations about Facebook, this is needlessly annoying and disconcerting. It seems to me that at the very least, creation of a new page should be an opt-in event. The absurdist in me tends to think that the only suitable response is to flood Facebook with fictitious and pointless data, which we can all collude to share and propagate. Some would argue that this goal was accomplished long ago. Otherwise, I guess we all should just keep our likes to ourselves, which isn't very social, is it?


Linda Heck said...

I am with the absurdist in you.

Kathryn Jill Johnson said...


These "community" pages are very creepy. I don't post anything that I want to be truly "private" (2 computers can keep a secret if one of them has a melted hard drive?) but I did find it unsettling that a "community" page for my employer (a university) was magically generated. There are some very big problems with the administration at the school, and FB has been a very good organizing tool for the community, faculty and students--and a place where we all vent. While I feel fine about anyone from the administration reading my posts--I have tenure after all--it is a bit unsettling that FB created a one-stop list of all the critics of the University to streamline any big brotherish action by the evil empire. As a trouble maker, I would prefer that they be required to make an effort should they decide to respond with punishment (or better) bribes...

Sam Critchley said...

It's even freakier than that. Try writing "BTW" in one of your status updates... it gets posted to an auto-generated "BTW Community Page" and anyone who's also posted that in their status is listed as one of the people who likes the page. See http://www.facebook.com/pages/Btw/376872377270?ref=ts for an example. If you can't see it for some reason I can send you a screenshot....