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?

Put the iPhone down, and step away from the Kool Aid dispenser

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Apple and all it has achieved in design and market creation, as well as the precipitous rise in its market cap, which The Dear Leader recently described as "surreal." I have never encountered a CEO of any company who didn't believe (at least in public) that his/her company was undervalued, so this remark in itself is surreal and has a vague whiff of short-bait about it.

Another thing I find increasingly surreal is how, every time Mr. Jobs speaks, otherwise intelligent people seem to suffer a rapid onset of cerebral paralysis. Last night, as I watched the euphoric Twitsteria flowing from the Jobstown compound, I saw a couple of comments along the lines of "Two deaf people signing to each other over the iPhone - Apple just leapfrogged everyone," and (my favorite), "Future - we are here."

The last time I checked, the future started about eight years ago. Here's a TV spot from the technologically ambitious, but commercially inept, 3 UK, from spring 2003. Video calling. It ain't pretty, and the brain-dead, bloke-ish inanity of it completely deflates the potential magic of the proposition, but there it is.

3 Mobile Video Calling

So, in theory, we've had this capability in Europe for the better part of a decade. I consider myself to be a keen observer of how real people use devices and interact with communications services, and I have *_NEVER_* seen anyone making a video call on a mobile handset out in the real world, ever. The far-from-overwhelming HTC Touch HD handset I got two years ago had a front-facing camera for video calling. I never used it, not even out of curiosity, because a) I knew it would suck and be very expensive over a 3G connection, and b) if I were using WiFi and desired a video chat with someone, I could use Skype on my netbook, which I almost always have with me. It is interesting that the highly impressive HTC Desire I now own has no front-facing camera, so it would appear that this is a feature which the Church of Android considers to be superfluous, at least for now.

However, Apple has an impressive track record when it comes to creating new markets and changing consumer behavior, so just because there is no demonstrable history of use cases for mobile video calling so far, doesn't mean that we can blithely assume this won't change. Perhaps the fact that Apple is limiting the service to WiFi for now, and the characteristic attention that the company gives to usability and elegance of interface, will drive adoption and protect it from the risk of disappointing consumer expectations. Then again, in my experience, the Apple faithful typically own more than one Apple product, so if they are in a place with WiFi coverage, there is a decent chance that they will have a MacBook or iPad in tow as well, either of which would offer a superior experience if video calling were required. As far as I can tell, FaceTime video calling works only between iPhone 4 devices (for now, though I expect that will change over time), so this could also be problematic for adoption depending on contract periods and upgrade cycles among one's iPhone social circle.

Don't get me wrong - the iPhone is an awesome device, and the promise of a (probably) satisfactory video calling experience over it is a nice-to-have feature. It's just that tired old telecom "pundits" like me have heard the George Jetson mobile video calling pitch for so long now, that when I hear people talking about "leap-frogging" and "living in the future," I feel tempted to call out the deprogrammers. I would like nothing more than for FaceTime to prove me wrong, but I just can't see it happening very quickly.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go wash my flying car.