Social media that helps your friendships blossom

On Facebook, a few days ago, I noticed a weird trend. All of a sudden, I’d been getting a new type of notification. I posted about it, and got a ton of replies:

For years, inside of facebook, I argued that the app could help deepen friendships instead of just cataloging them. What about a “people who used to be close to, who you haven’t messaged [or commented on their posts] for a while, feature”? How about proactively helping heal cross-cutting cleavages by reminding you that you’re friends with people of identity X?

I have no inside knowledge here, but something weird has been happening on my facebook lately. I keep getting notifications that “person X has posted”, where person X keeps changing. Is someone on the inside finally trying to make it happen?

But this new feature has problems. It’s a good idea, but I’m not sure it’s implemented well. Why are these notifications and not feed units? If you change the behavior of the app, you’d want the initial interactions with the new feature to be of high quality, yet they typically link to low-quality posts. And rather than an invitation to reconnect with a person, they are an invitation to view that person’s posts, with no explanation.

Typically, when fb notifications start pushing something that isn’t directly tied to me (“person X commented on your post, Y people liked a post”) I click the ignore button a few times. Then the system learns, and they stop. It’s been over a week, and these notification units keep coming. Either I’m in a half-baked A/B test, or someone really, really, is pushing this new feature. If I’m right, I salute the impulse. But the implementation is not ready for prime time.

Is it just me? Am I the only one seeing these? Or are y’all getting this too?

FB post here

Kushaan even tweeted it out.

The whole episode got me thinking. Can I break out of my normal habits and use, say, Facebook, in ways that make me happier? I already cut out all pages and groups, but maybe I could do more.

So I spent ten minutes looking through stories on FB Messenger / IG, and replying enthusiastically to slices of life from old friends. It was … invigorating. It’s easy for me to type up thoughts. But maybe the real key to internet happiness is just cooing over a cute baby.

In that vein, here’s a picture of Sarah and me dressing up for new years, right before we started an epic battle in Gloomhaven. No big idea, just a little glimpse of a life.


A right-libertarian case for breaking up Facebook

So, this is fun. Over the weekend, I was the featured guest on a libertarian radio show — A Free Solution, by Kevin Wilson and Larry Sharpe. We talked about breaking up Facebook, tech monopolies, surveillance, and content moderation policy. I made the best libertarian case I could for trust busting. Cited Hayek, the presidential election of 1912, and other things.

We had a wide ranging conversation. Some thumbnail ideas include:

  • Trust busting is the limited government alternative to extensive regulation.
  • Facebook is right now meddling in every election. They can’t help it, because the very fact of an algorithmic news feed (and recommended groups, and decisions where to put election integrity resources) means meddling happens trillions of times per day.
  • True patriots don’t stand for unelected dictators like Mark Zuckerberg deciding out of noblesse oblige to deign to try to protect them from foreign meddling in democracy.
  • “Facebook Jail” as worse than the DMV. A giant kafkaesque bureacracy that gets things wrong and has no scope for appeal!
  • Is Facebook biased against conservatives? I heard that it’s a very liberal company. The answer may surprise you!
  • The ad-driven internet builds a surveillance society that is horrifying. Even if you’re okay with Walmart sending targeted ads to you, remember that all that data is also being sold to the NSA (and Chinese, Russian, etc agencies).

Kevin and I go back to around 2012, when I was living in Rochester as an adult. I met his then-girlfriend, now-wife, when she was working for Metro Justice. I wrote People-Powered Rochester in the MJ offices, sitting right next to her!

Even back then, Kevin and I got along. I think we bonded over the Restore the Fourth protests of 2013 and 2014. He’s always struck me as a real, principled libertarian. I’ve asked him for the hot takes on LP politics, and what the Trump era exposed about the libertarian movement. (While he’s a fan of Justin Amash, he definitely agrees with this famous Thomas Massie take). I donated to his run for congress in 2020, and urged my friends and family to vote for him. (The only LP candidate I have ever backed, to my knowledge).

So, it was a friendly interview. I really enjoyed it! Kevin was a gracious host. The format of the interview (radio show, with predefined slots of time) was a little frustrating — as soon as I felt we were ready to get deep into a topic, we’d start over. And the pacing felt rather fast. But it was fun, and I think I did a good job representing the ideas.

You can listen to the show here.

(This should be an embed)

And the bonus (runoff) conversation that continued after the show officially ended:

(This should be an embed)

I really enjoyed it! It was a fun intellectual exercise and a free-flowing conversation. Thank you to Kevin for having me on. Highlight of my week.

(And I think I’m really good at it. Got a podcast or radio show? Have me as a guest!)


How I use Facebook

I’ve been using facebook (the product) for over 12 years. It’s been my rolodex, my event planner, my post office, my blog, and even my diary.

In the past, Facebook was wonderful. So many of my friends were there. I *lived* there. Then all the ads, the pages spam, etc overwhelmed it. Seemed like I was awash in a flood of crap. News articles, ads, posts in groups I didn’t care about, etc.

So I put a stop to all of it. Now, Facebook feels a lot like the close community of friends that it once was. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Once, I spent the evening on a search and destroy mission. Every time I saw an ad, I clicked (…), then “I don’t like this ad”. It took maybe 200 instances, but in the end, the Facebook feed algorithm realized that there was extremely low predicted benefit to showing me an ad, and a (projected) higher expected harm of me using Facebook less if I saw one. So now I don’t see ads.
  2. Un-like every page you follow. Every single one.
  3. Unfollow all but the most important groups to you. Maybe keep 2-4 that you actively want to participate in.
  4. Sometimes, usually once a month, ads will come back. Hiding the first 2-5 of them you see will keep them away for another month.
  5. Follow (don’t like!) a few pages that you absolutely want to follow. For me, it’s some webcomics, a friend of mine running for Congress, and a magazine.
  6. Any time you see a post from a group that is awful, snooze it.
  7. If you snooze a group 3 times, unfollow them.
  8. When it is someone’s birthday, I try to send them a messenger message (or better yet, text or email). I absolutely won’t post on their wall. Posts are batched together in one big blob. I want my birthday wishes to stand out.

Lastly — don’t log into FB on your laptop while you’re working. Physically log out. If you’re gonna use it, use it on a phone or iPad to make it physically obvious to your brain that you’re not doing work.


I’m a Berkman Klein Fellow

Well, looks like the secret is out. I’ve achieved my childhood dream of being a Berkman fellow! Gosh. I’ll be starting in September.

They asked me for a blurb explaining what I’ll be doing:

Sahar Massachi’s work straddles social movements and the tech industry. He recently left the Facebook civic integrity team after almost 4 years at the company. He is researching the political economy of tech giants, the structure of the modern advertising industry, design principles for better social media, and generally how to nurture the good parts of the internet while reforming the bad. 

That’s a set of big topics. And I’m still getting my head wrapped around them. But, maybe for my own understanding, I’ll take a stab at sketching out a little bit about how I’m thinking about it.

(Disclaimer: I’m just brainstorming! This is a form of thinking out loud. I have a lot of other things bouncing around in the old brain that I haven’t written down, and I expect I’ll learn things to change my mind on at least a few of these topics. Think of this as a little first-draft sneak peak teaser-trailer of a thing, a year before the movie airs, when the script hasn’t even finished being written, not the thing in itself)

If we think of large internet corporations as new para-governmental actors, can we study and interact with them as if they were indeed states?

And I do think they are quasi-states. Maybe somewhat like an executive branch fused with a court. There’s a need for “scalable” decisionmaking. Precedent matters. People inside argue using evidence but also inter-departmental bureaucratic warfare.

As the task of governing has grown, we as a society have evolved appendages to interact with agencies, legislatures, courts, etc. That looks like think tanks, lobbying, briefs amici.

Okay, so how do, say, think tanks wield power? What’s their secret? In part, they do free labor. A modern congresswoman has only a few staff, most of them dedicated to processing the increasingly overwhelming stream of feedback from her constituents. Think tanks (and lobbyists) do work she doesn’t have staff capacity to do: think deeply about legislation, get in the weeds of things, give intelligence about how different organized political groups feel, and turn her broad principles into actionable legislation.

So, what would a think tank aimed at a social media giant look like? Well, the comparison isn’t straightforward — Twitter, for example, certainly isn’t dealing with a staff of 10. But if you look at any particular team, they tend to be pretty small groups working on logical chunks of big projects. And with all the pressures and politics of working in a company, lots of work that people *wish* they could pursue isn’t being done.

Enter a think tank. Perhaps it could take on those projects that staff wish they could do.

Design principles for better social media (and democracy)

Right now, the dominant response by social media companies seems to be to rely solely on an army of content moderation “cops” to enforce “Facebook law” or “Youtube law”, perhaps armed with more sophisticated detection systems to help them find “bad guys” to arrest.

Imagine, however, changing the design of these apps to make bad behaviour less easy to do. Maybe by incorporating limits on actions that could be harmful (say, limiting the number of Facebook pages that an account could start per week, or limiting the number of subreddits a person could post a link to in the same time window). Maybe by adding friction to actions that might be abusive, in proportion to how certain the system is that it is indeed abusive. Maybe something else.

Imagine if, armed with these ideas (and quantitative and qualitative research to back them), a think tank could interact with both the high level decisionmakers, and the frontline engineers, designers, and software engineers of a company. Often, it’s those frontline workers who have a lot of autonomy to try things. Why not give them ideas of things to try?

The structure of the modern advertising industry

It’s pretty clear to me that advertising has evolved so much that the distinction between “online”, “mobile”, and “terrestrial” television doesn’t exist as much as it used to. For example, when your television sends home data about the ads you watch, do we use the conceptual bucket of “online advertising” or “old fashioned tv ads”?

For reasons, advertising-as-surveillance seems to have grown with the internet and entwined with it, but also be busting free into “meatspace”. And this advertising means surveillance. I’m particularly sensitive to surveillance because of my jewish anti-fascist, anti-police-state commitments.

So, online (and increasingly offline) advertising means surveillance. But online advertising also has market power problems. Political advertising, in particular, has democracy problems.

I want to look at the union of all those things. Because it’s all important, and I think only seeing through of those lenses tends to give people an incorrect view of the situation.

Political Economy of Tech Giants

Here’s something I’m struggling with: am I doing a project on social media giants and democracy? Or about tech platform giants in particular? (In other words, do I care about Amazon and Uber and so on?)

I’m not sure.

I do feel strongly that we should bring a political economy frame to understanding the actions of big tech. Let’s bring concepts like power mapping from politics to understand the actions of, say, Facebook. There’s already lots of journalism pointing out how it, for example, is strategically giving ground / giving gifts to the US political right.

There are also frames from history that we can use to understand what is happening. For example the “studio system” for Hollywood, and the DOJ consent decrees that ended them, could be used as a model for thinking about the distinction between production and consumption in *social* media. Let’s think about agrarian populism and The Grange. Standard Oil. So on!

And if we were to break up, say, Alphabet, how would we do it? What parts become public utilities? Which parts are broken up? Where do we promote competition? Is it possible to legislate such fast-moving things as open standards?

My past at Facebook

I used to work at Facebook. I spent almost four years there. I feel a responsibility to explain it better to the world. The bad stuff, sure, but also just the plain facts. I have a lot of respect for Alex Stamos, and I feel a certain kinship with him. Misinformed, or bad critiques of Facebook bother me. The topic is too important to get wrong.

We want contradictory things from Facebook — censor more to protect democracy / censor less to protect free speech and democracy. Protect people’s data / don’t be a walled garden. Protect us from governments via encryption / protect us from foreign election meddling by snooping on messages. Build real communities of friends / puncture people’s filter bubbles.

These all come from different, valid concerns. Each of those demands comes from an analysis of a real harm. But the proposed solutions often clash.

If we can catalog all these harms, and understand them at the same time, can we come up with proposed solutions that don’t solve one problem at the expense of another?

Wrapping up

Now that I’ve written these sketches out, I’m feeling excited! But I’m feeling that perhaps I have too many ideas at once.

Is starting a think tank too ambitious? Is the idea sound? How does one get funding to start such a thing?

Lastly, a note about heroes. I’m a fan of Louis Brandeis. He was so interesting! He was a hero on the left, but eschewed the standard methods (organizing the poor, agitation, mass politics) that come with those politics. Instead, he was creative. He organized his people — the upper middle class. A public intellectual, he wrote the book about problems with banks and then turned that into a government agency. He enlisted his friends and fellow lawyers to fight bigness in the cloak of monopoly.

Brandeis attributed much of his success to understanding, to a minute level, the workings of business or system, so that he could figure out how to fix it (business), or best regulate it (system). We could all learn from his example.

In the end, in tackling these big questions, I want to keep asking: “What would Louis Brandeis do?”

Misc Personal

Stallman Was Right: Ello, Facebook, and Freedom.

It’s ello time. And now that we’re in day 2 of ello-mania, some smart articles are popping up.

My buddy Cayden has the so-far canonical synthesis of everything written so far, and he’s definitely on the right track in his analysis of ello:

 With Ello positioned as the anti-Facebook, a door closes. Our imaginations are bound to the platform choices we’ve been presented with. We are locked into a politics of scarcity that is very unfamiliar to me on the internet. As I was remarking to a friend yesterday, the thing I’ve always loved about the internet was its anarchistic abundance, its sense of possibility. The thing that disturbs me the most deeply about positioning Ello versus Facebook is the way that abundance is foreclosed on.

This is all, obviously, striking a chord with me. And the whole facebook-exodus-in-a-teapot (I doubt many think this will lead to a real break on anyone’s part) raises the question: “Why not go back to the good old days of actual blogging?”

I sketched out a few ideas in my comment on the site, which I’m reproducing here:

Cayden, I think you’re on the right track on a lot of what you say. I especially like how you tied together the critique on funding (which should get a LOT more attention!), design, and privacy all together.

Your closing thought is also strong — wish you had taken a few more extra steps though! I wonder where you would have ended up.

As I said over at Max’s, this whole set of facts is further confirmation of an evergreen saying: “Stallman was right”.

As organizers, we are trained to think about power. When talking about the economy, when talking about interpersonal relationships, reading the news (“who benefits from this coming to light *now*?”), even when talking about literature or pop culture. That’s the mark of a good organizer — being able to see deeper. Yet when it comes to the ever-increasing part of our lives that is mediated through screens and processors, all too often we are faced with people’s tendency to shut down that part of their brain.

We know what the good solution to facebook would be — owning our own data. Writing comments directly on a blog post instead of on the facebook share linking to it. Placing our lives and content on servers and programs (wordpress, media goblin, rails, jekyll, etc) that we control. Shrinking the sphere of social media to sharing links to value instead of hosting value itself.

At least, that’s part of the solution. And something we can actually do now, without assuming a legion of technical help.

We do have the tools to break free. At least partially. Here’s hoping that Future Me spends more time over here, blogging in the independent democracy of Sahar’s Server, rather than over there, in the Facebook Fiefdom.