If People Think It – Does It Matter If It’s Actually True?

In this week’s excellent episode of the Reply All podcast, Alex Goldman and PG Vogt explore the question Is Facebook Spying On You?

In particular, a number of people are of the belief that the Facebook app is listening to what you’re saying and that’s the only way to explain why things you were talking about with your friends are suddenly appearing as ads in your Facebook timeline.

Now in fact there are lots of reasons why Facebook could know this information, and the episode digs into the issue of online ad tracking, which is remarkably sophisticated these days – and/or creepy. Facebook tracks your internet behaviours across many sites who use the Facebook Pixel. Essentially it’s tracking code that follows you around vast parts of the web. It’s this technology that also explains why that pair of shoes you were looking at during your lunch break then follows you elsewhere around the web.

Facebook records thousands of pieces of data about each user, and then further utilises location data from the app and location data of your friends’ apps. In turn this means that you might see products that your friends were looking at because it can infer that you might have mentioned them. (Interestingly, just after listening to this episode the Facebook app on my phone performed quite a sizeable update that required me to log in again. The first thing it asked for was permission to turn on location services. Denied!)

This remarkable technology, along with smart algorithms that will make inferences based on people’s behaviours means that as Facebook says, it isn’t actually using the microphone on your phone to listen to you.

But the tracking they manage seems to be practically magical to many people, so they infer that Facebook must be listening in!

So my question is this: Does it actually matter that Facebook isn’t using the microphone on your phone. If their tracking is so exceptional and accurate, that it becomes creepy, people will rationalise it as meaning they must be doing it.

And if people believe something to be true, it really doesn’t matter if it’s not actually the case.

Note: I write all this in the knowledge that I have microphones in my home that do stay live all the time, and report data back to Amazon and Google. The difference is that I trust those organisations more. It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but it feels that they’re more up front and honest about what they’re doing.

Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

It’s nearly time for the money-go-round… sorry, merry-go-round, that is the Premier League rights auction for seasons 2019/20-2021/22. We’ve just started the second season of the current deal where Sky and BT between them have spent £5.1bn for the current round of rights. Recall that last time around, this represented a colossal 71% increase in revenues.

That money, allied with ever-increasing overseas TV rights, fuels the UK game. But there were questions about how much further rights could increase next time around. Sky and BT represent the only “broadcasters” who are likely to bid next time around, and assuming that each is broadly happy with its lot, you wouldn’t expect rights to increase substantially.

Indeed, it seems as though the current set of rights have caused some real pain to the broadcasters. Sky has broadly speaking cut back its sports coverage, losing men’s tennis, and reducing rugby union coverage. Anecdotally, it seems that more coverage is coming from Sky’s studios rather than sending production teams to events.

One way or another, Sky has tried to avoid massive increases to consumers, although prices are going up.

So if Sky and BT are fairly maxed out, how do Premier League clubs get some big increases next time around?

Today The Guardian reports that Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward says that Amazon and Facebook will get into the game.

As far as everyone is concerned, these companies bring untold wealth. They could be game-changers – pardon the pun.

Well of course Woodward would say that. And I’m sure that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will run the numbers. But at over £10m a match under the current contract, they’d need a compelling case. With the possible exception of The Crown, that blows all top TV dramas out of the water in terms of costs.

A lot has been made of Amazon taking on ATP Men’s Tennis in the UK from next year. They’re paying around £10m – the same price as a single Premier League match – for a year’s worth of tennis. Sky is said to have wanted to pay less than last time around, so it was to all intents and purposes giving up on the sport. They’d already dropped their US Open coverage.

For Amazon, tennis is a bit of a trial. Perhaps it’ll get them new Prime memberships, or make current members happier. But it’s not a massive cost. It’s not a multi-billion, multi-year commitment.

That’s not to say that one of GAFA won’t buy rights, but that’s a much bigger step. And what does that really get you?

All of this is before considering whether every football-loving household in the UK has enough internet bandwidth to support a live HD (or 4K) stream.

I could be wrong. But I’m not convinced just yet.

An Open Letter to Facebook

Dear Facebook,

I just want you to be super clear that I am not installing your messaging app on my phone.


I’m a moderate user of your service. I’ve got a fair few “friends” on the service, and I’m a member of a few groups.

Occasionally I use your messaging functionality. But I use it in an email sense. I’m not sending instant messages all day long to people. But I do use it to drop a message to a friend. I have chat firmly turned off.

For reasons best known to yourselves, you’ve been desperately trying to disagregate messaging from the main Facebook service – in particular on mobile.

You say it wasn’t an optimal experience. Probably true. You say that it works better in your separate app. Probably true. But you’re forcing me to install a new app, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t like being forced into anything.

I don’t use the official Facebook app on my phone because it was annoying, and full of bloat over time. Even in these days of 32GB or larger phones, app size still becomes an issue for many users, with devices stuffed full of other apps, music and video. Then there are the creeping number of permissions you want to get from me.

For the past few years, I’ve used an app called Tinfoil for Facebook – mainly because it gives me a nice wrapper around the mobile site, without demanding too many permissions, and it let me carry on viewing messages on my Android phone even as the official app stopped allowing that.

But this mobile website access has now stopped. As reported in the press, you are now killing access to any messenger functionality from your mobile site. Not because it doesn’t work, but because you don’t want to me access messages that way.

Yet in my case, you are in effect saying to me that the only way I can now read messages on Facebook is via a desktop machine! That’s a bizarre situation to be in. Most people roll out functionality from the desktop version of their site to the mobile version. You’re removing it.

In the meantime Facebook Lite isn’t available to us in the UK, even though it’s a data-light option and includes the messaging functionality.

I imagine this is an example of Nudge theory – getting me to make a behavioural change. “Install Facebook Messenger. You know you want to! Life would be so much better…”

Well it’s not going to work.

I’m very suspicious of you Facebook. You offer me a free service, but then take liberties. You change privacy settings and don’t make them clear, changing what I’m opted in and out of regardless of my wishes. You tweak what is considered by you to be trending. And they’re just from recent weeks.

I’m not ready to close my account because it does serve a purpose.

But I don’t trust you as a company, and I don’t like the way some of your businesses operate. You need to work hard to regain my trust, and you’re not doing this.

As for installing your Messenger app, well of course, I effectively already have two other Facebook owned social apps on my phone – Instagram and WhatsApp – and I really don’t need a third or fourth.

So thanks but no thanks.

Instead, feel free to include the full message in the email notifications that you’ll still send me. And then I’ll wait patiently until such time as I’m back on a desktop device.

And that will probably mean in time, that I use your messaging service even less as a result.

So that’s a win for you then…

Kind regards,


UPDATE- Wow. It now seems that people who’ve used the Facebook app to sync their mobile photos to Facebook face having them deleted unless they also install the Moments app. Charming.

Telling the Truth About Ages

Back in 2012, James Cridland wrote a very good piece he called Truth in Numbers, which examined how Facebook marketed itself. He showed that while the Office of National Statistics showed there to be 7,482,000 16-24 year olds in the UK, Facebook was somehow selling access to 9,155,804 16-24 year olds.

I was curious to update these figures and look a little deeper across Facebook. It seems clear that while Facebook is clearly pretty popular amongst all age groups, it still dominates in younger groups.

So I decided to plot Facebook users that I can advertise against using James’ method, against the most recent ONS figures I can find – 2014 estimates.

A few notes on this chart:

  • Facebook only allows children to open accounts when they reach the age of 13. Therefore in the 10-14 category, they’re massively understated. But the chart does look a little odd. Only a tiny fraction of the audience seems to have an account. Either they already have an account (see below), or just aren’t really interested until hormones kick in as they get a little older.
  • Once you get to the 15-19, Facebook suddenly has over 100% of all people in that age group. Amongst 20-24s, Facebook reaches a remarkable 144% of adults in that category!
  • In reality, you would probably expect Facebook to reach a percentage in the high 90s, but there will always be people who don’t have an account.
  • But of course, just because a child is under 13, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to get onto Facebook. It seems likely that a lot of 10, 11 and 12 year olds over time have registered as being 13 or older just to get their accounts early. Peer pressure at school is probably enough to force this. If you have an email address, you can get an account.
  • And that skews the demographics going forward. At what point does someone “own up” to Facebook about their real age? Facebook lets you change your birthdate, but for the most part there doesn’t seem to be much incentive for correcting birth years.
  • And we must assume that there are fake accounts. There are a lot of people willing to sell you followers (and likes). We must assume that these are bots, operated through networks. And they’re likely to be pitched as advertiser-friendly younger demographics.
  • Once you get to 40, Facebook no longer claims to reach the entire adult population. I can attest to having friends in their forties who are not on Facebook. The numbers obviously slip as you move older – and this is despite your mum and perhaps your grandmother now being on the site.
  • And while 65+ looks bad, hover over the blue column because it’s way worse. I capped the chart at 6m on vertical axis. In fact there are 10.4m 65+s in the UK, of which only 26% are claimed to be reached by Facebook.
  • Facebook provides much more rounded numbers today compared to what it did when James ran his test, hence numbers to the nearest 100,000.

There may be other reasons why there seem to be so many UK Facebook users between 15 and 39, including use via proxies and so on. But it’s still a little disturbing that these numbers are being sold. But I guess that’s really just the tip of the iceberg in digital marketing!

On a separate note, there was an interesting piece on More or Less a couple of months ago. They reported that there is a significant imbalance between 16-17 boys and girls in Sweden, with 123 boys to every 100 girls, making it a greater imbalance than even China.

It seems to boil down to asylum seekers and Swedish rules which mean that if you’re under 18 and gain asylum, you have the right to bring your family into the country. If you’re 18 or over, you don’t get that right. That means that as an asylum seeker, you’re strongly incentivised to give you age as less than 18. Given that you probably arrived in Sweden without a birth certificate, who’s to know how old you really are? They don’t check, and in any case, they probably can’t.


On “Internal Browsers” – And Twitter’s Recent Addition

A while back Facebook integrated a so-called internal or in-app browser into its mobile apps. The ideas is that when you click to see a website that somebody has shared on Facebook, instead of being taken out of the Facebook environment, the app would display the relevant page within its own browser.

The main reason they gave for doing this is that it’s faster. It’s true – they can even cache a page ahead of you clicking on it.

But I hated it.

First of all, the real reason for embedding your own browser into your app, is to increase dwell time. The app maker is worried that if someone shares, say, a Buzzfeed link, you’ll just end up reading more Buzzfeed stories, and not return to the social media app you’d started in.

This is true. But I’m an intelligent human being. Let me choose whether to return to the app I started in, or continue using the link ecology that makes the web so fascinating – and so open.

Other reasons for wanting not to use internal browsers include cookies (I have to log in again on sites like Amazon or the New York Times), and the inability to use bookmarks or other browser functionality. I regularly like to use Recent Tabs in Chrome to, say, read on a laptop, a long story that I opened in Chrome on my mobile.

It also denies other app users the ability to launch a page in their app – when I click on a Guardian story, I might prefer to see it in the Guardian app. Aside from anything else, the top banner on the story will end up being a promotional ad for said app.

Internal browsers also tend to eat screen real estate, something that’s important in mobile where every pixel counts.

This added “functionality” also tends to increase the overall size of apps. Not something you might worry about if you’re using a 32GB+ top of the range smartphone. But bear a thought for the vast majority of the world on inferior devices.

When Facebook introduced their internal browser, they did at least include a way to turn it off. It was just about the first thing I did when they installed it.

(Later I stopped using the Facebook app altogether when they started pulling it apart and insisting that I install their Messenger app. I don’t want another messaging app thanks. Your old app was fine for my purposes.)

This is all a roundabout way of noting that Twitter has recently added its own internal browser. Now I should note that I’m on an Android beta stream (Ver 5.48.0-beta.267), so it’s possible that you’ve not seen this. But the app version I’m using does not have the ability to switch off the internal browser (or if it does, it’s seriously well hidden, because believe me, I’ve looked).

Sure – I can launch the resulting internal browser page in my preferred Chrome browser. But that’s an extra couple of button presses – Menu > Open in Browser.

Look – I understand that social media companies like Twitter want to get me to spend more time in their ecosystem. But this is actively driving me away from their browser. If they don’t add a way to switch this “functionality” off, I’ll have to move to a third-party app altogether.

Please do the right thing Twitter, and let me switch off your internal browser.

[Update – March 10 2015] The latest Twitter beta has a setting to let you switch off its internal browser. Hurrah!

(Sadly, actually writing a Tweet requires 1-2 more button presses which seems odd)

Why I’m Not Installing Facebook Messenger

For a blog

Facebook and I have an interesting relationship.

I’ve been on it quite some time, and have lots of “friends” (more accurately, friends and acquaintances). However, I do find it useful for keeping up with what this extended group are up to. And if you’re organising a social event, then it’s a useful resource to help you out. You can share pictures or video relatively painlessly, and you can send messages to your “friends”.

On the other hand, it has some of the most tortuous settings in any website or application I use. And it changes these regularly. So you’re never totally certain how many people you’re sharing something with.

If you’re the kind of person only wants some people and not everyone to be able to read or view something (happily I’m not, but then I’m not 15 with parents and grandparents also on the service), this is quite a palaver.

And then there’s all that Facebook data that they’re tracking to monetise it. They want to know everything about you, and given the personal data you share in your status updates (even ones you type but don’t post), you’re giving them a very valuable insight into your world. Their newest plan is to do a Shazam-style analysis on any media you play with your portable device so they know more about your music and video watching habits.

But you’ve made the pact with the devil. Who cares if they know what artists I like, or which TV shows I’m discussing with friends? I mean – this stuff doesn’t matter. It’s not like I talk about serious stuff on the internet or anything…

None of which really explains the picture at the top of this page.

I have the Facebook app installed on my Android mobile phone (Nexus 5, since you ask). And what you need to know is that I have everything on it turned off. I don’t want it running in the background. I don’t want constant notifications from Facebook. I don’t want to share my contacts with it. I want as little as possible to do with it.

Partly that’s because it has been a battery-sapping mess of an application. Recently it might have improved somewhat, but I’m not going to take the risk.

Indeed, the only reason I have it installed at all is because it’s a mildly better and more convenient experience than the mobile web. But that’s about it. Incidentally, I’ve never bothered installing the Facebook app at all onto any of my tablets. That’s how little I think of it.

But then, I’m not a massive Facebook user. Most of my interactions on Facebook come because I’ve linked my Twitter account with it, and anything I post on Twitter gets carried over onto Facebook. Some people respond on Facebook, and I respond to them.

Because I don’t have a Facebook app alerting me, I tend to use that oldest of old-school techniques for determining whether someone is talking with me – email. I’m happy to receive as many notifications via email as Facebook wants to send me, because I use filters and rules to put them into a sub-folder keeping my inbox clutter-free.

Now it’s true that Facebook emails are pretty terrible. Perhaps deliberately so? It may send an alert within minutes, but quite often it’s hours, or even days after the event. Well their loss. I guess I spend less time on the platform because they can’t be bothered to put the infrastructure in place to keep me up to speed.

Still, as I say, I do occasionally use Facebook to message people. While email is my primary communication mechanism, I don’t always have an up to date email address of everyone I want to communicate with. So like Direct Messages in Twitter, I will occasionally send a message. Perhaps more often, I receive messages from others who like to use that facility.

But what I don’t want to do is chat.

I’m not 12.

OK. That’s a bit mean-spirited.

But I find chat can be quite disruptive. There’s an expectation that someone is available for an instant reply all the time.

“Drop everything and chat with me now!”

Chat says to me that it’s more important than anything else I’m doing and since nobody can multi-task (really – they can’t), I should abandon what I’m doing to type as quickly as possible into a small box on a slightly cluttered screen.

Look. Microsoft Office email alerts are disruptive enough – “You’ve got mail! It’s more important than that document you’re writing right now, so we’ve flashed it right over where your cursor is!” – but they can be turned off. More to the point email or text messages can be responded to in a timely fashion. I.e. At my convenience.

(Sidenote: I realise some people think that texts demand instant replies. Well I have bad news for you. I often don’t even read my text messages for hours after they arrived. I’m not a doctor on call – my phone is not always besides me or even in the same room.)

When Facebook introduced chat, I switched it off. Facebook, of course, turned it on for everyone by default. That’s another problem with Facebook. And it’s why as much as anything, it’s an issue of TRUST. And I don’t trust Facebook. They’ve yet to earn that from me.

Similarly, I don’t bother with WhatsApp or any of the other numerous messaging applications. I have Skype, but it requires scheduling with me if you want a chat. It’s not running by default. Background apps sap memory and battery. I leave them off. (And incidentally, I think it’s most recent Android version of Skype that “broke” my phone, so it’s not currently even installed there).

OK – I admit that I can be reached by Google Hangouts. But there are few enough people who do that, so I’m fine with it.

All of which brings me back to Facebook’s Messenger app. Facebook sees messaging as “chat”. But I only ever used it for “email”. They consider the two the same. And that’s where we fell out. By default, if I want to send a long message – even on desktop – I get the tiniest of tiny boxes to type into. No doubt Facebook would say that the average user message is no longer than a text. Well mine are. So you’re already annoying me in the desktop environment. Now on mobile you’re making it worse.

Now Facebook has removed basic messaging functionality from its phone app. It still has an icon. But you’re “forced” to install a new app. It has been prompting me for weeks with pop-ups and banners. But now it’s gone. I should install their new app because what kind of social media site doesn’t need more than one app?

Well bad news Facebook. I’m not going to. Here’s why:

I’m not 12.

I don’t do chat.

I don’t want to be made available for Facebook chat.

I don’t like your battery hogging apps in general.

I don’t like the hoops and complexities of your settings.

I don’t TRUST Facebook as a company.

All I want to be able to do is read and send occasional messages in a form not dissimilar to email.

Yes – I know you could argue the same of Google Drive. They’ve recently dissembled a generic “Drive” app into constituent “Sheets” and “Docs” parts. But then reading and editing documents are very different things. And I know that it’s part of a bigger play about separating key apps from the OS because Android handset manufacturers can be very tardy rolling out OS updates. That all said, I’m not 100% won over by Google either.

And yes, I realise that I’m using a completely free service, and nobody is forcing me to use Facebook. As I say, I do like some of their functionality. I just don’t buy into everything they do. Quite a lot of it actually. And their view of messaging/chat in particular.

I completely understand that other operators – notably Google – are just as good at hoovering up vast amounts of data including some of the most personal things I talk about because they’re my email provider. I suppose I just trust Facebook less.

I’ve been using the Moves app on my phone a lot recently. It’s a great app that uses your phone’s accelerometer and GPS to determine your location and how far you’ve walked, run or cycled. But when Facebook bought them, that didn’t exactly fill me with excitement, even though when they wrote to me, Moves explicitly stated that they weren’t rolling accounts together. (Well, not yet).

I like Moves. But installing would instantly extend my battery life by up to a third. And do I TRUST Facebook with my location data? I’m not sure that I do…