facebook

Facebook Pixel Tracking

This morning Nieman Lab had a really good piece asking whether if there was a certain amount of hypocrisy coming from certain news organisations castigating Facebook for leaking data, when at the same time they’re helping Facebook collect more data on you.

Recall yesterday, when I said that some of Facebook’s data was missing from the download, and I highlighted Facebook Pixel? Quora is a good place to go and have a look (Note: Quora itself has a Facebook cookie):

The pixel is a transparent, 1×1, unique image file that can be embedded on pages outside of Facebook (unique = 1 per advertiser account). That image file, however, sits on Facebook servers. So, each time it is loaded, it increments counters on Facebook’s side.

And each time the pixel file is being seen by a user… Facebook servers can see which browser is used, which machine and which IP address. In other words, they are able to reconstruct that signature – they know which Facebook user has seen the pixel.

In essence, the Facebook Pixel lets you then target people who visit your site when they’re back on Facebook. And of course, Facebook now knows that you’ve visited a particular site, deepening the picture they hold on you.

And Facebook also has the Facebook Audience Network, which basically extends Facebook’s advertising business beyond the bounds of the Facebook website. In particular, they’re targeting mobile sites and apps.

Using the EFF’s excellent Privacy Badger browser plugin, I looked at some of the UK and US’s biggest news websites to see which ones allow Facebook to track you. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea.

Sites with Facebook Cookies

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Daily Mail
  • The Sun
  • Metro
  • The Times
  • The Economist

NB. These are at time of writing.

It must be said that I’ve not really gone into detail about Facebook’s business model here, but it gives you an idea.

And there’s a wealth of data being collected by many companies beyond Facebook – and a multiplicity of ad tracking cookies going around. Upwards of 20 cookies on a website is not unusual. Sometimes they’re just there for analytics purposes. All the advertising networks use them, with Google and Facebook being by far the biggest networks globally.

And there can be good reasons to use tracking cookies. This very site uses Google Analytics to count the number of people who visit, for example. I’ve embedded Vimeo videos and Flickr images on this site, and they have tracking codes built into the code I copy to this site. If you comment, there are various ways you can log in, and they have tracking codes too. I’d prefer there not to be, but if I want to properly use those sites’ services then I have to play ball with them.

While everyone kind of knows that the pair of shoes they looked at over lunch, but didn’t buy, is now following them around the internet, and that must be using some kind of tracking information, I’m not sure that many of us really understand how widespread this is, and how much data is being captured about us.

[Update: In related news, Mozilla has announced a Firefox plugin that stops Facebook tracking you around the web. Useful if you’re not already using something like Privacy Badger or Ghostery.]

Examining My Facebook Downloads

One very good consequence of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story is that a lot of people are discovering the surprisingly large amount of data that Facebook holds on them. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones was “somewhat shocked” to see what it had on him. And The Verge has a good piece on the subject with particular reference to Android phones.

In essence, Facebook always asks for quite a lot of data when you install its apps, and people seem to be too quick to offer that data when it comes to installing those apps. Only now are they discovering what they’re sharing.

“Yes, yes. Just install and let me get onto Facebook,” seems to be the default thought process.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always slavishly careful about those permissions myself, but I certainly wanted to see what Facebook holds on me. So I went to the Facebook Settings page and clicked on the Download A Copy link at the bottom.

Facebook first has to prepare the data, crunching it into a Zip file for you. You need to re-enter your password to begin the process, and Facebook promises to email you when the link is ready.

Based on others, I thought it may take a while to compile, but in face it took just 16 minutes. Fast considering the volume of data and the number of users who are perhaps also doing this right now. You have to re-enter your password a second time, and then the file downloads.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, and I thought that this could be a big file. In the end it was just over 1.1GB. I’ve uploaded a lot of photos to the service in the past, but particularly in the early years of Facebook, they heavily down-sampled those pictures. (Another reminder that you shouldn’t use Facebook as your only photo backup.)

Anyway, the file extracts easily enough and Facebook has built a fairly intuitive html interface for you to examine your data offline.

My profile data is an interesting place to start. Facebook seems to have detected a single family relationship. While relatively few of my family are on Facebook, some of those who are, were not picked up here as family members. If they don’t have the same surname it might not be obvious to an algorithm.

The interests section is very odd, and not very accurate. When Facebook first started, you just had empty text boxes to fill out. I wrote a general stream of consciousness about music, TV, movies and so on. At various points Facebook has tried to clean that up a little, isolating artists and titles, and linking them to official accounts or lists that it has.

But despite prompts to help them (and help me!), I never really played ball. So there is one novel listed in books, which I think I was probably reading at the time. There is one TV series – one that I absolutely do not recommend. Movies are a little more populated, but with films I may have referenced directly on the service rather than anything else. And music is very limited. Facebook really doesn’t know much about my media consumption.

In general, Facebook would learn a lot more about my media choices if they scanned through this blog!

Otherwise, most of the rest is either groups or people I’ve taken an interest in. I would say that they’ve used Instagram heavily for the latter.

Probably the most contentious area is the list of contacts. And for me, that’s a moment in time, when I did at one point let Facebook into my phone or Gmail account. The list of contacts is old, and while many of those email addresses and phone numbers still work, they’re cast in aspic. Over the years I’ve had any number of phones, and if and when I install a Facebook app, I never give permission for it to see my contacts.

My Timeline is as you would expect – everything I’ve written on Facebook. I link my Twitter account to Facebook, because I’m far more active there. All those Tweets are also captured here. But nothing I wouldn’t expect Facebook to have.

As I mentioned above, I’ve uploaded a number of photos to Facebook over the years. They tend to be more social photos than anything, and Facebook was an easy way to share with friends and work colleagues. Latterly, anything that I’ve cross-posted from Instagram shows up. [Update: A friend – on Facebook – noted that captions for photos are not included]

There are only a limited number of videos, again social, and no surprises.

Messages lists all my Facebook message and Messenger interactions. I loathe Messenger and don’t ever have it permanently installed (On occasion I’ve installed it for a short, but necessary period of time. I uninstall it immediately thereafter). Nontheless, again there were no surprises.

The data supplied by Facebook on “Pokes” (Remember them?) was incomplete. I only had one poke listed!

Security lists a variety of things including devices, and even IP addresses from which I’ve accessed Facebook.

The final two key pieces of note were Applications and Ads. I recently cleared out the list of applications that I allow Facebook links to. It’s always worth doing this on a regular basis. I know precisely which apps are currently linked, and there is a good reason for each of them. There are only five.

Ads are broken into three parts. There’s the list of topics that Facebook thinks you’re interested in. This is a curious mix of very broad things (“Music”) and very narrow things (“Dan Martin (cyclist)”). It’s reasonably fair, although I don’t really have a particular interest in Citroen, nor Motor Sports or Auto racing. And I’ve no idea why “BBC Radio Solent” is one of a handful of radio stations listed as being of interest to me [Update: I worked out that a former work colleague of mine works there now, and I’ve liked some of their activities]. They do at least list my current employer! My previous employer is not listed. It’s possibly that this list is dynamically updated and pruned accordingly.

Ads History claims to list all the ads I’ve clicked on. They only have two listed – both this year – and one without a named advertiser. This is clearly missing data. While I do recall clicking the one named advertiser, and although I rarely click advertisements, I have clicked others in the past. Incredibly, I once actually bought something on the basis of a Facebook ad! Extraordinary, I know.

Finally, perhaps most worrying for me, is a list of “Advertisers with your contact info.” Most of the list is made up of KLM subsidiaries. I once entered a KLM competition on Facebook, and must have agreed they could use my data. I rarely participate in competitions that require much data access for this very reason. Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and eBay Canada seem to have my details. But there are a hole bunch of seemingly related “Crowdfunding” companies who have my data. I’ve no idea how they got it, and more importantly, I’ve no idea how to remove it from them. In general it’s quite a contained list.

Notably, Facebook does not have a list of my outgoing or incoming calls, and it’s not had access to any SMS messages I’ve sent. I’ve never given permission, and never wanted to use one of its products as my default SMS app.

The most sensitive data is my list of contacts. But that data is old and is not being updated since the Facebook app on my current phone does not have permission.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I’ve never found Facebook the most trustworthy company. But on the other hand, there aren’t any surprises to me from what Facebook has in my data.

I think that there are some incomplete aspects of it. I’ve clearly clicked on more ads that Facebook is admitting – but perhaps they delete that data after a period? Less importantly, the list of Pokes was incomplete. I mention that only as it suggests that this might not be a truly complete picture of my Facebook activity.

But I also know that if I carried out the same process for Google, it would be a lot larger. Google has all my email. It has all my contacts. It stores documents, photos and videos for me. I use its browsers multiple times per day. It knows what YouTube videos I watch. It knows what music I listen to. I’ve had phones running its software for years. They know where I go.

In all of that respect, it’s potentially a much scarier proposition.

And yet, I do have more trust in Google than I do in Facebook. Perhaps that’s misplaced? Perhaps not. But in general terms, I think people are clearer in their knowledge of how their Google data is used.

Auditing who knows what about you is important, and we should all be doing this on a regular basis. It’ll be a much bigger job, but it looking at my Google Data might be worth doing too…

[UPDATE]

It’s probably worth highlighting a few things that you don’t get from this data.

  • Likes – Given that a key part of the Cambridge Analytica story is about trying to determine OCEAN psychographic measures from Facebook likes, a record of comments and pages I’ve “liked” is data that’s relevant but not here.
  • Facebook Pixel dataFacebook Pixel is the technology that Facebook uses to determine where users also go. While that could be websites that simply allow you to comment via your Facebook login, it might as well be websites that you never realised had installed the pixel. In effect, when you visit such a site, Facebook knows about it. It gives them some of the data that Google collates about you via its ad networks.
  • Geographic data – Facebook loves to know where you are. I mostly have this turned off, but couldn’t definitively say that this has always been the case. While Google has its Timeline History that tells you where you’ve been, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for Facebook’s location data. Incidentally, if you’ve never explored that Google data, I’d urge you to. You’ll be delighted, scared and possibly both. (Note to crime drama and fiction writers: Nobody ever uses this, although I understand it potentially increases the difficulty in plotting your story as mobile phones in general have.)
  • Whatsapp or Instagram data – I’ve noted that some of my Instagram information does seem to have fed through to parent company Facebook’s data. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for WhatsApp. Within the EU, Facebook has been limited quite significantly about how much data it shares. The UK’s Information Commissioner made that very point again recently. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

I’ve been following the stories surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for some months now, and in recent days, following stories from The Observer, The New York Times and Channel 4, the story has really blown up.

However, I do think that the story, while completely valid, and asking some really critical questions, perhaps over emphasises some aspects at the expense of others. It’s true – I tend to see cock-up rather than conspiracy in most things. But here are some of my thoughts on the two key players in this instance.

On Cambridge Analytica

My underlying belief is that Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims it’s more powerful than it actually is, and uses the “digital voodoo” to win business in the murky world of political consulting.

If nothing else, tonight’s Channel 4 News exclusive shows that aside from stories about how powerfully the company is able to target voters using sophisticated social media targeting, more than anything they’re an ethically dubious political consulting group who will do just about anything to see that their paymasters win.

On Newsnight, their CEO Alexander Nix somewhat disingenuously claimed that he was being targeted by British media. That’s certainly not what came across in the Channel 4 video.

As they themselves will admit, it’s clear that Cambridge Analytica did indeed use Facebook targeting to try to micro-target individual voters during the last US presidential election, with advertising that pushed the right buttons with those voters. So if they thought that you might be swayed with promises about jobs, then that’s the hook that they would use to get you to vote Trump. But I also think it’s true that previous campaigns have done the same – notably Obama’s.

Of course we’ve not really had many elections in the time of social media to truly measure the impact, but while the data does allow a political party or its supporters to make potentially hundreds or even thousands of different pieces of copy that might tick the right boxes amongst voters, I think that it’s incredibly naive to believe that so many are willing to change their voting intentions on the basis of a few Facebook ads. It takes more than that.

That being said, this is clearly the narrative that Cambridge Analytica have painted for themselves. They worked for a campaign that wasn’t seen as likely to win the US election and yet it did. That means that they can go out and win lots more business all over the world with the suggestion that it was them “wot won it,” – as the Sun once claimed after the Conservatives won the 1992 UK General Election.

It’s a great gimmick. Nix has been able to go out and proclaim that his company has discovered the secret to winning elections. And campaigns of every hue have been queuing up at his doorstep.*

Beyond that, it does sound as though the company has been, if not bending the rules further than it should, taking and using data it really isn’t allowed to. After months of questionning, as the big stories came out over the weekend, Facebook finally pulled Cambridge Analytica’s access to use the platform and says that it will be conducting a forensic audit on how the data was being used. Meanwhile the UK’s Information Commissioner is seeking a warrant to look at the company’s servers and databases.

I wouldn’t in any way excuse the company. If the claims made by both whistleblowers and others are proved to be true, then the book needs throwing at the company.

But I still need a lot of convincing that the company is as powerful as it would like to portray itself. Instead, I see a company who has decided to lead on it being an expert at data science in the world of political consulting to give it an edge over its rivals. And given the scale of social media networks and the way that users and the networks themselves use this data, we are more willing to believe that they are more powerful than they truly are.

On Facebook

I think Facebook has some real problems that are largely of their own making. This boils down to a few key areas, all of which they really only have themselves to blame for.

Privacy Settings

Facebook’s privacy settings have always been a nightmare for users. With a network as complicated as the one it has built, relatively few really understand what they’re sharing and who it is with. The settings change relatively frequently meaning it’s hard even for the most assiduous privacy minded user to keep up with who has access to what. What stories you like; who your photos are shared with; who your friends can further share things with and so on. It’s truly complicated.

Some people manage to lock their accounts down quite a lot, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Who can friend you? Who can share things with you? Who sees things that others have shared with you? Can you be found with your email or phone number and who can find you that way? Are you searchable via Google? When you like a company’s page, how much data is that company able to capture on you? What about when you enter a competition?

Lack of Control

Such is the breadth of the data that Facebook is able to capture, that one of the most troubling aspects of this story is the general lack of control the company seems to have. One part of this story concerns the use of a personality prediction “app” on Facebook called thisisyourdigitallife. The questionnaire was completed by 270,000 users but the data captured wasn’t just for those users, but for many of their friends as well. In total that gave data for over 50 million users. Facebook refers to these as “friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.” But just how many of those people who didn’t complete the survey remember, truly realised that this kind of data could be captured? While it may only be how that data was subsequently used that broke Facebook’s terms and conditions, it’s worrying that someone is able to capture that level of data regardless of whether they’re using in accordance with those rules.

And I suspect that a very small minority of users realised just what kind of catnip they’re giving to companies like Cambridge Analytica when they complete “fun” surveys such as this. For most users they’re just communicating in a fun environment with their friends.

Advertising

Facebook has built one of the most powerful digital platforms in the world; a platform that reaches billions and one which generates nearly all its revenue from advertising. That advertising is targeted using a massive database that it has generated based on user data that the company would say users have volunteered themselves. That in itself might be troubling considering that users largely don’t really consider how that data about themselves is used. But even worse is the idea that third parties can come in and use that data to target individuals without it even being revealed who is paying for those ads. We’ve seen that with ads paid for by Russian sources during the Clinton/Trump election campaign, and we’ve seen it in other campaigns. Channel 4 News highlighted last year’s Kenyan election for example.

It’s surely critical for any platform that runs advertising to be up front and honest about who is actually paying for that advertising.

Data

Facebook captures enormous amounts of data and it’s not simply when you use the Facebook website. You might be sharing your location with Facebook via its mobile app. Third party websites incorporate what is known as the Facebook Pixel. As with other advertising networks including Google, it means that Facebook knows where else you are outside of its own network. All those helpful sites that let you log in with your Facebook account? That’s more data you’re sharing with Facebook on top of the thousands of fields of information it is already keeping about you.

This can all make it seem to users that Facebook is actually doing nefarious things like using the microphone on your phone to listen in to your conversations. It’s almost certainly not, but as I said in a piece last year, if the company is so uncannily accurate, then the perception trumps the reality.

Summary

This is serious story – scandal even. And as much as anything, I’d like to think that this is a wake up call that gives people a greater understanding about how their data is being captured used, and potentially misused.

But I suspect that Cambridge Analytica is really just another political consulting company who’s USP is that they target voters with social media. They hit the big time by working for the Trump campaign, and being allied with Steve Bannon. Yet as a result, their marketing claims have become so hyperbolic that it has led to a widespread disdain for what they do, and since this story has begun to unravel, they’ve been rowing back how impactful this aspect of what they do actually is.

Instead, based on evidence from Channel 4 News, the company is perhaps more about the grubby world of sending prostitutes to the homes of political opponents and capturing it on video, or giving the appearance of having developers pay backhanders for property deals. This is all as low rent as you like.

Facebook’s problem is that it has too much data to the point that nobody seems to be able to keep on top of things. They have so much that some users suspect them of actually listening in to them via their phones. But they truly do follow you around the internet. The danger for Facebook, beyond what are likely to be short term falls in their stock value, is that users do start to rebel and close down their accounts.

I’ve always had a problem trusting Facebook. I don’t think they’re evil as such. But they have played too fast and too loose, and have ended up in a powerful position. As a by-product – alongside Google – they have just about completely cornered the digital advertising market which brings with it its own problems for society in general.

I’m not going to underestimate the problems with “fake news” and the ability of propaganda to spread like wildfire on social media platforms. There are some serious questions to be asked about how these platforms can and should be regulated, particularly in regard to elections where we have seen continuing problems.

On the other hand, just because I can be micro-targeted using all this data, it doesn’t necessarily win elections.

People who work in advertising always love to tell you about how their methods work – explaining that they built the biggest brand in the sector using their methods. That’s the same in politics too. Saatchi & Saatchi were widely credited with helping Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 General Election with their famous “Labour Isn’t Working” outdoor poster. The poster did indeed sum up very nicely the prevailing political landscape. But did it actually win the election, or was the country moving away from Labour anyway? It was a sizeable win for Tories. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a poster “wot won it” that time, and I’m pretty sure that a company led by an old Etonian with some Facebook data wasn’t actually responsible for Trump (or Brexit) either.

Further Reading:

A really decent piece from the New Statesman that seems to accurately summarise the full Facebook data part of the story.

It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”.

A Verge piece that really gets into psychographics and microtargetting and what it can and cannot do.

Taken altogether, it seems like Facebook was taken in by a shady firm that misused data and lied about it. When Facebook found out, it did nothing. And making matters worse, we can’t even point at Cambridge Analytica’s deception as the reason Trump was elected: a closer look at its methods suggests they might not even work.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing says that he doesn’t think Cambridge Analytica is actually able to do what they say they can.

So, as I’ve written before, we should take Cambridge Analytica’s claims to Svengali-like mind-control with a boulder of salt, because until Sunday, they made these claims to drum up business (now they’re busily declaring that they are no more persuasive than any other ad agency, of course, because they’ve gotten in trouble for it).

Antonio García Martínez at Wired magazine on the noisy fallacies of psychographic targeting.

For the impatient, my fundamental thesis is this: Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow.

* In a strange radio related twist, Cambridge Analytica’s offices at 55 New Oxford Street are in the same building as many of the UK radio industry’s offices including Radiocentre, RAJAR and Digital Radio UK! But it’s a largish office, and other companies share the building too.

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.

Ever.

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,

Adam

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.

_88003397_asylum_seekers_age_624

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…