Pricing likes and the facebook algorithm

There is a good friend of mine who is a compulsive “LinkedIn liker”. Anything anyone in his network writes (either a LinkedIn blog or a status update or a job announcement), he is extremely likely to “like” them. While that helps the authors of such updates in getting their messages across to this guy’s networks also, the thing is that such likes add little value. If an update has come on my timeline because this guy has liked it, I’ll take it with salt since I know that this guy’s likes are “cheap”.

I don’t want to single out this guy, but there are several others on my Facebook friend list who are also compulsive likers. They like just about everything that they see, but the Facebook algorithm (by which not all of your updates are shared with all of your friends) means that their incidence is less than that of the LinkedIn liker. Then I have this one follower on Twitter who unfailingly likes each tweet of mine with a link. He engages in conversation very very sporadically, but like he does all the time!

So this got me thinking on the value of people’s likes, and what would happen if likes were to be rationed. I know it’s going to be hard to implement, but if you wee told that you had a quota of 10 likes that you could dole out in a day, how would you then ration your likes? Would such a cap make likes more valuable?

The reason this matters is that the number of likes has now become a metric that social media marketers track, and if some people’s likes are less valuable than others’, it is essentially a useless metric (and I know the problem is with the metric, not with likes). Even otherwise, from an information perspective, knowing the value of each person’s likes is useful for you in making up your mind on something!

So if say facebook decides that you get 10 free likes a day and have to pay for any more, how does that change your liking behaviour? For your 11th like, will you pay or go unlike something you’ve already liked? As a thought experiment, it is fascinating!

And while we are discussing Facebook, I must mention that I absolutely loathe its algorithm. I don’t know how it works, but it seems to me that the better updates that I put there just never get carried to my network, but some random updates that I sometimes put get propagated like crazy. I’ve been trying to reduce the number of updates there so that each update has a greater probability of getting propagated, but it just doesn’t seem to help!

And I was thinking about Facebook’s algorithm, and Twitter’s non-algorithm where every tweet you put gets carried to all your followers. Since Twitter doesn’t filter, all your followers have an opportunity to see all that you say. But the problem there is that since your followers see tweets of everyone on their timelines, your tweet is likely to get lost in the competition for attention.

So basically Twitter is like a free market where you have everyone’s tweets that get shown and compete for a follower’s attention. Facebook is like a more regulated market where there is no clutter, so every update gets undivided attention, but there is a Big Brother which decides who should see what!

I wonder if Facebook has considered making its algorithm public, and if it does, if it will have any impact on how people share. The value it will have for me is that at least I will know whether an update will get carried or not, and time and space my updates properly. But considering that one of Facebook’s revenue sources is to be paid by users to propagate their updates further, revelation of the algorithm will result in lower revenues for Facebook, so they’ll never do that.

I might just get all disgusted with the algorithm and quit Facebook some day.

Guarantees in meetings

There are some events/meetings which involve strong network effects. People want to attend such events if and only if a certain number of other people are going to attend it. But then they don’t know before hand as to who else is coming, and hence are not sure whether to accept the invitation. These are events such as school reunions, for example, where if only a few people come, there isn’t much value. And it’s hard to coordinate.

In such events it’s always useful to provide a guarantee. For example, a friend from (B) school was in town last week and expressed an interest in meeting other batchmates in Bangalore. A mail thread was promptly started but until the morning of the event, people remained mostly noncommittal. Not many of us knew this guy particularly well, though he is generally well-liked. So none of us really wanted to land up and be among only one or two people along with this guy.

And then there was a guarantee. One other guy sent a mail saying he’d booked a table at a bar, and this sent a strong signal that this guy was going to be there too. Then there were a couple of other very positive replies and the guarantee having been set, some seven or eight people turned up and the meeting can be called a “success”.

Sometimes when you’re trying to organise an event, it makes sense to get unconditional attendance guarantees from a couple of people before you send out the invite to the wider world. So you tell people that “X and Y” (the early guarantors) are definitely coming, and that will pull in more people, and that can be the trigger in making the event a success! In certain circles, X and Y need to be celebrities. In smaller circles, they can be common men (or women), but people whose guarantees of attendance are generally trusted (i.e. people who don’t have a history of standing up people)!

Another small reunion of my B-school batch happened last month and in the run-up to that I realised another thing about RSVPs – yeses should be public and noes private. One guy took initiative and mailed a bunch of us proposing we meet. I hit reply all on purpose to say that it was a great idea and confirm my attendance. Soon there was another public reply confirming attendance and this snowballed to give us a successful event. There were a few invitees we didn’t hear from, who didn’t attend, and I assume they had replied privately to the invite in the negative.

The problem with events on Facebook is that your RSVP is public irrespective of your reply – so even if you say no, everyone knows you’ve said “no”. And so you think it’s rude to say “no”, and say “yes” just out of politeness, even though you have no intentions of attending.

I’ve attended a few events where the hosts estimated attendance based on a Facebook invite and grossly overestimated attendance – too many people had hit “yes” out of sheer politeness.

So the ideal protocol should be “public yes, private no”. Facebook should consider giving this as an option to event creators so that people reveal their true preferences in the RSVP rather than saying “yes” out of sheer politeness.

In that sense it’s like a Vickery auction whose basic design principle is that people reveal their true willingness to pay and not underbid to avoid the winner’s curse!

A month of detox

I cheated a little bit this morning. Since it’s been a month now since I got off Twitter and Facebook, I logged in to both for about a minute each, to check if I have any messages. The ones on Facebook weren’t of much use – just some general messages. There was one DM on twitter which had value, and I sent the guy an email explaining I don’t use twitter any more. I presently logged out.

The one month off Twitter and Facebook has so far gone off fantastically. For starters it’s given me plenty of time to read, meet people, talk to people and other useful stuff. And apart from some interesting links that people post on Twitter, I haven’t really missed either of them.

There have been times when there have been thoughts that would have earlier led to a tweet. However, given that the option exists no more, I end up doing one of two things – if there is substance to the tweet and I can elaborate on it, then I do so and it results in a blog post (you must have noticed that the frequency of blogging has gone up significantly in the last one month).

If it’s not really blog worthy but just something that I want to share with someone, I think of whose attention I would have liked to have caught by putting that tweet. In most cases I have found that there is a small set of people whose attention I would have liked to catch with a tweet – every time I tweeted, I would think of how a particular set of people would respond. So what I do when I have something to say and a particular set of people to say it to is to just message it to them.

While this gives a much better chance of them responding to the message than if they just saw it on their timeline (or missed seeing it), it also has the added benefit of starting conversations. Which is not a bad thing at all. In the last one month I’ve seen that my usage of WhatsApp and Google Talk has gone up significantly.

The only thing I miss about twitter is the interesting links that people post. I’ve tried a few things to remedy that. Firstly I tried to see if I could write a script that crawls my timeline, gets popular links (based on a set of defined metrics), and then bookmarks the top five each day. I went some way with the code (pasted below the fold here) but couldn’t figure how to post the linked articles to Pocket (my article bookmarker of choice). So I ended up tweeting those chosen links (!!) with a #looksinteresting hashtag, so that ifttt does the job of adding to Pocket.

It went for a bit till multiple people told me the tweets were spammy. And then I realized I needed to tweak the algorithm, and it needed significant improvement. And then I realized the solution was at hand – Flipboard.

If you have an android phone or an iPad and not used FlipBoard you’re really missing something. it’s a great app that curates articles based on your indicated areas of interest and history, and one of the sources it can get links from is your own Twitter and Facebook accounts. It is generally good in terms of its algo and good links usually bubble up there.

When I went off Twitter and Facebook on the 6th of August (in a fit of rage, outraged by all the outrage and negativity on the two media) I wanted complete isolation. And thus I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my FlipBoard also. Now I realized that adding back twitter on FlipBoard will allow me to access the nice links shared there without really getting addicted back to twitter, or partaking all the outrage.

For the last two weeks it’s worked like a charm. That twitter is present only on FlipBoard, which I use not more than twice a day (once in the morning, once at night), means that I’ve had the best of both worlds. And not being on twitter has meant that i’ve been able to get a fair bit of work done, finished three books (my first attempt at reading fiction in ten years fizzled out midway, though – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness failed to sustain my interest beyond about 40% (I have it on kindle) ), written dozens of blog posts across the three blogs and had more meaningful conversations with people.

I hereby extend my sabbatical from Twitter and Facebook for another month.

Below the fold is the code I wrote. It’s in R. I hope you can make some sense of it.

Continue reading “A month of detox”

Slowing down

Back in 2003, when I was in my third year at IIT,  I thought that “life was going too fast”. That too many things were happening all the time and I had no time for anything. I decided to respond to that by purposely slowing down my life. I gave away my bicycle (which was the primary means of transport at IIT) and started walking. This meant I had to leave ten minutes earlier for class each morning, but given I would wake up early this wasn’t an issue. What this ensured was that I had time to think, to introspect, and to do things at my own pace rather than let other things drive my life.

In January this year I went off Twitter. Twitter was being too much of a time sink, and was taking too much mindspace so i decided to get off. the abstention lasted a month. I sought to make a ‘limited comeback’ in February so that I could plug my pieces in Mint, among other things. However, that soon turned into a full-scale comeback and in the last month or two I’ve been looking at twitter while trying to put myself to sleep, and again as soon as I wake up.

So I’ve decided once again to slow things down. I’m off twitter and facebook. I hope this one will last longer than my last attempt. The reason this time is a combination of the time sink that these networks were proving to be and the overall negativity that was being transmitted through these networks – facebook has stopped being a place where people share photos and quirky messages – it’s all outrage and flame wars there. Twitter has always been that way. I realized these were affecting me negatively to a significant extent, and so I’m off.

So far there have been no withdrawal symptoms, but I’m formulating a policy for that. If there’s something I want to say, there are two ways I’m going to say it in – I’ll either expand and elaborate and write a blog post ( you are likely to see more action on this blog and on my other two blogs in the next few months), or I’ll decide which specific person I want to tell what I wanted to tell, and tell that person! Broadcast is simply a waste of time.

My policy as of yesterday afternoon:

  • No twitter
  • No facebook
  • More email
  • More google hangouts
  • More whatsapp
  • More phone calls
  • More reading books
  • More writing blogs

And hopefully I can even resume on that book of which I’ve only written the preface.

I returned last night from a walk, and instinctively reached for my phone to check twitter and facebook. And then realized those two apps have been uninstalled. I wanted to switch on my PC and just “generally be online”. But then realized that most of my “generally being online” was to be online on twitter and facebook. With those two out, there was no use of “being online”.

And then I saw my kindle, and spent the next four hours continuing a book I’d left midway a month back. I woke up this morning and switched on the computer, and have been “generally online” but reading emails and writing blogs. I like this already, and hope this can sustain.

Last week someone told me that I’m a “natural blogger”. The meaning of this term wasn’t clear to me until he said “I assume you can write a blog post in like 45 minutes?” 45 minutes is the upper end of the time i take to write a blog post. I normally do one in 20. Maybe it’s a sign and I should get back to doing more of this.

PS: This also means that the only way I can talk to you, the reader, is through the comments section of this blog. I promise to be more responsive here and engage in a conversation.

Does facebook think my wife is my ex?

The “lookback” video feature that Facebook has launched on account of its tenth anniversary is nice. It flags up all the statuses and photos that you’ve uploaded that have been popular, and shows you how your life on facebook has been through the years.

My “lookback” video is weird, though, in that it contains content exclusively from my “past life”. There is absolutely no mention of the wife, despite us having been married for over three years now! And it is not like we’ve hidden our marriage from Facebook – we have a large number of photos and statuses in the recent past in which both of us have been mentioned.

Now, the danger with an exercise such as the lookback is that it can dig up unwanted things from one’s past. Let’s say you were seeing someone, the two of you together were all over Facebook and then you broke up. And then when you tried to clean up Facebook and get rid of the remnants of your past life, you miss cleaning up some stuff. And Facebook picks that up and puts that in you lookback video, making it rather unpleasant.

I’m sure the engineers at Facebook would have been aware of this problem, and hence would have come up with an algorithm to prevent such unpleasantness. Some bright engineer there would have come up with a filter such that ex-es are filtered out.

Now, back in January 2010, the (now) wife and I announced that we were in a relationship. Our respective profiles showed the names of the other person, and we proudly showed we were in a relationship. Then in August of the same year, the status changed to “Engaged’, and in November to “Married”. Through this time we we mentioned on each other’s profiles as each other’s significant others.

Then, a year or two back -I’m not sure when, exactly – the wife for some reason decided to remove the fact that she is married from facebook. I don’t think she changed her relationship status, but didn’t make the fact that she’s married public. As a consequence, my relationship status automatically changed from “Married to Priyanka Bharadwaj” to just “Married”.

So, I think facebook has this filter that if someone has once been your significant other, and is not that (according to your Facebook relationship status) anymore, he/she is an ex. And anyone who is your ex shall not appear in your lookback video – it doesn’t matter if you share status updates and photos after your “break up”.

Since Priyanka decided to hide the fact that she’s married from Facebook, facebook possibly thinks that we’ve broken up. The algorithm that created the lookback video would have ignored that we still upload pictures in which both of us are there – probably that algorithm thinks we’ve broken up but are still friends!

So – you have my lookback video which is almost exclusively about my past life (interestingly, most people who appear in the video are IIMB batchmates, and I joined Facebook two years after graduation), and contains nothing of my present!

Algorithms can be weird!

Leaving twitter

It has been over three weeks since I signed off twitter. On January 1st, I had left this message on the social network:

 

After that I logged off twitter on all my computers, deleted tweetdeck from chrome and deleted the twitter app from my phone and iPad. I haven’t changed my twitter password, though, so every time I write a blog post wordpress will send an automatic notification tweet (it is likely that some of you are reading this via the automatic wordpress twitter notification).

The reason I logged off twitter was that I was getting addicted. Every time I had a minute or two of free time I would go check tweets. I was constantly on twitter all my waking hours. I would wake up in the morning to the alarm on my phone, and the first thing I would do was to check twitter. It is not unfair to say that twitter had consumed me.

Hence the effort to log off and delete the apps. So far I haven’t faced any withdrawal symptoms. There are times when I pull out my phone and instinctively go for the twitter app. And then I realize it’s not there, and curb my instincts. While working if I need a break I look for tweetdeck in my Chrome, but then realize it is not there.

So far, Facebook has been a good substitute. The advantage of facebook over twitter is that the former has a much more slow-moving news feed. If you check facebook after an hour or two, there will be two or three status updates on your timeline. Essentially when you instinctively click on facebook, it doesn’t become as much of a time sink as twitter used to.

One of  the reasons I would check twitter was for interesting links and articles. In the last 2-3 years some of the best stuff I’ve read online has been recommended to me by people on twitter. However, I have a way of accessing that without accessing twitter itself – I use this app called Flipboard (on both Android and iPad) and that curates articles that have been recommended by several of my followees and shows them to me. I check Flipboard approximately once a day, read some articles and bookmark some others. Thanks to that, I only get the article content on twitter without all the inane commentary and the PJs.

In my last month on twitter, I had logged off for a day on two-three separate occasions. The problem with twitter of late is that it is turning into yet another TV news channel. When there is an event of some interest, all the diversity on your timeline disappears, and everyone starts talking about the same thing. For a while it is good, for you get different perspectives. And then there is more and more of the sameness and can absolutely drive you nuts.

There is one reason I miss twitter though – for sharing articles. For a long time now I’ve liked to share interesting pieces that I’ve read. Back when Google Reader existed and had the “shared items” feature enabled, a number of people requested to be my GTalk friends just so that they could look at my curated “Google Reader Shared Items” content. Since that feature was taken off, though, I’ve resorted to twitter for sharing interesting articles. Now that I’m off twitter (technically Flipboard and Feedly (my RSS feed reader) allow me to share things on Twitter without logging on, but I don’t want to do that) I need another way.

Facebook doesn’t work, since most facebook friends are of a personal kind and won’t particularly be interested in articles on financial hedging (for example) or football formations. I’m not on any of these link sharing systems such as digg or delicious (assuming I’ve understood correctly how those two work), and I dn’t want to add another social network which can be yet another source of distraction. Hence, I’ve come up with an ingenious solution.

Back when Google took off the sharing feature from Reader, their recommendation was that we use Google Plus instead for sharing links. And that is exactly what I use that social network for. I never log on to that, but every time I read something interesting, it goes there. People say Google Plus is like shouting into an empty room. I don’t know (and don’t care) who reads the links I put there. I don’t share links for popularity. I share it because I think someone might find them interesting.

When I first got off twitter, people told me my resolution won’t last. It’s been three weeks already and i’m happy the way things are. I’m much less distracted, and can work better. I have a lot more time to myself. Time that would earlier be spent saying inane things on twitter is now spent in deep thought – and that is a good thing. I used to be a big fan of long lonely walks. Constant interaction on twitter means I don’t do those any more. But now I get more time for myself. On an auto rickshaw ride to meet some friends last evening for example, I just looked around and thought. It was wonderful!

I don’t rule out ever getting  back to twitter but  I don’t see myself doing so in the near future unless there is a very strong reason, and unless I know I won’t get addicted again. Till both these events happen, I remain away from that social network.

Push and Pull Teaching

I’m writing this in the context of the Right to Education Act coming into force this year. The reason I use a musical example upfront is that music is the only thing I’ve tried to learn formally in recent times. While I use the example to illustrate the problem with the traditional Indian learning system, I refer to more basic and general education in this post. 

So about a month back I decided I need to add to my education in Carnatic and Western Classical Music and decided to learn Hindustani Classical. I decided it was time to learn a new instrument (so far I’d been trained only in playing the violin) and after some facebook queries, found a teacher who lived close by. After a lecture in how he teaches to take forward a “parampara” and not for money, and that he expects extreme devotion from students, and that he likes to begin classes for a new student only on a Monday, classes began in right earnest.

Classes soon hit a roadblock, though. As the more perceptive of you here might be aware, I have (I don’t want to use the word “suffer”) ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), thanks to which my attention span is grossly lower than that of the normal human being. Weeks together of simply going up and down the (Bilawal) scale soon got to me and I lost interest in practicing. Soon I realized I had started to look for excuses to bunk classes. I decided to cut my losses and decided to discontinue class.

Before I discontinued class, however, I  thought long and hard about telling my teacher about my ADHD, and that his methods of teaching weren’t working out for me. I wanted to tell him about the Suzuki method which my Western Classical teacher had adopted a year ago, which kept me interested in the music without relaxation of rigour. The Suzuki Method had worked fantastically well for me. Each class I would learn a new (simple) song – for example, I started my Western Classical learning by learning to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

There are times when I think that I should have given my sitar teacher a fairer chance and explained to him about the Suzuki method and adopt something like it for the Sitar. However, from my knowledge of him based on my intereaction with him for a month or so, it didn’t seem like it would work, and I ended up (regretfully) quitting without giving him a chance to push the education on me.

The thing with traditional Indian learning is that it is fundamentally “pull”. The onus is on the student to convince the teacher to take him on as a student, and then to extract knowledge and wisdom from the teacher. In the traditional Indian context, it is absolutely okay for the guru to be aloof and disinterested, for it is not his duty to teach – it is the student’s duty to extract knowledge from the teacher. In fact my friend and colleague Nitin Pai informs me that according to the Upanishads, it is the duty of the teacher to reject a student the first three times he “applies”, and accept a student only after he has sucked up considerably.

While there might have been good reasons for such teaching practices back in the Vedic and Puranic ages (for example, the caste system forbid considerable sections of the population from learning the scriptures), these practices are wholly unsuited for the modern age where the focus is on increasing the reach of education and and ensuring that more people have access to education.

With the onus being on universal education and on getting every child to learn, we need to get rid of the “Acharya Devo Bhava” (teacher is god) paradigm and instead shift to a framework  of professional teachers where it is the teacher’s duty to reach out to the student. We need to get to a paradigm where the students can demand that the teacher reach out to them and teach them, and where students don’t need to suck up to the teacher.

The “acharya devo bhava” concept might have served us well in the pre-writing age and ensured that our most important scriptures were transmitted down to an era where they could be written down. This paradigm, however, is not scalable, and definitely not suited to a situation where the objective is to provide education to everybody.

Flawed though it may be, the Right to Education Act is a good step by the Union Government to ensure greater learning among kids and to maximize our chances of making good of the demographic dividend. The measure, however, will be dead on arrival unless the mindset of teaching and learning is changed.