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Friend-based throttling in Facebook News Feeds

This dialog in my Facebook feed options seemed interesting:

Screen shot 2010-08-13 at 4.16.45 AM

Notice how it asks me how many friends I want my Live Feed from. It seems the default is 250 friends. What this means is that when you click “Recent Posts”, you’re getting recent posts from only your top 250 friends; all other friends are being ignored.

Obviously this is a problem only if you have more than 250 friends. I’ve heard the average is 150, but I’m sure there are a lot of people who are affected by this. This option caught my eye for two reasons:

From a technical perspective, news feeds are massive publish-subscribe systems. You subscribe to your friends’ posts, which when posted, are published to your feed. The 250 friend limit sets up a convenient soft limit for the system, reducing the stress on Facebook’s servers. Twitter doesn’t have such limits, and I can imagine this is one reason why its servers get overloaded. It’s a smart design from this perspective, but I wish Facebook was more transparent about the limit!

From a social perspective, I think this is a very primitive way to throttle friends. My understanding of the Feed was that my “Top Posts” ranked recent posts so that I had a high-level view of my feed, and “Recent Posts” gave me access to everything. It seems this belief is incorrect. When I increased this number to 1000(i.e. include ALL my friends), I suddenly started seeing updates from many friends I had totally forgotten about / lost touch with. Since I don’t see updates from them, I don’t interact with them on Facebook, leading to a self-reinforcing “poor get poorer” effect. I am assuming there’s some “Friendness” ranking going on here. This way, friends in my bottom 50 will never make it to my top 250 friends on Facebook. The use of a self-reinforcing ranking function is risky; especially when the stability of the ranking depends on human input. I wonder if the Feed team has done anything smart to introduce “compensators” based on interactions with bottom 50-friends, similar to the random reset in PageRank. The issue here is that unlike hyperlink edges, we’re dealing with a vocabulary of “Likes” and other social cues which are not well understood. It seems like this can be an excellent subject for a machine learning / information retrieval paper or two.

update: Horseman of the Interwebs Hung Truong points out Dunbar’s Number:

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It lies between 100 and 230, but a commonly detected value is 150.

This puts Facebook’s default threshold at a great place. However, Dunbar’s numbers are meant for offline relationships, i.e. the Dunbar number for ephemeral, online “feed” style relationship could arguably be much higher. It appears Dunbar has been working on this , I’m looking forward to a publication from his group soon.

Deceiving Users with the Facebook Like Button

Update: I've written a followup to this post, which you may also find interesting.

Facebook just launched a super-easy widget called "The Facebook Like Button". Website owners can add a simple iframe snippet to their html, enabling a nice "Like" button with a count of other people's "Likes" and a list of faces of people if any of them are your friends. The advantage of this new tool is that you don't need any fancy coding. Just fill up a simple wizard , and paste the embed code in, just like you do with Youtube, etc.

However, this simplicity has a cost: Users can be tricked into "Like"ing pages they're not at.

For example, try pressing this "Like" button below:




This is what happened to my Facebook feed when I pressed it:

Screen shot 2010-04-21 at 10.45.01 PM

I used BritneySpears.com as an example here to be work/family-safe; you're free to come up with examples of other sites you wouldn't want on your Facebook profile! :)

Important note: Removing the feed item from your newsfeed does not remove your like -- it stays in your profile. You have to click the button again to remove the "Like" relationship.

This works because the iframe lets me set up any URL I want. Due to the crossdomain browser security, the "Like Button" iframe really has no way to communicate with the website it's a part of. Facebook "Connect" system solved this using a crossdomain proxy, which requires uploading a file, etc. The new button trades off this security for convenience.

An argument in Facebook's favor is that no self-respecting webmaster would want to deceive the visitor! This is true, the motivation to deceive isn't very strong, but if I am an enterprising spammer, I can set up content farms posing as humble websites and use those "Like" buttons to sell, say Teeth Whitening formulas to my visitor's friends. Or, if I'm a warez / pirated movie site, I'm going to trick you with overlays, opacities and other spam tricks and sell your click on an "innocent" movie review page to a porn site, similar to what is done with Captchas. I'm going to call this new form of spam Newsfeed Spam.

This is scary because any victim to this is immediately going to become wary of using social networking buttons after the event; and will even stay away from a "Share on Twitter" button because "bad things have happened in the past with these newfangled things"!

I don't have a good solution to this problem; this sort of spam would be hard to detect or enforce since Facebook doesn't see the parent page.

• One weak solution is to use the iframe's HTTP_REFERER to prohibit crossdomain Likes. I'm not sure how reliable this is; it depends on the browser's security policies.

• Yet another solution is to provide the user with information about the target of the Like. e.g. it can be:

  • Shown in the initial text, i.e. "and 2,025 others like this" now becomes "and 2,025 others like "Britney Spears"..." The downside to this is that it can't be shown in the compact form of the button.
  • Shown upon clicking, i.e. "You just liked BritneySpears.com"
  • (my favorite) Shown on mouseover the button expands to show the domain, "Click to Like britneyspears.com/...."

This problem is an interesting mix of privacy and usability; would love to see a good solution!

Update: I've written a followup to this post, which you may also find interesting.

Inaction

He sat there staring at a blank terminal screen. He tried to remember exactly what it was that he was going to do next.

“Wow, this Twitter and Facebook habit has totally eliminated my ability to concentrate,” he thought.

Instinctively looking at the clock, he was alarmed at what time it was.

“2:31am… Wow, It’s tomorrow now… November 28th. Hmm.”

He smiled at the embarrassing memories. He remembered looking at the lone curled lock of hair that used to hang from the side of her forehead; the ill-fitting skirt; the smile. He remembered having conversations with her and getting distracted by the cuteness of her ever so slightly snubbed nose. He remembered being the new boy.

1997 was a confusing year. A new city, a new school, a new set of friends. The itinerant lifestyle had made it easier to compartmentalize relationships with people. It wasn’t something he preferred. Someone once had quipped that children of IAS officers were successful in life because of their ability to make friends quickly, and he had accepted that as a commiseration.

“A quick log in into the social networks I guess…”.

It had become a habit — any empty moment was occupied by “socializing” with a website. At least he had an excuse this time.

“Dear Julie, wish you a very Happy Birthday! Hope “ he wrote.

Backspace.

“Dear Julie, wish you a very Happy Birthday!”

It was 4 years since he’d broken up with her. It was painful but amicable; and they’d both moved on since. They had been great friends once, and they stayed friends since. The breakup left him in a strange place where he wasn’t quite sure exactly how much affection is too much. Especially on a Facebook wall. Better safe than sorry, he guessed.

He met Julie at a party in the first year of college. Common t-shirt colors led to a conversation about what else was in common. Not a lot, just states where they grew up, Zodiac signs and an uncanny interest in Lucky Ali. He liked her from the first time he met her, but he remembered her because of the irony in her birthdate. It was exactly the same as Divya’s.

“…Sharma. Divya Sharma. Roll Number 32” he remembered, revisiting a seldom-visited corner of his memories. Those memories were forgotten for good reason. Unlike college, which was a blast, he didn’t quite liked it when he joined Crescent Public.

The new high school was an absurdity. He had never met a bunch of more cacophonous kids before. Maybe this is a culture thing, but he’d much rather go back to his well-behaved alma-mater back in Bokaro. And somehow it seemed she knew exactly what he was thinking.

“You’ll get used to it. We’re not all that bad.”

“Well, I…”

“I’m Divya, by the way.”

He quickly found out that she was right. It was loud, but most of the kids were alright. More importantly, he had his first interaction with someone at school, and it was Divya. Amidst all the newness, he desperately needed some sense of familiarity, some sense of closeness. And when he found none, Divya became an easy substitute, even if she was that girl who sat in front of him and sometimes said Hi during break, even if he couldn’t come up with a single word to respond with. Weeks go by quickly when you have a pile of unfamiliar homework and a cute little puppy crush. And then one day Dad walks into the study room.

“Son, we have some good news. Mom mentioned how you were having trouble fitting in at your current school. We talked to the folks at this other school we think you’ll really like. I know it’s 3 weeks into the school year, but they’re willing to let you join.”

Lather Rinse Repeat. New uniform, new school bus, new school anthem that he would have to mumble through pretending to know the words.

The new school turned out to be yet another experience. It was still different from the Jesuit education imparted to him over the last 10 years and 4 schools, but he quickly found himself making a connection with the place. New interests were kindled, new friends were made, life went on.

And yet, the ponderous doodle on his notebook still said “Divya”. With a dot repeatedly penciled in so many times that it made a hole into the next page. It had been 3 months. He had new friends now! November 28th came by, he had astronomy camp at school that night. While everyone laid there on the school ground looking at the stars, he lay there thinking about parallel universes.

“#[Share]#” “Your wall message has been posted.”

“Hmm. I wonder where she is now….” he murmured as he typed in “Divya Sharma” into the search box. “There’s probably a million of them, hope I don’t have to wade through this for hours.”

Five minutes later, he was staring at the profile picture of the Divya Sharma he knew, with the same nose and the very same dangling lock of hair. In her wedding dress, with her new husband.

He smiled and stared at the browser window for a while. He clicked the “Request as friend” button, and began writing an introductory message. For some reason, the words after “Hey! Is this the Divya Sharma from Crescent Public School? Oh, btw, Happy Birthday!”

“Hey! Is this the Divya Sharma from Crescent Public School?”

“Hey!”

He smiled again, canceled the request and closed the browser window.

Some memories were best left untouched.

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Barack Obama Nobel Prize Sound Bites

From the Wikipedia :

On October 9, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than one year after his taking office (in fact, the nominations closed on February 1, about 11 days after Obama took office). While the committee praised his ambitious foreign policy agenda, it acknowledged that he had not yet actually achieved many of the goals that he had set out to accomplish. Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa, a 1983 Nobel Peace laureate, commented: “So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage. He is only beginning to act.”

This is pretty amazing news. My Facebook, News and IM streams are flooded with one-liners. I though I’d collect them all:

  • “I too would like a Nobel Peace Prize for the thesis I am about to write in the future.” — me
  • “it’s a pretty swell booby prize for losing out on the Olympics” – n.d.
  • “Surely preventing Sarah Palin from taking over the free world deserves a prize… even if it is a Nobel?” — v.b.
  • ““NASA bombs moon”; “Obama wins Nobel Prize” — is today Onion News Day?” — me
  • “Barack Obama linked to terrorist Yasser Arafat” — fark via a.a.
  • “The Nobel? Really? I mean, cool…but it seems like we have our cart on the wrong side of the horse. Not that it isn’t a very nice cart.” — c.m.
  • “…thinks they might as well have given him the Nobel Prize for Literature, Chemistry (we’ve all seen the shirtless photos), Physics and Economics as well. Oh and made him a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath” — r.d.
  • “Nobel Committee Rewards Obama For Not Being Bush” — f.n.
  • “I just want to point out that the Nobel Committee made its decision BEFORE Miley Cyrus quit Twitter.” — j.h.
  • “Obama will win a second Nobel next year if he can restrain himself from reacting to the snark generated by this one.” — m.w.
  • “Pretty sure Obama will just trade in his Nobel for a Google Wave invite.” — t.b.
  • “The news of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize spreads. Across the miles I can almost HEAR my dad’s eyes rolling.” — p.g.
  • “Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize? About time Rakhi Sawant wins an Oscar, then.” — s
  • “If you don’t think Obama deserves that Nobel, then you’ve never seen Sasha and Malia fight.” — a.e.
  • “Apparently Arizona State has a higher standard than the Nobel Committee. Good thing I never tried to apply there.” — r.m.
  • Business Insider has some more.

twittering... kinda

I hooked up my Facebook status feed to my Twitter page that should keep most “followers” happy with minimal work on my part. To inaugurate, I posted a twitterpoem of less than 140 characters, which I grandly entitle “Tales of the Database Scientist”:

i flirt with hordes of entities,
runtimes and complexities.
relations are for databases;
i negotiate in times and spaces.

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