Facebook, Trust Engineers, and 1 Billion People

On August 24 , 1 billion people accessed Facebook on the same day. That’s 1/7 of the world’s population. This bears a moment of contemplation and question: What does it mean when 1/7 of the world logs into the same the site on the same day?

This isn’t a scaremongering post or a melancholy reflection on a desire to become a Luddite. I love Facebook. It’s a wonderful way to stay connected to my widely spread family and friends. Back in the day (which for me, was the 90s), I used to write letters (especially when traipsing and living through South America). And while letters are cool in all their nostalgic permanence, my Mom would rather see cute videos of her grandkids making Mickey Mouse pancakes. Most of Facebook is inane. But it serves as really good social glue.

Still, there’s a massive amount of power in the platform.

For Social Scientists, Facebook is the El Dorado. Buried in the gazillions of interactions, posts, reactions, social norms, and data are fascinating correlations and conclusions. Because there’s so much data, questions can find answers like:

  • Who might be a good marriage match? Who might be heading for a divorce?
  • What makes people happy?
  • When is mental health is taking a turn for the worse (before obvious signs).

One conclusion might be to ask can we engineer human behavior through Facebook?

Back in February, Radiolab ran this incredible podcast called “The Trust Engineers“. In their own words:

When we talk online, things can go south fast. But they don’t have to. Today, we meet a group of social engineers who are convinced that tiny changes in wording can make the online world a kinder, gentler place. So long as we agree to be their lab rats.

Ok, yeah, we’re talking about Facebook. Because Facebook, or something like it, is more and more the way we share and like, and gossip and gripe. And because it’s so big, Facebook has a created a laboratory of human behavior the likes of which we’ve never seen. We peek into the work of Arturo Bejar and a team of researchers who are tweaking our online experience, bit by bit, to try to make the world a better place. And along the way we can’t help but wonder whether that’s possible, or even a good idea.

Take a listen. It’s a fascinating podcast.

You have a platform that, in theory, could nudge folk. And nudging 1/7 of the world’s population is a bit mind bending. What kind of society could be created? Who shapes the directions of the nudges (right now, at least in most of the world, democratic governments create such “nudges” when they fit societal goals)?

Questions to ponder as I launch the blue icon.

Feature Image "Facebook Connections" by Michael Coghlan. Creative Commons.

Teacher Academy Visit

A highlight of the year is when Mike Neri invites me to his Teacher Academy Class to talk about technology and education. Given the fact that these kidoes won’t be in the classroom for a 1/2 a decade of so, the talk is usually a bit of exercise in predicting the future and identifying trends – subjects I always find fun. Today I’ll be going over a slightly tweaked version of my 2014 OETC presentation: Will I be Replaced by a Robot.

The Gist

I want explore how the digital revolution and the growth in the capacity of machines to perform larger cognitive tasks will affect the teaching profession. A fear frequently expressed by technology reluctant educators is that technology may displace many of their functions as a teacher. We’ll examine the validity of this fear by viewing past and current trends in technology and how these trends have impacted various careers. We will raise questions about future job opportunities for students as well.

The Presentation


Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy

By Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: A fairly concise book that explores the relationship between technological advances and its impact on society, particularly the job market.

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Follow up to Race Against the Machine.

Welcome Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?

A variation of the Brynjolfsson and McAfee arguments. Excellent demonstration of Moore’s Law. Also does a pretty solid job of explaining income growth tied to capital.

Coming to an Office Near You

Economist article outlining the impact of technological advances on all jobs.

Fun Follow Up

Teacher Feedback VS Machine Feedback

Do students prefer to learn from a machine?

A bit of a professional disclaimer to this week’s geek study. I do not believe that technology is ever an effective substitute for good teaching (and this is a belief rooted in quite a few empirical studies as well). Technology is a tool. My interest is how tools are leveraged by teachers to help and increase learning by students. I found the results of this study to be surprising. I’d also hesitate to draw huge conclusions from a study at a large education college and apply those results to K through 12 education.

That said, this is interesting.

Why Students Prefer to Learn from a Machine

While this article’s headline is hyperbolic, it does share a fascinating study from The International Journal of English Studies. Education students were placed in two groups. In one group, students received feedback on writing assignments from live instructors. A comparison group received feedback from a software program called Criterion. The study’s intent: to identify differences in how students responded to different forms of feedback. In short, Would students receive feedback better from one or the other and how would they act on that feedback?

The results?

[blockquote source=”Annie Murphy Paul”]The computer program appeared to transform the students’ approach to the process of receiving and acting on feedback.Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior—from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent. As a result of engaging in this process, the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. These changes weren’t simply mechanical. Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students—which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.

Why would this be? First, the feedback from a computer program like Criterion is immediate and highly individualized—something not usually possible in big classes like those at Alexandria University, the site of the study by El Ebyary and Windeatt. Second, the researchers observed that for many students in the study, the process of improving their writing appeared to take on a game like quality, boosting their motivation to get better. Third, and most interesting, the students’ reactions to feedback seemed to be influenced by the impersonal, automated nature of the software.”[/blockquote]

There’s a lot to crunch through here. Part of me wonders if generational components affected the differences in responses? What social elements allow for students to respond better to a machine rather than an individual?

And does it really matter, as long as their writing improved?