Saturday, 10 November 2012

Why I Disagree with Robert Scoble on the "War on Noise"

For those who might not know, Robert Scoble is a tech blogger and writer who has worked at such places as NEC and Microsoft. He is quite good at what he does and more often than not I find myself agreeing with him. That is not the case with Mr. Scoble's latest blog post, "The war on noise," in which I find myself disagreeing with much of what he has to say.

I do have to agree with Robert Scoble that there is a good deal of noise on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so on (although I do disagree with Mr. Scoble that George Takei's posts are "noise"). There are those people and companies who post far too often, and who often post content that is not particularly interesting. And I do agree that such noise is only going to get worse as technology grows and changes. I also agree that we are going to have to to go to war with noise. That having been said, I disagree with Mr. Scoble's thought that Facebook does a good job of filtering noise, and I do not share his desire to have Facebook pick the 20 "best" posts to show me every time I refresh my screen.

Quite simply, I think Robert Scoble is among the very few who want Facebook to filter their posts. Most people I know, including myself, do not want Facebook to filter their news feeds. The reason is simple. Facebook does a very bad job of it. Now to a degree one does have some control over what Facebook filters on one's news feed. One can set it so that specific friends always show in one's news feed and so that every item they post is displayed in the news feed. The problem is that one cannot do the same thing with Pages. One can simply set it so that posts from a particular Page display on one's news feed. Beyond that, one is at the mercy of what Facebook decides what they think one wants to see.

This would not be so bad, but in my experience (and that of many of my friends) Facebook is pathetically bad at determining what stories would be interesting to any given individual. A perfect example of this is my brother. He liked the History Channel long ago. Every day he likes their "Today in History" post and every day he shares it. He also likes a good number of other stories posted by the History Channel. Despite this, there have been several times where the History Channel stories have not displayed in his news feed, even the "Today in History" posts. As to myself, today the top stories in my news feed were largely composed of posts I did not find that interesting and many from people with whom I interact very rarely. In fact out of the top twenty items, only two were from people with whom I interact with regularly and only one of them would I count as a "top story."

Now it is true that one can hide stories on one's news feed, but it seems to make little difference. I am not sure how Facebook determines what one's top stories are, but one would think they would take into account the friends and pages with whom one interacts the most, past posts one has liked, and past posts one has hidden. That  having been said, it seems to me that Facebook must not take any of these things into account when determining what is a "top story," otherwise the top stories on my news feed would look a lot different. I then have to conclude they are using an entirely different set of criteria to determine what is and what is not a top story. I might add that given how often they get what I would consider "top stories" wrong, the criteria they are using must be entirely the wrong criteria.

Indeed, as far social media sites I think Google+ does a much better job of filtering out noise, although even it is not ideal. On Google+ one can adjust how much one wants to see of any given circle (the various categories in which one places one's followers) in his or her stream. One can also mute users so that one never need see their posts in one's stream without simply uncircling them. And if one does not want to filter any of his or her circles at all, one has that choice. One has no such choice on Facebook.

I do agree with Robert Soble that users should be given means to regulate the amount of noise in their stream or newsfeed. I very fervently disagree with him that Facebook does a good job of filtering noise and I disagree with the idea that a social media site should automatically filter posts for users. My idea is that it is the users themselves who should set any filters they might want.  On Facebook I should be able to set it so that I see every single post from a Page, much as I am able to do with friends. On Google+ I should not only be able to decide how much of any given circle I want to see in my stream, but any given circler as well (there should be something in between "mute" and seeing everything). This would decrease the amount of noise in one's stream a good deal. I would be guaranteed of seeing every single post from, say, the Doctor Who page, but not so may from the Chrysler page (here I want to stress these are just examples--I don't think Chrysler is guilty of posting noise).

In my own experience neither the majority of my friends nor I want Facebook or another social media site to determine what we see in our feeds or streams. This is especially the case with Facebook, whose algorithm seems to be inherently flawed. Ultimately I think users should be given more control over what they see in their feeds or streams.  And in the end, if someone feels one of their friends or followers is posting much too often, there is always the option of unfriending them or uncircling them!

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