015: Steady State and the Engagement Beast

New Story: Steady State

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While working with the News Feed teams, it was fascinating how even the employees at Facebook didn’t fully understand the feed. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand its architecture or code—those are fully documented and there are even internal classes to get up to speed—but rather, how tweaking the algorithm would change its behavior. And how could they? The News Feed is a hungry beast locked in an engagement loop with two billion brains, mostly via twitching fingers sliding over gorilla glass.

Every day, armies of Facebook researchers and data scientists study the feed like an archeological dig: predicting how it would evolve over time; extrapolating its response to new features and inputs. A few engineers may have architected the feed, but a hundred thousand employees can barely understand its effects.

One study found that if left the feed was left unattended, in a few years, it would become a wall of sensationalistic news videos since these have shown to increase engagement. In essence, the machine would become a toddler gorging on chocolate. It would be foolish for Facebook to let that happen, and indeed, this, in addition to a myriad of other factors, led the company to renew its emphasis on “friend content.”

But compared to other media, the News Feed is a small player, accounting for about 30 minutes of a typical American’s day. TV and streaming services add up to a whopping 4 hours. 4 hours! That’s half a workday. Two full-length feature films. No wonder Netflix says their major competition is sleep.

In my story, Steady State, I explore what happens when the feeds become 10x more effective. What if the companies let go of the reins and stop taming the beast?

I just got back from a nice stay in Longmont, a tiny town outside of Boulder where my parents live. With two kids in tow, we took it easy. The toddler was cheery and the baby slept well—so well, that I suspect the lower oxygen at higher altitudes may have something to do with it.

Whenever I leave the city for the sparse suburbs, the amount of space is shocking. Especially in Colorado, where towns are separated by gulfs of green spaces unimpeded by man-made structures and topped with stunning clouds.

As we wound through the neighborhoods, my toddler asked, “Why are the houses in the grass?” He was used to city houses sitting abut in neat rows. Lawns were a weird negative space.
Since we had to cart around grandparents and kids, I rented a Chevy Tahoe. If you know me personally, you’ll have a hard time picturing me in a full-sized SUV (I’m usually zooming around the city on a scooter or e-bike.) I fully expected the car to feel big and bulky, but the roads were bigger, lanes wider, and the other cars just as big. So it felt normal.

Even though I grew up in small towns, it’s easy to forget what wide-open spaces feel like when you live in the city. America continues to urbanize, with the top 48 urban areas accounting for more than half the population (80% of the population live in urban areas, but here, urban is defined as any area over 2500 people, which is quite rural in my opinion.) So perhaps this American experience of space will become a rarity, like in Japan, where less than 5% live in rural environments.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last Call (New Yorker)

A Buddhist monk tackles the suicide culture in Japan by talking to people who are considering ending their life. But in the process, he is sapped of his own energy. A powerful story about how to effectively help people in need. Reading about the daily endurance required as a monk also put my own struggles into perspective.

Why Do Chinese People Like Their Government? (Supchina)

As a second-generation Asian American, I see slivers of politics through the lens of the Chinese diaspora, but usually without enough context for a western liberal to truly understand. This post does a good job of distilling this context and also illuminates the bias that the typical American has about China.

Neil Patrick Harris shares the best advice he's received (YouTube)

Neil Patrick Harris talks about how he treated his career like catching waves while surfing. Sometimes you miss a wave. Sometimes you catch a big one. The key, though, is that there will always be more waves. I’ve found this to be true for most things in life. Be prepared for opportunities while simultaneously understanding that preparation isn’t a guarantee you’ll of success. Keep trying. Catch the next wave.