Ten years ago, I created a fake Facebook profile: a story of algorithms and bubbles

Image by (the amazing) Mark Fishbourne @ Marketoonist

Leaving Facebook made me happy.

I am not the kind of person to try and proselytise others, but I have to confirm what many say, that leaving public social media – as opposed to private social media e.g. Whatsapp or Telegram – made me happier, gave me a lot of time to do more useful stuff, and made me generally less angry, thus I cannot but recommend it.

But this is not a story on how I’m better than you because I don’t have Facebook. This is a story about what I call bubble bias, and better scholars than me call Filter bubble.

Let’s start from the beginning: who we are is heavily determined by the situation we grew in. If I was born a couple hundred miles more to the South, I’d not be Italian; I’d not be European; I’d speak another language; my family’d not be Catholic. My whole system of beliefs would be different: religion, politics, what I love in people surrounding me, what I despise of people I don’t like…everything.

Besides proving the deeply loaded argument that all knowledge might be inherently biased, at a lower level one can deduct it as the cause of some issues when it comes to the web, which is our field of interest here. All that we see around us, both off- and online, is served to us based on things that we already like. You know when they say ‘get out of your confort zone’? This is why. If you don’t, you’ll always listen, talk to, and be surrounded by voices that agree with you: this will lead you to the false belief that everyone agrees with you, thus you must be right.

Confirmation bias, and algorithms

We are bombarded by information. Every second, the stream of it to which we have access is absurdly big: that’s also why our attention span is decreasing with time, as we don’t have the time to process each datum that our senses throw at our brain. Among all of this information, we are selective: we must be.

But there’s another level of selection that most people (the general public) is generally not aware of: the means we use to feed our brains (Google, Facebook, Twitter, most modern online newspapers, etc.) operate an active selection of what info should reach us. Their algorithms work like this: Enrico liked/clicked on/dwelled on X, thus I will provide him with as many things I can find that are similar to X. The better the algorithm (and their quality is nowadays based on how good their AI is), the better the results that will be tossed at us. The better the results, the more money they make, based on their monetisation model.

So algorithms decide what we see, and we decide what the algorithm should show us; in a recursive pattern, we will see the same info, the same sources, more of the connections that share their views with us, and so on. This creates a bubble around us. We are biased, everyone around us seemingly agreeing with what we already believe.

Needless to say, this is a big problem with modern society. I blame it on the lack of political intervention on the web, which’s been left largely lawless for thirty years now. It’s not up to the citizen, nor to private companies, to limit functions or impose regulations. So, back to my fake Facebook account.

It’s over 10 years old, I set it up in the context of buying links for SEO purposes. So my avatar has had a 10 years long life. During this period, purely for fun, I gave to…him? it? mmm…I got in touch with people I’d never get in touch with, followed a football team that I don’t support, liked movies and series I know nothing about, and so on. I needed my person to look real, have friends and interests. In order to do so, I thought it’d be easier to get into the populist world. I follow populist politicians and local authorities of the place where my guy ‘lives’; I ‘go to’ events at the most popular clubs in the area, follow DJs and other relevant stuff. I am as much a bland sheep as I can think of. So basically my guy is a superficial jerk.

And I noticed something: after ten years following Salvini, all of your feed will be univocal; FB will propose people in the ‘people you might know’ section, who are all like that. Only, for them it’s real. They invite him to groups and pages, always of the same kind. They comment each other, making a lot of noise with dozens of comments per day. They fund civil movements of hatred, racism, and populism. They befriend accounts of clearly fake horny pornstars who want to have sex with them. They comment on their pics, drooling. It’s just a few people, I don’t spend too much time on my guy to expand his network, but they are clearly very connected with each other. They confirm each other’s ideas as a dog chasing its tail.

It’s mesmerising: I have this secret perversion when I’m bored, to log my avatar and see the madness that surrounds him. At first, I couldn’t believe what people would post: if it was my own old FB account, I’d never be reached by that! People who truly believe that the pandemic is caused by Obama; people who propose that Italy should split in 6 macroregions, joined in a confederation; flatearthers (remember the one final argument against the Flat Earth Theory: if the Earth was flat, cats would’ve pushed everything off it already. Checkmate!). I’d have no exposure at all, if it wasn’t for my avatar.

My perversion is being able to escape my bubble: not only does it makes me feel good about myself (yeah I need confirmation, sue me), on the other it’s interesting to see things that, otherwise, I’d never see.


Perpetuating stereotypes

I’ve lived abroad for 4 years now, between Estonia and the UK. I’ve lived in mainland Italy, outside of my native Sardinia, for 20+ years, more than half of my life.

What I want to write about is as true in Italy towards Sardinians, as it is abroad towards Italians.

I find myself now in a position of strength. For over 10 years I’ve worked with great companies, did my job for some of the largest brands you can think of, and elbow to elbow with top-class managers and SEOs. I co-wrote a book, and taught at a University. It’s a job that I bloody love. I mean it’s easy for me, on the job place, to be respected – regardless of how well deserved this may be.

I will never be able to achieve the status I had back in Italy, here in the UK. I don’t have the same fluidity of language, I have an accent, and my name sounds weird. English people are amazingly openminded re: this, don’t get me wrong. In Italy we’d do way worse. One of the many reasons why I love them. But still, I know that I have to live with the fact that I am the Italian guy.

So what I did about this, I chose to embrace it. I make ‘hand gesturing’ jokes at all events or client pitches. I insert Italian jokes in my slides. I often reference my heritage.

It makes sense right? I’ve always felt this was the wise approach. Until now. People around me are talking about racism, sexism, bullism, gender-related abuses of all sorts. And it got me thinking.

People making fun of my accent, will still respect me when it comes to my job because I’m an amazing web marketer. People saying Italians are untrustworthy will come to love me, because I have studied at length what soft skills it takes to be in my position. People calling Italians lazy, will see that I’m hardworking as anyone, because I work on projects and with people that I love. But is this true for all Italians abroad?

Of course not. An 18 y.o. comes here to follow their dreams, entitled to dreaming as anyone. People will tease them for not knowing the language, and they’ll have no answer to that. People will not hire them, because they don’t have the same level of seniority that I have, and a weird surname. People will call them lazy, and they’ll just have to accept it. People will emulate their accent to their face, not realising that not being able to communicate wholly is a heavy burden to carry for a human being. How easier is it for me to live here, than for them?

From my position of power, I am enabling this situation. I’m making the world harder for this young person who only wants to work and follow their dream. I’m not even aware of it, but I’m perpetuating stereotypes. Stereotypes against Italians are relatively safe, non violent (although it did happen to me, too, years ago…). But they get the ball rolling: if you are entitled to discriminate a European white bloke, why shouldn’t you discriminate black people too? And Indians? And Muslims? And gays? And women? Every time I let a stereotype go, I empower all stereotypes. To stop stereotypes that are really dangerous, against all people different from me, we white straight males must be the first to strongly hold our hands up high and stop every instance of discrimination, no matter how innocent it appears.

We must risk to over-do it.

The stronger your position, the more responsible you are. That Spiderman quote is indeed wiser than one would expect: with great power, comes great responsibility. Even better, with any power comes responsibility.

On the other hand, the weaker your position, the more you should be looked after: your weakness derives from society, not from you not being enough as a person. Each and every one of us is an amazing, incredible speck of universe. Let’s just help each other: a good position for someone else does not make one’s position worse: in fact, it makes it better. A juster society. More money and jobs for all. A healthier environment. Safer streets.

A better world.

Let me add: you know when earlier I wrote “People around me are talking about racism, sexism, bullism, gender-related abuses of all sorts. And it got me thinking.”

Well, this is exactly why we MUST speak out loud about injustice. We MUST speak out loud about discrimination. We MUST speak out loud against hatred, bigotism, and ignorance.

Because it gets people thinking.


Listen to understand

You often don’t listen to understand: you listen to answer. Is there anything you can do about it?

The more time I work in the online industry, to more I realise that a positive, vibrant, productive environment online must be a close reproduction of what the offline world is.

When I browse I am not a different person than when I am physically shopping downtown, or having a beer with my buddies, or talking about my problems with my family. Of course not: I am not a browser, nor am I a customer. I am an individual.

Better said: each of us is just themselves, as opposed to the concept of people as an abstract entity with which I interact; we interact as individuals. I reckon that I can be identified for marketing purposes as part of a group, but this is partial. I am part of a group from an external perspective: in my subjective version of the world, the only one that exists for me, I am unique. This is also true when, indeed, I behave following the herd for whatever reason.

So all of the talk that we do in marketing, about understanding the audience, being user-first, being relatable, dialogue, blahblah should (and do, partially) start from exactly there: building a world that is naturally a replica, with its own perks and flaws, of the net of information and selves that we are immersed in in real life.

I tend to see a reflection of what I study re: behaviour (in general, i.e. online and offline) in all the things that I do for work, online. In this case, the mantra from marketing gurus is ‘listen to your audience’. Brands should use social media to build up a dialogue with their audience, as opposed to a monologue in other (more traditional) media.

This is precisely what I do with my friends right? I listen to them, trying to understand. If I want to be a good friend, I listen to their reasons, and accept them. We argue from two positions that we are both reciprocally considering valid.

But how often am I hearing someone making a point, and all I can think about is ‘when will they shut up, so that I can talk about MY perspective??’. Sounds familiar? Don’t worry, this is part of our nature. Again, my vision of the world is all the world that exists; WYSIATI, What You See Is All There Is.

‘When will you SHUT UP, so as to let ME illuminate YOU with my wisdom?’. Well this is kind of strong, but you get the point. Is there anything I can do to improve? Partly, yes. It’ll always be with us I think, and we should also be accepting of our flaws as part of our nature. But yes, improving is always possible!

The reason why I am not listening to you is I am not talking to discuss, but I’m talking to sell. In this case, I want to sell an idea. It can be a service, a product, anything really: and this is why this is relevant for marketing, too (finally, the reader might say). I get it, I finally want to convince others to concur with me, agreeing with my political views as well as buying my product. But when I talk to them, I need to talk to understand what they want to say.

To get in touch with my counterpart I have to talk to them, not try to sell them stuff. If I’m not trying to sell (or ‘impose’) my idea, I will be more likely to be able to absorb what input I am receiving from the outside.