The Manipulators: Facebook’s Social Engineering Project

Nicholas Carr:

SINCE THE LAUNCH of Netscape and Yahoo! 20 years ago, the development of the internet has been a story of new companies and new products, a story shaped largely by the interests of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The plot has been linear; the pace, relentless. In 1995 came Amazon and Craigslist; in 1997, Google and Netflix; in 1999, Napster and Blogger; in 2001, iTunes; in 2003, MySpace; in 2004, Facebook; in 2005, YouTube; in 2006, Twitter; in 2007, the iPhone and the Kindle; in 2008, Airbnb; in 2010, Instagram; in 2011, Snapchat; in 2012, Coursera; in 2013, Google Glass. It has been a carnival ride, and we, the public, have been the giddy passengers.
 This year something changed. The big news about the net came not in the form of buzzy startups or cool gadgets, but in the shape of two dry, arcane documents. One was a scientific paper describing an experiment in which researchers attempted to alter the moods of Facebook users by secretly manipulating the messages they saw. The other was a ruling by the European Union’s highest court granting citizens the right to have outdated or inaccurate information about them erased from Google and other search engines. Both documents provoked consternation, anger, and argument. Both raised important, complicated issues without resolving them. Arriving in the wake of revelations about the NSA’s online spying operation, both seemed to herald, in very different ways, a new stage in the net’s history — one in which the public will be called upon to guide the technology, rather than the other way around. We may look back on 2014 as the year the internet began to grow up.

Websites Are Wary of Facebook Tracking Software

Reed Albergotti:

As Facebook tracks user activity across the internet, some businesses are growing wary of Facebook’s cache of personal data. WSJ’s Reed Albergotti reports on the New Hub with Sara Murray. Photo: Getty.

Online retailers and publishers are pushing back against Facebook Inc. FB +0.05% ‘s efforts to track users across the Internet, fearing that the data it vacuums up to target ads will give the social network too much of an edge.

Web traffic experts say there is less data flowing from some sites to Facebook, suggesting they have been reprogrammed to hold back information.

Facebook has long kept track of the websites its users visit when they aren’t on the social network. Three months ago, it began using the data to build more detailed user profiles, allowing advertisers to target people with more personalized marketing pitches.

That has rankled some retailers, advertisers and Internet publishers, which worry that the wider use of browsing history will hand Facebook, and potentially their own rivals, more information about existing and prospective customers.

How Facebook and Google are taking over your online identity

Leo Mirani:

When Facebook executives meet potential advertisers, their biggest selling point is that the company knows whom it’s advertising to. In contrast to the wilds of the web, the proposition goes, Facebook users sign in to the service and make themselves known. Match their data with third parties—data brokers who provide loyalty card spending, for instance—and you have a fairly good idea of whether your ad has been effective. If user x saw ad y and made a purchase, there’s the return on investment. (Facebook stresses that these data are anonymised and the data are analysed only in aggregate.)
 Most Facebook users are aware of this—or at least the bit about the service being tied to advertising. But Facebook’s tentacles reach far beyond its homepage. Its “like” button is splashed across the web. Last month, the company suggested that advertisers include a Facebook tracking pixel on their sites to better measure whether the ads are working.
 The notion that the world outside its homepage remains anonymous is increasingly untrue. Millions of internet users voluntarily give Facebook, Google, and others access to their movements across the web and on mobile when they use “social log in,” or the ability to sign in to a website using credentials from the big identity providers.

The Great Mortgaging: Housing Finance, Crises, and Business Cycles

Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, Alan M. Taylor:

This paper unveils a new resource for macroeconomic research: a long-run dataset covering disaggregated bank credit for 17 advanced economies since 1870. The new data show that the share of mortgages on banks’ balance sheets doubled in the course of the 20th century, driven by a sharp rise of mortgage lending to households. Household debt to asset ratios have risen substantially in many countries. Financial stability risks have been increasingly linked to real estate lending booms which are typically followed by deeper recessions and slower recoveries. Housing finance has come to play a central role in the modern macroeconomy.

Technology is radically changing the advertising business, with profound consequences for both consumers and companies

The Economist

Mobile devices, which are intimately connected to their owners, have changed the way in which people travel the internet. Users now prefer apps (self-contained programmes on smartphones) to websites’ home pages, and in America they are spending less time on desktop computers. “It took 150 years for the newspaper industry to contract,” says Meredith Kopit Levien, head of advertising for the New York Times. “The desktop industry will contract because of mobile in a tenth of that time.”

Dataclasym: Mining Social Network information

Christian Rudder:

My team and I wrote an app that will apply findings from a recent research paper to your Facebook graph. The app won’t post to your wall but it will show you both the shape of your friend network and which of your friends are most mathematically important to your life.

SEO Climate: Amazon Tops List of Google’s 25 Biggest Search Advertisers

Tim Petersen:

Amazon spent $157.7 million on Google U.S. search ads in 2013, by far the most by any company, according to Ad Age DataCenter’s first ranking based on data from AdGooroo, a Kantar Media company focused on search marketing.
 It may raise a few eyebrows to see Amazon atop the list of Google’s biggest spenders. Over the past few years Amazon has ramped up its business of selling search and display ads on its own and others’ sites, putting it in direct competition with Google’s ad business. Last year Amazon generated $750 million from worldwide advertising revenue and is expected to pull in more than $1 billion this year, according to estimates from digital data firm eMarketer.


The Great Housing Boom of China

Kaiji Chen and Yi Wen:

This paper provides a theory to explain the paradoxical features of the great housing boom in Chinaó the persistently faster-than-GDP housing price growth, exceptionally high capital returns, and excessive vacancy rates. The expectation that high capital returns driven mainly by resource reallocation are not sustainable in the long run can induce the very productive entrepreneurs to speculate in housing during economic transition. This creates a self-fulÖlling growing housing bubble, which can create severe resource misallocation. A calibrated version of the theory accounts quantitatively for both the growth dynamics of house prices and other salient features of the recent Chinese experience.

TV is increasingly for old people

Cecilia Kang:

TV is increasingly for the old, and the Internet is for the young, according to new research by media analyst Michael Nathanson of Moffett Nathanson Research.

The median age of a broadcast or cable television viewer during the 2013-2014 TV season was 44.4 years old, a 6 percent increase in age from four years earlier. Audiences for the major broadcast network shows are much older and aging even faster, with a median age of 53.9 years old, up 7 percent from four years ago.

These television viewers are aging faster than the U.S. population, Nathanson points out. The median age in the U.S. was 37.2, according to the U.S. Census, a figure that increased 1.9 percent over a decade. So to put that in context of television viewing, he said TV audiences aged 5 percent faster than the average American.

Is the government making it harder for the middle class to buy homes?

Dina ElBoghdady:

For more than 20 years, Mark Vinciguerra’s small bank specialized in making home loans to first-time buyers in the northwest Ohio suburbs. Then the recession hit, and auditors at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac came knocking.
 The mortgage finance giants demanded that Vinciguerra buy back more than 200 loans he’d sold them that were teetering into foreclosure, claiming that the bank had failed to meet their quality standards. Vinciguerra ultimately repurchased only five loans, but endless hassles over the others shattered his willingness to take a chance on some moderate- and low-income borrowers.
 “Like so many lenders, we thought: ‘Heck, we’re just going to raise the bar,’ ” said Vinciguerra, who insists the loans went bad because of skyrocketing unemployment. “We’d like to be serving those people again, but there’s no trust in the system right now.”
 Just as the housing recovery should be taking off, lenders are turning away potential home buyers by demanding unusually high credit scores and other tough standards on government-backed loans – exceeding the government’s own criteria in a bid to insulate themselves from financial penalties and lawsuits. The reluctance to lend has alarmed policymakers and heightened tensions between them and the industry as each side struggles to rectify the problem without exposing themselves to unreasonable financial risks.