Facebook

It's impossible to escape the Facebook "scandal" at the moment, and it's important to be fully aware of what is going on. I think this is a defining moment in our digital evolution as a society, so it's worth spending some time reflecting on what is happening.

As you have surely heard, it has been revealed that a rogue researcher by the name of Kogan at Cambridge University has built an app that scrapped a lot of data from Facebook users and their "friends". (Apologies for the many quotes, but so many of the words used in this story have been hijacked to mean different things.) Nothing that Kogan did at that point was illegal by the terms of Facebook. This is, of course, the crux of the story - it may not have been illegal by Facebook's term, but it may have been highly unethical nonetheless. In any case, Kogan then shared the data with a third party, which was illegal, and this is how the company Cambridge Analytica (CA) got hold of the data. It was then used by CA for political purposes. Some people say CA was a decisive factor in the Trump and Brexit victories, but there is at the moment no evidence for that.

The reactions of shock that I've heard so far are of four types:
1. Why does Facebook have so much data on us?
2. Why does Facebook allow others to obtain our personal data?
3. How is this data used to manipulate us?
4. Are all tech companies the same? What about Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter?

Let's address each of these points briefly.

1. Why does Facebook have so much data on us?
The easy answer is because we give it to them. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Facebook tracks you almost everywhere you go online. Facebook also tricks you into sharing more data than you are probably aware of. As many Android users have found out, Facebook has been scrapping their call and text message data for years - either without permission, or using extremely sleazy tricks to get "permission" from its users. Facebook's value proposition is targeted advertising. Advertisers pay lots of money to Facebook to show their ads specifically to a small target group. This is a highly efficient way to advertise because you know you are advertising to the right audience. It's this lucrative advertising model that has turned Facebook into one of the most highly valued companies on the planet. Yes, Facebook is a surveillance machine, but it has itself no malicious intent - it just wants to know everything about you so it can match you to advertisers. Facebook is not a data seller, it is a matchmaker. The more it knows about you, the better it can match you with those who are willing to pay.

2. Why does Facebook allow others to obtain our personal data?
If data is Facebook's gold, why would it share it with others - such as Kogan, or anyone developing a Facebook app - on its platform? The best answer I can give is that by opening up to app developers, Facebook was hoping to increase engagement on its platform. The more you use the Facebook platform, the more Facebook knows about you, which is good for its matching-making capabilities. Facebook is, of course, aware of this problem and has already some time ago begun to limit data access. Given the current scandal and bad press, Facebook will almost certainly continue to constrain data access to third parties.

3. How is this data used to manipulate us?
As mentioned above, Facebook is in the matchmaking business. It sells this access to anyone willing to pay for it. This is no secret - you can go to Facebook and read in great detail how it works. Facebook writes: "With our powerful audience selection tools, you can target the people who are right for your business." It should come as no surprise that by business, they mean anyone willing to pay, including politicians and organizations with political intent. Advertising is manipulation. 

4. Are all tech companies the same? What about Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter?
It's easy to engage in the blame game and begin to accuse all tech companies of being "data hungry". Isn't it always good to know more about your users? Yes, but as we're learning, that knowledge is also a huge liability (and this doesn't even factor in direct legal liabilities - hello GDPR). The central question is whether that knowledge is core to your business. This is clearly not the case for Apple. The vast majority of Apple's business is selling hardware with a very high margin. Apple is now actively advertising the fact that it can take privacy very seriously because its business doesn't depend on user data, which is both true and smart. The majority of income for Amazon is also not advertising, but services (retail and web services). For Google and Twitter, the story is different, because their business does indeed depend on knowing their users for better advertisement. Close to 90% of Google's and Twitter's income comes from advertisement. Twitter may be in a better position because it is a micro-blogging platform, and it would be difficult to be outraged by the fact that Twitter data can be used by anyone given that it is de facto public data. In addition, Twitter's size is still very small compared to Facebook. Google may be the closest to Facebook in terms of business models. But importantly, Googles does not run a social communication network - it tried with Google Plus, but failed - and that sets it a bit apart. It is difficult to insert manipulative political content into the discussion unless you are the discussion platform. Still, the concern with Google is that its business currently depends most strongly on knowing users intimately.    

Now what?
These answers can provide us with some insights. The first is that Facebook is never going to change substantially. The more it knows about you, the better it can do its matchmaking, which is of existential importance to its multi-billion dollar business. That is why Mark Zuckerberg has been on a 14-year apology tour - he embodies the idea of asking for forgiveness, not for permission. The second is that Facebook will continue to be used for political manipulation. As historian Niall Ferguson put it so aptly, there are two kinds of politicians: those who understand Facebook advertising, and those who will lose. We have just seen the tip of the iceberg. The third is that regulation will be quintessential to tame the beast, which is not Facebook, but the extreme effectiveness of micro-targeting. I believe you can manipulate absolutely everyone if you know all the details about their lives, their friends, their fears, and their dreams. And it is generally not necessary to manipulate everyone very strongly; by just nudging a fraction of people undecided on an issue, systems can change rather dramatically. Nudging 10% of swing voters will define the victor; nudging 10% of undecided parents to opt out of vaccination will lead to large disease outbreaks, etc. The fourth is that Mark Zuckerberg may have to step down from Facebook, which could spell its end in the long run. He built Facebook, and stands for everything that happened, for better or worse. I fully believe Facebook did not have any malicious intentions - they simply discovered an extremely lucrative business model and ran with it. But this is not just another "oops - we're sorry" story that's going to go away soon. People are waking up to the core of the Facebook business model - and to some extent to the micro-targeting model - and they don't like it. Someone will have to face the consequences. 

CODA
As a final note, I've found it incredibly liberating, a bit more than a year ago, to leave Facebook. I did it because it took more from me than it gave me, and truly valuable interactions I continued to have through other communication channels. I was also getting concerned about its surveillance power, but that was the lesser problem to me, then. But fundamentally, I do believe that the only way to solve the extreme micro-targeting problem is by abandoning those platforms whose business are entirely built on it, and for many of us, this should be easy. I am extremely disturbed to hear some people argue their ability to communicate with friends depends on Facebook. In the end, unless we realize that Facebook's business depends on being our communication platform, and on knowing everything that we communicate through it for efficient micro-targeting, we won't be able to argue we're part of the solution.

Rule 10: Be the best you can be, not the best there is

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

Comparing yourself to others is perhaps the greatest source of self-inflicted unhappiness there is. Unfortunately in academia, it's rampant. But by realizing that this is a major source of stress, you can better recognize when you fall victim to it, and try to ease its negative effects.

No matter how hard you try, there will always be someone who is better than you. It's a mathematical necessity for all but one person. The day you come to terms with this reality is the day you become more relaxed, and being relaxed makes you perform better (as already indicated in rule 9).

That doesn't mean sitting back and drinking mojitos all day long. In fact, becoming the best you can be is hard work. Some even argue (myself included) that it'll take you an entire life, because it's a never-ending task. Trying to consistently improve yourself seems like a smart strategy in general, not just for a career. The important question to ask is not "how can I be as good or better than person X", but "how can I be a bit better today than I was yesterday". It seems like a small difference, but the effect is quite enormous.

I know I'll never be the best scientist in the world. I was never the best evolutionary biologist, never the best network scientist, not even the best digital epidemiologist. I won't be the best writer, the best blogger, the best pianist. And even though my kids tell me I'm the best dad in the world, I know I'll never be, because there are over a billion dads in the world, and surely some of them are better. And that's just fine with me, as long as I'm trying to be the best I can be. And if tomorrow, I'll try to be just a little bit better than I was today, everything will turn out all right in the end.




Rule 9: Have alternatives

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

This rule has carried me through both my academic and non-academic lives for two decades, and it's still going strong.

Having alternatives gives you peace of mind, and in my experience, peace of mind is what allows you to take that occasional extra risk that's necessary to excel at what you do, to innovate at a higher pace than what you'd be comfortable with in the absence of alternatives.

Having alternatives does not mean not being 100% committed to what you currently do. It simply means having that deep trust that tells you "even if things go totally wrong, I'll be fine. There will be something else".

Some people have that trust even when there are no obvious alternatives. I envy those people. Fundamentally, I think they are right. In the end, it'll be alright. In my dreams, I am as cool as that :-) But in my real life, I am not, and I love having a backup plan.

For somewhat random reasons, my backup plan has always involved web technologies. It's something I began playing with as an undergrad, and that I kept getting better at over the years, out of a fascination for the rapidly expanding web and all its implications. The day I realized these skills have serious market value was the day I became a much more relaxed and focused student of biology. I studied biology for the love of plants and animals, and I did my PhD in theoretical biology because I wanted to very deeply understand the most important idea in the world (evolution). I absolutely did what I loved, but it was also absolutely clear that the market for this kind of knowledge was virtually non-existent, and that having an alternative was necessary.

Asking people to reflect on alternative career paths is some kind of taboo - often used as a euphemism to suggest that they're not good enough at what they're doing. This is not at all what I mean when I invite people to reflect on alternatives; quite the opposite. Realizing that you have options is a great relief and brings back a sense of control. And because of that, it will most likely improve your ability to concentrate on what you're currently doing, enabling you to do the best work you possibly can.


Rule 8: Be visible

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

As indicated at the end of the last rule (networks, networks, networks), talking about your work and ideas is very important, and it gets more and more important by the day. 

Some of us have grown up in a culture that is deeply rooted in the exact opposite idea. When I grew up, I learned proverbs like "Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold" (speech is silver, silence is golden), or "Eigenlob stinkt" (self-praise stinks). I've written before that I think modest chronic under-confidence is much more harmful than modest chronic overconfidence, so here I'll focus exclusively on my belief that being quiet about your own work, in the hope that it'll be discovered because of its own merit, is a bad idea.

Ultimately, in order to be recognized for your work, it needs to be known. You need to be known. The traditional route is to publish in good journals, present at good conferences, and network with the right people. These are still very good ideas, precisely because they help you and your work be visible. But they are by no means the only routes. Today, there is a multitude of options that you can add to that arsenal, and amplify the effects of the traditional route. The most obvious one is public social media - in other words, Twitter. I didn't care too much about Facebook before the CA story, because at the end of the day, I don't need my "friends" to hear about my work - I need to reach everyone else. I strongly advise you to tweet, and tweet regularly; not just about your work, but generally interesting stuff. People follow other people if they think they are a good source of information. Try to be one.

The other extremely good way, and completely underutilized in my opinion, is to do interesting things on the web. There is no science that you could not somehow make more attractive on the web. Most of the work I do these days is fundamentally web-based, which makes things a little easier - it's already online by design. But even if you work in, say, molecular biology, you're only limited by your creativity with respect to what you can do on the web. Why don't you create that amazing website where you list your work, blog about it, blog about other people's work, create interactive visualizations of your models, write short tutorials on certain aspects about your work that you know is relevant to others? When you put in consistent effort into such things, you'll grow your visibility dramatically - often explosively, if something you did on the web goes viral for one reason or another.

Naturally, there is trade-off here, in the sense that you can only invest so much time in such visibility efforts. But when you think about it, the kinds of skills you'll learn doing that - mostly in the form of getting proficient with web technologies - are highly marketable, and will be extremely useful for the rest of your career. For PhD students, I would recommend to spend at least 10% of your time on doing this. It'll be worth it.


Rule 7: Networks, networks, networks

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

To get the job of your dreams, you need two things:

  • Have the right skills
  • Be at the right place, at the right time.

Most people know what is needed to meet the first criterion: education & talent. That one's easy to agree on.

What's harder is to agree on is how much the second point matters, and how you achieve that goal. Even die-hard fans of the idea that "I got here because I'm awesome and hard-working" are coming around to the idea that that's not the entire story. There are always people who are working harder, and are smarter than you, so other factors must be at play, too.

How to be at the right place, at the right time? Luck is one of the things that makes that happen. The problem with luck, of course, is that you can't do anything about it, by definition. "Just be lucky" isn't great advice. 

Better advice can be found by thinking about social networks. The small-world phenomenon - the observation that you are connected to everyone on the planet by just a few hops - is now well understood and described. In other words, there is always the "I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows about this fantastic opportunity" situation. But in order to take advantage of this situation, you can improve your position in the network, to be closer than others to such opportunities. 

This is what people usually mean when they say you should network. Honestly, I never understood exactly what they meant. "To network" seems like a verb, but it makes little sense. We are all part of the big human social network, so what exactly does it mean "to network"?

In my experience, to network productively means to try and get closer to interesting opportunities, and to interesting people (because interesting opportunities tend to cluster around interesting people). For that to happen, you need more connections to those people. One advice could therefore be to talk to as many people as possible. But that alone won't cut it - if you spend all your time socializing, and talking to new people, what will you tell them? That you are spending 100% of your time on socializing? Clearly, there is a trade-off between doing novel, interesting things, and talking to others about it. 

Importantly, the other extreme - doing 100% interesting work and 0% networking - is not a good idea either. Unfortunately, it remains some kind of ideal, especially in the academic world, where a lot of people continue to think that eventually, their work will speak for themselves. That is very, very rarely, if ever, the case. If you're doing great things, tell others about it!

The other benefit of networking with interesting people is not just to tell them about what you're doing, but to learn about what they and their contacts are doing. The number of interesting ideas one can get from a good social network is absolutely astounding.

So overall, I would argue you should network as much as possible, i.e. to talk about your work, and to get more ideas, where "as much as possible" means as long as it doesn't negatively impact your work. Coincidentally, this is why I am such a huge fan of Twitter - it's an extremely efficient way to talk about your work and ideas, and to get input from other people you find interesting. But that's something for the next rule.

Closing tidbit 1: My own introduction to social network theory was during a sociology class at Stanford, where the professor asked us to read work by a sociologist named Mark Granovetter on "how people get jobs". Pretty boring, I thought. But as I dug deeper, I came to learn about his fascinating findings that most people seem to get crucial information about job opportunities not from strong ties in the network (good friends and family), but predominantly through weak ties (i.e. acquaintances). This phenomenon has been observed in many other network phenomena. His paper "The strength of weak ties" has been cited over 45,000 times, and he's a strong contender for a Nobel.

Closing tidbit 2: The US Bureau of Labour Statistics says that 70 percent of jobs are found through networking.


Rule 6: Say no

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

Ask anyone in more advanced stages of their career about their biggest weaknesses in their professional lives, and you'll very often hear the phrase "I say yes too often".

So here is a simple rule: say no more often.

It sounds like bad advice. Shouldn't we be more open? Shouldn't we welcome new opportunities? Shouldn't we be excited if we are asked for input? Yes! Yes, we should be, but the more choices we have, the more selective we have to be.

Your time is very limited. Your time of full concentration is even more limited. The real problem is that for every yes, you're taking away your resources from other things that you also said yes to. If you say yes to too many things, you either won't be able to give your projects the attention they need, or you'll disappoint people you said yes to previously (or both). Either way, it's bad.

"But isn't my CV more impressive if it has lots of stuff on it? The more, the better?" you may ask, especially early in your career. The advice I'd give here is the same as the advice I'd give on how to prepare a presentation - most people will be able to take away one thing from it, a few may be able to walk away with 2-3 things. That's it. I think the same is true for a CV - after some basic vetting, you will be mainly associated with one thing that you did exceptionally well. The thing that truly stood out. The thing nobody else did.

This reminds me of one of the many great pieces of startup advice that YC gives: "We often say that a small group of customers who love you is better than a large group who kind of like you." I would argue the same is true when people decide whether to hire you or fund you. If everybody feels OK about your work, you're in trouble. If you have a few people who love one or two things you did extremely well, you'll be doing much better - they'll be your champions. I know this flies in the face of the advice some people give, especially in academia, which boils down to "just be sure to have all checkboxes ticked off, and don't show any weaknesses". All I can say is these people are wrong. Of course, if you're looking to spend your working life at incredibly boring places, you should follow these rules. Which, coincidentally, reminds me of yet another great piece of advice I heard around YC: When looking for brilliant people, look for the presence of strength, not the absence of weakness.

What does this have to do with saying no? Simple: you can't do something great unless you devote very large chunks of time on it. With every yes, you dilute yourself. So be careful when you say yes. Say yes only to things you can absolutely commit to, and no to everything else. Don't feel bad about saying no - you're really saying yes again to the things that you've already committed to.

Rule 5: get on board with tech

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

This is one of the simpler rules, but I still find it surprising that even young people don't seem to grasp the extent to which technology is absolutely central in every job of the future (and increasingly of the present). Not being able to write and read code, and to understand how the web and computers work, at a fairly good level, will increasingly be the same as not being able to read and write.

Part of the reason, I suppose, has to do with the fact that it's currently very popular to take the contrarian view - you can find op-ed pieces saying "don't learn to code". The best advice I can give is to completely ignore these pieces. If you bother looking up some of these articles, you will almost invariably find that they are written by people who have made a great career based on their very ability to code. It's really simple: those who understand and shape technology will lead, the rest will follow.

Of course, not everyone who can program will be a programmer, just like not everyone who can write will become a writer.

A slight extension of this rule is to fully embrace technology. I am not saying that all technology is always good, nor would I say generally that the more technology, the better. We can argue about this forever, but there is a clear historical pattern you must be aware of: there has always been more technology at time t+1, than at time t. Fully embracing  technology is the only way to be able to deal with it. Even if you come to the conclusion that a given technology is bad (for whatever reason), you will be much better equipped to criticize it if you fully understand it.

So, get on board with tech. It's not optional anymore.



Rule 4: Surround yourself with people who are better than you

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

There's a saying that I love: if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room. 

As much as you will grow professionally on your own, I strongly believe that a large part - perhaps even the largest part - of your growth will come from the people you are surrounded by. 

One way to look at this is the following: imagine that you will become the average of the five people you are surrounded by the most. I don't think this way of thinking is too far away from the truth. As a consequence, if you are surrounded by people who are in some ways better than you, then that means that you will be able to learn a lot from them, and grow. The opposite is also true, hence the saying that if you are the smartest person in the room, you should really find another room.

This doesn't feel natural to most of us. It certainly doesn't feel natural to me. For most of us, the feeling of being the smartest person in the room gives us a cozy feeling; a feeling of being in control of the situation; a feeling that there is nothing to worry about. But in reality, you should actually be worried, because it means you are not growing as much as you could.

On the flip side, being the least smart person in the room can be quite painful (notice that I use smart here somewhat liberally, not necessarily to mean intelligent, but simply to be very good at something). In my experience, the ability to stand this pain is an extreme booster for anything you do. Whether it's personal development, scientific research, sports, arts: if you surround yourself with people who are better than you, you will grow. 

When I was younger, I had a phase where I was ambitious enough to become a decent squash player. At some point, one of my work colleagues at the time invited me to go and play squash with him. Never in my life was I so humiliated doing sports. I did not stand a chance against this guy. Nevertheless, it became obvious very quickly that I had never learned faster, and more, than playing against him. By playing against someone who was better than me, again and again, my own game improved dramatically. And ironically, my aspirations of becoming a decent squash player eventually came true (that was a long time ago ;-).

Another mantra that is relevant here, and that I am sure you have heard many times before, is to get out of your comfort zone. The idea here is exactly the same: by challenging yourself - truly challenging yourself so that it feels uncomfortable - you will build the resilience and strength that is important for growth. 

So don't be afraid to feel stupid. Feeling stupid is a sure sign that you are exposing yourself to things you don't know. Feeling stupid is an opportunity to learn. A great read in this regard is the timeless essay The importance of stupidity in scientific research.

Rule 3: Enthusiasm makes up for a lot

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

As mentioned in the first rule - do novel, interesting things - eighty percent of success is showing up, according to Woody Allen. Another famous quote is "success is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration" (attributed to Edison). Both of these quotes ring very true to me. And what you need in order to keep showing up, and to keep perspiring, is enthusiasm and drive.

Enthusiasm makes up for a lot. Not for everything, but for a lot. The best people I've worked with were deeply enthusiastic about the things they were working on. The vast majority of us are not born genius. But with enthusiasm, we can come as close as possible. Enthusiasm makes us continue in the face of difficulty, and failure. Enthusiasm keeps us going through the rough spots, which we will inevitably hit. Enthusiasm is contagious.

The advice here is not so much a simple "be enthusiastic", but rather, that if you don't feel deep enthusiasm for a particular thing, it's going to be very challenging. On the flip side, if you do feel deep enthusiasm for something, but don't feel you can compete with others in terms of brilliance, don't let that discourage you. By consistently showing up, and by continuing to work hard on it, you will eventually get farther than most.

Because enthusiasm is contagious, be sure to surround yourself with people that are truly enthusiastic about the things they're working on. Which brings us to next rule: if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.

Rule 2: If you can't decide, choose change

(This post is part of a bigger list of rules that I have found helpful for thinking about a career, and beyond. See this post for an explainer).

It took me about 30 years to figure this out, but ever since I stumbled on it, I've found it applicable to any situation. 

We need to make decisions every single day, and it seems that much of the career angst that befalls all of us from time to time is based on the fear that we could make the wrong decisions. Decisions are easy when the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages (or the other way around). When things get tricky is when the balance is not as clear, and when the lists of potential positives and negatives add up to roughly the same. The inability to make a decision is one of the most dreadful feelings.

Whenever I am in such a situation where I can't decide because all options seem roughly equal, I choose the one that represents most change.

Here's why: on a path that is dotted with making decisions, you are inevitably going to have regrets down the line. There are two possible types of regrets; in the first one, you regret a path not taken; in the second, you regret having taken a path. My philosophy is to avoid the "path not taken" regret. It's the worse kind of regret. You will at times have regrets about having taken the wrong path - but at least you took the bloody path! It meant change, and it was probably exciting, at least for a while. Even if it turns out to have been the wrong decision, you've learned something new.

As far as we know, we only have this one life. Explore! Thus: when in doubt, choose change.