Notes to my younger self

I recently heard someone on a podcast ask a guest, "what advice would you give to your younger self"? The question was rhetorical, of course, as the younger self clearly missed the chance to listen to any advice, but I thought it was a nice way of soliciting condensed advice based on years of life experience. And naturally, I started thinking, what advice would I give? After some reflection, I decided to write it down in small, bit-sized blog posts. It's not going to be useful to me - but in the same way that I occasionally find other people's advice very useful, I hope this may be of use to someone else (hey there!).

Come to think of it, "advice" may be the wrong word here - let's go with "ways to think about the world based on some things I've experienced". I'll keep this list going and growing for a while. Whatever reason brings you here, I hope one of those may change the way you look at certain things in a way that benefits you. That'll already have made it worth it (#payingitforward).

1. Medidate



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.