Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Yelp and how dumb is social media

Yelp sent me the following email. Now what is interesting is the idea that Yelp might have a hunch, which imp lies some kind of AI. And the hunch seems to be about me.

Well actually I have not had brunch in a restraunt ever in my life. I might actually love brunch because I have never ever gone out to have it. It has never crossed my mind to have brunch.

Its not that I am ignorant of brunch, for a year I worked as a waiter at a place that did one of the biggest brunch trades in the Chicago area. I have very familiar with the practice of brush, of what is eaten in brunch and of when it is eaten.

The thing that strikes me in this email, as in so many other social media effort to understand me is how not only is it wrong, but like Facebook and Twitter recommends it actually contradicts my own clearly expressed interests.

Anyone who knew me well enough to have a hunch on me, even if it was an AI tracking me on social networks, would clearly know that I have a tendency to hiking on Saturdays. Rather than having a tongue feeling like wall paper and a empty pantry I am far more likely to be out on trail in the green belt around London. Anyone who followed my fairly regular posting to Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and blogger would notice this pattern. Saturdays I generally stop posting, because I am out of mobile service reach, if I post post photos of nature or photos from various locations within and around London when I can't walk in the woods because of rain.

So its pretty clear that Yelp has no hunch at all about me. Okay its a marketing email. No sin there.

But the problem is that this email illustrates the key problem about social network services. Social network services from Facebook to SharePoint talk a big talk about understanding social networks they manage, but do nothing about it. Their data is held in extremely dumb networks and their conclusions about users are at best shallow and often stupid.

Now for civil libertarians such as myself this is not a bad thing at all. Its probably a good thing that computers really can't understand our motives given all the facts about us that are being gathered. If software could understand us, well the prospects for democracy go pretty dim pretty quick.  I believe that smart computers that understand social networks can be a danger to our democracy, and may need to be regulated if they ever emerge.

But why does social networks feel the need to lie about understanding me. Why not just be honest and say we offer you a communication channel that you can use as you want and nothing more? Why imply you have some social intelligence you don't have?

My observations from watching online dating market is that this is precisely the question more and more social network users are asking. Online dating services used to advertise that they somehow would help you find the right person. This false promise only lead to high levels of disappointment by users. Now more and more online dating is selling itself on availability and access not intelligence.

My vision of social computing is pretty simple, computer can not understand people in a reliable way that will mean much to any given user. But computers can make resources of communication and search available to users who can then use the tools to make the social patterns they need. The human genius has to be enabled, not replaced.