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Mar 17, 2009

Learning the AI behind the New Facebook, LinkedIn Needs to Adapt

A minor riot has erupted at Gawker, Techcrunch, and at Facebook over recent changes. Most incorrectly compare Facebook to Twitter. 

Let's bring clarity to this simple, but far reaching change by Facebook.

Background Information

I wrote CAT (i.e. contacts, activities, and time) in 1984. I studied AI (i.e. artificial intelligence) at MIT in the late '60s. I've written several posts about Facebook and LinkedIn that have been read by tens of thousands. Thus, I may be a little more qualified than the average commenter, but probably not much ;-)

Facebook overcame huge technology complexities and scalability issues to deliver a new Facebook. With my personal background, I prepped my use of Facebook for this expected change. 

The results have been personally magical.

Facebook friends and Twitter followers

Whether friends at Facebook or LinkedIn; or followers at Twitter, the average list has creeped, leaped from dozens to hundreds to thousands - to unmanageable noise. We may have started with friends, but the list quickly grew to include acquaintences, suspects, fans, and absolute strangers. 

Twitter aims to serve networks of strangers. Compare to email spam lists, it's easy to build and maintain the list. Users can opt-out by un-following, without contacting the sender. 

That's the big Twitter story.

As I write, my Twitter list has grown from a few hundred to over 3,000 - in 3 days. By the end of this week, I'll have 10,000 - just like hundreds of other Twitter users - but perhaps a little more accelerated using robotic help. That's not the Facebook or LinkedIn mission.

Facebook and LinkedIn constrains connecting. Users have to confirm the relationship via knowing the other party's email. However, for many users, their list has creeped into thousands of friends anyway. 

As Facebook opens the flood-gates on the number of friends, some fear that Facebook will become another Twitter. (or worse, Myspace)

How do we prevent the Facebook feed  from becoming a torrent of noise like Twitter? 

Read on.

AI Basics Apply

In AI, we use programs to simulate the behavior of the human mind - using very limited programming methods. How does the mind store information?

Have you ever said, "top right drawer" in response to a question? The mind seems to map thousands of things into geographic cabinets.

How do we recall people? Have you ever met an old friend in a different setting and struggled to recall the name? A soccer coach at the theater in San Francisco or a work acquaintence dressed in shorts at a park?

The mind groups friends, events, and phases in your life. When reminded of some piece, whole scenes, conversations, and events can replay in your mind. When presented with a Doo Wop song, dozens of others come to mind. Without the stimulus, that section of the human storage stays dormant, forgotten.

What Does This Have to Do with the Facebook Change?

I meander. The answer is simple.
  • Go to the Friends section of Facebook and create folders that Facebook calls lists. 
  • Start with simple lists like family, friends, work, church, sex partners, whatever...
  • The folders can also be chronological by schools, towns, or places where you have lived.
  • Start putting friends into lists. A friend can be parts of multiple lists. The list does not have to be exhaustive - meaning absolutely finding everyone among the thousands. Conversely, not every friend needs to belong to a list. 
  • I have a list called Misc for people who asked to connect who I didn't know. That list is half of my Facebook contacts. As I've gotten to know people, I move them to other folders.
  • I have a dozen lists. You can have more or less.
Once you've put a dozen names in each list, take another look at the new Facebook feed. Click on the lists on the left. Facebook calls them filters. It's really messages by friend groups.

Be pleasantly surprised by the result. 

Each list brings new meaning to the streams. Work tells you what associates are thinking. AYSO brings up the soccer chatter among friends. And the Boston brings back the memories from 30 years ago at MIT. The mind stimulates and adjusts as you scan the chatter in each list.


Try it. Tell me what you see in your streams.

And LinkeIn, it's time you stepped up and solve the technical challenge to do the same.

PS: Writers at Techcrunch, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, AlleyInsider, etc - feel free to link and acknowledge the source, this time. Thanks.

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