Archive for March, 2019

New Facebook tool answers the question “Why am I seeing this post?”

Facebook announced today that it is adding a feature called “Why am I seeing this post?” to News Feeds. Similar to “Why am I seeing this ad?,” which has appeared next to advertisements since 2014, the new tool has a dropdown menu that gives users information about why that post appeared in their News Feed, along with links to personalization controls. Meant to give users more transparency into how Facebook’s News Feed algorithm works, the update comes as the company copes with several major events that have highlighted the platform’s shortcomings, including potentially harmful ones. These include its role in enabling the dissemination of a video taken during the shooting attacks on New Zealand mosques two weeks ago, which were originally broadcast using Facebook Live; a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that accuses Facebook’s ad-targeting tool of violating the Fair Housing Act and its role in spreading misinformation and propaganda (after years of complaints and criticism, Facebook recently announced plans to downrank anti-vaccination posts and ban white nationalist content. Facebook’s announcement says this is the first time its “built information on how ranking works directly into the app.” Users will be able to access “Why am I seeing this post?” as a dropdown menu in the right hand corner of posts from friends, Pages and Groups in their News Feed that displays information about how its algorithm decided to rank the post, including: Why you’re seeing a certain post in your News Feed — for example, if the post is from a friend you made, a Group you joined, or a Page you followed. What information generally has the largest influence over the order of posts, including: (a) how often you interact with posts from people, Pages or Groups; (b) how often you interact with a specific type of post, for example, videos, photos or links; and (c) the popularity of the posts shared by the people, Pages and Groups you follow. The same menu will also include links to personalization options, including See First, Unfollow, News Feed Preferences and Privacy Shortcuts. The company’s blog post said that “during our research on ‘Why am I seeing this post?,’ people told us that transparency into News Feed algorithms wasn’t enough without corresponding controls.” “Why am I seeing this ad,” a similar feature that launched in 2014, will be updated with to include more information. For example, it will tell users if an ad appeared in their News Feed because a company uploaded their contact lists, like emails or phone numbers, or if they worked with a marketing partner to place the ad.

We don’t need no education?

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, and I’ve been watching the rise of Lambda School — which I think is fantastic, incidentally — and the combination has me wondering two things: how educated do software engineers need to be? And how well does that map to what they actually learn from formal education? Let’s step back and define some terms before we try to answer those. First, by “formal” education I generally mean a four-year accredited university, whereas people with eg Lambda School or boot camps behind them are “informally” educated, and in turn distinguished from autodidacts. This is not universal. Early Google didn’t seem to consider anyone with less than a masters “formally” educated. Second, of course there’s no absolute need. Since the dawn of the first vacuum tube, and very much including hardcore grotty stuff like compilers and cryptography, software has been a field in which people with no formal training whatsoever have thrived and succeeded wildly. Obviously neither a formal nor an informal education is actually necessary. What we’re actually asking is: in general, is there reason to believe software engineers with formal educations are better hires? Note that, speaking as an employer, I don’t actually care whether this is due to selection bias, i.e. whether it’s because capable people are more likely to be formally educated or because they actually learned from it. I’m happy to accept that the entire university system in any country, especially yours, is deeply and increasingly pathological, unfairly and jealously hierarchical, terrifyingly high-priced, and deeply flawed at credentialing and capability signaling. That’s a big deal to me personally … but when wearing my hiring hat, I don’t care about how that credentialing sausage is made. All I’m interested in, when I’m interviewing, is: are those signals meaningful? Are those people more or less likely to succeed, or make a mess I will subsequently have to clean up? It’s awfully hard to find applicable statistics here, let alone any whose compilers didn’t have some implicit axe to grind. And of course I have my own biases: I have a four-year degree, from a (Canadian) school outside the hierarchy of the (American) nation in which I live, but with a strong international reputation (Waterloo), in a field (electrical engineering) only somewhat associated with software development. I used to ask an interview question or few about theory. One of my go-to questions used to be: “Do you have a favorite algorithm, and why?” I’ve stopped asking it, because the answer is almost always some variant of “no.” Even those who have formally studied algorithms rarely care about them. Sometimes I get some variant of “I know what an algorithm is, but I’ve never actually written one.” That’s not surprising. A whole lot of modern software engineering consists of connecting pre-existing components in slightly new ways. “Algorithms,” as we usually understand them, come baked into our tools and libraries. Does a formal education in big-O notation and Turing machines help at all? Short […]