Partner Intelligence Group
March 23, 2016 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I’m typing this on February 27, 2016. Today was my last day at Facebook. I turned in my badge and my laptop and I walked onto Willow Road with a flash drive containing the images you’ll see below.

Note from Robin:
This saga appeared in my secure dropbox late last month, along with a plea to post it on Facebook today in exactly the format you see here. I gather I’m not the only one to have received those instructions. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the story, but I thought it was certainly weird and interesting enough to share.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (75 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's a great story! Thanks for sharing it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:21 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


you have to periodically reboot these systems, and also send an inverted tachyon pulse to the server room
posted by thelonius at 9:25 AM on March 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I want to google J.R. to see if she's real SO BAD, but I refuse to help this thing.

Related note, I watched the pilot of the Minority Report TV show and boy, is it terrible.
posted by radicalawyer at 9:28 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Someone at Facebook should use this to query "Radiohead" and let me know when LP9 is going to be released.
posted by Diskeater at 9:29 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


No, you just have to clean out the fan. The system is overheating, that's speeding up the clock so it's in the future.

Clean the fan, swap out the filter, reset the clock and it'll be like nothing will have happened yet.
posted by eriko at 9:29 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


I enjoyed this quite a bit.... clever bit of story telling....
posted by ph00dz at 9:31 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


WG fanfic?
posted by mumimor at 9:31 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Excellent build up, creepy denouement. FB is everywhere and knows everything.
posted by correcaminos at 9:35 AM on March 23, 2016


I was on a longish layover in Dubi a few months ago and an incredible nerdy young woman executive at the bar got going on how there was going to be a huge meltdown in the Facebook datacenters. Didn't think of it as anything but a bit of disgruntled ranting, but she did have a monogrammed carry on. Later on I heard sirens and the local constables are pretty intense so I stayed in my room. Rushing to make my connection the next morning I recognized a couple of financial types from the bar arguing, all I could hear was "Who Shot JR"? I thought they were on some old TV discussion but, Julie Rubicon?
posted by sammyo at 9:36 AM on March 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


This feels like fiction.
posted by clockzero at 9:36 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Publishing the story on the Ides of March was a nice touch, given the Rubicon reference.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:36 AM on March 23, 2016 [20 favorites]


That was impressive.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:37 AM on March 23, 2016


Nice. Reminds me of this story as Twitter bug report.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:38 AM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


WHAT DID ENCHILADA SAY ABOUT THE ELECTION?!?!? ;)
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 9:39 AM on March 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


That's a well-written piece of short fiction which fits perfectly with the zeitgeist. I hope we see more from Robin Sloan soon.
posted by Triplanetary at 9:39 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Julie... Rubicon. Really.
posted by boo_radley at 9:40 AM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


It'd be funny if Robin Sloan started to spike way more than Julie Rubicon. ROBIN SLOAN ROBIN SLOAN ROBIN SLOAN ROBIN SLOAN ROBIN SLOAN!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:41 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I liked Robin Sloan's bestseller Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore (which has some of the same magical realism style in this piece) better as a short story than as a full novel. I hope he doesn't stretch this piece into a novel as well because I suspect the same would be true.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:44 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


I first read that as "my last day on Facebook" and thought someone was being fairly dramatic. Not unusually so though.

I liked Robin Sloan's bestseller Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore

Oh, that’s why it felt familiar. Not my favorite book.
posted by bongo_x at 9:46 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is an enjoyable piece of fiction, but I do kinda wish that it was clearly labeled as such at the beginning (not referring to the MeFi post here, but to the story itself). I came across this story via a link somewhere else, where I do a daily skim of industry news, and it took me a few minutes to realize that it wasn't real. Not that it's not enjoyable, but if I knew it was fiction I probably would have saved it for later reading.
posted by primethyme at 9:47 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]


Like most other people have mentioned, this is certainly fiction. Besides being well written, though, it's compelling because it feels like it could be on the cusp of being true. Like any good near-term sci-fi, it seems within our mental grasp. Being able to "accurately" predict the future given the vast amounts of data under Facebook's control, coupled with the rapidly evolving work in AI and machine learning, just feels right in terms of what could come to pass.

Of course, it may not be Facebook. It could be Google. It could be a startup, or the NSA, or a few machine learning grad students huddled around a laptop late one night. It feels tantalizing—and scary. Good job, Mr. Sloan.
posted by redct at 9:47 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's the data-science version of Primer.
posted by uberchet at 9:53 AM on March 23, 2016 [10 favorites]


The graph doesn't exactly end at October 2016, but rather on November 8th, 2016, when history ends.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 9:53 AM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Of course, it may not be Facebook. It could be Google.

"Could be." Yup.
posted by Etrigan at 10:00 AM on March 23, 2016


This is an enjoyable piece of fiction, but I do kinda wish that it was clearly labeled as such at the beginning

It's unfortunate it wasted time that you otherwise would have preferred only to spend judiciously and industriously reading true things you randomly found linked on the internet, but when the conceit of the piece is that it's not fiction, you can hardly expect the author to slap a 'warning: fiction' on the top of it.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:01 AM on March 23, 2016 [19 favorites]


The graph doesn't exactly end at October 2016, but rather on November 8th, 2016, when history ends.

Now that would be a good thriller to follow up this story. A few people in the world know the exact date when civilization is going to end. They can't tell anyone directly because: a) their masters won't let them. b) no one would believe them and they'd just get lumped in with the rest of the conspiracy freaks.

So they casually drop the date into threads across the Internet. Places where it's just a joke. Never any place where it would get a lot of attention, but doing it enough times so the date becomes a slow viral spread into the collective subconscious.
posted by honestcoyote at 10:02 AM on March 23, 2016 [8 favorites]


Also, excellence for acronyms - Notorious PIG.
posted by prodigalsun at 10:03 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's unfortunate it wasted time that you otherwise would have preferred only to spend judiciously and industriously reading true things you randomly found linked on the internet

I think that's an uncharitable reading.
posted by Etrigan at 10:03 AM on March 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


I did not get a chance to read it all the way through, I was busy with the Puma account. Or was it the Penske file?
posted by AugustWest at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2016


Does this count as creepypasta?
posted by wormwood23 at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Speculative tech fiction is fun. See also: Single Point of Failure: The (Fictional) Day Google Forgot To Check Passwords
posted by odinsdream at 10:15 AM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


This unit almost certainly exists within Facebook, but there is absolutely no way it only has three staffers.

Great story, though.
posted by lunasol at 10:24 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


jacquilynne: "It's unfortunate it wasted time that you otherwise would have preferred only to spend judiciously and industriously reading true things you randomly found linked on the internet, but when the conceit of the piece is that it's not fiction, you can hardly expect the author to slap a 'warning: fiction' on the top of it."

This seems a little unfair, especially in light of the very contentious Metatalk thread six months ago about the exact issue of whether fiction should be labeled.
posted by crazy with stars at 10:35 AM on March 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


It is WG fanfic. Bit clumsy, too. But the copying of stylistic conceits... who but a WG character (or a wannabe one) would discover that a large corporate computer system was accurately predicting the future and then spend the day "haunting the roof of MPK20, feeling jangly and nervous, staring out across the bay"?
posted by holist at 10:41 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I like it, it's quite a good read. I adore the way it builds tension in a setting like the Facebook office (listed company, open and public) -- a rather 'macro' setting in which the characters there have vast amount of information on their fingertips vis a vis micro ones like some small town with a secret or a creepy abandoned building.
posted by tirta-yana at 10:42 AM on March 23, 2016


Slate claims it is fiction... now I'm not so sure. Isn't the first line of defense by the global corporate megoliths to first discredit?
posted by sammyo at 10:47 AM on March 23, 2016


I really enjoyed that. Thanks for posting!
posted by davidjmcgee at 10:49 AM on March 23, 2016


>It is WG fanfic.

Humorous to say, Google thinks that "WG fanfic" stands for "weight gain fanfic" which is an entire genre I had no idea existed until five minutes ago; clearly William Gibson has already vanished from meatspace. Didn't Richard Power have a similar kind of predictive analytics story, maybe in Plowing the Dark, where the forward-simulation ends on a specific date?

I'm just going to whine here and say the denouement to Mr Penumbra was highly disappointing, as the McGuffin turns out to map to a simple substitution cipher, which had earlier been proven to be impossible (the ciphertext is indistinguishable from white noise). otoh the text could have been an encryption key, and that would have been more interesting, since then you'd have to figure out what/where the ciphertext actually was. Lost opportunity plus a real misunderstanding of encryption = annoying.
posted by PandaMomentum at 11:05 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Good fic, but I wish the author had spent a little more effort on the graphs. That super-flat line, with no gain or loss or spikes other than the big one? Nonsense. They really pulled me out of the story.
posted by YAMWAK at 11:08 AM on March 23, 2016 [15 favorites]


I like the story, but the funny thing is right up until it got to the testing of the predictive process, I assumed it was an expose showing that Facebook fabricates trends rather than reporting them.

Man, the tinfoil hat needs some adjusting.
posted by Mooski at 11:14 AM on March 23, 2016 [17 favorites]


I agree about the graphs, YAMWAK! None of them have any normal level of fluctuation whatsoever.
posted by tofu_crouton at 11:22 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, does this more or less imply that Robin Sloan is also the author of Iterating Grace?
posted by tofu_crouton at 11:24 AM on March 23, 2016


Robin Sloan ran this little thing through his mailing list, where he'd hand write you a letter, answer a question.

Out of this event I got recommended Stacy Shiff's biography on St. Exupery, and I cannot thank the dude enough for it. I'm a flat out fan. Annabel Scheme and Mr. Penumbra as well as his shorter works.
posted by DigDoug at 11:26 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Best derministic data analytics fiction I've read this week.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:16 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Is there a way to read this not on Facebook? I'm curious, but I'm not unblocking 27 domains just to see.

I did like Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore so I'd probably like this.
posted by sidereal at 12:17 PM on March 23, 2016


I'm pretty sure the reference is to Rubicon. Great series, terminated too soon (like all my favorite series). Titles, trailer.
posted by languagehat at 12:17 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I live in a giant bucket!
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 12:29 PM on March 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


I've been wondering all day how on earth to interpret this as a weight gain fanfic. Thank you PandaMomentum!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:32 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


yeah, those graph displays couldn't possibly mirror a real trends data on Facebook, right? like, Google Trends for major corporations are going to rise and fall depending on whichever advertising campaign they have going. Volkswagen, too, is going to rise and fall as more and more details about their scandal are released and investigations conclude

pushes up glasses so far that my face explodes
posted by runt at 12:33 PM on March 23, 2016


I keep trying to figure out what the graph of a search for "Basilisk" would return.
posted by jermsplan at 12:33 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


jacquilynne: "It's unfortunate it wasted time that you otherwise would have preferred only to spend judiciously and industriously reading true things you randomly found linked on the internet, but when the conceit of the piece is that it's not fiction, you can hardly expect the author to slap a 'warning: fiction' on the top of it."

I understand what you're saying, but in a way this is my complaint with this genre of fiction: I don't want to read it, but I cannot avoid doing so. I actually do want to spend my time reading true things that I read on the internet, and I like coming to MeFi and similar places to find them. I'd have been interested in a personal narrative of someone working inside the weirder parts of facebook, even a melodramatic one, but that's of course not what I got.

With this piece, as with pretty much every other example of this genre I've been suckered into reading, I get some distance into the story before the various bits of dissonance all come together and I realise I'm reading yet another bait-and-switch story (this one fell apart quite quickly, admittedly). I imagine for some people that feeling of revelation is kind of fun, and that must be part of why they like the genre? I just feel annoyed, tired and flat out lied to. If I want to read fiction I'll go looking for fiction. The "conceit" of this and similar pieces is that it's okay to lie to the audience with the express purpose of taking control over their choices, not within the fictitious world that the author has created, but in the real world in which I am reading the piece. I have no idea why other people like this, but it's clearly something that doesn't bug other people in the way it bugs me. For myself I feel entirely justified in thinking this isn't a work of fiction so much as a work of trolling.
posted by langtonsant at 1:40 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


man, I was hoping it would be real dirt on facebook
posted by ryanrs at 2:08 PM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


this is my complaint with this genre of fiction: I don't want to read it, but I cannot avoid doing so.

I dunno, it seems pretty obviously fantastical from the get-go. It's short and silly, and it suffers from the same shortcoming as Mr. Penumbra (the lack of a real ending), but I can't imagine going past the second image and thinking I was still reading nonfiction.
posted by psoas at 2:52 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Since they are a main plot device of the story, I allowed myself to be bothered by the graphs.

1) It appears that the sampling rate decreases during the "spike" periods. There's no reason for it to.
2) I agree with the person that noted that the non-spike distributions are too stationary.
3) Instead of plastering "Note: Y-axis is always millions of mentions per day" on the first graph, just label the darn axis, pretty please.
posted by sloafmaster at 3:09 PM on March 23, 2016


I knew it was fiction as soon as she mentioned the baby gear company. NOBODY is naming a baby gear company Vernix.
posted by KathrynT at 3:22 PM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]


Kathryn T (or mods) please label that vernix link as a bare image, and not (as I naively imaged it to be) a text description of the term. Thankyou.
posted by Faintdreams at 4:45 PM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


This might have been better if the Twitter-time-machine story from a few years back (and linked above) didn't already explore the same concept in a more satisfying manner.
posted by chrominance at 4:50 PM on March 23, 2016


Is there a name for this kind of new myth makin?

I've been listening to the a few docudrama/fiction podcasts recently that blur the line between fact and fiction quite nicely and I was just wondering if it's a new phenomenon, because there are people who take these new myths and conspiracies and seem to whole heartedly run with them.
posted by Faintdreams at 4:50 PM on March 23, 2016


I considered this 100% real and well within the bounds of Silicon Valleys WTF-ness.

I am relieved it is fiction, although it wouldn't surprise me if some enterprising engineer is now trying to implement it.
posted by delight at 4:53 PM on March 23, 2016


Thinking more about this one, I agree that this was unsubtle: the graphs are unrealistic, the names are silly, even the writing comes across as an overly melodramatic cyberpunk story. However, I don't think that's germane to the question of whether the reader should be expected to extend any charity to the author: in real life I am just as unforgiving of bad liars as good ones.

Plus there is the fact that what is obvious to one person is not obvious to another: for me the graphs here were a dead giveaway because I have seen so many empirical data sets that the fakeness pops right out. But not everyone shares my experience. I feel that it would be unkind of me to expect everyone to spot the lie based on this knowledge, but so many defences of these pieces take the "I spotted it: you're a sucker if you got fooled" line. I don't understand why: in other situations we just blame the liar for being a jerk and leave it at that.

And of course... it is still the case that I was fooled. Not into believing the piece, but I was lured into reading something that I'm not interested in. Regardless of how quickly I detect the deception the author has achieved their goal, because that is the essence of the genre: force people read a work of fiction by announcing it with a real world lie. This is where I find the defence of the genre to be unconvincing. It does not matter to me that the lie is easy to spot (as it was in this instance), my problem is with the fact that I was lied to in the first place and that the person who called it to my attention chose to participate in that lie. I don't take kindly to that.

At its heart, this genre rests on the premise that it is okay (or fun) to attach a real world lie to a work of fiction. Outside of "urban legends" (which I hate for precisely the same reason) few other genres work that way: we maintain a clear contextual distinction between the real world and the fictive one, and we understand that this is for a good reason. Having the reader implicitly agree to suspend disbelief beforehand allows the author to tell lies without causing the reader to distrust them. This genre breaks that convention entirely, and there are consequences to that: if you write this sort of story, and if you pass it on to others while preserving the lie, you lose the right to use "it's just a story!" as a defence. Some people will be pissed at you and they have every right to be. If you want to tell a story - and to be evaluated as a storyteller - you must obey the real world conventions that attach to stories. This genre does not, and it is the reason I think of it as trolling and not fiction.
posted by langtonsant at 5:03 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


This thread commentary dovetails nicely with the engineering-causing-terrorism discussion.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 5:44 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I actually do want to spend my time reading true things that I read on the internet

You should google the pears/bears confusion behind the California state flag.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:46 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Obviously fiction; Facebook employees find glass into the future, but don't use it to sell shit to your friends in some minutely-defensible-but-creepy-overall way.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:08 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've likely already posted this, but wth...

__FaceBook prediction #312__
By 2034, of the 28% of FB users reported to be deceased, 19% will provide "click farm" jobs for 90.3 million children in developing nations. The actual number of "active" deceased users will be unknown and any reliable approximation known only to FB's legal department and a closely guarded trade secret.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 6:17 PM on March 23, 2016


Hm. I finally noticed that on Robin Sloan explicitly identifies as a writer on their FB page. That makes a difference to me actually. A fiction writer posting something like that on their own FB page isn't actually engaging in that shitty "no no this is really real" behaviour that I dislike so much. I do think that it is a little unfortunate that this context got stripped out in the process of sharing, but that's less about the original story and probably not really relevant to a comment thread on the blue, so I'll let it go. I'm still frustrated, but when seen in its correct context I don't think that Sloan did anything wrong here.
posted by langtonsant at 6:23 PM on March 23, 2016


I'm a big fan of Clif High, and the web bot project he runs.... which purports to do something similar to the MacGuffin in this story, "Enchilada". He talks about the problems inherent in knowing the words that are going to be used in conversation, but not the context... just like this story.

Thanks for a fun read!
posted by MikeWarot at 7:14 PM on March 23, 2016


What was especially neat about this story is that I read it earlier today when it was shared on the internal chat system of my new job, at a tech company that's very web-2.0-compliant cloud-based B2B. (It's actually a very nice company to work for and I enjoy what I do, but my goodness does it tick several stereotypical boxes.) So at first I thought it was just another tech article about why someone had come to some decision about some business process. The gradual realization was fun.

But also, as to the graphs, they were pretty believable to me. And I think that's a side-effect of going from grad school, where graphs mattered, to the private sector where I've looked at way too many Trendy Cloud Services machine-generated Datahound analytics dashboards with unlabeled axes and way too much binning and spline smoothing. I believe that's a side effect of visualization tools based on taking unbounded streams of text-encoded numbers and turning them into a halfway-readable graph without needing a lot of configuration and error handling and whatnot. Even if it does mean the graphs are only ever halfway-meaningful. Sadly, the plots in this story are not at all unrepresentative of what people at a modern web-based tech company might be looking at.
posted by traveler_ at 7:16 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


NOBODY is naming a baby gear company Vernix.

Challenge accepted!
posted by The Tensor at 7:43 PM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


hal varian, google's chief economist, does (something like ;) this! here's the slides from a talk (@~30m) he gave a few years ago :P (not sure how alphago is doing!)
posted by kliuless at 9:12 PM on March 23, 2016


Ah, the old Chrono Trigger gambit. And so, the term spikes because the term spikes. Wibblus Wobblus Tempus Wempus.
posted by BiggerJ at 2:16 AM on March 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Serious question: the article opens on my Facebook home page and looks unlike anything I've ever seen on Facebook before. What is this black magic?
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:14 PM on March 24, 2016


It's the new version of Facebook's old Notes feature.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:42 PM on March 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Great story. Thanks for sharing.
posted by mgupta0 at 11:27 PM on March 24, 2016


Oh, also for people more in the know: my book club read Mr. Penumbra on the advice of our YA-librarian member and she described it as something like "young adult interest" - meaning it's not technically YA (that is, it's more like "PG-13" adult fiction) but is accessible to teens. Is there an accepted hierarchy or gradation of (non-children's) fiction beyond those two categories?
posted by psoas at 11:20 AM on March 25, 2016


my book club read Mr. Penumbra on the advice of our YA-librarian member and she described it as something like "young adult interest"

I wish I’d known that before I bought it. By some cruel joke I usually only really dislike books that I pay full price for.
posted by bongo_x at 8:55 PM on March 25, 2016


« Older A Private Little War   |   What what Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments