On March 15, a strange letter came to the secure dropbox of the writer Robin Sloan—along with instructions to post the letter’s contents to the world’s most popular network, which Sloan, of course, did.
“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,” explained Sloan.
The message contained a whole saga of an anonymous former Facebook employee who’d discovered a curious property of an internal company application known as Enchilada.
Facebook uses this app to analyze the public and private posts of users for advertisers’ benefit, and the author of the article accidentally found out the Enchilada could predict the future.
Specifically, it showed when forthcoming Facebook conversation would crest around particular words or phrases, like “Volkswagen” or “Trump” or “Adidas footwear”.
“Enchilada did not predict the winner, per se. It just predicted the conversation. But conversation correlates strongly to real-world events; that’s why advertisers care about it in the first place,” the article reads.
“Conversation spikes when championships are decided. When companies combine or collapse. When politicians are engulfed by scandal. When people die.”
The Facebook employee decided to team up with his colleague, a woman named Julie Rubicon, to try to conduct a covert insider trading operation.
“In the fall of 2015, Julie Rubicon and I used an undocumented and uncanny capability of the Enchilada application to inform several trades on U.S. stock exchanges, which generated a net profit of $162,” the story says.
“It works both as an exciting update to the short story form and as a mirror image of our fears about technology.,” describes “Facebook” story Katy Waldman of Slate.
“The story also nourishes a contemporary anxiety about algorithms, which often loom in people’s minds as “black boxes”—systems so intricate and sophisticated that even their creators can’t understand them. Have we made a divinity of the “super-brain”? And where does that leave God and morality?”
However, but what the story does lays bare is a kind of nervous, zero-sum theorizing about virtual versus offline reality.
The spike in Julie Rubicon’s Facebook presence in mid-March correlates directly with her physical disappearance. It’s as if you have only so much existence to distribute across your various platforms; to be on Facebook is to be effaced in real life.