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What does the "Recommended by Pocket" tickbox in Preferences does exactly?

  • 8 uphendule
  • 1 inale nkinga
  • Igcine ukuphendulwa ngu l0k9j

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I find Pocket quite creepy. Despite your attempts to reassure users about the privacy of the system, the relevance of the suggested articles with respect to my recent searches does make me feel like I'm being followed. That's not the experience I expect from a browser like Firefox.

So I unticked the "Recommended by Pocket" in the Preferences. But it's not clear to me what that does exactly. Q1. Does it just hide the suggestions or does it disabled the Pocket system entirely? Would it be possible to make the purpose of that tickbox clearer for the users?

Q2. If it does disable it, why can I still see "extensions.pocket.enabled true" under about:config? Why can't that be turned to false from the Preferences?

Q3. That config key indicates that it is a browser extension. If indeed it is, why isn't it listed under "about:addons"? Why can't Pocket be disabled or removed like any other extension?

All Replies (8)

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Pocket is not a browser extension. It's a builtin part of the Firefox browser. However, there are some parts of the Firefox browser that are implemented kind of like extensions, but they aren't fully extensions, which is why they are not listed on the about:addons page.

The Recommended by Pocket checkbox that you are referring to references only the section of the new tab page that shows Pocket articles to check out. Disabling that should stop Pocket from displaying the list of articles.

However, the extensions.pocket.enabled preference can be used to completely disable all aspects of Pocket in Firefox. This would include removing it from the address bar and other places in the browser. If you really don't like Pocket and don't ever plan on using it, that would be the best way to completely disable it in Firefox.

Hope this helps.

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Thanks Wesley for the confirmation that the Preference tickbox does not disable Pocket. I'm more concerned with the idea of transparency, the reasons/motivations behind the software design choices and the labeling in the Preference screens.

Some of my questions remain unanswered, if anybody in the community or preferably developers could assist, that would be appreciated:

Q1. Would it be possible to make the purpose of that tickbox clearer for the users?

The label is quite ambiguous. It might be misleading the user to think this disables Pocket altogether. Why is the label not clearer about its specific purpose?

Q2. If it does disable it, why can I still see "extensions.pocket.enabled true" under about:config? Why can't that be turned to false from the Preferences?

I still don't see a reason in your answer why Pocket cannot be disabled completely from the Preference instead of asking the users to got into the advanced config screen. This config screen, as we know is preceeded with a large 'Proceed with Caution' message that is probably dissuasive for the majority of the users.

That, combined with the ambiguous Preference label leaves the impression that Firefox doesn't really want the user to disable Pocket.

Pocket is not an essential feature of the browser. Any Browser can work perfectly well without a save & recommender system. It is quite puzzling and also an intriguing choice to see that a non-essential feature does require the users to go through emphatic risk warning messages and advanced settings to simply disable it. So my question remains:

Why can't Pocket be disabled from the Preferences screen?

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"Transparency is a key part of how Mozilla approaches user trust. As an open source project that relies on open development, we build transparency into the way we write our code."

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Hi l0k9j, the ability for you to set up your own saved pages in Pocket is the older feature, integrated into the address bar (Page Actions area). That is what the extensions.pocket.enabled preference is for. See: Disable or re-enable Pocket for Firefox.

Firefox retrieving popular articles for the content discovery section of the Firefox Home / new tab page is the newer feature. This is not related to your ability to save your own pages in Pocket, it just happens that Mozilla crowdsources content recommendations from other peoples' use of Pocket.

Why are they not the same controls? They are completely different features.

Q1. Would it be possible to make the purpose of that tickbox clearer for the users?

This list is described as "Choose what content you want on your Firefox Home screen." That particular item has a "How it works" link. How much more do you want to explain?

Q2. If it does disable it, why can I still see "extensions.pocket.enabled true" under about:config? Why can't that be turned to false from the Preferences? Why can't Pocket be disabled from the Preferences screen?

Not everything in about:config can have a checkbox on the Preferences page. The page is constantly being revised to accommodate new features and then being revised to simplify the mess so it isn't overwhelming. I assume most people do not care about a feature they're not using (an icon in the Page Actions area) nearly as much as they care about a feature that is presented every time they open a new tab. But this is the realm of UX/UI, and not support.

Obviously the new tab page upsets you. It sounds as though you find the personalization too personal. Mozilla has adopted a very novel strategy for that, which is aimed at helping you find content you'll value while maximizing your privacy.

Historically, personalization has been done on the server by companies vacuuming up and leveraging your personal data. The Recommended section works the opposite way. Firefox retrieves a global feed of 30 stories and, at least in the U.S., each title is accompanied by a list of domains with an affinity score. In theory, the more of those high-affinity domains you've visited, the more likely this story would be interesting to you. The scoring/ranking is all done locally based on your history, on your computer, without sending any data to Mozilla or Pocket.

Still too creepy? I guess you'll have to turn it off.

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Hi Jefferson,

Thank you very much for taking the time to clarify the distinction between the two features. I find your explanations more insightful than the user interface!

1. "We created Firefox to give people choice and control of their Web experience"

Pocket integration has been around for five years. From what I recently read it's introduction caused quite a stir among users and analysts. The integration is still controversial now. More controversial than most of other settings or features which have been made accessible in the Preference screen for a long time now. I am therefore not convinced by the suggestions that the absence of a toggle to disable it completely from the Preference menu is exclusively motivated by the desire 'to simplify the mess so it isn't overwhelming'.

You mention UX. Good modern UX practice is about placing the end users at the centre of the design considerations. I would be very curious to see what the response would be if Mozilla surveyed its community about the possibility to have a simple toggle in Preference to completely disable Pocket.

Good UX is also about removing technical barriers to relevant software operations. Disabling Pocket requires the user to leave the software, read instructions on a web page that ask them to bypass the security warning and go into advanced settings screens to turn a specific variable to false. I wouldn't blame someone for thinking this barrier isn't somehow artificially and purposefully maintained.

As the 9th principle of the Mozilla manifesto says: "a balance between commercial profit and public benefit is critical". Which is perfectly reasonable. But any doubt about the methods and use of dark patterns in particular can hurt trust. If there is a strategic motivation, why not be upfront and open about it? (see principles 5 & 8 of the manifesto)

From my experience as a developer I have the feeling that such toggle would be fairly straightforward to add to the Preference menu. Perhaps I should rephrase my question then:

"What are the reasons for Firefox or Mozilla team not to include a toggle in the Preference that would disable Pocket completely?"

This leads to the second and much more important issue from an ethical and privacy point of view.

2. The difference between recommendations and recommender system

"How much more do you want to explain?"

I'm not sure if you are familiar with how recommender systems work but it's important to remember that the display of recommendations on the home page is only the tip of the iceberg. The system itself typically contains, among other things, the parts that fetch new articles metadata, the personalisation of the selection (ranking, filtering, ...), and obviously... the capture, recording and analysis of the user browsing activity without which the personalisation wouldn't be possible.

As you have pointed out, the Preference option is described in terms of display ("What content you want on Firefox Home screen") of the recommendation, not the actual recommendation system as a whole.

To answer your question, how much more explanations do I want? Complete clarity about whether any part of that system is still functional when the checkbox is unticked. Preferably within the browser itself.

Why does it matter? If the system doesn't actually share my activity with any external server or application, does it matter at all?

Well, I would argue that it does. For the same reason that the 'private window' feature exists to reassure the user that local traces of their online activity remain limited and not used for unintended purpose.

I will give you an analogy to better illustrate why I think it is about ethics, privacy and transparency.

Imagine that you have just started working in a different company. Your colleague who sits opposite you in the office is a professional performance coach. He has a habit of staring at you while you work, listening to your conversations over the phone and looking at how you arrange things on your desk. He also writes down his observations. He often comes with good but unsolicited tips on how to improve your process. He always does it very discreetly without sharing with anyone else. Your boss says it's a novel strategy and culture in the company which is aimed at giving you healthier and more efficient habits “while maximizing your privacy”. But you can opt out from the daily performance tips if you feel like it.

You indeed do politely ask him to stop the coaching tips for a while and he's fine with it. But you notice that he still often stares at you, often coming closer to your desk just to check what's written on your notepad or post-its or watch behind your shoulder when you write an email. Your boss says it's ok because he doesn't share his observations with anyone, he no longer interrupts you with tips.

Do you think it is ok and justified?

Do you see the difference between the display of recommendations and the rest of the recommender system that feeds it? That's the part I'd like to learn more about as I can't see any evidence, at least in Firefox UI, that all the functions of the recommender system can be fully switched off.

Okulungisiwe ngu l0k9j

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As jscher2000 mentioned, the support contributors here have nothing to do with decisions made by UX/UI Mozilla staff or by higher-up managers.

Best avenue for you might be to avail yourself of the Help > Submit Feedback... feature which takes you here:
To provide Firefox Input / Feedback.

Personally, I have never, ever used Pocket, and when the preference (hidden or not) became available I just blocked it from ever appearing in the User Interface. That is directly related to what "we do here"; make it easier for users to learn how to deal with features they don't want to use by disabling or hiding them.

And similar for "Top Sites" and "Highlights" on the Homepage and the New Tab pages that are built into Firefox. Ethics, privacy and transparency not withstanding, I just block what I don't want to see or use. Why waste the time arguing over the fine points of what a user may think is right or wrong, take the responsibility for your own actions.

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Hi l0k9j, I don't think retrieving a news feed is like a creepy coworker watching you. At worst, it's like that newsletter you can't unsubscribe from so you create a mail rule to send it to your Junk folder. And for all we know, the list doesn't get retrieved if there's no need for it. But someone else will need to research that.

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the-edmeister said

As jscher2000 mentioned, the support contributors here have nothing to do with decisions made by UX/UI Mozilla staff or by higher-up managers.
Why waste the time arguing over the fine points of what a user may think is right or wrong, take the responsibility for your own actions.

Thank you for the subtte lesson and teling me I'm wasting time! This doesn't answer the original question (see the title/topic of this thread and the last question at the bottom of my last message)?

I think you misunderstand my point and maybe the larger context.

Mozilla is not any organisation, firefox is not any product. A "Healthy Internet" as at the heart of Mozilla's values and core mission. The organisation goes into great details to do things differently, in an ethical, open, diverse way with respect for the web users. It is very focused on what you would call 'fine points' (that is, the how & why). And it preaches a lot about it. Which is why I respect the organisation because it is more important than ever to defend those causes within increasingly monopolistic web ecosystem.

If someone hold values to such high standard and preach about it, it is only natural that people who will hold them accountable using the same values. It's about being consistent with your principles. And I'm hoping Mozilla staff and supporters see things in the same way and welcome open debates about the way things are done by others as well as by themselves.

"We are committed to an internet that elevates critical thinking, reasoned argument, shared knowledge, and verifiable facts." - Mozilla Manifesto

Firefox is not any browser. It's not just a bag of features and code. Its design decisions are not just about UI/UX. It is an emanation of the standards Mozilla promotes, and of its vision of a healthy web.

jscher2000 said

I don't think retrieving a news feed is like a creepy coworker watching you.

I don't think that either. I have nothing against the tips my co-worker gives me (i.e. fetching news when I consent to it). I'm less comfortable with him still looking behind my shoulders even when I asked him to no longer give me tips. So far I have no evidence Firefox Pocket recommender system isn't still working through my history and other data when the Preference toggle is off. I'm sure that if it isn't the case this could be confirmed here openly.

I do appreciate your responses and your help. I was hoping that Mozilla Support could give a more definite answer to that simple question.