Monday, March 16, 2020
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
“The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot clearer ways.”
Max Levchin (PayPal co-founder)
There was a time not too long ago when people from all walks of life gathered around the proverbial water cooler in offices, places of worship, community centers, schools, local sporting events or watering holes. This ritual was underpinned by a shared experience based on a national or local conversation or a cultural artifact like a popular new book, advertisement or TV show that everyone had recently experienced.
It was not that people gathered around and sang Kumbaya, but that we brought a variety of viewpoints relating to the same event. I remember such gatherings being a melting pot of diverse perspectives, and passionate opinions; some that we vehemently agreed with and others we disagreed with, equally vehemently. But irrespective of where we stood on an issue, we all walked away without animosity and with a perspective we would not have otherwise had.
I am not suggesting that we left with changed minds or that we were competing to bring others around to our point of view, but that by listening, discussing and accepting the fact that there are different reactions to exactly the same content, it allowed us to build empathy and I believe helped to open minds in the long run; and being face-to-face they were also civil and respectful.
The internet, with its ability to turn the planet into a virtual global square, was meant to be the ultimate water cooler and bring us even closer together through diverse and shared experiences on a scale unimaginable before, but the opposite has transpired.
In country after country, social media feeds and discussion forums are filled with disagreement and hate. Once respected members of society like journalists, academics and scholars are engaging in shouting matches on TV screens, while family members are unfriending each other on social media. Research shows that this generation is more lonely and unhappy than any before it.
Nobody seems willing to entertain or discuss a point of view slightly different from their own. We have lost the ability for nuanced conversation and seem only to find comfort in absolutism. And we have eroded our ability to empathise with those who do not share our finite and inflexible worldviews.
It’s as if we have all stopped talking to each other, and now only talk at each other. What happened?
To begin with, it is true that we no longer reside in neighborhoods populated with a broad mix people from different walks of life. Increasingly we live, work and socialize only with people with similar income and educational backgrounds. The majority of educated urbanites have long stopped attending places of worship or congregating in local centers where they might still fraternize with a wider cross-section of society and viewpoints.
Even online we have retreated into echo chambers and digital fortresses filled with similarly-minded people, and our social rituals have been replaced with impersonal digital ones. We chat with friends on WhatsApp, visit grandma on Skype and share all significant milestones with extended family through email and social media.
While it is true income and educational segregation have been in part responsible for our growing divide, I believe that digital targeting technology, invented by the advertising and social media industry, along with the growing sophistication of how much data is being used, has contributed to our loss of empathy, inability to compromise and increasing vitriol. Not only are massive amounts of personal data being accumulated, but it is being used to divide people into groups and to manipulate behaviour.
Every advertiser and marketer has always wanted to connect with customers on a more personal level, but it was never possible to talk to us on a one-to-one basis until recently. The sophistication of digital technology allows companies to monitor every keystroke, eye movement, voice command, even physical movement, and, more worryingly, they are now able to put it all together to create a startlingly granular and deeply accurate view of our daily lives, habits and motivations on an individual level.
Like most innovations, this type of data accumulation was done for targeting of products and to deliver personalised content; so people would no longer waste time looking at diaper ads when they wanted to buy shoes. The idea was to accumulate so much data about each individual that it would allow marketers to get so precise that they would always show the right ad, with the right product message, or right piece of content, at the very moment we were looking for it.
Sounds great in theory, but nobody considered the dangerous and unintended consequences of such sophisticated tracking and predictive algorithms that now power every website, internet service and mobile app. Or the ability to use it for things other than selling us shoes and diapers.
What started as an advertising tool has now grown into an information arms race with numerous companies accumulating more and more personal data on each of us without any transparency, independent or third party oversight. People do not have the ability to opt-out and nobody has a clear idea of how this data is being used or with whom it is being shared.
Granted, most advertisers still use personal data to sell more shoes or diapers, but because the use of this technology has proliferated far beyond marketing and media and is used by virtually every industry and by governments, it has greatly increased the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands, and to be used to manipulate and influence behaviour of individuals and groups.
We need look no further than the 2016 US election. We know the effectiveness with which state-sponsored Russian actors used ad-targeting technology on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to target, test and fine-tune messages that spread various bits of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that briefly worked with Trump’s election team, legally bought and harvested personal data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends) from an academic who had built a Facebook app, to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.
It is important to understand just how sophisticated targeting technology is today. Anyone can accurately target the 38 year old baseball loving, Democrat voting, Budweiser drinking and Nike shoe collector on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as their Grandma in Bhopal, India. The targeting is both granular and precise.
In addition, you can exclude people by age, ethnicity, religious belief or political affiliation, thereby ensuring efficacy of your message among only like-minded people. Additionally, I could ensure that the message I show grandma is not even seen by her neighbours, even when they are all on the same page on the same website or watching the same TV show (known as addressable TV).
This is what I refer to as division by data, when data is used to segment and sub-segment every section of the population, with each segment further refined with more granular data until it gets down to an individual level based on which algorithms decide “what” to show people.
What this means is that what I see on my Facebook newsfeed is not what my wife, my neighbour or colleague sees. With addressable TV, companies can show different ads to different people in the same area code and building while they are watching the same programs. The same is true of our Twitter feed, news, iTunes and Netflix recommendations and even Google search.
Ask a liberal and a conservative friend to type in the exact same search query, e.g. global warming, on their respective computers and see how different the results and ‘facts’ they get are. I urge every skeptic to read this article about an experiment conducted by Dr. Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology: “Epstein conducted five experiments in two countries to find that biased rankings in search results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive opinion of that candidate.”
Consider that Facebook has become the primary “source of news for 44% of Americans” and now boasts over two billion active users worldwide and Google is what the world relies on to search for news, information and facts, and both are driven by this underlying ‘personalisation and targeting’ philosophy that I call division by data. Think about the fact that the greatest source of influence on human minds is still the power of persuasion - one that is driven by repeated exposure to the same message.
This is where the notion of using data obsessively to personalise everything down to the individual level has gone horribly wrong. By treating human beings like objects and dividing them into ever smaller groups that only see content, information, news and even ‘facts’ uniquely tailored and created based on their preferences and biases, we might manage to increase ad sales, but we also increase societal divisions by reducing the ability to find common ground on issues.
In the digital age, we have effectively replaced our real and proverbial water coolers with bottles of water that can be dynamically flavoured to meet individual tastes, and with this hyper-precise targeting we have ensured that we no longer have shared experiences that human beings have relied on for centuries as a way to build bonds that lead to diversity of thought and open-mindedness.
This is a solvable problem, but until we find ways to restore our water coolers in the digital age and craft sensible new regulations on data privacy, sharing and targeting, we will continue to weaken every democracy and hamper our shared progress.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
Gabriel García Márquez
Let’s start by asking ourselves a simple question; what value does Facebook provide to society?
I can already hear people say 'wait a minute', and start to argue that Facebook informs, entertains, connects, and allows us to stay in touch with family and friends. Facebook is a social sharing platform that connects people. However, unlike a Warby Parker or Unilever, it does not make or sell any tangible products to improve our health or well-being.
It is true that the same can be argued about eBay, Alibaba and Airbnb. They don’t manufacture goods, but merely facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers. However, Alibaba is an online mall where third parties sell products and Airbnb’s service fills a real-world need for accommodation.
With Facebook there is one fundamental difference - you and I are the product.
Without user-generated content and our friends and family engaging with it, Facebook makes and offers nothing. It is entirely powered by our routines, my stories, your creativity, and our combined curation of third party news and articles we post. Facebook is powered by you and me.
Technology has certainly made it easier to connect and as a result we have all become lazier about making the effort to stay in touch; but let’s be clear that there is no innovation in terms of how we share, build relationships or create emotional bonds that Facebook has invented.
Consider that the non-technological version of the online platform existed for millennia in the form of Roman marketplaces and even modern day malls where people broke bread, socialised and had the ability shop from multiple vendors, all under one roof.
Facebook says they offer a forum to express ourselves freely and in saying that they pretend to empower us. They claim to be a democratic and open platform designed “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (source: Facebook Mission), when in reality and behind the scenes, they are doing exactly the opposite.
They have been caught manipulating our newsfeed, by showing overwhelmingly negative or positive posts and using us as lab rats to be “part of a psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media.” (Source: New York Times article).
More recently an employee claimed they routinely censor right-wing content…” (Source: PC Mag article). Another tech consultant who worked there disclosed that “Facebook collects all content that is typed into its website, even if it is not posted…” (Source: Information Age article).
More worryingly, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was starting to spread its tentacles into the personal lives of non-Facebook users; going well beyond the four walls of their own platform by tracking people all over the web under the guise of showing more targeted ads. “Now Facebook plans to collect information about all Internet users, through “like” buttons and other pieces of code present on Web pages across the Internet.(source: Wall Street Journal).
On the heels of this announcement, we found out that WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, is going to start sharing personal user information that includes your phone number, contact list and status messages with Facebook (Source: Scroll India article). This after WhatsApp had unequivocally promised that it would protect users' privacy when they agreed to be purchased by Facebook. You can read the WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum’s blog post and 2014 promise about how “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA…”
Facebook has also announced that they are going to crack down on ad blockers and click bait headlines to make room for more advertising. They intend to do this by “making its advertisements indistinguishable from the status updates, photo uploads, and other content that appears in your news feed” (Source: PC Mag article). They justified this change with the now all too familiar refrain that because Facebook is a free service, they rely on advertising to keep them going.
I understand that we need to give up some privacy in a digitally connected world, particularly where we expect things for free. But there also need to be rules around what is permissible and what crosses the line. Beyond privacy, the greater issue is that so much information concentrated in the hands of one or two companies makes conditions ripe for abuse.
The point is not whether Mark Zuckerberg is trustworthy or if he truly has noble intentions. Nor am I suggesting that Facebook is an evil corporation run by hobbit in a hoodie. Facebook has already been caught abusing their power numerous times from manipulating the newsfeed to using sophisticated algorithms to pick, choose and limit news, articles, politics, entertainment and information we are able to see and share.
Like every other global corporation in history, they are not immune from the temptation to abuse power in the search for growth, expansion and profits. Their misleading and altruistically packaged attempt to create a walled off internet, with a Facebook monopoly, in the developing world is yet another example of business intentions gone totally awry. You can read my piece about it here “How Facebook Can Fix Internet.org”.
Think about the fact that, with 1.7 billion active users (a number that continues to grow), they have greater influence than any government or news organisation has ever had over our worldview. They have more personal information and greater power than the Soviet Union had on its people at the height of communism. This should concern all of us.
The point is that no single company should hold this kind of power and influence over so many people. It will not end well; human beings are corrupted by absolute power. We cannot change the nature of the beast.