Category Archives: Huh?

Misaligned Interests

Did you happen to hear about (or read!) the NY Times article on how a young man got “sucked into the vortex” of radical videos on YouTube? It’s an interesting and scary read. It’s about how a person goes to YouTube to watch a video on one thing and ends up multiple videos later watching something completely different and often dangerous.

As the article says:

YouTube has been a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides. It has allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses.

As usual, we’re not here to rant about the politics of these videos. It’s just as easy for the videos to be dangerous and non-political and even though YouTube specifically bans harmful or dangerous content, they can’t catch everything.

The real issue here is YouTube’s – and many other platforms’ – business model. They make money by keeping you engaged and the way that they do that is often via a recommendation engine. That engine uses an algorithm that rewards videos that have lengthy watch times by promoting them more often. Of course, the more engaged you are, the more ads you’ll see and that’s really the problem. Most of the popular platforms follow that business model and their interests don’t necessarily align with yours. They all have some sort of algorithm which on YouTube, as the article says, is

the software that determines which videos appear on users’ home pages and inside the “Up Next” sidebar next to a video that is playing. The algorithm is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site.

Of course, you can turn off the recommendations. You can also delete your search history, pausing it going forward, and your watch history which will prevent the algorithm from determining what you usually watch. If you haven’t hidden the video suggestions (it’s in your settings) at least you’ll see lots of pretty neutral offerings. More importantly, you’ll take back control and realign their interests with yours.

It would be easy for YouTube and others to prevent a host of problems by killing off the recommendation engine but they never will because it’s the thing that drives their business model. In a perfect world, every business’ interests would align perfectly with those of their customers. Maybe it’s because the big platforms are out of alignment with us that there is so much anger directed toward them?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

We’ve Been Robbed

An important, thought-provoking piece today from Roger McNamee in the NY Times. It’s entitled A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen and it raises some disturbing issues which concern – or should concern – us all. Mr. McNamee is a long-time tech investor and author. “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe” is his book and I think the title gives you a sense about his concerns, especially since he was an early investor in and advisor to Facebook.

This is the gist of his position:

Why it is legal for service providers to comb our messages and documents for economically valuable data? Why is it legal for third parties to trade in our most private information, including credit card transactions, location and health data, and browsing history? Why is it legal to gather any data at all about minors? Why is it legal to trade predictions of our behavior?

Good questions, and if you’re not concerned by the answers or the implications of the questions themselves, here are a few things to consider. First, go to Facebook, click under “settings” and look at the “Ads” tab. Scroll down a bit and open up the line that says “advertisers and businesses.” There you will see a list of all the companies that uploaded your email or phone onto Facebook so they could serve you ads. The companies listed have run ads in the last 7 days containing your information. Scroll down and keep opening the “see more” rows. I quit when I got over 500 companies. Most were companies – car dealers and realtors – with which I’d had no dealings. Why do they have my information? Of course, I’m aware of list brokers but why would a car dealer in Arizona pay for my information? That’s their issue; mine is that they have it.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve given Facebook and others way more information than I have. I use the DuckDuckGo search engine so my search history is private. I’ve locked down my browser so the “bugs” from Facebook, Twitter, and others don’t follow me. You can start by disabling the “ad settings” on the Facebook “ad” tab you’re on. That’s only a small part of the issue.

Anyone who is paying attention to China has seen the rise of a totalitarian “Big Brother” state built around constant surveillance. In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced it was looking to implement an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” network using facial recognition systems and CCTV hardware. It’s largely in place. What does this have to do with you?

Google, Facebook, and others know pretty much everything about you. Where you’ve been, your friends, your shopping habits, etc. McNamee’s point that “Platforms are under no obligation to protect user privacy. They are free to directly monetize the information they gather by selling it to the highest bidder” underscores the problem. What happens when the highest bidder has nefarious intent? What if it’s the government? What if your insurance company wants to raise your rate because you’re buying fast-food and cookies?

I make it a point to do unpredictable things every so often to mess with whatever algorithm is paying attention. That can be as simple as shopping for products in which I have no interest or “liking” something that I really don’t. Sometimes I wish that we could put the tech genie back in the bottle, even if it’s a bottle I had a hand in opening in some small way.

Read the McNamee piece and tell me what you think, ok?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Reality checks

Another FIFA Fail

I read a mind-blowing story over the weekend about how not to treat a customer. Actually, how not to treat THOUSANDS of customers. Then again, considering the organization that was doing the “treating”, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been so shocked as they hit a new low. But still…

The Women’s World Cup begins in a few weeks. FIFA, which many in the world of sports consider to be just a big criminal conspiracy (too many cases to list here) began distributing tickets to customers around the world. The rest would be comical is it wasn’t so sad:

With the tournament in France due to start on 7 June, Fifa announced on Monday that tickets were now available to print at home. This led in some instances to complaints from people who, having assumed they had bought tickets together, discovered this was not the case.

“Dear fans. We have noted some of your comments, re: your tickets,” read a message on the tournament’s official Twitter account. “When you placed your order, a message indicating not all seats would be located next to each other did appear, before confirmation of your purchase. Unfortunately we will not be able to modify your order.

So if you spent years saving up to take your daughter to see the best women in the world play, you might have to let her experience that joy whilst seated several sections away from you and from your wife who may be in a different part of the stadium completely. FIFA’s response: we don’t really care.

A few things. First, this would NEVER happen for a Men’s World Cup. FIFA has a history of telling the women to piss off while paying lip service to their game. They made the women play a World Cup on artificial turf and who can forget the head of FIFA’s suggestion that women boost the game by playing in tighter shorts and makeup. Second, even if they weren’t such sexist pigs, ticket sales make up a smallish percentage of FIFA’s World Cup revenues. TV and sponsorship are the big tickets here and unless and until the broadcasters and sponsors speak up, the dismissive attitude to the real fans won’t change.

FIFA has a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and they’ve done it again. We’ve been through this many times in this space but no business can afford to tell customers, no matter how small a part of the revenue picture that customer may be, that they don’t matter. People traveling to these games are among FIFA’s best customers. Do you still think they’ll continue to spend money with FIFA after this? Most of us can distinguish between supporting the game via our attention and supporting the people who run it with our cash. Fortunately for them, FIFA has no real competition. Can you say the same?

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Filed under Huh?, sports business

1,2,3

I’m back! I didn’t post anything last week because I went on my annual golf outing with my Board Of Advisors. All is well except my golf game.

I don’t know if you saw anything about a survey that was released last week. I did and I made a note to make it my first post upon my return because it makes a number of points that I think any of us could find useful in business. The survey was run by Civic Science which has been conducting online polling since 2008. It was a very simple question and the responses were astonishing, at least to me.

Should schools in America teach Arabic Numerals as part of their curriculum?

That’s the question. They surveyed over 3,600 people and over 2,000 of the respondents said “no.” That came out to 56% of respondents saying we shouldn’t teach the numerals we all use every day. Yep – those are Arabic numerals. Interesting, right? Kind of scary too because it reveals what happens when you allow yourself to answer a question based on your inherent feelings (or prejudices) without having a full understanding of the question being asked.

It wasn’t just a test of prejudice against the word “Arabic.” They also asked about teaching a Catholic priest’s theory on the origin of the universe. While obviously, it’s a much more obscure fact (the Big Bang theory was his idea), it shows once again that people will answer something without enough (or any) information based on inherent biases (53% said “no” to this, which is taught every day).

How often does that happen in your business setting? Someone starts to say something in response to a question in a meeting and suddenly it’s quite obvious that they have no idea about what they’ve been asked. It’s not just people answering the wrong question either. It’s quite possible to have an understanding of the question but no grasp of the facts required to answer it.

So here are three words (3 in Arabic numerals) to keep in mind: I don’t know. They can be hard to say, especially when you have a knee-jerk response to a question. But ask yourself if that response is based on fact or on your existing bias. You might be surprised what you’ll learn along the way as well as prevent your team from making a bad decision. Make sense?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Sharing Isn’t Caring

Suppose you are depressed or maybe you want to quit a bad habit – smoking, for example. Well, of course, there are apps to help you fight depression or to quit smoking. Maybe you want a discount on your car insurance so you agree to install what the industry calls a “telematics device.” As one report explained, these things report when the car was used, distance driven, and time spent driving. They also want to know how fast a driver typically drives and any incidents of hard braking, both of which are indicators that the driver takes risks and doesn’t pay attention. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the devices can track a car’s location.

Since you’re a fairly literate person, digitally speaking, you know the apps collect some data and obviously so does a tracking device. What you don’t know is what happens to the data that the apps collect. If you go through the app’s privacy policies (you know – the thing you clicked through when you signed up), you’ll probably find that the developer might share data with third parties. And, in fact, a study just released shows that of 36 top-ranked apps for depression and smoking cessation available in public app stores, 29 transmitted data to services provided by Facebook or Google, but only 12 accurately disclosed this in a privacy policy.

Does this concern you? It should. It is not difficult at all for someone who has “non-PII” – anonymized personal information – to trace it back to a real person with a name, address, and other information. How many auto insurance companies also offer life insurance? How many share data – even anonymized data – with health insurers. And wouldn’t those health insurers love to know if you think you’re depressed, as would a life insurance company? Am I paranoid? Yes indeed, and you should be too.

As it turns out, while many of us are more wary about what companies are doing with our data, we’re still not DOING much about it. As eMarketer reports, Internet users are clearing cookies and sharing less on social media. Ad blockers continue to gain popularity. But nearly one-third of US internet users are still willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience.

Clearing cookies, using a VPN, making sure that apps don’t get permissions that they don’t need (why does a flashlight app need your contacts?), and other things can help but at the core of this issue is many companies’ philosophy to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. They have a laser-focus on making money and are woefully blind to their users’ concerns. That’s what really concerns me. You?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Reality checks

Masking The Message

Chase Bank did something really dumb the other day while they were actually doing something smart and necessary. It’s a good lesson for any business that how you communicate is every bit as important as what that communication entails.

Chase tweets out something on Mondays hashtagged #MondayMotivation. This week they attempted to inject a little humor into something that really isn’t humorous for the folks who face it: a depleted bank account. Chase tweeted out a fantasy dialogue between a consumer and their bank account. The customer wonders why their bank account is so low and the bank account replies, and I’m paraphrasing, because you spend money on things like buying expensive coffee and dining out and taking taxis when you could walk. The customer replies “I guess we’ll never know”. It came across as snarky and patronizing, especially coming from a bank that makes millions in profits on the fees charged to their customers for ATM use and overdrafts (not to mention a multi-billion dollar bailout from taxpayers).

Politicians jumped in, as did a lot of pundits. Frankly, when I heard about it and the responses to it, I thought it was too bad that a good, important message got lost in a bad presentation. Many younger consumers (and quite a few older ones) don’t realize that making coffee at home can save them hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, as can walking and bringing lunch to the office or learning to cook at night. Those $4 lattes add up and many younger people never learned the financial management skills as they matured that one needs to cope with the money demands that adult life makes. While I don’t discount the effect that stagnating wages and creeping inflation have, having the skills to think through the bigger picture can help.

Any business needs to ask itself “what baggage do I carry” before they message their customer base. Are they angry about anything? Smart businesses constantly have their ears to the ground to listen for any disruption in the force. They monitor social media, their own customer service reps, and the news media generally. Money, or the lack thereof, is one of the most sensitive topics the bank could have addressed. Snark, condescension, and arrogance are rarely the right approach, even when the message is spot on.

Chase was smart enough to delete the tweet and replace it with something humble – “Our #MondayMotivation is to get better at #MondayMotivation tweets. Thanks for the feedback Twitter world”. That’s something every business should constantly try to do – get better – don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Huh?

You Want Anonymity With That?

It’s Foodie Friday and today we have yet another example of how privacy is dead, this time from the food world. OK, I might be a little paranoid here but I think I can see the future in how McDonald’s sees the future and it scares me. Let me explain and then you can weigh in on my thinking.

What Mickey D has done is buy an Artifical Intelligence company. They intend to use the AI to adjust the menu in the drive-through as you pull up. The thinking is that these adjustments will cause you to buy more. You know – promoting cold drinks on hot days or suggesting items that are faster to prepare if the kitchen is in the weeds to keep food orders flowing. It gets scary when the menu changes as you order, suggesting sides after you order your burger.

Now you may see nothing wrong with this. After all, Amazon does this all the time. So does Netflix, suggesting things to you that you should find of interest based on your past behavior. That’s not scary until McDonald’s installs license plate readers and begins associating your food order with your vehicle. Of course, it’s also possible that they could obtain a listing of every device that was in their drive-through. By the hour. Cross-reference that to available phone directories and automobile registrations and NOW how do you feel?

It’s yet another step down the road to full surveillance capitalism, at least in my paranoid mind. There are benefits, no doubt, to McDonald’s, and I’m sure they will be followed by others (maybe even others buying their systems from McDonald’s AI company). Do you really think there are benefits to us, however? I think trust and privacy are going to become even bigger issues for consumers and regulators over the next 12 months and if you’re not thinking that way, you just might be making a mistake.

What happens when Mickey D sells their frequency of use data to the insurance company who then raises your rates because you eat fast food all the time? Sure, when you roll into The Golden Arches while you’re 250 miles from home, it might be nice that they already know what you’d like, but I’d rather have anonymity. You?

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Filed under food, Huh?