Tag Archives: digital media

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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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

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

What Kind Of Cold Cut Are You?

It’s Foodie Friday, which means that the weekend is upon us. Maybe you’ll use the downtime to catch up on your reading or non-work web activity. I’ll bet you might even fall into the trap of taking one of those online quizzes.

If you go on a site like Buzzfeed, you won’t have to read very far before you’ll encounter a food-related quiz of some sort. “We’ll Guess Your Exact Age If You Take This French Fry Quiz” or “Your Subway Order Will Determine Where You Should Live.” By the way. according to them, I’m a 23-year-old who should be living in Seattle…

Food quizzes and others are all meant to be good fun, or are they? When Facebook asks me what Harry Potter character I am, don’t I really want to know? Actually, no, I don’t. Let’s think about the “innocuous” quizzes cited above. Asking me about my preferences in fry style, favorite fast-food fry outlet or condiment provides a great deal of information both in the aggregate and about me personally when it comes to targeting me with ads. How can they do that when they don’t know who I am since I didn’t log in? Well, I really did sort of log in since both the Facebook pixel and Twitter pixels are active on the site. They can sell the aggregated information to producers of fries and condiments and fast food chains and they can sell my “pixel” to advertisers of the same.

Then there are the quizzes that ask you to give them an email to send you the results. They’re even more dangerous, as are the quizzes that ask you to answer questions that might be used as security questions (Where did you go to middle school or what was your first car?). We need to understand that since we’re living in the age of surveillance capitalism, everything we do is worth something to someone other than ourselves. Since we don’t have any control much of the time over who is collecting – and selling – our data, we need to be especially wary of every action we take. A “like” is a vote, a “share” is an endorsement. If you don’t believe me, go to your Facebook ad settings and check out what they think your interests and other tidbits are.

What kind of cold cut are you? The kind that gets sliced quite thinly and sold by the pound. Forewarned is forearmed!

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Something Could Be Gaining

I was watching TV last night and on came a commercial break. There were 5 commercials in this pod along with a couple of promo spots for the network I was watching. When the pod was over, something dawned on me and that has prompted today’s thought.

Not one of the five companies that were advertising was in business a decade ago. Every single one of them was digitally-based and every single one of them was disrupting an existing business sector.

There was an online realtor who would buy or sell you a house without using a local agent. There was the online employment site that would find you a job and serve as your headhunter. There was a site that would pack your pills into individual doses and mail them to you, no trip to the pharmacists needed. The next company would book your next vacation and notify you if now was not the optimal time to book.

I wonder, a decade ago, if the pharmacists thought that they would be threatened by a company that could fill prescriptions in a way no drug store could and at prices that are reflective of their no physical outlet cost structure? Why bother going on interviews with headhunters when you can post your resume and let the algorithm find you interested employers? Why spend on a recruiter when you can have candidates screened electronically and only see the best?

Satchel Paige is quoted as reminding us “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I think that’s optimistic. If you are in any business these days, something IS gaining on you and they may be the advertisers whose commercials you watch as they go by. Disruption is a fact of business life and unless you’re thinking about how your business could be replaced, you’re missing the boat.

Make sense?

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Filed under digital media, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Break Up Facebook

I’m a capitalist. I’m a big believer that the free enterprise system should be left to work pretty much without outside interference. We can have a lively discussion as to whether that really ever happens (I don’t think it does) but I think we can agree that where the free enterprise system needs to have some controls imposed are when the system results in anticompetitive and/or anticonsumer behavior. Historically, the government takes action at that point, as it did with Standard Oil and with original AT&T. I think we’re at that point again with Facebook and I think the company needs to be broken up.

Many of you don’t remember the old AT&T. It controlled local phones, long-distance services, and the manufacture of most telephone equipment. You can read a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of the breakup here but the net result was that phone services got more competitive, equipment improved, and the number of wireless services and broadband providers we have now is a result. AT&T was a  monopoly, and when its monopoly power was removed, it struggled.

Facebook is a monopoly. They’ve become so massive that you can’t escape their data collection system. They’ve bought any company that seems as if it might become competitive. They aren’t “winning” because they have a better product; they’re doing so because we don’t really have a choice or because they’ve cheated. Facebook bases its business model on anti-consumer behavior and, frankly, lying. They lied to publishers. They lied to video creators.  They lied to the government about data collection and the role they played in spreading misinformation and propaganda while accepting money to do so. They’ve lied to you. Think about the number of times you’ve read about some horrible thing the company has done only to promise it won’t happen again and they’ll be better. Until the next time.

Germany just did something that could show us the way. Germany’s antitrust regulator has told Facebook it must stop forcing users to allow it to collect and combine their data from sources outside Facebook. Among such sources are Facebook-owned apps like WhatsApp and Instagram as well as third-party websites that include Facebook features like the “share” button. Since Facebook derives 99% of its revenue from advertising based on that data collection, this is a great first step.

The last straw from me was the realization that Facebook is monetizing data from people who don’t even have a Facebook account. When people navigate around the internet, sites that use Facebook’s advertising pixel or other social APIs linking back to Facebook (like the “Like” button) send data about those site visits back to Facebook. Facebook collects that data on everyone who visits these sites, whether they’re a registered user or not. You might not be on Facebook but that doesn’t stop them from selling your data. It’s also why any ad-based digital publishing business is probably going to have to survive on crumbs since Facebook scarfs up most of the ad dollars since they have most of the data. Yes, I know Google grabs just as much but it’s a different business model. Search isn’t display.

Break up Facebook. The digital world needs its walls to crumble so that new businesses – better and more ethical businesses – can survive. Start by breaking off Instagram and What’s App. Don’t let them make any new acquisitions of competitors. That’s where I’d begin. You?

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How Did We Get So Far Off Track?

I started working in the digital world in the mid-’90s. While I wasn’t exactly there for the dawn of the digital age, I was a relatively early member of the group of executives that began building businesses on the internet and on walled gardens like AOL used to be. A couple of things that have happened recently have me shaking my head, wondering how it’s all gone sideways.

First, I asked Twitter to send me something:

Keith Ritter, your advertiser list is ready! The list attached includes the advertisers that have included you in a tailored audience. These advertisers have included you in one or more tailored audiences. Tailored audiences are often built from email lists or browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

I figured since I do a fair amount of cookie-blocking and other means to prevent tracking that I’d turn up in a handful of audiences and I was right. I appear in exactly 9 audiences. However, the rest of the 57-page document (not a typo) listed the similar audiences Twitter has decided I fit. They market me as a part of these audiences and I have no control over it. I can opt out and it will change the ads I see on Twitter. It won’t however, remove me from these audiences. I am included in over 1,000 of them, my data used and sold quite unwillingly.

Then there are the constantly apologizing folks at Facebook. This article in the NY Times is both frightening and disappointing. It talks about how Facebook “gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.”  Their privacy track record is abominable and every week it seems there is another apology and a promise to do better. Fool me once…

It’s taken years for the marketers and publishers to push back on the rampant fraud and abuse of programmatic ads. Social media is rife with “influencers” who buy fake followers and regularly violate FTC regulations on advertising. It seems that everyone under 30 is either a ninja or a guru. Fake reviews for products that are complete rip-offs are everywhere (run a link to an Amazon review through Fakespot if you don’t believe me).

All of this leaves one question: what the hell happened? How did the digital business world get so screwed up? At some point, Facebook and many other digital businesses decided that making money is way more important than serving their users is, I think, the basic answer. I’m all for making money, as my business track record shows. There are limits, however, and I have a fundamental belief that making money can only happen over the long term when you respect the customer. As the great David Ogilvy once said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Because most of the people who use digital have no concept about how they are tracked and marketed, most businesses treat them as morons and therein lies the problem.

I could rant on but I’ll end it here with a plea. To any of you who are in the digital world, please resolve to get back on track. Way back when in 1995, all we wanted to do was to amuse a few people and keep them engaged. Yes, we sold ads but we also didn’t track people once they left our domain. We didn’t treat them as numbers or rubes. You shouldn’t either. I get that the tools are more sophisticated and more powerful and that the world has changed. Basic business principles and human decency haven’t, have they?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, What's Going On