Drawing a Line in the Sand for Net Privacy

Ever heard of Strava? The likelihood that you would say yes jumped astronomically on January 27, 2018. That was the day of the Strava security breach. Before that, you had probably never heard of it, unless you happened to be a cyclist or runner.

I’ve talked about Strava before. Then, I was talking about social modality and trying to keep our various selves straight on various social networks. Today, I’m talking about privacy.

Through GPS enabled devices, like a fitness tracker or smartphone, Strava enables you to track your workouts, include the routes you take. Once a year, they aggregate all these activities and publish it as a global heatmap. Over 1 billion workouts are mapped in every corner of the earth. If you zoom in enough, you’ll see my favorite cycling routes in the city I live in. The same is true for everyone who uses the app. Unless – of course – you’ve opted out of the public display of your workouts.

And therein lies the problem. Actually – two problems.

First, problem number one. There is really no reason I shouldn’t share my workouts. The worst you could find out is that I’m a creature of habit when working out. But if I’m a marine stationed at a secret military base in Afghanistan and I start my morning jogging around the perimeter of the base – well – now we have a problem. I just inadvertently highlighted my base on the map for the world to see. And that’s exactly what happened. When the heatmap went live, a university student in Australia happened to notice there were a number of hotspots in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan and Syria.

On the problem number two. In terms of numbers affected, the Strava breach is a drop in the bucket when you compare it to Yahoo – or Equifax – or Target – or any of the other breaches that have made the news. But this breach was different in a very important way. The victims here weren’t individual consumers. This time national security was threatened. And that moved it beyond the typical “consumer beware” defense that typically gets invoked.

This charts new territory for privacy. The difference in perspective in this breach has heightened sensitivities and moved the conversation in a new direction. Typically, the response when there is a breach is:

  1. You should have known better
  2. You should have taken steps to protect your information; or,
  3. Hmmm, it sucks to be you

Somehow, this response has held up in the previous breaches despite the fact that we all know that it’s almost impossible to navigate the minefield of settings and preferences that lies between you and foolproof privacy. As long as the victims were individuals it was easy to shift blame. This time, however, the victim was the collective “we” and the topic was the hot button of all hot buttons – national security.

Now, one could and should argue that all of these might apply to the unfortunate soldier that decided to take his Fitbit on his run, but I don’t think it will end there. I think the current “opt out” approach to net privacy might have to be considered. The fact is, all these platforms would prefer to gather and have the right to use as they see fit as much of your data as possible. It opens up a number of monetization opportunities for them. Typically, the quid pro quo that is offered back to you – the user – is more functionality and the ability to share to your own social circle. The current ecosystems default starting point is to enable as much sharing and functionality as possible. Humans being human, we will usually go with the easiest option – the default – and only worry about it if something goes wrong.

But as users, we do have the right to push back. We have to realize that opening the full data pipe gives the platforms much more value than we ever receive in return. We’re selling off our own personal data for the modern day equivalent of beads and trinkets. And the traditional corporate response – “you can always opt out if you want” – is simply taking advantage of our own human limitations. The current fallback is that they’re introducing more transparency into their own approaches to privacy, making it easier to understand. While this is a step in the right direction, a more ethical approach would be to take an “opt in” approach, where the default is the maximum protection of our privacy and we have to make a conscious effort to lower that wall.

We’ll see. Opting in puts ethics and profitability on a collision course. For that reason, I can’t ever see the platforms going in that direction unless we insist.

 

 

Sorry, I Don’t Speak Complexity

I was reading about an interesting study from Cornell this week. Dr. Morton Christianson, Co-Director of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues explored an interesting linguistic paradox – languages that a lot of people speak – like English and Mandarin – have large vocabularies but relatively simple grammar. Languages that are smaller and more localized have fewer words but more complex grammatical rules.

The reason, Christensen found, has to do with the ease of learning. It doesn’t take much to learn a new word. A couple of exposures and you’ve assimilated it. Because of this, new words become memes that tend to propagate quickly through the population. But the foundations of grammar are much more difficult to understand and learn. It takes repeated exposures and an application of effort to learn them.

Language is a shared cultural component that depends on the structure of a network. We get an inside view of network dynamics from investigating the spread of language. Let’s look at the complexity of a syntactic rule, for example. These are the rules that govern sentence structure, word order and punctuation. In terms of learnability, syntax offers much more complexity than simply understanding the definition of a word. In order to learn syntax, you need repeated exposures to it. And this is where the structure and scope of a network comes in. As Dr. Christensen explains,

“If you have to have multiple exposures to, say, a complex syntactic rule, in smaller communities it’s easier for it to spread and be maintained in the population.”

This research seems to indicate that cultural complexity is first spawned in heavily interlinked and relatively intimate network nodes. For these memes – whether they be language, art, philosophies or ideologies – to bridge to and spread through the greater network, they are often simplified so they’re easier to assimilate.

If this is true, then we have to consider what might happen as our world becomes more interconnected. Will there be a collective “dumbing down” of culture? If current events are any indication, that certainly seems to be the case. The memes with the highest potential to spread are absurdly simple. No effort on the part of the receiver is required to understand them.

But there is a counterpoint to this that does hold out some hope. As Christensen reminds us, “People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification.” From this emerges an interesting yin and yang of cultural content creation. You have more highly connected nodes independent of geography that are producing some truly complex content. But, because of the high threshold of assimilation required, the complexity becomes trapped in that node. The only things that escape are fragments of that content that can be simplified to the point where they can go viral through the greater network. But to do so, they have to be stripped of their context.

This is exactly what caused the language paradox that the team explored. If you have a wide network – or a large population of speakers – there are a greater number of nodes producing new content. In this instance, the words are the fragments, which can be assimilated, and the grammar is the context that gets left behind.

There is another aspect of this to consider. Because of these dynamics unique to a large and highly connected network, the simple and trivial naturally rises to the top. Complexity gets trapped beneath the surface, imprisoned in isolated nodes within the network. But this doesn’t mean complexity goes away – it just fragments and becomes more specific to the node in which it originated. The network loses a common understanding and definition of that complexity. We lose our shared ideological touchstones, which are by necessity more complex.

If we speculate on where this might go in the future, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see an increase in tribalism in matters related to any type of complexity – like religion or politics – and a continuing expansion of simple cultural memes.

The only time we may truly come together as a society is to share a video of a cat playing basketball.

 

 

Thinking Beyond the Brand

Apparently boring is the new gold standard of branding, at least when it comes to ranking countries on the international stage. According to a new report from US News, the Wharton School and Y&R’s BAV Group, Canada is the No. 2 country in the world. That’s right – Canada – the country that Robin Williams called “a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”

The methodology here is interesting. It was basically a brand benchmarking study. That’s what BAV does. They’re the “world’s largest and leading empirical study of brands” And Canada’s brand is: safe, slightly left leaning, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and we have lakes and mountains.

Who, you may ask, beat us? Switzerland – a country that is safe, slightly left leading, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and they have lakes and mountains too.

This study has managed to reduce entire countries to a type of cognitive short hand we call a brand. As a Canadian, I can tell you this country contains multitudes – some good, some bad – and remarkably little of it is boring. We’re like an iceberg (literally, in some months) – there’s a lot that lies under the surface. But as far as the world cares, you already know everything you need to know about Canada and no further learning is required.

That’s the problem with branding. We rely more and more on whatever brand perceptions we already have in place without thinking too much about whether they’re based on valid knowledge. We certainly don’t go out of our way to challenge those perceptions. What was originally intended to sell dish soap is being used as a cognitive short cut for everything we do. We rely on branding – instant know-ability – or what I called labelability in a previous column. We spend more and more of our time knowing and less and less of it learning.

Branding is a mental rot that is reducing everything to a broadly sketched caricature.

Take politics for example. That same BAV group turned their branding spotlight on candidates for the next presidential election. Y&R CEO David Sable explored just how important branding will be in 2020. Spoiler alert: it will be huge.

When BAV looked at the brands of various candidates, Trump continues to dominate. This was true in 2016, and depending on the variables of fate currently in play, it could be true in 2020 as well. “We showed how fresh and powerful President Trump was as a brand, and just how tired and weak Hillary was… despite having more esteem and stature.”

Sable prefaced his exploration with this warning: “What follows is not a political screed, endorsement or advocacy of any sort. It is more a questioning of ourselves, with some data thrown to add to the interrogative.” In other words, he’s saying that this is not really based on any type of rational foundation; it’s simply evaluating what people believe. And I find that particular mental decoupling to be troubling.

This idea of cognitive shorthand is increasingly prevalent in an attention deficit world. Everything is being reduced to a brand. The problem with this is that once that brand has been “branded” it’s very difficult to shake. Our world is being boiled down to branding and target marketing. Our brains have effectively become pigeon holed. That’s why Trump was right when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”

We have a dangerous spiral developing. In a world with an escalating amount of information, we increasingly rely on brands/beliefs for our rationalization of the world. When we do expose ourselves to information, we rely on information that reinforces those brands and beliefs. Barack Obama identified this in a recent interview with David Letterman: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”

Our information sources have to be “on-brand”. And those sources are filtered by algorithms shaped by our current beliefs. As our bubble solidifies, there is nary a crack left for a fresh perspective to sneak in.

 

The Decentralization of Trust

Forget Bitcoin. It’s a symptom. Forget even Blockchain. It’s big – but it’s technology. That makes it a tool. Which means it’s used at our will. And that will is the real story. Our will is always the real story – why do we build the tools we do? What is revolutionary is that we’ve finally found a way to decentralize trust. That runs against the very nature of how we’ve defined trust for centuries.

And that’s the big deal.

Trust began by being very intimate – ruled by our instincts in a face-to-face context. But for the last thousand years, our history has been all about concentration and the mass of everything – including whom we trust. We have consolidated our defense, our government, our commerce and our culture. In doing so, we have also consolidated our trust in a few all-powerful institutions.

But the past 20 years have been all about decentralization and tearing down power structures, as we invent new technologies to let us do that. In that vien, Blockchain is a doozy. It will change everything. But it’s only a big deal because we’re exerting our will to make it a big deal. And the “why” behind that is what I’m focusing on.

For right or wrong, we have now decided we’d rather trust distribution than centralization. There is much evidence to support that view. Concentration of power also means concentration of risk. The opportunity for corruption skyrockets. Big things tend to rot from the inside out. This is not a new discovery on our part. We’ve known for at least a few centuries that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As the world consolidated it also became more corrupt. But it was always a trade off we felt we had to make. Again, the collective will of the people is the story thread to follow here. Consolidation brought many benefits. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for hierarchies, in one form or another. So we willing subjugated ourselves to someone – somewhere – hoping to maintain a delicate balance where the risk of corruption was outweighed by a personal gain. I remember asking the Atlantic’s noted correspondent, James Fallows, a question when I met him once in China. I asked how the average Chinese citizen could tolerate the paradoxical mix of rampant economical entrepreneurialism and crushing ideological totalitarianism. His answer was, “As long as their lives are better today than they were yesterday, and promise to be even better tomorrow, they’ll tolerate it.”

That pretty much summarizes our attitudes towards control. We tolerated it because if we wanted our lives to continue to improve, we really didn’t have a choice. But perhaps we do now. And that possibility has pushed our collective will away from consolidated power hubs and towards decentralized networks. Blockchain gives us another way to do that. It promises a way to work around Big Money, Big Banks, Big Government and Big Business. We are eager to do so. Why? Because up to now we have had to place our trust in these centralized institutions and that trust has been consistently abused. But perhaps Blockchain technology has found a way to distribute trust in a foolproof way. It appears to offer a way to make everything better without the historic tradeoff of subjugating ourselves to anyone.

However, when we move our trust to a network we also make that trust subject to unanticipated network effects. That may be the new trade-off we have to make. Increasingly, our technology is dependent on networks, which – by their nature – are complex adaptive systems. That’s why I keep preaching the same message – we have to understand complexity. We must accept that complexity has interaction affects we could never successfully predict.

It’s an interesting swap to consider – control for complexity. Control has always offered us the faint comfort of an illusion of predictability. We hoped that someone who knew more than we did was manning the controls. This is new territory for us. Will it be better? Who can say? But we seem to building an irreversible head of steam in that direction.

Raising an Anti-fragile Brand

I’ve come to realize that brand building is a lot like having kids. Much as you want to, at some point you simply can’t control their lives. All you can do is lay a strong foundation. Then you have to cast them adrift on the vicissitudes of life and hope they bounce in the right direction more often than not. It’s a crapshoot, so you damn well better hedge your bets.

Luck rules a perverse universe. All the planning in the world can’t prevent bad luck. Crappy things happen with astonishing regularity to very organized, competent people. The same is true of brands. Crappy things can happen to good brands at any moment – and all the planning in the world can’t prevent it.

Take October 31, 2017 for instance. On that day, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s west side, killing 8 and injuring 11 others. What does this have to do with branding? Saipov rented his truck from Home Depot. All the pictures and video of the incident showed the truck with a huge Home Depot logo on the door. You know the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Wrong!

Or take August 11, 2017 when a bunch of white supremacists decided to hold a torchlight rally in Charlotteville. Their torch of preference? The iconic Tiki Torch, which, ironically, is based on a decidedly non-white Polynesian design. Tiki soon took to social media to indicate they were not amused with the neo-Nazi’s choice.

The first instinct when things go wrong – with kids or brands – is to want to jump in and exert control. But that doesn’t work very well in either case. You need to build “anti-fragility.” This concept – from Nassim Nicholas Taleb – is when, “shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face.” So, in the interest of antifragility – of kids or brands – here are a few things I’ve learned.

Do the Right Thing….

Like the advice from the eponymous 1989 movie from Spike Lee, you should always “Do the Right Thing”. That doesn’t mean being perfect. It just means that when you have a choice between sticking to your principles and taking the easy way out – always do the former. A child raised in this type of environment will follow suit. You have laid a strong moral foundation that will be their support system for the rest of their lives. And the same is true of brands. A brand built on strong ethics, by a company that always tries to do the right thing, is exceptionally anti-fragile. When knocks happen – and cracks inevitably appear – an ethical brand will heal itself. An unethical brand that depends on smoke and mirrors will crumble.

Building an Emotional Bank account

One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in my life was the metaphor of the emotional bank account from Stephen Covey. My wife and I have tried to pass this along to our children. Essentially, you have to make emotional deposits with those close to you to build up a balance against which you can withdraw when you need to. If you raise kids that make frequent deposits, you know that their friends and family will be there for them when they need them. The degree of anti-fragility in your children is dependent on the strength of their support network. How loyal are their friends and family? Have they built this loyalty through regular deposits in the respective emotional bank accounts?

The same is true for anti-fragile brands. Brands that build loyalty in an authentic way can weather the inevitable storms that will come their way. This goes beyond the cost of switching rationale. Even brands that have you “locked in” today will inevitably lose that grip through the constant removal of marketplace friction through technology and the ever-creeping forces of competition. Emotional bank accounts are called that for a reason – this had to do with emotions, not rationality.

Accepting that Mistakes Happen

One of the hardest things about being a parent is giving your children room to make mistakes. But if you want to raise anti-fragile kids, you have to do this.

The same is true with brands. When things go wrong, we tend to want to exert control, to fix things. In doing so, we have to take control from someone else. In the case of parenting, you take control from your children, along with the opportunity for them to learn how to fix things themselves. In the case of branding, you take control from the market. But in the later case, you don’t take control, because you can’t. You can respond, but you can’t control. It’s a bitter lesson to learn – but it’s a lesson best learned sooner rather than later.

Remember – You’re In This for the Long Run

Raising anti-fragile children means learning about proportionate responses when things go off the rails. The person your child is when they’re 15 is most likely not going to be the person they are when they’re 25. You’re not going to be the same person either. So while you have to be firm when they step out of line, you also have to take care not to destroy the long-term foundations of your relationship. Over reacting can cause lasting damage.

The same is true for brands. The market has a short memory. No matter how bad today may be, if you have an anti-fragile brand, the future will be better. Sometimes it’s just a matter of holding on and riding out the storm.

 

Fat Heads and Long Tails: Living in a Viral World

I, and the rest of the world, bought “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” last Friday. Forbes reports that in one weekend, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon booklist, and demand for the book is “unprecedented.”

We use that word a lot now. Our world seems to be a launching pad for “unprecedented” events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swans used to be the exception — that was the definition of  the term. Now they’re becoming the norm. You can’t walk down the street without accidentally kicking one.

Our world is a hyper-connected feedback loop that constantly engenders the “unprecedented”: storms, blockbusters, presidents. In this world, historical balance has disappeared and all bets are off.

One of the many things that has changed is the distribution pattern of culture. In 2006, Chris Anderson wrote the book “The Long Tail,” explaining how online merchandising, digital distribution and improved fulfillment logistics created an explosion of choices. Suddenly, the distribution curve of pretty much everything  — music, books, apps, video, varieties of cheese — grew longer and longer, creating Anderson’s “Long Tail.”

But let’s flip the curve and look at the other end. The curve has not just grown longer. The leading edge of it has also grown on the other axis. Heads are now fatter.

“Fire and Fury” has sold more copies in a shorter period of time than would have ever been possible at any other time in history. That’s partly because of the  same factors that created the Long Tail: digital fulfillment and more efficient distribution. But the biggest factor is that our culture is now a digitally connected echo chamber that creates the perfect conditions for virality. Feeding frenzies are now an essential element of our content marketing strategies.

If ever there was a book written to go viral, it’s “Fire and Fury.” Every page should have a share button. Not surprisingly, given its subject matter,  the book has all the subtlety and nuance of a brick to the head. This is a book built to be a blockbuster.

And that’s the thing about the new normal of virality: Blockbusters become the expectation out of the starting gate.

As I said last week, content producers have every intention of addicting their audience, shooting for binge consumption of each new offering. Wolff wrote this book  to be consumed in one sitting.

As futurist (or “futuristorian”) Brad Berens writes, the book is “fascinating in an I-can’t-look-away-at-the-17-car-pileup-with-lots-of-ambulances way.” But there’s usually a price to be paid for going down the sensational path. “Fire and Fury” has all the staying power of a “bag of Cheetos.” Again, Berens hits the nail on the head: “You can measure the relevance of Wolff’s book in half-lives, with each half-life being about a day.”

One of the uncanny things about Donald Trump is that he always out-sensationalizes any attempt to sensationalize him. He is the ultimate “viral” leader, intentionally — or not — the master of the “Fat Head.” Today that head is dedicated to Wolff’s book. Tomorrow, Trump will do something to knock it out of the spotlight.

Social media analytics developer Tom Maiaroto found the average sharing lifespan of viral content is about a day. So while the Fat Head may indeed be Fat, it’s also extremely short-lived. This means that, increasingly, content intended to go viral  — whether it be books, TV shows or movies — is intentionally developed to hit this short but critical window.

So what is the psychology behind virality? What buttons have to be pushed to start the viral cascade?

Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger, who researched what makes things go viral, identified six principles: Social Currency, Memory Triggers, Emotion, Social Proof, Practical Value and Stories. “Fire and Fury” checks almost all these boxes, with the possible exception of practical value.

But it most strongly resonates with social currency, social proof and emotion. For everyone who thinks Trump is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, this book acts as kind of an ideological statement, a social positioner, an emotional rant and confirmation bias all rolled into one. It is a tribal badge in print form.

When we look at the diffusion of content through the market, technology has again acted as a polarizing factor. New releases are pushed toward the outlier extremes, either far down the Long Tail or squarely aimed at cashing in on the Fat Head. And if it’s the latter of these, then going viral becomes critical.

Expect more fire. Expect more fury.

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts — and I want people addicted to something every week”?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window.

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  — the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

Overton_Window_diagram.svgThe window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make “extreme things look normal,” according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window.

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What’s most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry — whether that industry is marketing or entertainment — should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There’s a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.