Want Solid Covid-19 Information? Here is What I've Found

If you’re a statistical “what if” type of person, I can relate. I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last week or two. I’ve found some tools and resources that are heavy on statistical probability and solid information rather than panicked hyperbole or “head in the sand” denial. I thought I’d share them with you.

Updated Numbers

The one source I’ve been following the longest is Worldometer’s Coronavirus page, which is updated daily.

You can drill down to breakdowns for most countries. I’ve been particularly looking at results in example countries that are ahead of us on the curve: on the plus side: China and South Korea. On the negative side: Italy and Spain. The US has further breakdowns by state. Keep on eye on Washington, which will be soon getting to the point where they’ll see if their efforts at lockdown are being effective. Governor Jay Inslee did a statewide lockdown on March 15, the first state to do so. What we want to see if that starts “bending the curve” in the right direction. We should start to see trends in the next week or so.

One note of caution on looking at these numbers. You have to factor in the ramp up of testing, which will identify many more new cases. While this looks scary, it’s very much a good thing. Increased testing is one of the most important steps in slowing down the spread.

Canadian Specific Numbers

Canada does not have a province by province breakdown on Worldometer. The best site I’ve seen for Canada is from the Globe and Mail.

This tool does offer provincial breakdowns. Again, we want to be watching the daily new case graphs to see if the curve starts to bend. Provinces that were leaders in this regard are the ones that have been hit the hardest: BC, Ontario and Alberta. In BC we’ve been stepping towards total lock down for the last week or so. On Friday, we finally shut all restaurants, so we’re about a week behind Washington State in this regard. Ontario was a little bit ahead of us.

Other Trackers

Bing

If you prefer a map-based interface, other tools you might want to check out are Bing’s Covid Tracker:

Bing has done a nice job here, particularly if you’re in the US. You can drill down to very specific location based tracking if you’re American. It’s less useful for Canadians. I also want to see new case incident rates, which are missing.

Google

New on the scene is Google’s Covid Tracker

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more from Google. I know it’s just been rolled out, but Bing is miles ahead in functionality

Bottom Line

If you want to see what might happen, you need to drill down on locations that were aggressive in implementing lockdowns and see what is happening there on a day by day – new cases and new deaths – basis. Remember, there is a 7 – 14 day incubation period, so you need to factor that in. Social distancing and Shelter at Home strategies will take 2 to 3 weeks to show up on these graphs.

Sound Statistics and Modelling

Tomas Pueyo has done an absolutely stellar job of taking available information and modelling out what we might expect to see. In two posts on Medium, he has knocked it out of the park. If you need some solid statistical arguments why you should keep your ass on your couch, you’ll find it here. The first post came on March 10. It convinced me to “shelter at home”.

(By the way, I’ll be using terms around which there is a lot of confusion currently. See this guide about what these terms mean)

Pueyo, who is the VP of Growth at Course Hero, has basically assembled a team of academics, health authorities and quants to “hack” an approach to saving our collective lives. His original post has been read over 40 million times and has been translated into over 30 languages. The science is sound here. His message is straight forward and urgent: stay the fuck home.

The first post, published March 10, is entitled: Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now:

The second post from March 19 is called: Coronovirus: The Hammer and The Dance

Neither of these posts are easy reading, but it is essential that you do. Pueyo does get into the weeds on his statistical reasoning, but it’s the best analysis I’ve seen about what we might expect.

Statistical Models

The final resource I’ll point you to are a few statistical models I’ve found that allow you to do some what-if modelling for your own circumstances. By far the best is the Epidemic Calculator on Github:

It looks a little daunting at first, but there are really only a few adjustments you need to make. On the bottom, you can leave almost everything in the default position. The inputs are based on the latest information we have on Covid-19. The one you might want to change is the Population input. Set this for your home country, region or even city if you want.

What you want to change are the two slider controls on the top, the Intervention Threshold and the Rt Factor. These two work together, one the timing of actions and the other the severity of actions. The R factor is the transmission rate (Pueyo talks about this extensively). It appears that Covid currently has an R factor of about 2.2, which means that every infected person will infect 2.2 other people. What we want is to get that under 1. Until we do that, the disease spreads exponentially.

Drag the Intervention slider to see the impact of delaying action. Then adjust the slider to the right to see why staying at home is so important. If anything drove it home for me, this did.

There are other models out there. If you like Canadian Content in your statistical models, there is also this one from Memorial University:

Why is This Important?

The biggest problem with what we’re about to go through is the tendency to either panic or to not be aware of the urgency of the situation. Both can be equally dangerous.

It’s so important to know what might come. We have a couple of significant obstacles in this regard:

The Cause/Effect Gap

First, we are dealing with the incubation lag, that frustrating delay between what we do today and when we begin to see the payoff from it. For me, statistical analysis is the best way to drive that point home. With it, its abundantly clear to see why we need to act now and act aggressively.

The Things We Can’t See

The other problem is underestimating the number of people that are already infected. Remember, some of those infected may never show symptoms but still be contagious. Others will show symptoms at 5 or 6 days but will be contagious before that. You can’t look at the number of confirmed cases in your area and get any feeling of security from that. You can be sure the number of actual infections is much higher. This was the same dangerous path that Italy and Spain went down.

For me this has been a roller coaster ride. I need information – good information that’s grounded in fact based research and reasoning. There is far too much bad information out there. That is why I wanted to share these resources. As near as I can tell, this will give you the best baseline of where we’re at and what we need to do going forward. It is scary shit. So the last thing I’ll leave with are some tips of how to cope when it all gets too much: a conversation with psychologist and mental health expert Dr. Reyman Abdulrehman.

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.

Bubbles, Bozos and the Mediocrity Sandwich

I spent most of my professional life inside the high-tech bubble. Having now survived the better part of a decade outside said bubble, I have achieved enough distance to be able to appreciate the lampooning skills of Dan Lyons. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you may have seen his work. He was the real person behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog. He was also the senior technology editor for Forbes and Newsweek prior to being cut loose in the print media implosion. He later joined the writing staff of Mike Judge’s brilliant HBO series Silicon Valley.

Somewhere in that career arc, Lyons briefly worked at a high tech start up.  From that experience, he wrote Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble.” It gives new meaning to the phrase “painfully funny.”

After being cast adrift by Forbes, Lyons decided to change his perspective on the Bubble from “outside looking in” to “inside looking out.” He wanted to jump on the bubble band wagon, grab a fistful of options and cash in. And so he joined HubSpot as a content producer for their corporate blog. The story unfolds from there.

One particularly sharp and insightful chapter of the book recalls Steve Job’s “Bozo Explosion”:

“Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to talk about a phenomenon called a ‘bozo explosion,’ by which a company’s mediocre early hires rise up through the ranks and end up running departments. The bozos now must hire other people, and of course they prefer to hire bozos. As Guy Kawasaki, who worked with Jobs at Apple, puts it: ‘B players hire C players, so they can feel superior to them, and C players hire D players.’ “

The Bozo Explosion is somewhat unique to tech start-ups, mainly because of some of the aspects of the culture I talked about in a previous column. But I ran into my own version back in my consulting career. And I ran into it in all kinds of companies. I used to call it the Mediocrity Sandwich.

The Mediocrity Sandwich lives in middle management. I used to find that the people at the C Level of the company were usually pretty smart and competent (that said, I did run across some notable exceptions in my time). I also found that the people found on the customer facing front lines of the company were also pretty smart and – more importantly – very aware of the company’s own issues.

But addressing those issues invariably caused a problem. You have senior executives who were certainly capable of fixing the problems, whatever they might be. And you had front line employees who were painfully aware of what the problems were and motivated to implement solutions. But all the momentum of any real problem-solving initiative used to get sucked out somewhere in the middle of the corporate org chart. The problem was the Mediocrity Sandwich.

You see, I don’t think the Bozo Explosion is so much a pyramid – skinny at the top, broad at the bottom – as it is an inverted U-Shaped curve. I think “bozoism” tends to peak in the middle. You certainly have the progression from A’s to B’s to C’s as you move down from the top executive rungs. But then you have the inverse happening as you move from Middle Management to the front lines. The problem is the attrition of competence as you became absorbed into the organization. It’s the Bozo Explosion in reverse.

I usually found there was enough breathing room for competence to survive at the entry level in the organization. There were enough degrees of separation between the front line and the from the bozos in middle management. But as you started to climb the corporate ladder, you kept getting closer to the bozos. Your degree of job frustration began to climb as they had more influence over your day-to-day work. Truly competent players bailed and moved on to a less bozo-infested environment. Those that remained either were born bozos or had “bozo”ness thrust upon them. Either way, as you climbed towards middle management, the bozo factor climbed in lock step. The result? A bell curve of bozos centered in the middle between the C-Level and the front lines.

This creates a poisonous outlook for the long-term prospects of a company. Eventually, the C level executive will age out of their jobs. But who will replace them? The internal farm team is a bunch of bozos. You can recruit from outside, but then the incoming talent inherits a Mediocrity Sandwich. The company begins to rot from within.

For companies to truly change, you have to root out the bozo-rot, but this is easier said than done. If there is one single thing that bozos are good at, it is bozo butt-covering.

What Happens When A Black Swan Beats Up Your Brand

I’m guessing the word Corona brings many things to your mind right now — and a glass full of a ice-cold beer may not be one of them. A brand that once made us think of warm, sunny beaches and Mexican vacations on the Mayan Riviera now is mentally linked to a global health crisis. Sometimes the branding gods smile on you in their serendipity, and sometimes they piss in your cornflakes. For Grupo Modelo, the makers of Corona beer, the latter is most definitely the case.

As MediaPost Editor Joe Mandese highlighted in a post last week, almost 40% of American beer drinkers in a recent poll would not buy Corona under any circumstances. Fifteen percent of regular Corona drinkers would no longer order it in public. No matter how you slice those numbers, that does not bode well for the U.S.’s top-selling imported drink.

It remains to be seen what effect the emerging pandemic will have on the almost 100-year-old brand. Obviously, Grupo Modelo, the owners of the brand, are refuting that there is any permanent damage. But then, what else would you expect them to say?  There’s a lot of beer sitting on shelves around the world that is waiting to be drunk. It’s just unfortunate it has the same name as a health crisis that so far is the biggest story of this decade.

This is probably not what the marketing spin doctors at Grupo Modelo want to hear, but a similar thing happened about 40 years ago.  Here is the story of another brand whose name got linked to the biggest health tragedy of the 1980s.

In 1946 the Carlay Company of Chicago registered a trademark for a “reducing plan vitamin and mineral candy” that had been in commercial use for almost a decade. The company claimed that users of the new “vitamin” could “lose up to 10 pounds in 5 days, without dieting or exercising.” The Federal Trade Commission soon called bullshit on that claim, causing the Carlay Company to strip it from its marketing in 1944.

Marketing being marketing, it wasn’t the vitamins in this “vitamin” that allegedly caused the pounds to melt away. In the beginning, it was something that chemists call benzocaine. That’s a topical anesthetic you’ll also find it in over-the-counter products like Orajel. Basically, benzocaine numbed the tongue. The theory was that a tongue that couldn’t taste anything would be less likely to crave food.

The active ingredient was later changed to phenylpropanolamine, which was also used as a decongestant in cold medications and to control urinary incontinence in dogs. In the ‘60s and ’70s, it became a common ingredient in many diet pills. Then it was discovered to cause strokes in young women.

The Carlay Company eventually became part of the Campana Corporation, which in turn was sold to Purex. The product morphed from a vitamin to a diet candy and was sold in multiple flavors, including chocolate, chocolate mint, butterscotch and caramel. If you remember Kraft caramels — little brown cubes packaged in clear cellophane — you have a good idea what these diet candies looked like.

Despite the shaky claims and dubious ingredients, the diet candies became quite popular. I remember my mother, who had a lifelong struggle with her weight, usually had a box of them in the cupboard when I was growing up. Sale hit their peak in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. There were TV ads and celebrity endorsers — including Bob Hope and Tyrone Power — lined up to hawk them.

Then, in 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report about five previously healthy men who all became infected with pneumocystis pneumonia. The odd thing was that this type of pneumonia is almost never found in healthy people. There was another odd thing. All five men were gay. In 1982, the CDC gave a name to this new disease: AIDS.

Of all the ways AIDS changed our world in the 1980s, one was particularly relevant to the marketers of those diet candies, which just happened to be named Ayds.

You can see the problem.

Ayds soldiered on until 1988, despite sales that dropped 50%. The company tried to find a new name, including Diet Ayds and Aydslim in the U.K. It was too little, too late. The candies were eventually withdrawn from the market.

Does this foretell the fate of Corona beer? Perhaps not. AIDS has been part of our public consciousness for four decades. A product with a similar sounding name didn’t stand a chance. We can hope that coronavirus will not have the same longevity. And the official name of the outbreak has now been changed to Covid19. For both these reasons, Corona — the beer — might be able to ride out the storm caused by corona, the virus.

But you can bet that there are some pretty uncomfortable meetings being held right now in the marketing department boardroom at Grupo Modelo.

Social Network Nastiness is the New Normal

British ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — he of “The Selfish Gene” Fame — was pondering recently on Twitter:

“Curious about Twitter nastiness. In conversation, we say ‘I don’t agree because…’ On Twitter, ‘you vile piece of shit’ replaces ‘because…’ Why? Has it escalated like loudness of talk in crowded room? Starts quiet but escalates till all yell to be heard. Nastier than thou?”

Dawkin’s hunch, which is fairly self-explanatory, makes sense. It aligns with my own suspicion that in a world of hyperbolic noise, we are increasingly becoming desensitized to “normal” and drawn to messaging that is “jagged” and polarized enough to go viral.

But Dawkin’s tweet prompted speculation on some other possible hypotheses, which he summarized in a follow-up tweet:

“Thanks for interesting responses. Many favour ‘road rage’ theory, a version of the ‘anonymity protects cowards’ theory. Some support my ‘Nastier than thou’ escalation theory, perhaps reinforced by (I hadn’t thought of this) hunger for Likes. But who likes nastiness & why?”

There is a third possibility that also emerged, a tribal “us” vs “them” chant where the tweets are a way for  tweeters to virtue signal to their tribe and, in the process, self-identify their position in the strongest possible terms.

At the end of the day, all these theories point out an interesting tipping point in social discourse: We are now doing it with some physical distance between participants, and we are doing it for an audience. Both of these factors can lead to social behaviors that are new for us.

Let’s begin with the question of distance.  Our most noble instincts were built on the foundation of proximity. Empathy and caring began as a tribal exercise. We came prewired with a hierarchy of humanity — a ranking of whom we care most about.

At the top are those we share the most DNA with. Next come those we share our time and physical space with. One rung down are those that look most like ourselves. Everybody else falls somewhere under that.

We are not locked into this hierarchy, but we have to understand that it is the hair-triggered reaction that naturally fires before our brain gets a chance to mindfully ponder what an appropriate behavior might be. Much as this may not be the “woke” thing to admit, we do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging it.

That brings us to the “audience” part of the new normal: We now broadcast our beliefs to our social network. Much of what we do online is done for the benefit of our audience. And when we become “de-individualized” as part of a group, our behavior changes. We rely less on our individual belief of what is right or wrong and more on what we believe the social norms of the group define as acceptable. We are bonding with our tribe and seeking acceptance.

If you combine both these factors, you have an environment where it is not only okay to be nasty to someone, it’s expected and encouraged. We say and do things to people that would be abhorrent to us if we were face-to-face with them. All three of Dawkin’s proposed explanations can and do arise.

The most discouraging part is that this is a Pandora’s box now open. There is no closing it again. This is the new normal, the new standard for discourse and debate.  Behavior stripped of any innate instinct for face-to-face civility is setting the stage for elections, governance, public debate and ideological alignment. It is defining our laws, our media and our culture. It is now part of our society.

I don’t know where it will lead. I only know there is no turning back.

What is the Moral Responsibility of a Platform?

The owner of the AirBnB home in Orinda, California suspected something was up. The woman who wanted to rent the house for Halloween night swore it wasn’t for a party. She said it was for a family reunion that had to relocate at the last minute because of the wildfire smoke coming from the Kincade fire, 85 miles north of Orinda. The owners reluctantly agreed to rent the home for one night.

Shortly after 9 pm, the neighbors called the owner, complaining of a party raging next door. The owners verified this through their doorbell camera. The police were sent. Over a 100 people who had responded to a post on social media were packed into the million-dollar home. At 10:45 pm, with no warning, things turned deadly. Gunshots were fired. Four men in their twenties were killed immediately. A 19-year-old female died the next day. Several others were injured.

Here is my question. Is AirBnB partly to blame for this?

This is a prickly question. And it’s one to extends to any one of the platforms that are highly disruptive. Technical disruption is a race against our need for order and predictability. When the status quo is upended, there is a progression towards a new civility that takes time, but technology is outstripping it. Platforms create new opportunities – for the best of us and the worst.

The simple fact is that technology always unleashes ethical ramifications – the more disruptive the technology, the more serious the ethical considerations. The other tricky bit is that some ethical considerations can be foreseen..but others cannot.

I have often said that our world is becoming a more complex place. Technology is multiplying this complexity at an ever increasing pace. And the more complex things are, the more difficult they are to predict.

As Homo Deus author Yuval Noah Harari said, because of the pace of technology, our world is becoming more complex, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict what the future might hold.

“Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently, we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.”

This acceleration is also eliminating the gap between cause and consequence. We used to have the luxury of time to digest disruption. But now, the gap between the introduction of the technology and the ripples of the ramifications is shrinking.

Think about the ethical dilemmas and social implications introduced by the invention of the printing press. Thanks to the introduction of this technology, literacy started creeping down through social classes and it totally disrupted entire established hierarchies, unleashed ideological revolutions and ushered in tsunamis of social change. But the cause and consequences were separated by decades and even centuries. Should Guttenberg be held responsible for the French Revolution? This seems laughable, but only because almost three and a half centuries lie between the two.

Like the printing press eventually proved, technology typically dismantles vertical hierarchies. It democratizes capabilities – spreading them down to new users and – in the process – making the previously impossible possible. I have always said that technology is simply a tool, albeit an often disruptive one. It doesn’t change human behaviors. It enables them. But here we have an interesting phenomenon. If technology pushes capabilities down to more people and simultaneously frees those users from the restraint of a verticalized governing structure, you have a highly disruptive sociological experiment happening in real time with a vast sample of subjects.

Most things about human nature are governed by a normal distribution curve – also known as a bell curve. Behaviors expressed through new technologies are no exception. When you rapidly expand access to a capability you are going to have a spectrum of ethical attitudes interacting with it. At one end of the spectrum, you will have bad actors. You will find these actors on both sides of a market expanding at roughly the same rate as our universe. And those actors will do awful things with the technology.

Our innate sense of fairness seeks a simple line between cause and effect. If shootings happen at an AirBnB party house, then AirBnB should be held at least partly responsible. Right?

I’m not so sure. That’s the simple answer, but after giving it much thought, I don’t believe it’s the right one.  Like my previous example of the printing press, I think trying to saddle a new technology with the unintentional and unforseen social disruption unleashed by that technology is overly myopic. It’s an attitude that will halt technological progress in its tracks.

I fervently believe new technologies should be designed with humanitarian principles in mind. They should elevate humans, strive for neutrality, be impartial and foster independence. In the real world, they should do all this in a framework that allows for profitability. It is this, and only this, that is reasonable to ask from any new technology. To try to ask it to foresee every potential negative outcome or to retroactively hold it accountable when those outcomes do eventually occur is both unreasonable and unrealistic.

Disruptive technologies will always find the loopholes in our social fabric. They will make us aware of the vulnerabilities in our legislation and governance. If there is an answer to be found here, it is to be found in ourselves. We need to take accountability for the consequences of the technologies we adopt. We need to vote for governments that are committed to keeping pace with disruption through timely and effective governance.

Like it or not, the technology we have created and adopted has propelled us into a new era of complexity and unpredictability. We are flying into uncharted territory by the seat of our pants here. And before we rush to point fingers we should remember – we’re the ones that asked for it.

The Saddest Part about Sadfishing

There’s a certain kind of post I’ve always felt uncomfortable with when I see it on Facebook. You know the ones I’m talking about — where someone volunteers excruciatingly personal information about their failing relationships, their job dissatisfaction, their struggles with personal demons. These posts make me squirm.

Part of that feeling is that, being of British descent, I deal with emotions the same way the main character’s parents are dealt with in the first 15 minutes of any Disney movie: Dispose of them quickly, so we can get on with the business at hand.

I also suspect this ultra-personal sharing  is happening in the wrong forum. So today, I’m trying to put an empirical finger on my gut feelings of unease about this particular topic.

After a little research, I found there’s a name for this kind of sharing: sadfishing. According to Wikipedia, “Sadfishing is the act of making exaggerated claims about one’s emotional problems to generate sympathy. The name is a variation on ‘catfishing.’ Sadfishing is a common reaction for someone going through a hard time, or pretending to be going through a hard time.”

My cynicism towards these posts probably sounds unnecessarily harsh. It goes against our empathetic grain. These are people who are just calling out for help. And one of the biggest issues with mental illness is the social stigma attached to it. Isn’t having the courage to reach out for help through any channel available — even social media — a good thing?

I do believe asking for help is undeniably a good thing. I wish I myself was better able to do that. It’s Facebook I have the problem with. Actually, I have a few problems with it.

It’s Complicated

Problem #1: Even if a post is a genuine request for help, the poster may not get the type of response he or she needs.

Mental Illness, personal grief and major bumps on our life’s journey are all complicated problems — and social media is a horrible place to deal with complicated problems. It’s far too shallow to contain the breadth and depth of personal adversity.

Many read a gut-wrenching, soul-scorching post (genuine or not), then leave a heart or a sad face, and move on. Within the paper-thin social protocols of Facebook, this is an acceptable response. And it’s acceptable because we have no skin in the game. That brings us to problem #2.

Empathy is Wired to Work Face-to-Face

Our humanness works best in proximity. It’s the way we’re wired.

Let’s assume someone truly needs help. If you’re physically with them and you care about them, things are going to get real very quickly. It will be a connection that happens at all possible levels and through all senses.

This will require, at a minimum, hand-holding and, more likely, hugs, tears and a staggering personal commitment  to help this person. It is not something taken or given lightly. It can be life-changing on both sides.

You can’t do it at arm’s length. And you sure as hell can’t do it through a Facebook reply.

The Post That Cried Wolf

But the biggest issue I have is that social media takes a truly genuine and admirable instinct, the simple act of helping someone, and turns it into just another example of fake news.

Not every plea for help on Facebook is exaggerated just for the sake of gaining attention, but some of them are.

Again, Facebook tends to take the less admirable parts of our character and amplify them throughout our network. So, if you tend to be narcissistic, you’re more apt to sadfish. If you have someone you know who continually reaches out through Facebook with uncomfortably personal posts of their struggles, it may be a sign of a deeper personality disorder, as noted in this post on The Conversation.

This phenomenon can create a kind of social numbness that could mask genuine requests for help. For the one sadfishing, It becomes another game that relies on generating the maximum number of social responses. Those of us on the other side quickly learn how to play the game. We minimize our personal commitment and shield ourselves against false drama.

The really sad thing about all of this is that social media has managed to turn legitimate cries for help into just more noise we have to filter through.

But What If It’s Real?

Sadfishing aside, for some people Facebook might be all they have in the way of a social lifeline. And in this case, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If someone you know and care about has posted what you suspect is a genuine plea for help, respond as humans should: Reach out in the most personal way possible. Elevate the conversation beyond the bounds of social media by picking up the phone or visiting them in person. Create a person-to-person connection and be there for them.

Saying So Long to SEMPO

Yesterday afternoon, while I was in line at the grocery store, my phone pinged. I was mentioned in a Twitter post. For me, that’s becoming a pretty uncommon experience. So I checked the post.  And that’s how I found out that SEMPO is no more.

The tweet was from Dana Todd, who was responding to a Search Engine Journalarticle by Roger Montti about the demise of SEMPO. For those of you who don’t know SEMPO: it was the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization.

It was a big part of my life during what seems like a lifetime ago. Todd was even more involved. Hence the tweet.

Increasingly I find my remaining half-life in digital consists of an infrequent series of “remember-when” throwbacks. This will be one of those.

Todd’s issue with the article was that much of the 17-year history of the organization was glossed over, as Montti chose to focus mainly on the controversies of the first year or two of its existence.

As Todd said, “You only dredged up the early stages of the organization, in its infancy as we struggled to gain respect and traction, and were beset by naysayers who looked for a reason we should fail. We didn’t fail.”

She then added, “There is far more to the SEMPO story, and far more notable people who put in blood sweat and tears to build not just the organization, but the entire industry.”

I was one of those people. But before that, I was also one of the early naysayers.

SEMPO started in 2003. I didn’t join until 2004. I spent at least part of that first year joining the chorus bitching about the organization. And then I realized that I could either bitch from the outside — or I could effect change from the inside.  

After joining, I quickly found myself on that same SEMPO board that that I’d been complaining about. In 2005, I became co-chair of the research committee. In 2006, I became the chair of SEMPO. I served in that role for two years and eventually stepped down from SEMPO at the same time I stepped away from the search industry.

Like Todd (who was the president of SEMPO for part of the time I was the chairman), I am proud of what we did, and extraordinarily proud of the team that made it happen. Many of the people I admired most in the industry served with me on that board.

Todd will always be one of my favorite search people. But I also had the privilege of serving with Jeff Pruit, Kevin Lee, Bill Hunt, Dave Fall, Christine Churchill and the person who got the SEMPO ball rolling, along with Todd: Barbara Coll. There were many, many others.

Now, SEMPO is being absorbed by the Digital Analytics Association, which, according to its announcement,  “is committed to helping former SEMPO members become fully integrated into DAA, and will be forming a special interest group (SIG) for search analytics.”

I’ve got to admit: That hurts. Being swallowed up, becoming nothing more than a special interest group, is a rather ignoble end for the association I gave so much to.

But as anyone who has raised a child can tell you, you know you’ve been successful when they no longer need you. And that’s how I choose to interpret this event. The search industry no longer needs SEMPO, at least as a stand-alone organization.

And if that’s the case, then SEMPO knocked it out of the park. Because that sure as hell wasn’t true back in 2003.

Search in 2003 was the Wild West. According to legend, there were white-hat SEOs and black-hat SEOs.

But truth be told, most of us wore hats that were some shade of grey.

The gunslingers of natural search (or organic SEO) were slowly and very reluctantly giving up their turf to the encroaching new merchants of paid search. Google Adwords had only been around for three years, but its launch introduced a whole new dynamic to the ecosystem. Google suddenly had to start a relationship with search marketers.

Before that, the only Google attempt made to reach out was thanks to a rogue mystery poster on SEO industry forums named “googleguy” (later suspected to be the search quality team lead Matt Cutts).  To call search an industry would be stretching the term to its breaking point.

The introduction of paid search was creating a two-sided marketplace, and that was forcing search to become more civilized.

The process of civilization is always difficult. It requires the establishment of trust and respect, two commodities that were in desperately short supply in search circa 2003.

SEMPO was the one organization that did the most to bring civilization to the search marketplace. It gave Google a more efficient global conduit to thousands of search marketers. And it gave those search marketers a voice that Google would actually pay some attention to.

But it was more than just starting a conversation. SEMPO challenged search marketers to think beyond their own interests. The organization laid the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable search ecosystem. If SEMPO accomplished anything to be proud of, it was in preventing the Tragedy of the Commons from killing search before it had a chance to establish itself as the fastest growing advertising marketplace in history.

Dana Todd wrapped up her extended Twitter post by writing, “I can say confidently Google wouldn’t be worth $1T without us. SEMPO — you mattered.”

Dana, just like in the old SEMPO days when we double-teamed a message, you said it better than I ever could.

And Google? You’re welcome.

The Fundamentals of an Evil Marketplace

Last week, I talked about the nature of tech companies and why this leads to them being evil. But as I said, there was an elephant in the room I didn’t touch on — and that’s the nature of the market itself. The platform-based market also has inherent characteristics that lead toward being evil.

The problem is that corporate ethics are usually based on the philosophies of Milton Friedman, an economist whose heyday was in the 1970s. Corporations are playing by a rule book that is tragically out of date.

Beware the Invisible Hand

Friedman said, “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”

This is a porting over of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory from economics to ethics: the idea that an open and free marketplace is self-regulating and, in the end, the model that is the most virtuous to the greatest number of people will take hold.

That was a philosophy born in another time, referring to a decidedly different market. Friedman’s “virtue” depends on a few traditional market conditions, idealized in the concept of a perfect market: “a market where the sellers of a product or service are free to compete fairly, and sellers and buyers have complete information.”

Inherent in Friedman’s definition of market ethics is the idea of a deliberate transaction, a value trade driven by rational thought. This is where the concept of “complete information” comes in. This information is what’s required for a rational evaluation of the value trade. When we talk about the erosion of ethics we see in tech, we quickly see that the prerequisite of a deliberate and rational transaction is missing — and with it, the conditions needed for an ethical “invisible hand.”

The other assumption in Friedman’s definition is a marketplace that encourages open and healthy competition. This gives buyers the latitude to make the choice that best aligns with their requirements.

But when we’re talking about markets that tend to trend towards evil behaviors, we have to understand that there’s a slippery slope that ends in a place far different than the one Friedman idealized.

Advertising as a Revenue Model

For developers of user-dependent networks like Google and Facebook, using advertising sales for revenue was the path of least resistance for adoption — and, once adopted by users, to profitability. It was a model co-opted from other forms of media, so everybody was familiar with it. But, in the adoption of that model, the industry took several steps away from the idea of a perfect market.

First of all, you have significantly lowered the bar required for that rational value exchange calculation. For users, there is no apparent monetary cost. Our value judgement mechanisms idle down because it doesn’t appear as if the protection they provide is needed.

In fact, the opposite happens. The reward center of our brain perceives a bargain and starts pumping the accelerator. We rush past the accept buttons to sign up, thrilled at the new capabilities and convenience we receive for free. That’s the first problem.

The second is that the minute you introduce advertising, you lose the transparency that’s part of the perfect market. There is a thick layer of obfuscation that sits between “users” and “producers.” The smoke screen is required because of the simple reality that the best interests of the user are almost never aligned with the best interests of the advertiser.

In this new marketplace, advertising is a zero-sum game. For the advertiser to win, the user has to lose. The developer of platforms hide this simple arithmetic behind a veil of secrecy and baffling language.

Products That are a Little Too Personal

The new marketplace is different in another important way: The products it deals in are unlike any products we’ve ever seen before.

The average person spends about a third of his or her time online, mostly interacting with a small handful of apps and platforms. Facebook alone accounts for almost 20% of all our waking time.

This reliance on these products reinforces our belief that we’re getting the bargain of a lifetime: All the benefits the platform provides are absolutely free to us! Of course, in the time we spend online, we are feeding these tools a constant stream of intimately personal information about ourselves.

What is lurking behind this benign facade is a troubling progression of addictiveness. Because revenue depends on advertising sales, two factors become essential to success: the attention of users, and information about them.

An offer of convenience or usefulness “for free” is the initial hook, but then it becomes essential to entice them to spend more time with the platform and also to volunteer more information about themselves. The most effective way to do this is to make them more and more dependent on the platform.

Now, you could build conscious dependency by giving users good, rational reasons to keep coming back. Or, you could build dependence subconsciously, by creating addicts. The first option is good business that follows Friedman’s philosophy. The second option is just evil. Many tech platforms — Facebook included — have chosen to go down both paths.

The New Monopolies

The final piece of Friedman’s idealized marketplace that’s missing is the concept of healthy competition. In a perfect marketplace, the buyer’s cost of switching  is minimal. You have a plethora of options to choose from, and you’re free to pursue the one best for you.

This is definitely not the case in the marketplace of online platforms and tools like Google and Facebook. Because they are dependent on advertising revenues, their survival is linked to audience retention. To this end, they have constructed virtual monopolies by ruthlessly eliminating or buying up any potential competitors.

Further, under the guise of convenience, they have imposed significant costs on those that do choose to leave. The net effect of this is that users are faced with a binary decision: Opt into the functionality and convenience offered, or opt out. There are no other choices.

Whom Do You Serve?

Friedman also said in a 1970 paper that the only social responsibility of a business is to Increase its profits. But this begs the further question, “What must be done — and for whom — to increase profits?” If it’s creating a better product so users buy more, then there is an ethical trickle-down effect that should benefit all.

But this isn’t the case if profitability is dependent on selling more advertising. Now we have to deal with an inherent ethical conflict. On one side, you have the shareholders and advertisers. On the other, you have users. As I said, for one to win, the other must lose. If we’re looking for the root of all evil, we’ll probably find it here.

Why Good Tech Companies Keep Being Evil

You’d think we’d have learned by now. But somehow it still comes as a shock to us when tech companies are exposed as having no moral compass.

Slate recently released what it called the “Evil List”  of 30 tech companies compiled through a ballot sent out to journalists, scholars, analysts, advocates and others. Slate asked them which companies were doing business in the way that troubled them most. Spoiler alert: Amazon, Facebook and Google topped the list.  But they weren’t alone. Rounding out the top 10, the list of culprits included Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Uber.

Which begs the question: Are tech companies inherently evil — like, say a Monsanto or Phillip Morris — or is there something about tech that positively correlates with “evilness”?

I suspect it’s the second of these.  I don’t believe Silicon Valley is full of fundamentally evil geniuses, but doing business as usual at a successful tech firm means there will be a number of elemental aspects of the culture that take a company down the path to being evil.

Cultism, Loyalism and Self-Selection Bias

A successful tech company is a belief-driven meat grinder that sucks in raw, naïve talent on one end and spits out exhausted and disillusioned husks on the other. To survive in between, you’d better get with the program.

The HR dynamics of a tech startup have been called a meritocracy, where intellectual prowess is the only currency.

But that’s not quite right. Yes, you have to be smart, but it’s more important that you’re loyal. Despite their brilliance, heretics are weeded out and summarily turfed, optionless in more ways than one. A rigidly molded group-think mindset takes over the recruitment process, leading to an intellectually homogeneous monolith.

To be fair, high growth startups need this type of mental cohesion. As blogger Paras Chopra said in a post entitled “Why startups need to be cult-like, “The reason startups should aim to be like cults is because communication is impossible between people with different values.” You can’t go from zero to 100 without this sharing of values.

But necessary or not, this doesn’t change the fact that your average tech star up is a cult, with all the same ideological underpinnings. And the more cult-like a culture, the less likely it is that it will take the time for a little ethical navel-gazing.

A Different Definition of Problem Solving

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for the engineer, the hammer that fixes everything is technology. But, as academic researchers Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf discovered, this brand of technical solutionism can lead to a corporate environment where ethical problems are ignored because they are open-ended, intractable questions. In a previous column I referred to them as “wicked problems.”

As Moss and Metcalf found, “Organizational practices that facilitate technical success are often ported over to ethics challenges. This is manifested in the search for checklists, procedures, and evaluative metrics that could break down messy questions of ethics into digestible engineering work. This optimism is counterweighted by a concern that, even when posed as a technical question, ethics becomes ‘intractable, like it’s too big of a problem to tackle.’”

If you take this to the extreme, you get the Cambridge Analytica example, where programmer Christopher Wylie was so focused on the technical aspects of the platform he was building that he lost sight of the ethical monster he was unleashing.

A Question of Leadership

Of course, every cult needs a charismatic leader, and this is abundantly true for tech-based companies. Hubris is a commodity not in short supply among the C-level execs of tech.

It’s not that they’re assholes (well, ethical assholes anyway). It’s just that they’re, umm, highly focused and instantly dismissive of any viewpoint that’s not the same as their own. It’s the same issue I mentioned before about the pitfalls of expertise — but on steroids.

I suspect that if you did an ethical inventory of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Travis Kalanik, Reid Hoffman and the rest, you’d find that — on the whole — they’re not horrible people. It’s just that they have a very specific definition of ethics as it pertains to their company. Anything that falls outside those narrowly defined boundaries is either dismissed or “handled” so it doesn’t get in the way of the corporate mission.

Speaking of corporate missions, leaders and their acolytes often are unaware — often intentionally — of the nuances of unintended consequences. Most tech companies develop platforms that allow disruptive new market-based ecosystems to evolve on their technological foundations. Disruption always unleashes unintended social consequences. When these inevitably happen, tech companies generally handle them one of three ways:

  1. Ignore them, and if that fails…
  2. Deny responsibility, and if that fails…
  3. Briefly apologize, do nothing, and then return to Step 1.

There is a weird type of idol worship in tech. The person atop the org chart is more than an executive. They are corporate gods — and those that dare to be disagreeable are quickly weeded out as heretics. This helps explain why Facebook can be pilloried for attacks on personal privacy and questionable design ethics, yet Mark Zuckerberg still snags a 92% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor.com.These fundamental characteristics help explain why tech companies seem to consistently stumble over to the dark side. But there’s an elephant in the room we haven’t talked about. Almost without exception, tech business models encourage evil behavior. Let’s hold that thought for a future discussion.