A Troubling Prognostication

It’s that time of year again. My inbox is jammed with pitches from PR flacks trying to get some editorial love for their clients. In all my years of writing, I think I have actually taken the bait maybe once or twice. That is an extremely low success rate. So much for targeting.

In early January, many of the pitches offer either reviews of 2019 or predictions for 2020.  I was just about to hit the delete button on one such pitch when something jumped out at me: “The number-one marketing trend for 2020 will be CDPs: customer data platforms.”

I wasn’t surprised by that. It makes sense. I know there’s a truckload of personal data being collected from everyone and their dog. Marketers love platforms. Why wouldn’t these two things come together?

But then I thought more about it — and immediately had an anxiety attack. This is not a good thing. In fact, this is a catastrophically terrible thing. It’s right up there with climate change and populist politics as the biggest world threats that keep me up at night.

To close out 2019,  fellow Insider Maarten Albarda gave you a great guide on where not to spend your money. In that column, he said this: “Remember when connected TVs, Google Glass and the Amazon Fire Phone were going to provide break-through platforms that would force mass marketing out of the box, and into the promised land of end-to-end, personalized one-on-one marketing?”

Ah, marketing nirvana: the Promised Land! The Holy Grail of personalized marketing. A perfect, friction-free direct connection between the marketer and the consumer.

Maarten went on to say that social media is one of the channels you shouldn’t be throwing money into, saying, “It’s also true that we have yet to see a compelling case where social media played a significant role in the establishment or continued success of a brand or service.”

I’m not sure I agree with this, though I admit I don’t have the empirical data to back up my opinion. But I do have another, darker reason why we should shut off the taps providing the flow of revenue to the usual social suspects. Social media based on an advertising revenue model is a cancerous growth — and we have to shut off its blood flow.

Personalized one-to-one marketing — that Promised Land —  cannot exist without a consistent and premeditated attack on our privacy. It comes at a price we should not be prepared to pay.

It depends on us trusting profit-driven corporations that have proven again and again that they shouldn’t be trusted. It is fueled by our darkest and least admirable motives.

The ecosystem that is required to enable one-to-one marketing is a cesspool of abuse and greed. In a pristine world of marketing with players who sport shiny ideals and rock-solid ethics, maybe it would be okay. Maybe. Personally, I wouldn’t take that bet. But in the world we actually live and work in, it’s a sure recipe for disaster.

To see just how subversive data-driven marketing can get, read “Mindf*ck” by Christopher Wylie. If that name sounds vaguely familiar to you, let me jog your memory. Wylie is the whistleblower who first exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal. An openly gay, liberal, pink-haired Canadian, he seems an unlikely candidate to be the architect of the data-driven “Mindf*ck” machine that drove Trump into office and the Brexit vote over the 50% threshold.

Wylie admits to being blinded by the tantalizing possibilities of what he was working on at Cambridge Analytica: “Every day, I overlooked, ignored, or explained away warning signs. With so much intellectual freedom, and with scholars from the world’s leading universities telling me we were on the cusp of ‘revolutionizing’ social science, I had gotten greedy, ignoring the dark side of what we were doing.”

But Wylie is more than a whistleblower. He’s a surprisingly adept writer who has a firm grasp on not just the technical aspects, but also the psychology behind the weaponization of data. If venture capitalist Roger McNamee’s tell-all expose of Facebook, “Zucked,”  kept you up at night, “Mindf*ck” will give you screaming night terrors.

I usually hold off jumping on the year-end prognostication bandwagon, because I’ve always felt it’s a mug’s game. I would like to think that 2020 will be the year when the world becomes “woke” to the threat of profit-driven data abuse — but based on our collective track record of ignoring inconvenient truths, I’m not holding my breath.

The Ruts of Our Brain

We are not – by nature – open minded. In fact, as we learn something, the learning creates neural pathways in our brain that we tend to stick to. In other words, the more we learn, the bigger the ruts get.

Our brains are this way by design. At its core, the brain is an energy saving device. If there are two options open to it, one requiring more cognitive processing and one requiring less, the brain will default to the less resource intensive option.

This puts expertise into an interesting new perspective. In a recent study, researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Columbia University, University College London and Flatiron Institute found that when mice learn a new task, the neurons in their brain actually change as they move from being a novice to an expert. At the beginning as they’re learning the task, the required neurons don’t “fire” until the brain makes a decision. But, as expertise is gained, those same neurons start responding before they’re even needed. It’s essentially Hebbian Theory (named after neurologist Donald Hebbs) in action: the neurons that fire together eventually wire together.

We tend to think of experts as bringing a well-honed subset of intellectual knowledge to a question. And that is true, as long as the question is well within their area of expertise. But the minute an expert ventures outside of their “rut” they begin to flounder. In fact, even when they are in their area of expertise but are asked to predict where that path that may lead in the future – beyond their current rut – their expertise doesn’t help them. In 2005 psychologist Phillip Tetlock published “Expert Political Judgement” – a book showing the results of a 20-year long study on the prediction track record of experts. It wasn’t good. According to a New Yorker review of the book, “Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world…are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys”

Why? Well, just like those mice in the above-mentioned study, once we have a rut, our brains like to stick to the rut. It’s just easier for us. And experts have very deep ruts. The deeper the rut, the more effort it takes to peer above it. As Tetlock found, when it comes to predicting what might happen in some area in the future, even if you happen to be an expert in that area, you’d probably be better off flipping a coin than relying on your brain.

By the way, for most of human history, this has been a feature, not a bug. Saving cognitive energy is a wonderful evolutionary advantage. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, eventually the brain pre-lights the neuronal path required, saving itself time and energy. The brain is directing anticipated traffic at faster than the speed of thought. And it’s doing it so well, it would take a significant amount of cognitive horsepower to derail this action.

Like I said, in a fairly predictably world of cause and effect, this system works. But in an uncertain world full of wild card complexity, it can be crippling.

Complex worlds require Foxes, not Hedgehogs. This analogy also comes from Tetlock’s book. According to an old Greek fable, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows just one thing.” To that I would add; the fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows a lot about one thing. In other words, the hedgehog is an expert.

In Tetlock’s study, people with “fox” qualities had a significantly better track record then “hedgehogs” when it came to predicting the future. Their brains were better able to take the time to synthesize the various data inputs required to deal with the complexity of crystal balling the future because they weren’t barrelling down a pre-ordained path that had been carved by years of accumulated expertise.

But it’s not just expertise that creates these ruts in our brains. The same pattern plays out when we look at the impact of our beliefs play in how open-minded we are. The stronger the belief, the deeper the rut.

Again, we have to remember that this tendency of our brains to form well-travelled grooves over time has been crafted by the blind watchmaker of evolution. But that doesn’t make it any less troubling when we think about the limitations it imposes in a more complex world. This is especially true when new technologies deliberately leverage our vulnerability in this area. Digital platforms ruthlessly eliminate the real estate that lies between perspectives. The ideological landscape in which foxes can effectively operate is disappearing. Increasingly we grasp for expertise – whether it’s on the right or left of any particular topic – with the goal of preserving our own mental ruts.

And as the ruts get deeper, foxes are becoming an endangered species.

Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

The Joy of Listening to Older People

The older I get, the more I enjoy talking to people who have accumulated decades of life experience. I consider it the original social media: the sharing of personal oral histories.

People my age often become interested in their family histories. When you talk to these people, they always say the same thing: “I wish I had taken more time to talk to my grandparents when they were still alive.” No one has ever wished they had spent less time with Grandma and Grandpa.

In the hubris of youth, there seems to be the common opinion that there couldn’t be anything of interest in the past that stretches further than the day before yesterday.  When we’re young, we seldom look back. We live in the moment and are obsessed with the future.

This is probably as it should be. Most of our lives lie in front of us. But as we pass the middle mark of our own journey, we start to become more reflective. And as we do so, we realize that we’ve missed the opportunity to hear most of our own personal family histories from the people who lived it. Let’s call it ROMO: The Regret of Missing Out.

Let me give you one example. In our family, with Remembrance Day (the Canadian version of Veterans Day) fast approaching, one of my cousins asked if we knew of any family that served in World War I. I vaguely remembered that my great grandfather may have served, so I did some digging and eventually found all his service records.

I discovered that he enlisted to go overseas when he was almost 45 years old, leaving behind a wife and five children. He served as a private in the trenches in the Battle of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. He was gassed. He had at least four bouts of trench fever, which is transmitted by body lice.

As a result, he developed a debilitating soreness in his limbs and back that made it impossible for him to continue active duty. Two and a half years after he enlisted, this almost 50-year-old man was able to sail home to his wife and family.

I was able to piece this together from the various records and medical reports. But I would have given anything to be able to hear these stories from him.

Unfortunately, I never knew him. My mom was just a few years old when he died, a somewhat premature death that was probably precipitated by his wartime experience.

This was a story that fell through the cracks between the generations. And now it’s too late. It will remain mostly hidden, revealed only by the sparse information we can glean from a handful of digitized records.

It’s not easy to get most older people talking. They’re not used to people caring about their past or their stories. You have to start gently and tease it out of them.

But if you persist and show an eagerness to listen, eventually the barriers come down and the past comes tumbling out, narrated by the person who lived it. Trust me when I say there is nothing more worthwhile that you can do.

We tend to ignore old people because we just have too much going on in our own lives. But it kills me just a little bit inside when I see grandparents and grandchildren in the same room, the young staring at a screen and the old staring off into space because no one is talking to them.

The screen will always be there. But Grandma isn’t getting any younger. She has lived her life. And I guarantee that in the breadth and depth of that life, there are some amazing stories you should take some time to listen to.

This Election, Canucks were “Zucked”

Note: I originally wrote this before results were available. Today, we know Trudeau’s Liberals won a minority government, but the Conservatives actually won the popular vote: 34.4% vs 33.06% for the Liberals. It was a very close election.

As I write this, Canadians are going to the polls in our national election. When you read this, the outcome will have been decided. I won’t predict — because this one is going to be too close to call.

For a nation that is often satirized for our tendencies to be nice and polite, this has been a very nasty campaign. So nasty, in fact, that in focusing on scandals and personal attacks, it forgot to mention the issues.

Most of us are going to the polls today without an inkling of who stands for what. We’re basically voting for the candidate we hate the least. In other words, we’re using the same decision strategy we used to pick the last guest at our grade 6 birthday party.

The devolvement of democracy has now hit the Great White North, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.

While the amount of viral vitriol I have seen here is still a pale shadow of what I saw from south of the 49th in 2016, it’s still jarring to witness. Canucks have been “Zucked.” We’re so busy slinging mud that we’ve forgotten to care about the things that are essential to our well being as a nation.

It should come as news to no one that Facebook has been wantonly trampling the tenets of democracy. Elizabeth Warren recently ran a fake ad on Facebook just to show she could. Then Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook last week when he said: “While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I worry about living in a world where you can only post things that tech companies decide to be 100 per cent true.”

Zuckerberg believes the onus lies with the Facebook user to be able to judge what is false and what is not. This is a suspiciously convenient defense of Facebook’s revenue model wrapped up as a defense of freedom of speech. At best it’s naïve, not to mention hypocritical. What we see is determined by Facebook’s algorithm. At worst it’s misleading and malicious.

Hitting hot buttons tied to emotions is nothing new in politics. Campaign runners have been drawing out and sharpening the long knives for decades now. TV ads added a particularly effective weapon into the political arsenal. In the 1964 presidential campaign, it even went nuclear with Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” Ad.

But this is different. For many reasons.

First of all, there is the question of trust in the channel. We have been raised in a world where media channels historically take some responsibility to delineate between what they say is factual (i.e., the news) and what is paid persuasion (i.e., the ads).

In his statement, Zuckerberg is essentially telling us that giving us some baseline of trust in political advertising is not Facebook’s job and not their problem. We should know better.

But we don’t. It’s a remarkably condescending and convenient excuse for Zuckerberg to appear to be telling us “You should be smarter than this” when he knows that this messaging has little to do with our intellectual horsepower.

This is messaging that is painstakingly designed to be mentally processed before the rational part of our brain even kicks in.

In a recent survey, three out of four Canadians said they had trouble telling which social media accounts were fake. And 40% of Canadians say they had found links to stories on current affairs that were obviously false. Those were only the links they knew were fake. I assume that many more snuck through their factual filters. By the way, people of my generation are the worst at sniffing out fake news.

We’ve all seen it, but only one third of Canadians 55 and over realize it. We can’t all be stupid.

Because social media runs on open platforms, with very few checks and balances, it’s wide open for abuse. Fake accounts, bots, hacks and other digital detritus litter the online landscape. There has been little effective policing of this. The issue is that cracking down on this directly impacts the bottom line. As Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Even given these two gaping vulnerabilities, the biggest shift when we think of social media as an ad platform is that it is built on the complexity of a network. The things that come with this — things like virality, filter bubbles, threshold effects — have no corresponding rule book to play by. It’s like playing poker with a deck full of wild cards.

Now — let’s talk about targeting.

When you take all of the above and then factor in the data-driven targeting that is now possible, you light the fuse on the bomb nestled beneath our democratic platforms. You can now segment out the most vulnerable, gullible, volatile sectors of the electorate. You can feed them misinformation and prod them to action. You can then sit back and watch as the network effects play themselves out. Fan — meet shit. Shit — meet fan.

It is this that Facebook has wrought, and then Mark Zuckerberg feeds us some holier-than-thou line about freedom of speech.

Mark, I worry about living in a world where false — and malicious — information can be widely disseminated because a tech company makes a profit from it.

The Difference Between a Right-Wing and Left-Wing Media Brain

I’ve been hesitating to write this column. But increasingly, everything I write and think about seems to come back to the same point – the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. That divide is tearing the world apart. And technology seems to be accelerating the forces causing the rift, rather than reversing them.

First, a warning: I am a Liberal. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my columns, but I did want to put it out there. And the reason I feel that warning is required it that with this column, I’m diving into the dangerous waters – I’m going to be talking about the differences between liberal and conservative brains, particularly those brains that are working in the media space.

Last week, I talked about the evolution of media bias through two – and what seems increasingly likely – three impeachment proceedings. Mainstream media has historically had a left bias. In a longitudinal study of journalism,  two professors at University of Indiana – Lars Willnat and David Weaver – found that in 2012, just 7% of American journalists identified themselves as Republican, while 28% said they were Democrats. Over 50% said they were Independent, but I suspect this is more a statement on the professed objectivity of journalists than their actual political leanings. I would be willing to bet that those independents sway left far more often than they sway right.

So, it’s entirely fair to say that mainstream media does have liberal bias. The question is – why? Is it a premediated conspiracy or just a coincidental correlation? I believe the bias is actually self-selected. Those that choose to go into journalism have brains that work in a particular way – a way that is most often found in those that fall on the liberal end of the spectrum.

I first started putting this hypothesis together when I read the following passage in Robert Sapolsky’s book “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” Sapolsky was talking about a growing number of studies looking at the cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives: “This literature has two broad themes. One is that rightists are relatively uncomfortable intellectually with ambiguity…The other is that leftists, well, think harder, have a greater capacity for what the political scientist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls ‘integrative complexity’.”

Sapolsky goes on to differentiate these intellectual approaches, “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”

Going from “gut to head” is a pretty good quality for a journalist. In fact, you could say it’s their job description.

Sapolsky cites a number of studies he bases this conclusion on. In the abstract of one of these studies, the researchers note: “Liberals are more likely to process information systematically, recognize differences in argument quality, and to be persuaded explicitly by scientific evidence, whereas conservatives are more likely to process information heuristically, attend to message-irrelevant cues such as source similarity, and to be persuaded implicitly through evaluative conditioning. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to rely on stereotypical cues and assume consensus with like-minded others.”

This is about as good a description of the differences between mainstream media and the alt-right media as I’ve seen. The researchers further note that, “Liberals score higher than conservatives on need for cognition and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives score higher than liberals on intuitive thinking and self-deception.”

That explains so much of the current situation we’re finding ourselves in. Liberals tend to be investigative journalists. Conservatives tend to be opinion columnists and pundits. One is using their head. The other is using their gut.

Of course, it’s not just the conservative media that rely on gut instinct. The Commander in Chief uses the same approach. In a 2016 article in the Washington Post, Marc Fisher probed Trump’s disdain for reading, “He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

I have nothing against intuition. The same Post articles goes on to give examples of other presidents who relied on gut instinct (Fisher notes, however; that even when these are factored in, Trump is still an outlier). But when the stakes are as high as they are now, I prefer intuition combined with some research and objective evaluation.

We believe in the concept of equality and fairness, as we should. For that reason, I hesitate to put yet another wall between conservatives and liberals. But – in seeking answers to complex questions – I think we have to be open and honest about the things that make us different. There is a reason some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives – our brains work differently*. And when those differences extend to our processing of our respective realities and the sources we turn to for information, we should be aware of them. We should take them into account in evaluating our media choices. We should go forward with open minds.

Unfortunately, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir. If you got this far in my column, you’re probably a liberal too.

* If you really want to dig further, check out the paper “Are Conservatives from Mars and Liberals from Venus?, Maybe Not So Much by Linda Skitka, one of the foremost researchers exploring this question.

The Internet: Nasty, Brutish And Short

When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid to late 90s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter. What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.

The internet lures us into thinking with half a brain. Actually, with less than half a brain – and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half. The culprit is the speed of connection and reaction. We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.

Daniel Kahneman’s monumental book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” lays out the two loops we use for mental processing. There’s the fast loop, our instinctive response to situations, and there’s the slow loop, our thoughtful processing of reality.

Humans need both loops. This is especially true in the complexity of today’s world. The more complex our reality, the more we need the time to absorb and think about it.

 If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in the Hobbesian State of Nature (from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): The “natural condition of mankind” is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.”

That is not the world I want to live in. I want a world of compassion, empathy and respect. But the better angels of our nature rely on thoughtfulness. They take time to come to their conclusions.

With its dense interconnectedness, the internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of “cancel” and “callout” culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

We seem to think this is OK because for every post we see that makes us rage inside, we also see posts that make us gush and goo. Every hateful tweet we see is leavened with a link to a video that tugs at our heartstrings. We are quick to point out that, yes, there is the bad — but there is an equal amount of good. Either can go viral. Social media simply holds up a mirror that reflects the best and worst of us.

But that’s not really true. All these posts have one thing in common: They are digested too quickly to allow for thoughtfulness. Good or bad, happy or mad — we simply react and scroll down. FOMO continues to drive us forward to the next piece of emotionally charged clickbait. 

There’s a reason why social media is so addictive: All the content is aimed directly at our “Thinking Fast” hot buttons. And evolution has reinforced those hot buttons with generous discharges of neurocchemicals that act as emotional catalysts. Our brain online is a junkie jonesing for a fix of dopamine or noradrenaline or serotonin. We get our hit and move on.

Technology is hijacking our need to pause and reflect. Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message and, in this case, the medium is one that is hardwired directly to the inner demons of our humanity.It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.