Splitting Ethical Hairs in an Online Ecosystem

In looking for a topic for today’s post, I thought it might be interesting to look at the Lincoln Project. My thought was that it would be an interesting case study in how to use social media effectively.

But what I found is that the Lincoln Project is currently imploding due to scandal. And you know what? I wasn’t surprised. Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? No.

While we on the left of the political spectrum may applaud what the Lincoln Project was doing, let’s make no mistake about the tactics used. It was the social media version of Nixon’s Dirty Tricks. The whole purpose was to bait Trump into engaging in a social media brawl. This was political mudslinging, as practiced by veteran warriors. The Lincoln Project was comfortable with getting down and dirty.

Effective? Yes. Ethical? Borderline.

But what it did highlight is the sordid but powerful force of social media influence. And it’s not surprising that those with questionable ethics, as some of the Lincoln Project leaders have proven to be, were attracted to it.

Social media is the single biggest and most effective influencer on human behavior ever invented. And that should scare the hell out of us, because it’s an ecosystem in which sociopaths will thrive.

A definition of Antisocial Personality Disorder (the condition from which sociopaths suffer) states, “People with ASPD may also use ‘mind games’ to control friends, family members, co-workers, and even strangers. They may also be perceived as charismatic or charming.”

All you have to do is substitute “social media” for “mind games,” and you’ll get my point.  Social media is sociopathy writ large.

That’s why we — meaning marketers — have to be very careful what we wish for. Since Google cracked down on personally identifiable information, following in the footsteps of Apple, there has been a great hue and cry from the ad-tech community about the unfairness of it all. Some of that hue and cry has issued forth here at MediaPost, like Ted McConnell’s post a few weeks ago, “Data Winter is Coming.”

And it is data that’s at the center of all this. Social media continually pumps personal data into the online ecosystem. And it’s this data that is the essential life force of the ecosystem. Ad tech sucks up that data as a raw resource and uses it for ad delivery across multiple channels. That’s the whole point of the personal identifiers that Apple and Google are cracking down on.

I suppose one could  draw an artificial boundary between social media and ad targeting in other channels, but that would be splitting hairs. It’s all part of the same ecosystem. Marketers want the data, no matter where it comes from, and they want it tied to an individual to make targeting their campaigns more effective.

By building and defending an ecosystem that enables sociopathic predators, we are contributing to the problem. McConnell and I are on opposite sides of the debate here. While I don’t disagree with some of his technical points about the efficacy of Google and Apple’s moves to protect privacy, there is a much bigger question here for marketers: Should we protect user privacy, even if it makes our jobs harder?

There has always been a moral ambiguity with marketers that I find troubling. To be honest, it’s why I finally left this industry. I was tired of the “yes, but” justification that ignored all the awful things that were happening for the sake of a handful of examples that showed the industry in a better light.

And let’s just be honest about this for a second: using personally identifiable data to build a more effective machine to influence people is an awful thing. Can it be used for good? Yes. Will it be? Not if the sociopaths have anything to say about it. It’s why the current rogue’s gallery of awful people are all scrambling to carve out as big a piece of the online ecosystem as they can.

Let’s look at nature as an example. In biology, a complex balance has evolved between predators and prey. If predators are too successful, they will eliminate their prey and will subsequently starve. So a self-limiting cycle emerges to keep everything in balance. But if the limits are removed on predators, the balance is lost. The predators are free to gorge themselves.

When it comes to our society, social media has removed the limits on “prey.” Right now, there is a never-ending supply.

It’s like we’re building a hen house, inviting a fox inside and then feigning surprise when the shit hits the fan. What the hell did we expect?

The Ebbs and Flows of Consumerism in a Post-Pandemic World

As MediaPost’s Joe Mandese reported last Friday, advertising was, quite literally, almost decimated worldwide in 2020. If you look at the forecasts of the top agency holding companies, ad spends were trimmed by an average of 6.1%. It’s not quite one dollar in 10, but it’s close.

These same companies are forecasting a relative bounceback in 2021, starting slow and accelerating quarter by quarter through the year — but that still leaves the 2021 spend forecast back at 2018 levels.

And as we know, everything about 2021 is still very much in flux. If the year 2021 was a pack of cards, almost every one of them would be wild.

This — according to physician, epidemiologist and sociologist Nicholas Christakis — is not surprising.

Christakis is one of my favorite observers of network effects in society. His background in epidemiological science gives him a unique lens to look at how things spread through the networks of our world, real and virtual. It also makes him the perfect person to comment on what we might expect as we stagger out of our current crisis.

In his latest book, “Apollo’s Arrow,” he looks back to look forward to what we might expect — because, as he points out, we’ve been here before.

While the scope and impact of this one is unusual, such health crises are nothing new. Dozens of epidemics and a few pandemics have happened in my lifetime alone, according to this Wikipedia chart.

This post goes live on Groundhog Day, perhaps the most appropriate of all days for it to run. Today, however, we already know what the outcome will be. The groundhog will see its shadow and there will be six more months (at least) of pandemic to deal with. And we will spend that time living and reliving the same day in the same way with the same routine.

Christakis expects this phase to last through the rest of this year, until the vaccines are widely distributed, and we start to reach herd immunity.

During this time, we will still have to psychologically “hunker down” like the aforementioned groundhog, something we have been struggling with. “As a society we have been very immature,” said Christakis. “Immature, and typical as well, we could have done better.”

This phase will be marked by a general conservatism that will go in lockstep with fear and anxiety, a reluctance to spend and a trend toward risk aversion and religion.

Add to this the fact that we will still be dealing with widespread denialism and anger, which will lead to a worsening vicious circle of loss and crisis. The ideological cracks in our society have gone from annoying to deadly.

Advertising will have to somehow negotiate these choppy waters of increased rage and reduced consumerism.

Then, predicts Christakis, starting some time in 2022, we will enter an adjustment period where we will test and rethink the fundamental aspects of our lives. We will be learning to live with COVID-19, which will be less lethal but still very much present.

We will likely still wear masks and practice social distancing. Many of us will continue to work from home. Local flare-ups will still necessitate intermittent school and business closures. We will be reluctant to be inside with more than 20 or 30 people at a time. It’s unlikely that most of us will feel comfortable getting on a plane or embarking on a cruise ship. This period, according to Christakis, will last for a couple years.

Again, advertising will have to try to thread this psychological needle between fear and hope. It will be a fractured landscape on which to build a marketing strategy. Any pretense of marketing to the masses, a concept long in decline, will now be truly gone. The market will be rife with confusing signals and mixed motivations. It will be incumbent on advertisers to become very, very good at “reading the room.”

Finally, starting in 2024, we will have finally put the pandemic behind us. Now, says Christakis, four years of pent-up demand will suddenly burst through the dam of our delayed self-gratification. We will likely follow the same path taken a century ago, when we were coming out of a war and another pandemic, in the period we call the “Roaring Twenties.”

Christakis explained: “What typically happens is people get less religious. They will relentlessly seek out social interactions in nightclubs and restaurants and sporting events and political rallies. There’ll be some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money after having saved it. They’ll be joie de vivre and a kind of risk-taking, a kind of efflorescence of the arts, I think.”

Of course, this burst of buying will be built on the foundation of what came before. The world will likely be very different from its pre-pandemic version. It will be hard for marketers to project demand in a straight line from what they know, because the experiences they’ve been using as their baseline are no longer valid. Some things may remain the same, but some will be changed forever.

COVID-19 will have pried many of the gaps in our society further apart — most notably those of income inequality and ideological difference. A lingering sense of nationalism and protectionism born from dealing with a global emergency could still be in place.

Advertising has always played an interesting role in our lives. It both motivates and mirrors us.

But the reflection it shows is like a funhouse mirror: It distorts some aspects of our culture and ignores others. It creates demand and hides inconvenient truths. It professes to be noble, while it stokes the embers of our ignobility. It amplifies the duality of our human nature.

Interesting times lie ahead. It remains to be seen how that is reflected in the advertising we create and consume.

The Academics of Bullsh*t

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”—

from On Bullshit,” an essay by philosopher Henry Frankfurt.

Would it surprise you to know that I have found not one, but two academic studies on organizational bullshit? And I mean that non-euphemistically. The word “bullshit” is actually in the title of both studies. I B.S. you not.

In fact, organizational bullshit has become a legitimate field of study. Academics are being paid to dig into it — so to speak. There are likely bullshit grants, bullshit labs, bullshit theories, bullshit paradigms and bullshit courses. There are definitely bullshit professors.  There is even an OBPS — the Organization Bullshit Perception Scale — a way to academically measure bullshit in a company.

Many years ago, when I was in the twilight of my time with the search agency I had founded, I had had enough of the bullshit I was being buried under, shoveled there by the company that had acquired us. I was drowning in it. So I vented right here, on MediaPost. I dared you to imagine what it would be like to actually do business without bullshit getting in the way.

My words fell on deaf ears. Bullshit has proliferated since that time. It has been enshrined up and down our social, business and governmental hierarchies, becoming part of our “new” organizational normal. It has picked up new labels, like “fake news” and “alternate facts.” It has proven more dangerous than I could have ever imagined. And it is this dangerous because we are ignoring it, which is legitimizing it.

Henry Frankfurt defined the concept and set it apart from lying. Liars know the truth and are trying to hide it. Bullshitters don’t care if what they say is true or false. They only care if their listener is persuaded. That’s as good a working definition of the last four years as any I’ve heard.

But at least one study indicates bullshit may have a social modality — acceptable in some contexts, but corrosive in others. Marketing, for example, is highlighted by the authors as an industry built on a foundation of bullshit:

“advertising and public relations agencies and consultants are likely to be ‘full of It,’ and in some cases even make the production of bullshit an important pillar of their business.”

In these studies, researchers speculate that bullshit might actually serve a purpose in organizations. It may allow for strategic motivation before there is an actual strategy in place. This brand of bullshit is otherwise known as “blue-sky thinking” or “out-of-the-box thinking.”

But if this is true, there is a very narrow window indeed where this type of bullshit could be considered beneficial. The minute there are facts to deal with, they should be dealt with. But the problem is that the facts never quite measure up to the vision of the bullshit. Once you open the door to allowing bullshit, it becomes self-perpetuating.

I grew up in the country. I know how hard it is to get rid of bullshit.

The previous example is what I would call strategic bullshit — a way to “grease the wheels” and get the corporate machine moving. But it often leads directly to operational bullshit — which is toxic to an organization, serving to “gum up the gears” and prevent anything real and meaningful from happening. This was the type of bullshit that was burying me back in 2013 when I wrote that first column. It’s also the type of bullshit that is paralyzing us today.

According to the academic research into bullshit, when we’re faced with it, we have four ways to respond: exit, voice, loyalty or neglect. Exit means we try to escape from the bullshit. Loyalty means we wallow in it, spreading it wider and thicker. Neglect means we just ignore it. And Voice means we stand up to the bullshit and confront it.  I’m guessing you’ve already found yourself in one of those four categories.

Here’s the thing. As marketers and communicators, we have to face the cold, ugly truth of our ongoing relationship with bullshit. We all have to deal with it. It’s the nature of our industry.

But how do we deal with it? Most times, in most situations, it’s just easier to escape or ignore it. Sometimes it may serve our purpose to jump on the bullshit bandwagon and spread it. But given the overwhelming evidence of where bullshit has led us in the recent past, we all should be finding our voice to call bullshit on bullshit.

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.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Relevance is the new gold standard in marketing. In an  article in the Harvard Business Review written last year, John Zealley, Robert Wollan and Joshua Bellin — three senior execs at Accenture — outline five stages of marketing (paraphrased courtesy of a post from Phillip Nones):

  1. Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  2. Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  3. Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  4. Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

This last stage – according to marketers past and present – should be the golden era of marketing:

“The perfect advertisement is one of which the reader can say, ‘This is for me, and me alone.” 

— Peter Drucker

“Audiences crave tailored messages that cater to them specifically and they are willing to offer information that enables marketers to do so.”

 Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Umm…no! In fact, hell, no!

I agree that relevance is an important thing. And in an ethical world, the exchange Tash talks about would be a good thing, for both consumers and marketers. But we don’t live in such a world. The world we live in has companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Stop Thinking Like a Marketer!

There is a cognitive whiplash that happens when our perspective changes from that of marketer to that of a consumer. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve even prompted it on occasion. But to watch it in 113 minutes of excruciating detail, you should catch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. 

The documentary is a journalistic peeling of the onion that is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was kicked off by the whistle blowing of Christopher Wylie, a contract programmer who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. But to me, the far more interesting story is that of Brittany Kaiser, the director of business Development of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The documentary digs into the tortured shift of perspective as she transitions from thinking like a marketer to a citizen who has just had her private data violated. It makes for compelling viewing.

Kaiser shifted her ideological compass about as far as one could possibly do, from her beginnings as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and a lobbyist for Amnesty International to one of the chief architects of the campaigns supporting Trump’s presidential run, Brexit and other far right persuasion blitzkriegs. At one point, she justifies her shift to the right by revealing her family’s financial struggle and the fact that you don’t get paid much as an underling for Democrats or as a moral lobbyist. The big bucks are found in the ethically grey areas.  Throughout the documentary, she vacillates between the outrage of a private citizen and the rationalization of a marketer. She is a woman torn between two conflicting perspectives.

We marketers have to stop kidding ourselves and justifying misuse of personal data with statements like the one previously quoted from Kevin Tash. As people, we’re okay. I like most of the marketers I know. But as professional marketers, we have a pretty shitty track record. We trample privacy, we pry into places we shouldn’t and we gleefully high-five ourselves when we deliver the goods on a campaign — no matter who that campaign might be for and what its goals might be. We are very different people when we’re on the clock.

We are now faced with what may be the most important questions of our lives: How do we manage our personal data? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who has the right to use it? When we answer those questions, let’s do it as people, and not marketers. Because there is a lot more at stake here than the ROI rates on a marketing campaign.

Data does NOT Equal People

We marketers love data. We treat it like a holy grail: a thing to be worshipped. But we’re praying at the wrong altar. Or, at the very least, we’re praying at a misleading altar.

Data is the digital residue of behavior. It is the contrails of customer intent — a thin, wispy proxy for the rich bandwidth of the real world. It does have a purpose, but it should be just one tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Unfortunately, we tend to use it as a Swiss army knife, thinking it’s the only tool we need.

The problem is that data is seductive. It’s pliable and reliable, luring us into manipulation because it’s so easy to do. It can be twisted and molded with algorithms and spreadsheets.

But it’s also sterile. There is a reason people don’t fit nicely into spreadsheets. There are simply not enough dimensions and nuances to accommodate real human behavior.

Data is great for answering the questions “what,” “who,” “when” and “where.” But they are all glimpses of what has happened. Stopping here is like navigating through the rear-view mirror.

Data seldom yields the answer to “why.” But it’s why that makes the magic happen, that gives us an empathetic understanding that helps us reliably predict future behaviors.

Uncovering the what, who, when and where makes us good marketers. But it’s “why” that makes us great. It’s knowing why that allows us to connect the distal dots, hacking out the hypotheses that can take us forward in the leaps required by truly great marketing. As Tom Goodwin, the author of “Digital Darwinism,” said in a recent post, “What digital has done well is have enough of a data trail to claim, not create, success.”

We as marketers have to resist stopping at the data. We have to keep pursuing why.

Here’s one example from my own experience. Some years ago, my agency did an eye-tracking study that looked at gender differences in how we navigate websites.

For me, the most interesting finding to fall out of the data was that females spent a lot more time than males looking at a website’s “hero” shot, especially if it was a picture that had faces in it. Males quickly scanned the picture, but then immediately moved their eyes up to the navigation menu and started scanning the options there. Females lingered on the graphic and then moved on to scan text immediately adjacent to it.

Now, I could have stopped at “who” and “what,” which in itself would have been a pretty interesting finding. But I wanted to know “why.” And that’s where things started to get messy.

To start to understand why, you have to rely on feelings and intuition. You also have to accept that you probably won’t arrive at a definitive answer. “Why” lives in the realm of “wicked” problems, which I defined in a previous column as “questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough – for now.’”

The answer to why males scan a website differently than females is buried in a maze of evolutionary biology, social norms and cognitive heuristics. It probably has something to do with wayfinding strategies and hardwired biases. It won’t just “fall out” of data because it’s not in the data to begin with.

Even half-right “why” answers often take months or even years of diligent pursuit to reveal themselves. Given that, I understand why it’s easier to just focus on the data. It will get you to “good,” and maybe that’s enough.

Unless, of course, you’re aiming to “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs said in an inspirational commencement speech at Stanford University. Then you have to shoot for great.

The Gap Between People and Platforms

I read with interest fellow Spinner Dave Morgan’s column about how software is destroying advertising agencies, but not the need for them. I do want to chime in on what’s happening in advertising, but I need a little more time to think about it.

What did catch my eye was a comment at the end by Harvard Business School professor Alvin Silk: “You can eliminate the middleman, but not his/her function.”

I think Dave and Alvin have put their collective thumbs on something that extends beyond our industry: the growing gap between people and platforms. I’ll use my current industry as an example – travel. It’s something we all do so we can all relate to it.

Platforms and software have definitely eaten this industry. In terms of travel destination planning, the 800-pound Gorilla is TripAdvisor. It’s impossible to overstate its importance to operators and business owners.  TripAdvisor almost single-handedly ushered in an era of do-it-yourself travel planning. For any destination in the world, we can now find the restaurants, accommodations, tours and attractions that are the favorites of other travellers. It allows us to both discover and filter while planning our next trip, something that was impossible 20 years ago, before TripAdvisor came along.

But for all its benefits, TripAdvisor also leaves some gaps.

The biggest gap in travel is what I’ve heard called the “Other Five.” I live in Canada’s wine country (yes, there is such a thing). Visitors to our valley – the Okanagan – generally come with 5 wineries they have planned to visit. The chances are very good that those wineries were selected with the help of TripAdvisor. But while they’re visiting, they also visit the “other five” – 5 wineries they discovered once they got to the destination. These discoveries depend on more traditional means – either word of mouth or sheer serendipity. And it’s often one of these “other five” that provide the truly memorable and authentic experiences.

That’s the problem with platforms like TripAdvisor, which are based on general popularity and algorithms. Technically, platforms should help you discover the long tail, but they don’t. Everything automatically defaults to the head of the curve. It’s the Matthew Effect applied to travel – advantage accumulates to those already blessed. We all want to see the same things – up to a point.

But then we want to explore the “other five” and that’s where we find the gap between platforms and people. We have been trained by Google not to look beyond the first page of online results. It’s actually worse than that. We don’t typically scan beyond the top five. But – by the very nature of ratings-based algorithms – that is always where you’ll find the “other five.” They languish in the middle of the results, sometimes taking years to bump up even a few spots. It’s why there’s still a market – and a rapidly expanding one at that – for a tour guided by an actual human. Humans can think beyond an algorithm, asking questions about what you like and pulling from their own experience to make very targeted and empathetic suggestions.

The problem with platforms is their preoccupation with scale. They feel they have to be all things to all people. I’ll call it Unicornitis – the obsession with gaining a massive valuation. They approach every potential market focused on how many users they can capture. By doing so, they have to target the lowest common denominator. The web thrives on scale and popularity; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yes, there are niche players out there, but they’re very hard to find. They are the “other five” of the Internet, sitting on the third page of Google results.

This has almost nothing to do with advertising, but I think it’s the same phenomenon at work. As we rely more on software, we gain a false confidence that it replaces human-powered expertise. It doesn’t. And a lot of things can slip through the gap that’s created.

 

The Pillorying of Zuckerberg

Author’s Note: When I started this column I thought I agreed with the views stated. And I still do, mostly. But by the time I finished it, there was doubt niggling at me. It’s hard when you’re an opinion columnist who’s not sure you agree with your own opinion. So here’s what I decided to do. I’m running this column as I wrote it. Then, next week, I’m going to write a second column rebutting some of it.

Let’s face it. We love it when smart asses get theirs. For example: Sir Martin Sorrell. Sorry your lordship but I always thought you were a pontificating and pretentious dickhead and I’m kind of routing for the team digging up dirt on you. Let’s see if you doth protest too much.

Or Jeff Bezos. Okay, granted Trump doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about regarding Amazon. And we apparently love the company. But just how much sympathy do we really have for the world’s richest man? Couldn’t he stand to be taken down a few pegs?

Don’t get me started on Bill Gates.

But the capo di tutti capi of smart-asses is Mark Zuckerberg. As mad as we are about the gushing security leak that has sprung on his watch, aren’t we all a little bit schaudenfreude-ish as we watch the public flailing that is currently playing out? It’s immensely satisfying to point a finger of blame and it’s doubly so to point it at Mr. Zuckerberg.

Which finger you use I’ll leave to your discretion.

But here’s the thing. As satisfying as it is to make Mark our scapegoat, this problem is systemic. It’s not the domain of one man, or even one company. I’m not absolving Facebook and it’s founder from blame. I’m just spreading it around so it’s a little more representatively distributed. And as much as we may hate to admit it, some of that blame ends up on our plate. We enabled the system that made this happen. We made personal data the new currency of exchange. And now we’re pissed off because there were exchanges made without our knowledge. It all comes down to this basic question: Who owns our data?

This is the fundamental question that has to be resolved. Up to now, we’ve been more than happy to surrender our data in return for the online functionality we need to pursue trivial goals. We rush to play Candy Crush and damn the consequences. We have mindlessly put our data in the hands of Facebook without any clear boundaries around what was and wasn’t acceptable for us.

If we look at data as a new market currency, our relationship with Facebook is really no different than that of a bank when we deposit our money in a bank account and allowing the bank to use our money for their own purposes in return for paying us interest. This is how markets work. They are complicated and interlinked and the furthest thing possible from being proportionately equitable.

Personal Data is a big industry. And like any industry, there is a value chain emerging. We are on the bottom of that chain. We supply the raw data. It is no coincidence that terms like “mining,” “scraping” and “stripping” are used when we talk about harvesting data. The digital trails of our behaviors and private thoughts are a raw resource that has become incredibly valuable. And Facebook just happens to be strategically placed in the market to reap the greatest rewards. They add value by aggregating and structuring the data. Advertisers then buy prepackaged blocks of this data to target their messaging. The targeting that Facebook can provide – thanks to the access they have to our data – is superior to what was available before. This is a simple supply and demand equation. Facebook was connecting the supply – coming from our willingness to surrender our personal data – with the demand – advertisers insisting on more intrusive and personal targeting criteria. It was a market opportunity that emerged and Facebook jumped on it. The phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.

When new and untested markets emerge, all goes well until it doesn’t. Then all hell breaks loose. Just like it did with Cambridge Analytica. When that happens, our sense of fairness kicks in. We feel duped. We rush to point fingers. We become judgmental, but everything is done in hindsight. This is all reaction. We have to be reactive, because emerging markets are unpredictable. You can’t predict something like Cambridge Analytica. If it wasn’t them – if it wasn’t this – it would have been something else that would have been equally unpredictable. The emerging market of data exchange virtually guaranteed that hell would eventually break loose. As a recent post on Gizmodo points out,

“the kind of data acquisition at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is more or less standard practice for every other technology company, including places like Google and even Apple. Facebook simply had the misfortune of getting caught after playing fast and loose with who has control over their data.”

To truly move forward from this, we all have to ask ourselves some hard questions. This is not restricted to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s symptomatic of a much bigger issue. And we, the ground level source of this data, will be doing ourselves a disservice in the long run by trying to isolate the blame to any one individual or company. In a very real sense, this is our problem. We are part of a market dynamic that is untested and – as we’ve seen – powerful enough to subvert democracy. Some very big changes are required in the way we treat our own data. We owe it to ourselves to be part of that process.

Why Do Cities Work?

It always amazes me how cities just seem to work. Take New York – for example. How the hell does everything a city of nine million needs to continue to exist happen? Cities are perhaps the best example I can think of how complex adaptive systems can work in the real world. They may be the answer to our future as the world becomes a more complex and connected place.

It’s not due to any centralized sense of communal collaboration. If anything, cities make us more individualistic. Small towns are much more collaborative. I feel more anonymous and autonomous in a big city than I ever do in a small town. It’s something else, more akin to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – but different. Millions of individual agents can all do their own thing based on their own requirements, but it works out okay for all involved.

Actually, according to Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, cities are more than just okay. He calls them mankind’s greatest invention. “So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people.”

Somehow, cities manage to harness the collective potential of their population without dipping into chaos. This is all the more amazing when you consider that cities aren’t natural for humans – at least – not in evolutionary terms. If you considered just that, we should all live in clusters of 150 people – otherwise known as Dunbar’s number. That’s the brain’s cognitive limit for keeping track of our own immediate social networks. It we’re looking for a magic number in terms of maximizing human cooperation and collaboration that would be it. But somehow cities allow us to far surpass that number and still deliver exponential returns.

Most of our natural defense mechanisms are based on familiarity. Trust, in it’s most basic sense, is Pavlovian. We trust strangers who happen to resemble people we know and trust. We are wary of strangers that remind us of people who have taken advantage of us. We are primed to trust or distrust in a few milliseconds, far under the time threshold of rational thought. Humans evolved to live in communities where we keep seeing the same faces over and over – yet cities are the antithesis of this.

Cities work because it’s in everyone’s best interest to make cities work. In a city, people may not trust each other, but they do trust the system. And it’s that system – or rather – thousands of complementary systems, that makes cities work. We contribute to these systems because we have a stake in them. The majority of us avoid the Tragedy of the Commons because we understand that if we screw the system, the system becomes unsustainable and we all lose. There is an “invisible network of trust” that makes cities work.

The psychology of this trust is interesting. As I mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the mechanisms that trigger trust are fairly rudimentary: Familiarity = Trust. But system trust is a different beast. It relies on social norms and morals – on our inherent need to conform to the will of the herd. In this case, there is at least one degree of separation between trust and the instincts that govern our behaviors. Think of it as a type of “meta-trust.” We are morally obligated to contribute to the system as long as we believe the system will increase our own personal well-being.

This moral obligation requires feedback. There needs to be some type of loop that shows our that our moral behaviors are paying off for us. As long as that loop is working, it creates a virtuous cycle. Moral behaviors need to lead to easily recognized rewards, both individually and collectively. As long as we have this loop, we will continue to be governed by social norms that maintain the systems of a city.

When we look to cities to provide us clues on how to maintain stability in a more connected world, we need to understand this concept of feedback. Cities provide feedback through physical proximity. When cities start to break down, the results become obvious to all who live there. But when it’s digital bonds rather than physical ones that link our networks, feedback becomes trickier. We need to ponder other ways of connecting cause, effect and consequences. As we move from physical communities to ideological ones, we have to overcome the numbing effects of distance.

 

Tempest in a Tweet-Pot

On February 16, a Facebook VP of Ads named Rob Goldman had a bad day. That was the day the office of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, released an indictment of 13 Russian operatives who interfered in the U.S. election. Goldman felt he had to comment via a series of tweets that appeared to question the seriousness with which the Mueller investigation had considered the ads placed by Russians on Facebook. Nothing much happened for the rest of the day. But on February 17, after the US Tweeter-in-Chief – Donald Trump – picked up the thread, Facebook realized the tweets had turned into a “shit sandwich” and to limit the damage, Goldman had to officially apologize.

It’s just one more example of a personal tweet blowing into a major news event. This is happening with increasingly irritating frequency. So today, I thought I’d explore why.

Personal Brand vs Corporate Brand

First, why did Rob Goldman feel he had to go public with his views anyway? He did because he could. We all have varying degrees of loyalty to our employer and I’m sure the same is true for Mr. Goldman. Otherwise he wouldn’t have swallowed crow a few days later with his public mea culpa. But our true loyalties go not to the brand we work for, but the brand we are. Goldman – like me, like you, like all of us – is building his personal brand. Anyone who’s says they’re not – yet posts anything online – is in denial. Goldman’s brand, according to his twitter account, is “Student, seeker, raconteur, burner. ENFP.” That is followed with the disclaimer “Views are mine.” And you know what? This whole debacle has been great for Goldman’s brand, at least in terms of audience size. Before February 16th, he had about 1500 followers. When I checked, that had swelled to almost 12,000. Brand Goldman is on a roll!

The idea of a personal brand is new – just a few decades old. It really became amplified through the use of social media. Suddenly, you could have an audience -and not just any audience, but an audience numbering in the millions.

Before that, the only people who could have been said to have personal brands were artists, authors and musicians. They made their living by sharing who they were with us.

For the rest of us, our brands were trapped in our own contexts. Only the people who knew us were exposed to our brands. But the amplification of social media suddenly exposes our brand to a much broader audience. And when things go viral, like they did on February 17, millions suddenly became aware of Rob Goldman and his tweet without knowing anything more than that he was a VP of Ads for Facebook.

It was that connection that created the second issue for Goldman. When we speak for our own personal brands, we can say, “views are mine” but the problem always comes when things blow up, as they did for Rob Goldman. None of his tweets were passed by anyone at Facebook, yet he had suddenly become a spokesperson for the corporation. And for those eager to accept his tweets as fact, they suddenly became the “truth.”

Twitter: “Truth” Without Context

Increasingly, we’re not really that interested in the truth. What we are interested in is our beliefs and our own personal truth. This is the era of “Post Truth” – the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2016 – defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Truth was a commonly understood base that could be supported by facts. Now, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Common understandings are increasingly difficult to come to as the world continues to fragment and become more complex. How can we possibly come to a common understanding of what is “true” when any issue worth discussing is complex? This is certainly true of the Mueller investigation. To try to distill the scope of it to 900 words – about the length of this column – would be virtually impossible. To reduce it to 280 characters – the limits of a tweet and one- twentieth the length of this column – well, there we should not tread. But, of course, we do.

This problem is exacerbated by the medium itself. Twitter is a channel that encourages “quipiness.” When we’re tweeting, we all want to be Oscar Wilde. Again, writing this column usually takes me 3 to 4 hours, including time to do some research, create a rough outline and then do the actual writing. That’s not an especially long time, but the process does allow some time for mental reflection and self-editing. The average tweet takes less than a minute to write – probably less to think about – and then it’s out there, a matter of record, irretrievable. You should find it more than a little terrifying that this is a chosen medium for the President of the United States and one that is increasingly forming our world-view.

Twitter is also not a medium that provides much support for irony, sarcasm or satire. In the Post-Truth era, we usually accept tweets as facts, especially when they come from someone who is a somewhat official position, as in the case of Rob Goldman. But at best, they’re abbreviated opinions.

In the light of all this, one has to appreciate Mr. Goldman’s Twitter handle: @robjective.