Why Elizabeth Warren Wants to Break Up Big Tech

Earlier this year, Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren posted an online missive in which she laid out her plans to break up big tech (notably Amazon, Google and Facebook). In it, she noted:

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

We, here in the west, are big believers in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. We inherently believe that markets will self-regulate and eventually balance themselves. We are loath to involve government in the running of a free market.

In introducing the concept of the Invisible Hand, Smith speculated that,  

“[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

In short, a rising tide raises all boats. But there is a dicey little dilemma buried in the midst of the Invisible Hand Premise – summed up most succinctly by the fictitious Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed is Good.”

More eloquently, economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman explained it like this:

“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.” 

But here’s the thing. Up until very recently, the concept of the Invisible Hand dealt only with physical goods. It was all about maximizing tangible resources and distributing them to the greatest number of people in the most efficient way possible.

The difference now is that we’re not just talking about toasters or running shoes. Physical things are not the stock in trade of Facebook or Google. They deal in information, feelings, emotions, beliefs and desires. We are not talking about hardware any longer, we are talking about the very operating system of our society. The thing that guides the Invisible Hand is no longer consumption, it’s influence. And, in that case, we have to wonder if we’re willing to trust our future to the conscience of a corporation?

For this reason, I suspect Warren might be right. All the past arguments for keeping government out of business were all based on a physical market. When we shift that to a market that peddles influence, those arguments are flipped on their head. Milton Friedman himself said , “It (the corporation) only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.” Let’s shift that to today’s world and apply it to a corporation like Facebook – “It only cares whether they can produce something that captures your attention.” To expect anything else from a corporation that peddles persuasion is to expect too much.

The problem with Warren’s argument is that she is still using the language of a market that dealt with consumable products. She wants to break up a monopoly that is limiting competition. And she is targeting that message to an audience that generally believes that big government and free markets don’t mix.

The much, much bigger issue here is that even if you believe in the efficacy of the Invisible Hand, as described by all believers from Smith to Friedman, you also have to believe that the single purpose of a corporation that relies on selling persuasion will be to influence even more people more effectively. None of most fervent evangelists of the Invisible Hand ever argued that corporations have a conscience. They simply stated that the interests of a profit driven company and an audience intent on consumption were typically aligned.

We’re now playing a different game with significantly different rules.

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.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

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.

Influencer Marketing’s Downward Ethical Spiral

One of the impacts of our increasing rejection of advertising is that advertisers are becoming sneakier in presenting advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. One example is Native advertising. Another is influencer marketing. I’m not a big fan of either. I find native advertising mildly irritating. But I have bigger issues with influencer marketing.

Case in point: Taytum and Oakley Fisher. They’re identical twins, two years old and have 2.4 million followers on Instagram. They are adorable. They’re also expensive. A single branded photo on their feed goes for sums in the five-figure range. Of course, “they” are only two and have no idea what’s going on. This is all being stage managed behind the scenes by their parents, Madison and Kyler.

The Fishers are not an isolated example. According to an article on Fast Company, adorable kids – especially twins –  are a hot segment in the predicted 5 to 10 billion dollar Influencer market. Influencer management companies like God and Beauty are popping up. In a multi-billion dollar market, there are a lot of opportunities for everyone to make a quick buck. And the bucks get bigger when the “stars” can actually remember their lines. Here’s a quote from the Fast Company article:

“The Fishers say they still don’t get many brand deals yet, because the girls can’t really follow directions. Once they’re old enough to repeat what their parents (and the brands paying them) want, they could be making even more.”

Am I the only one that finds this carrying the whiff of moral repugnance?

If so, you might say, “what’s the harm?” The audience is obviously there. It works. Taytum and Oakley appear to be having fun, according to their identical grins. It’s just Gord being in a pissy mood again.

Perhaps. But I think there’s more going on here than we see on the typical Instagram feed.

One problem is transparency – or lack of it. Whether you agree with traditional advertising or not, at least it happens in a well-defined and well-lit marketplace. There is transparency into the fundamental exchange: consumer attention for dollars. It is an efficient and time-tested market.  There are metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of this exchange.

But when advertising attempts to present itself as something other than advertising, it slips from a black and white transaction to something lurking in the darkness colored in shades of grey. The whole point of influencer marketing is to make it appear that these people are genuine fans of these products, so much so that they can’t help evangelizing them through their social media feeds. This – of course – is bullshit. Money is paid for each one of these “genuine” tweets or posts. Big money. In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that all happens out of sight and out of mind. It’s hidden, and that makes it an easy target for abuse.

But there is more than just a transactional transparency problem here. There is also a moral one. By becoming an influencer, you are actually becoming the influenced – allowing a brand to influence who you are, how you act, what you say and what you believe in. The influencer goes in believing that they are in control and the brand is just coming along for the ride. This is – again – bullshit. The minute you go on the payroll, you begin auctioning off your soul to the highest bidder. Amena Khan and Munroe Bergdorf both discovered this. The two influencers were cut for L’Oreal’s influencer roster by actually tweeting what they believed in.

The façade of influencer marketing is the biggest problem I have with it. It claims to be authentic and it’s about as authentic as pro wrestling – or Mickey Rourke’s face. Influencer marketing depends on creating an impossibly shiny bubble of your life filled with adorable families, exciting getaways, expensive shoes and the perfect soymilk latte. No real life can be lived under this kind of pressure. Influencer marketing claims to be inspirational, but it’s actually aspirational at the basest level. It relies on millions of us lusting after a life that is not real – a life where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Or – at least – all the children are named Taytum or Oakley.

 

The Strange Polarity of Facebook’s Moral Compass

For Facebook, 2018 came in like a lion, and went out like a really pissed off  Godzilla with a savagely bad hangover after the Mother of all New Year’s Eve parties.  In other words, it was not a good year.

As Zuckerberg’s 2018 shuddered to its close, it was disclosed that Facebook and Friends had opened our personal data kimonos for any of their “premier” partners. This was in direct violation of their own data privacy policy, which makes it even more reprehensible than usual. This wasn’t a bone-headed fumbling of our personal information. This was a fully intentional plan to financially benefit from that data in a way we didn’t agree to, hide that fact from us and then deliberately lie about it on more than one occasion.

I was listening to a radio interview of this latest revelation and one of the analysts  – social media expert and author Alexandria Samuel – mused about when it was that Facebook lost its moral compass. She has been familiar with the company since its earliest days, having the opportunity to talk to Mark Zuckerberg personally. In her telling, Zuckerberg is an evangelist that had lost his way, drawn to the dark side by the corporate curse of profit and greed.

But Siva Vaidhyanathan – the Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies at the University of Virgina –  tells a different story. And it’s one that seems much more plausible to me. Zuckerberg may indeed be an evangelist, although I suspect he’s more of a megalomaniac. Either way, he does have a mission. And that mission is not opposed to corporate skullduggery. It fully embraces it. Zuckerberg believes he’s out to change the world, while making a shitload of money along the way. And he’s fine with that.

That came as a revelation to me. I spent a good part of 2018 wondering how Facebook could have been so horrendously cavalier with our personal data. I put it down to corporate malfeasance. Public companies are not usually paragons of ethical efficacy. This is especially true when ethics and profitability are diametrically opposed to each other. This is the case with Facebook. In order for Facebook to maintain profitability with its current revenue model, it has to do things with our private data we’d rather not know about.

But even given the moral vacuum that can be found in most corporate boardrooms, Facebook’s brand of hubris in the face of increasingly disturbing revelations seems off-note – out of kilter with the normal damage control playbook. Vaidhyanathan’s analysis brings that cognitive dissonance into focus. And it’s a picture that is disturbing on many levels.

siva v photo

Siva Vaidhyanathan

According to Vaidhyanathan, “Zuckerberg has two core principles from which he has never wavered. They are the founding tenets of Facebook. First, the more people use Facebook for more reasons for more time of the day the better those people will be. …  Zuckerberg truly believes that Facebook benefits humanity and we should use it more, not less. What’s good for Facebook is good for the world and vice-versa.

Second, Zuckerberg deeply believes that the records of our interests, opinions, desires, and interactions with others should be shared as widely as possible so that companies like Facebook can make our lives better for us – even without our knowledge or permission.”

Mark Zuckerberg is not the first tech company founder to have a seemingly ruthless god complex and a “bigger than any one of us” mission. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Larry Ellison; I could go on. What is different this time is that Zuckerberg’s chosen revenue model runs completely counter to the idea of personal privacy. Yes, Google makes money from advertising, but the vast majority of that is delivered in response to a very intentional and conscious request on the part of the user. Facebook’s gaping vulnerability is that it can only be profitable by doing things of which we’re unaware. As Vaidhyanathan says, “violating our privacy is in Facebook’s DNA.”

Which all leads to the question, “Are we okay with that?” I’ve been thinking about that myself. Obviously, I’m not okay with it. I just spent 720 words telling you so. But will I strip my profile from the platform?

I’m not sure. Give me a week to think about it.

Is Google Politically Biased?

As a company, the answer is almost assuredly yes.

But are the search results biased? That’s a much more nuanced question.

Sundar Pinchai testifying before congress

In trying to answer that question last week, Google CEO Sundar Pinchai tried to explain how Google’s algorithm works to Congress’s House Judiciary Committee (which kind of like God explaining how the universe works to my sock, but I digress). One of the catalysts for this latest appearance of a tech was another one of President Trump’s ranting tweets that intimated something was rotten in the Valley of the Silicon:

Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of … results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

Granted, this tweet is non-factual, devoid of any type of evidence and verging on frothing at the mouth. As just one example, let’s take the 96% number that Trump quotes in the above tweet. That came from a very unscientific straw poll that was done by one reporter on a far right-leaning site called PJ Media. In effect, Trump did exactly what he accuses of Google doing – he cherry-picked his source and called it a fact.

But what Trump has inadvertently put his finger on is the uneasy balance that Google tries to maintain as both a search engine and a publisher. And that’s where the question becomes cloudy. It’s a moral precipice that may be clear in the minds of Google engineers and executives, but it’s far from that in ours.

Google has gone on the record as ensuring their algorithm is apolitical. But based on a recent interview with Google News head Richard Gingras, there is some wiggle room in that assertion. Gingras stated,

“With Google Search, Google News, our platform is the open web itself. We’re not arbiters of truth. We’re not trying to determine what’s good information and what’s not. When I look at Google Search, for instance, our objective – people come to us for answers, and we’re very good at giving them answers. But with many questions, particularly in the area of news and public policy, there is not one single answer. So we see our role as [to] give our users, citizens, the tools and information they need – in an assiduously apolitical fashion – to develop their own critical thinking and hopefully form a more informed opinion.”

But –  in the same interview – he says,

“What we will always do is bias the efforts as best we can toward authoritative content – particularly in the context of breaking news events, because major crises do tend to attract the bad actors.”

So Google does boost news sites that it feels are reputable and it’s these sites – like CNN –  that typically dominate in the results. Do reputable news sources tend to lean left? Probably. But that isn’t Google’s fault. That’s the nature of Open Web. If you use that as your platform, you build in any inherent biases. And the minute you further filter on top of that platform, you leave yourself open to accusations of editorializing.

There is another piece to this puzzle. The fact is that searches on Google are biased, but that bias is entirely intentional. The bias in this case is yours. Search results have been personalized so that they’re more relevant to you. Things like your location, your past search history, the way you structure your query and a number of other signals will be used by Google to filter the results you’re shown. There is no liberal conspiracy. It’s just the way that the search algorithm works. In this way, Google is prone to the same type of filter-bubble problem that Facebook has.  In another interview with Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, he touches on this:

“I was struck by the idea that whereas those arguments seem to work as late as only just a few years ago, they’re increasingly ringing hollow, not just on the side of the conservatives, but also on the liberal side of things as well. And so what I think we’re seeing here is really this view becoming mainstream that these platforms are in fact not neutral, and that they are not providing some objective truth.”

The biggest challenge here lies not in the reality of what Google is or how it works, but in what our perception of Google is. We will never know the inner workings of the Google algorithm, but we do trust in what Google shows us. A lot. In our own research some years ago, we saw a significant lift in consumer trust when brands showed up on top of search results. And this effect was replicated in a recent study that looked at Google’s impact on political beliefs. This study found that voter preferences can shift by as much as 20% due to biased search rankings – and that effect can be even higher in some demographic groups.

If you are the number one channel for information, if you manipulate the ranking of the information in any way and if you wield the power to change a significant percentage of minds based on that ranking – guess what? You are the arbitrator of truth. Like it or not.