The Rank and File: Life and Work in a Quantified World

No one likes to be a number – unless, of course – that number is one. Then it’s okay.

Rankings started to be crucial to me back in 1996 when I jumped into the world of search engine optimization. Suddenly, the ten blue links on a search results page took on critical importance. The most important, naturally, was the first result. It turned on the tap for a flow of business many local organizations could only dream of. My company once got a California Mustang part retailer that number one ranking for “Ford Mustang Parts.” The official site of For – Ford.com – was number two. The California business did very well for a few years. We probably made them rich. Then Google came along and the party was over. We soon found that as quickly as that tap could be turned on, it could also be turned off. We and our clients rode the stormy waters of multiple Google updates. We called it the Google dance.

Now that I’m in my second life (third? fourth?) as a tourism operator I’m playing that ranking game again. This time it’s with TripAdvisor. You would not believe how important a top ranking in your category is here. Again, your flow of business can be totally at the mercy of how well you rank.

The problem with TripAdvisor is not so much with the algorithm in the background or the criteria used for ranking. The problem is with the Delta between riches and rags. If you drop below the proverbial fold in TripAdvisor, your tourism business can shrivel up and die. One bad review could be the difference. I feel like I’m dancing the Google dance all over again.

But at least TripAdvisor is what I would call a proximate ranking site. The source of the rankings is closely connected to the core nature of the industry. Tourism is all about experiences. And TripAdvisor is a platform for experience reviews. There is some wiggle room there for gaming the system, but the unintended consequences are kept to a minimum. If you’re in the business of providing good experiences, you should do well in TripAdvisor. And if you pay attention to the feedback on TripAdvisor, your business should improve. This is a circle that is mostly virtuous.

Such is not always the case. Take teaching, for example. Ratemyprofessors.com is a ranking site for teachers and professors, based on feedback from students. If you read through the reviews, it soon becomes obvious that funny, relatable, good-looking profs fare better than those who are less socially gifted. It has become a popularity contest for academics. Certainly, some of those things may factor into the effectiveness of a good educator, but there is a universe of other criteria that are given short-shrift on the site. Teaching is a subtle and complex profession. Is a popular prof necessarily a good prof? If too much reliance is placed on ratings like those found on ratemyprofessors.com, will the need to be popular push some of those other less-rankable attributes to the background?

But let’s step back even a bit further. Along with the need to quantify everything there is also a demand for transparency. Let’s step into another classroom, this time in your local elementary school. The current push is to document what’s happening in the classroom and share it on a special portal that parents have access to. In theory, this sounds great. Increasing collaboration and streamlining the communication triangle between teachers, students and parents should be a major step forward. But it’s here where unintended consequences can run the education process off the rails. Helicopter parents are the most frequent visitors to the portal. They also dominate these new communication channels that are now open to their children’s teachers. And – if you know a helicopter parent – you know these are people who have no problem picking up the phone and calling the school administrator or even the local school board to complain about a teacher. Suddenly, teachers feel they’re constantly under the microscope. They alter their teaching style and course content to appeal to the types of parents that are constantly monitoring them.

Even worse, the teacher finds themselves constantly interrupting their own lesson in order to document what’s going on to keep these parents satisfied. What appears to be happening in the classroom through social media becomes more important than what’s actually happening in the classroom. If you’ve ever tried to actively present to a group and also document what’s happening at the same time, you know how impossible this can be. Pity then the poor teacher of your children.

There is a quote that is often (incorrectly) attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The reality is a lot more nuanced. As we’re finding out, what you’re actually measuring matters a lot. It may be leading you in completely the wrong direction.

Our Trust Issues with Advertising Based Revenue Models

Facebook’s in the soup again. They’re getting their hands slapped for tracking our location. And I have to ask, why is anyone surprised they’re tracking our location? I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. What is good for us is not good for Facebook’s revenue model. And vice versa. Social platforms should never be driven by advertising. Period. Advertising requires targeting. And when you combine prospect targeting and the digital residue of our online activities, bad things are bound to happen. It’s inevitable, and it’s going to get worse. Facebook’s future earnings absolutely dictate that they have to try to get us to spend more time on their platform and they have to be more invasive about tracking what we do with that time. Their walled data garden and their reluctance to give us a peak at what’s happening inside should be massive red flags.

Our social activities are already starting to fragment across multiple platforms – and multiple accounts within each of those platforms. We are socially complex people and it’s naïve to think that all that complexity could be contained within any one ecosystem – even one as sprawling as Facebook’s.  In our real lives – you know – the life you lead when you’re not staring at your phone – our social activities are as varied as our moods, our activities, our environment and the people we are currently sharing that environment with. Being social is not a single aspect of our lives. It is the connecting tissue of all that we are. It binds all the things we do into a tapestry of experience. It reflects who we are and our identities are shaped by it. Even when we’re alone, as I am while writing this column, we are being social. I am communicating with each of you and the things I am communicated are shaped by my own social experiences.

My point here is that being social is not something we turn on and off. We don’t go somewhere to be social. We are social. To reduce social complexity and try to contain it within an online ecosystem is a fool’s errand. Trying to support it with advertising just makes it worse. A revenue model based on advertising is self-limiting. It has always been a path of least resistance, which is why it’s so commonly used. It places no financial hurdles on the path to adoption. We have never had to pay money to use Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat. But we do pay with our privacy. And eventually, after the inevitable security breaches, we also lose our trust. That lack of trust limits the effectiveness of any social medium.

Of course, it’s not just social media that suffers from the trust issues that come with advertising-based revenue. This advertising driven path has worked up to now because trust was never really an issue. We took comfort in our perceived anonymity in the eyes of the marketer. We were part of a faceless, nameless mass market that traded attention for access to information and entertainment. Advertising works well with mass. As I mentioned, there are no obstacles to adoption. It was the easiest way to assemble the biggest possible audience. But we now market one to one. And as the ones on the receiving end, we are now increasingly seeking functionality. That is a fundamentally different precept. When we seek to do things, rather than passively consume content, we can no longer remain anonymous. We make choices, we go places, we buy stuff, we do things. In doing this, we leave indelible footprints which are easy to track and aggregate.

Our online and offline lives have now melded to the point where we need – and expect – something more than a collection of platforms offering fragmented functionality. What we need is a highly personalized OS, a foundational operating system that is intimately designed just for us and connects the dots of functionality. This is already happening in bits and pieces through the data we surrender when we participate in the online world. But that data lives in thousands of different walled gardens, including the social platforms we use. Then that data is used to target advertising to us. And we hate advertising. It’s a fundamentally flawed contract that we will – given a viable alternative – opt out of. We don’t trust the social platforms we use and we’re right not to. If we had any idea of depth or degree of personal information they have about us, we would be aghast.  I have said before that we are willing to trade privacy for functionality and I still believe this. But once our trust has been broken, we are less willing to surrender that private data, which is essential to the continued profitability of an ad-supported platform.

We need to own our own data. This isn’t so much to protect our privacy as it is to build a new trust contract that will allow that data to be used more effectively for our own purposes and not that of a corporation whose only motive is to increase their own profit. We need to remove the limits imposed by a flawed functionality offering based on serving ads that we don’t want to us. If we’re looking for the true disruptor in advertising, that’s it in nutshell.

 

Sorry, I Don’t Speak Complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Which Me am I — And On Which Network?

I got an email from Strava. If you’re not familiar with it, Strava is a social network for cyclists and runners. As the former, I joined Strava about two years ago.

Here is the email I received:

Your Friends Are on Strava

 Add friends to follow their adventures and get inspired by their workouts

 J. Doe, Somewhere, CA

 “Follow”

 (Note: the personal information has been changed because after preaching about privacy for the last two weeks, I do have to practice what I preach)

Here’s the thing: I’m not friends with Mr. Doe. I met him a few  times on the speaking circuit when we crossed paths. To be brutally honest, J. Doe was a connection I thought would help me grow my business. He was a higher profile speaker than I was. He’d written a book that sold way more copies than mine ever did. I was “friending up” in my networking.

The last time we met each other — several years ago now — I quickly extended a Facebook friends invite. At the time, I — and the rest of the world — was using Facebook as a catch-all bucket for all my social connections: friends, family and the people I was unabashedly stalking in order to make more money. And J. Doe accepted my invite. It gave my ego a nice little boost at the time.

So, according to Facebook, we’re friends. But we’re not — not really. And that became clear when I got the Strava invite. It would have been really weird if I connected with him on Strava, following his adventures and being inspired by his workouts. We just don’t have that type of relationship. There was no social basis for me to make that connection.

I have different social spheres in my life. I have the remnants of my past professional life as an online marketer. I have my passion as a cyclist. I have a new emerging sphere as a fledgling tourism operator. I have my family.

I could go on. I can think of only a handful of people who comfortably lie within two or more of my spheres.

But with social sign-ins (which I used for Strava) those spheres are suddenly mashed together. It’s becoming clear that socially, we are complex creatures with many, many sides.

Facebook would love nothing more than to be the sole supporting platform of our entire social grid. But that works at cross purposes with how humans socialize. It’s not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all thing, but a sprawling landscape cluttered with very distinctive nodes that are haphazardly linked together.

The only common denominator is ourselves, in the middle of that mess. And even we can have surprising variability. The me that loves cycling is a very different guy from the me that wanted to grow my business profile.

This modality is creating an expansion of socially connected destinations.

Strava is a good example of this. Arguably, it provides a way to track my rides. But it also aspires to be the leading community of athletes. And that’s where it runs headlong into the problem of social modality.

Social sign-ins seem to be a win-win-win. For the user, it eases the headache of maintaining an ever-expanding list of user names and passwords. Sure, there’s that momentary lurch in the pit of our stomachs when we get that warning that we’re sharing our entire lives with the proprietors of the new site, but that goes away with just one little click.

For the website owner, every new social sign-in user comes complete with rich new data and access to all his contacts.  Finally, Facebook can sink their talons into us just a little deeper, gathering data from yet one more online outpost.

But like many things that seem beneficial, unintended consequences are part of the package. This is especially true when the third party I’m signing up for is creating his own community.

Is the “me” that wants to become part of this new community the “me” that Facebook thinks I am? Will things get weird when these two social spheres are mashed together?

Because Facebook assumes that I am always me and you are always you, whatever the context, some of us are forced to splinter our online social personas by maintaining multiple profiles. We may have a work profile and a social one.

The person Facebook thinks we are may be significantly different from the person LinkedIn thinks we are.  Keeping our social selves separate becomes a juggling act of ever-increasing proportions.

So why does Facebook want me to always be me?  It’s because of us — and by us, I mean marketers. We love the idea of markets that are universal and targeting that is omniscient. It just makes our lives so much easier. Our lives as marketers, I mean.

As people? Well, that’s another story — but right now, I’m a marketer.

See the problem?

Disruption in the Rear View Mirror

Oh..it’s so easy to be blasé. I always scan the Mediapost headlines each week to see if there’s anything to spin. I almost skipped right past a news post by Larissa Faw – Zenith: Google Remains Top-Ranked Media Company By Ad Revenue

“Of course Google is the top ranked media company,” I yawned as I was just about to click on the next email in my inbox. Then it hit me. To quote Michael Bublé, “Holy Shitballs, Mom!”

Maybe that headline doesn’t seem extraordinary in the context of today, but I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 20 years now, and in that context – well-it’s huge! I remembered a column I wrote ages ago about speculating that Google had barely scratched its potential. After a little digging, I found it. It was in October, 2006, so just over a decade ago. Google had just passed the 6 billion dollar mark in annual revenue. Ironically, that seemed a bigger deal then their current revenue of almost $80 billion seems today. In that column, I pushed to the extreme and speculated that Google could someday pass $200 billion in revenue. While we’re still only 1/3 of the way there, the claim doesn’t seem nearly as ludicrous as it did back then.

But here’s the line that really made me realize how far we’ve come in the ten and a half years since I wrote that column: “Google and Facebook together accounted for 20% of global advertising expenditure across all media in 2016, up from 11% in 2012. They were also responsible for 64% of all the growth in global ad spend between 2012 and 2016.”

Two companies that didn’t exist 20 years ago now account for 20% of all global advertising expenditure. And the speed with which they’re gobbling advertising budgets is accelerating. If you’re a dilettante student of disruption, as I am, those are pretty amazing numbers. In the day-to-day of Mediapost – and digital marketing in general – we tend to accept all this as normal. It’s like we’re surfing on top of a wave without realizing the wave is 300 freakin’ feet high. Sometimes, you need to zoom out a little to realizing how momentous the every day is. And if you look at this on a scale of decades rather than days, you start to get a sense that the speed of change is massive.

To me, the most interesting thing about this is that both Google and Facebook have introduced a fundamentally new relationship between advertising and it’s audience. Google’s outré is – of course – intent based advertising. And Facebook’s is based on socially mediated network effects. Both of these things required the overlay of digital connection. That – as they say – has made all the difference. And there is where the real disruption can be found. Our world has become a fundamentally different place.

Much as we remain focused on the world of advertising and marketing here in our little corner of the digital world, it behooves us to remember that advertising is simply a somewhat distorted reflection of the behaviors of the world in general. It things are being disrupted here, it is because things are being disrupted everywhere. As it regards us beings of flesh, bone and blood, that disruption has three distinct beachheads: the complicated relationship between our brains and the digital tools we have at our disposal, the way we connect with each other, and a dismantling of the restrictions of the physical world at the same time we build the scaffolding of a human designed digital world. Any one of these has the potential to change our species forever. With all three bearing down on us, permanent change is a lead-pipe cinch.

Thirty years is a nano-second in terms of human history. Even on the scale of my lifetime, it seems like yesterday. Reagan was president. We were terrorized by the Unabomber. News outlets were covering the Iran-Contra affair. U2 released the Joshua Tree. Platoon won the best picture Oscar. And if you wanted to advertise to a lot of people, you did so on a major TV network with the help of a Madison Avenue agency. 30 years ago, nothing of which I’m talking about existed. Nothing. No Google. No Facebook. No Internet – at least, not in a form any of us could appreciate.

As much as advertising has changed in the past 30 years, it has only done so because we – and the world we inhabit – have changed even more. And if that thought is a little scary, just think what the next 30 years might bring.

What Comes After Generation Z?

We’re running out of alphabet.

The latest generation is Generation Z. They were born between 1995 and 2012 – according to one demographic primer. So, what do we call the generation born from 2013 on? Z+One? Do we go with an Excel naming scheme and call it Generation AA? Or should we just go back to all those unused letters of the alphabet. After all, we haven’t touched A to W yet. Thinking along those lines, Australian social researcher and author Mark McCrindle is lobbying for Generation Alpha. It’s a nice twist – we get to recycle the alphabet and give it a Greek flavor all at the same time.

Maybe the reason we short-sightedly started with the last three letters of the alphabet is that we’re pretty new at this. Before the twentieth century, we didn’t worry much about labeling every generation. And, to be honest, much of that labeling has happened retroactively. The Silent Generation (1925 – 1942) didn’t call themselves that right off that bat. Being Silent, they didn’t call themselves anything. The label wasn’t coined until 1951. And the G.I. Generation, who preceded them ((1901 – 1924), didn’t receive their label until demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe affixed it in 1991.

But starting around the middle of the last century, we developed the need to pigeonhole our cohorts. Maybe it’s because things started moving so quickly about that time. In the first half of the century we had the twin demographical tent poles of the two World Wars. In between we had the Great Depression. After WWII we had the mother of all generational events: the Baby Boom. Each of these eras brought a very different environment, which would naturally affect those growing up in them. Since then, we’ve been scrambling madly to keep up with appropriate labels for each generation.

The standard approach up to now has been to wait for someone to write a book about a generation, which bestows the label, and then we all jump on the bandwagon. But this seems reactive and short sighted. It also means that we get caught in our current situation, where we have a generation that remains unnamed while we’re waiting for the book to be written.

We seem hooked on these generation labels. I don’t think they’re going to go anywhere any time soon. Based on our current fascination with Millennials, we in the media are going to continue to lump every single sociological and technological trend into convenient generationally labeled behavioral buckets. So we should give this naming thing some thought.

Maybe we could take a page from the World Meteorological Organization’s book when it comes to naming hurricanes and tropical storms. They started doing this so the media would have a quick and commonly understood reference point when referring to a particular meteorological event. Don’t generations deserve the same foresight?

The World Meteorological Organization has a strict procedure: “For Atlantic hurricanes, there is a list of male and female names which are used on a six-year rotation. The only time that there is a change is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate. In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in a season, any additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.”

I like the idea of using male and female names. This got me thinking. Maybe we combine the WMO’s approach and that of the wisdom of crowds. Perhaps the male and female names should be the most popular baby names of that generation. In case you’re wondering, here’s how that would work out:

Silent Generation (1925 – 1942): The Robert and Mary Generation
Baby Boomers I (1946 – 1954): The James and Mary Generation
Baby Boomers II (1955 – 1965): The Michael and Lisa Generation
Generation X (1966 – 1976): The Michael and Jennifer Generation
Millennials (1977 – 1994): The Michael and Jessica Generation
Generation Z (1995 – 2012): The Jacob and Emily Generation
Generation ??? (2013 – Today) – The Emma and Noah Generation

The sharp sighted amongst you will have noticed two problems with this. First, some names are stubbornly popular (I’m talking about you Michael and Mary) and span multiple generations. Secondly, this is a very US-Centric approach. Maybe we need to mix it up globally. For instance, if we tap into the naming zeitgeist of South Korea, that would make the current generation the Seo-yeon and Min-jun Generation.

Of course, all this could be needless worrying. Perhaps those that affixed the Generation Z label knew something we didn’t.

Why Millennials are so Fascinating

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Generation Gap. This referred to the ideological gap between my generation – the Baby Boomers, and our parent’s generation – The Silent Generation (1923 – 1944).

But in terms of behavior, there was a significant gap even amongst early Baby Boomers and those that came at the tail end of the boom – like myself. Generations are products of their environment and there was a significant change in our environment in the 20-year run of the Baby Boomers – from 1945 to 1964. During that time, TV came into most of our homes. For the later boomers, like myself, we were raised with TV. And I believe the adoption of that one technology created an unbridgeable ideological gap that is still impacting our society.

The adoption of ubiquitous technologies – like TV and, more recently, connective platforms like mobile phones and the Internet – inevitable trigger massive environmental shifts. This is especially true for generations that grow up with this technology. Our brain goes through two phases where it literally rewires itself to adapt to its environment. One of those phases happens from birth to about 2 to 3 years of age and the other happens during puberty – from 14 to 20 years of age. A generation that goes through both of those phases while exposed to a new technology will inevitably be quite different from the generation that preceded it.

The two phases of our brain’s restructuring – also called neuroplasticity – are quite different in their goals. The first period – right after birth – rewires the brain to adapt to its physical environment. We learn to adapt to external stimuli and to interact with our surroundings. The second phase is perhaps even more influential in terms of who we will eventually be. This is when our brain creates its social connections. It’s also when we set our ideological compasses. Technologies we spend a huge amount of time with will inevitably impact both those processes.

That’s what makes Millennials so fascinating. It’s probably the first generation since my own that bridges that adoption of a massively influential technological change. Most definitions of this generation have it starting in the early 80’s and extend it to 1996 or 97.   This means the early Millennials grew up in an environment that was not all that different than the generation that preceded it. The technologies that were undergoing massive adoption in the early 80’s were VCRs and microwaves – hardly earth shaking in terms of environmental change. But late Millennials, like my daughters, grew up during the rapid adoption of three massively disruptive technologies: mobile phones, computers and the Internet. So we have a completely different environment for which the brain must adapt not only from generation to generation, but within the generation itself. This makes Millennials a very complex generation to pin down.

In terms of trying to understand this, let’s go back to my generation – the Baby Boomers – to see how environment adaptation can alter the face of society. Boomers that grew up in the late 40’s and early 50’s were much different than boomers that grew up just a few years later. Early boomers probably didn’t have a TV. Only the wealthiest families would have been able to afford them. In 1951, only 24% of American homes had a TV. But by 1960, almost 90% of Americans had a TV.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the values of my generation where shaped by TV. But this was not a universal process. The impact of TV was dependent on household income, which would have been correlated with education. So TV impacted the societal elite first and then trickled down. This elite segment would have also been those most likely to attend college. So, in the mid-60’s, you had a segment of a generation who’s values and world view were at least partially shaped by TV – and it’s creation of a “global village” – and who suddenly came together during a time and place (college) when we build the persona foundations we will inhabit for the rest of our lives. You had another segment of a generation that didn’t have this same exposure and who didn’t pursue a post-secondary education. The Vietnam War didn’t create the Counter-Cultural revolution. It just gave it a handy focal point that highlighted the ideological rift not only between two generations but also within the Baby Boomers themselves. At that point in history, part of our society turned right and part turned left.

Is the same thing happening with Millennials now? Certainly the worldview of at least the younger Millennials has been shaped through exposure to connected media. When polled, they inevitably have dramatically different opinions about things like religion, politics, science – well – pretty much everything. But even within the Millennial camp, their views often seem incoherent and confusing. Perhaps another intra-generational divide is forming. The fact is it’s probably too early to tell. These things take time to play out. But if it plays out like it did last time this happened, the impact will still be felt a half century from now.