Drifting Alone on the Social Network

This was not your ordinary Facebook post (if there is such a thing).

For one thing, it was long. Almost 1600 words long. That’s longer than this column. Secondly, it was raw. It was written by somebody in deep pain who laid their soul bare for their entire network to see. I barely knew this person and I was given a look into the deepest and darkest part of their lives. The post told the story of the break-up of a marriage and a struggle with depression. It was a disturbing blow – by – blow chronicle of someone hitting the bottom.

A strange thing happened while I was reading the post. At one level, I responded as I hope any decent human would. I felt the pain of this person – even though we were barely acquaintances – and wanted to help in some way. But – in a sort of meta-awareness – I monitored myself as a sample of one to see what the longer-term impact was. This plea through social media seemed extraordinary in a number of ways. What were the possible unintended consequences of this online confessional?

I should add an additional – traumatic – context to this story. This post was catalyzed by the recent suicide of a well-known member of the industry I used to work in. Again, I was made aware of the tragedy through several posts on Facebook. And again, I barely knew the person involved but somewhere along the line we had connected through Facebook. In the last two days of his life, he had updated his status. He was young. He had a family. He should have had everything to live for. But then again, I really didn’t know him or his circumstances. I certainly didn’t know his pain. Judging by the shock I was in the comments on Facebook, I don’t think any of us knew.

And that’s what prompted this post I’m writing about. Obviously, this person wanted us to know his pain. He was asking for help. But he was also offering it to anyone who needed it.  And he choose to do it through Facebook. This should be social media at its finest…a moving example of people connecting when it counts most. The post certainly touched those that read it. 80 comments – all supportive – followed the post. Many contained their own abbreviated confessions of going through similar pain. It seemed cathartic. I would even call it inspirational.

So why was I so troubled by this? Something seemed wrong.

Social Networks are Built on Weak Ties

Perhaps the problem is in the nature of our online social networks. In the 1990’s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested our brains had a cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships we could maintain. The number was 150, which has since become known as Dunbar’s Number.

In follow up research, released in the last few years, Dunbar has found that within this circle of 150 acquaintances, there are smaller circles of increasingly more intimate friends. The next layer in is what we would probably call “friends” – people we chose to spend time with. That’s about 50 people.  Then we have “close friends” – people we tend to socialize with more frequently. On average, we would have 15 of these. And finally, we have our closest friends – those we are intimately connected to. Dunbar puts our cognitive limit at 5 for these most precious connections.

I have about 450 “Friends” on Facebook. If Dunbar’s Number is correct, this is three times the number of social connections I can mentally coordinate. By necessity, they’ll almost all what Mark Granovetter would refer to as “weak ties” – social connections that are not actively maintained. And my network is relatively small. Others in the online industry typically have social networks numbering well over a thousand connections. Yet, with all these thousands of connections, did they not have one of those very close friends they could reach out to in person? Perhaps they did, but the personal investment might have been too high.

The Psychology of the Online Confessional

We all need to be heard. And sometimes, it seems easier to confide in a stranger than a friend. We can talk without worrying about all the baggage we are carrying. Our closest friends know all about that baggage. The personal costs are much higher when we choose to go to a friend. I think- subconsciously – we sometimes tend to gravitate towards “weak ties” when things are at their worst. It’s the reason that psychotherapists and confessional booths exist.

Also, a confession is easier when it’s physically detached from the feedback. We can craft the language before we post. We are not sitting across from someone who might judge us. We are posting alone, and this can bring its own sense of comfort. But, unfortunately, that comfort can be short lived.

The Half Life of Online Empathy

Eventually, the empathy dies away and the social shaming begins. I wish this wasn’t’ the case – I wish humans were better than this – but we’re not. We’re just human.

If you’re not an absolute sociopath, you can’t help but be empathetic when someone lays their grieving soul bare for you. And the investment required to post a supportive comment is minimal. It is determined by the same cognitive algorithm I talked about last week regarding “slacktivism.” It’s a few seconds of our life and a handful of carefully selected words. At the time, we are probably sincere in our offer of help, but then we move on. This is a weak tie – a person we hardly know. We have no skin in the game.

If that seems callous and cruel on my part, there are previous examples to point to. Over and over again, we pour out our support when the pain is fresh, only to move on to the next thing more and more quickly. This is true when the tragedies are global in nature. I suspect the same is true when they’re more localized, with people we are passingly acquainted with. And these people have now gone public with their pain. It is now part of their digital footprint. Today, we may feel nothing but empathy. But how will we feel 6 weeks hence? Or 6 months? I would like to think we would remain noble, kind and gracious in our thoughts, but most of the evidence points to the contrary.

I didn’t want to be negative in the writing of this. I sincerely hope that such online pleas for help bring aid and comfort to the person in question. As I said, this was all sparked by someone who never got the help he needed at the right time. Perhaps a weak tie online is better than no tie at all.

But I will remain a strong believer in the power of a true person-to-person connection – with all its messiness and organic imperfection. We need more of that. And the more time we spend alone keying in our thoughts in front of the light blue glow of a monitor, the less likely that is to happen.

 

The Pros and Cons of Slacktivism

Lately, I’ve grown to hate my Facebook feed. But I’m also morbidly fascinated by it. It fuels the fires of my discontent with a steady stream of posts about bone-headedness and sheer WTF behavior.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many of us are morally outraged by our social media feeds. But does all that righteous indignation lead to anything?

Last week, MediaPost reran a column talking about how good people can turn bad online by following the path of moral outrage to mob-based violence. Today I ask, is there a silver lining to this behavior? Can the digital tipping point become a force for good, pushing us to take action to right wrongs?

The Ever-Touchier Triggers of Moral Outrage

As I’ve written before, normal things don’t go viral. The more outrageous and morally reprehensible something is, the greater likelihood there is that it will be shared on social media. So the triggering forces of moral outrage are becoming more common and more exaggerated. A study found that in our typical lives, only about 5% of the things we experience are immoral in nature.

But our social media feeds are algorithmically loaded to ensure we are constantly ticked off. This isn’t normal. Nor is it healthy.

The Dropping Cost of Being Outraged

So what do we do when outraged? As it turns out, not much — at least, not when we’re on Facebook.

Yale neuroscientist Molly Crockett studies the emerging world on online morality. And she found that the personal costs associated with expressing moral outrage are dropping as we move our protests online:

“Offline, people can harm wrongdoers’ reputations through gossip, or directly confront them with verbal sanctions or physical aggression. The latter two methods require more effort and also carry potential physical risks for the punisher. In contrast, people can express outrage online with just a few keystrokes, from the comfort of their bedrooms…”

What Crockett is describing is called slacktivism.

You May Be a Slacktivist if…

A slacktivist, according to Urbandictionary.com, is “one who vigorously posts political propaganda and petitions in an effort to affect change in the world without leaving the comfort of the computer screen”

If your Facebook feed is at all like mine, it’s probably become choked with numerous examples of slacktivism. It seems like the world has become a more moral — albeit heavily biased — place. This should be a good thing, shouldn’t it?

Warning: Outrage Can be Addictive

The problem is that morality moves online, it loses a lot of the social clout it has historically had to modify behaviors. Crockett explains:

“When outrage expression moves online it becomes more readily available, requires less effort, and is reinforced on a schedule that maximizes the likelihood of future outrage expression in ways that might divorce the feeling of outrage from its behavioral expression…”

In other words, outrage can become addictive. It’s easier to become outraged if it has no consequences for us, is divorced by the normal societal checks and balances that govern our behavior and we can get a nice little ego boost when others “like” or “share” our indignant rants. The last point is particularly true given the “echo chamber” characteristics of our social-media bubbles. These are all the prerequisites required to foster habitual behavior.

Outrage Locked Inside its own Echo Chamber

Another thing we have to realize about showing our outrage online is that it’s largely a pointless exercise. We are simply preaching to the choir. As Crockett points out:

“Ideological segregation online prevents the targets of outrage from receiving messages that could induce them (and like-minded others) to change their behavior. For politicized issues, moral disapproval ricochets within echo chambers but only occasionally escapes.”

If we are hoping to change anyone’s behavior by publicly shaming them, we have to realize that Facebook’s algorithms make this highly unlikely.

Still, the question remains: Does all this online indignation serve a useful purpose? Does it push us to action?

The answer seems to be dependent on two factors, both imposing their own thresholds on our likelihood to act. One is if we’re truly outraged or not. Because showing outrage online is so easy, with few consequences and the potential social reward of a post going viral, it has all the earmarks of a habit-forming behavior. Are we posting because we’re truly mad, or just bored?

“Just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outraged,” writes Crockett.

Moving from online outrage to physical action — whether it’s changing our own behavior or acting to influence a change in someone else – requires a much bigger personal investment on almost every level. This brings us to the second threshold factor: our own personal experiences and situation. Millions of women upped the ante by actively supporting #Metoo because it was intensely personal for them. It’s one example of an online movement that became one of the most potent political forces in recent memory.

One thing does appear to be true. When it comes to social protest, there is definitely more noise out there. We just need a reliable way to convert that to action.

Why Do Good People Become Bad Online?

Here are some questions I have:

  • When do crowds turn ugly?
  • Why do people become Trolls online?
  • When do opinions suddenly become moralizing and what is the difference between the two?

Whether we like it or not, online connection engenders some decidedly bad behavior. It’s one of those unintended consequences that I like to talk about – a behavioral side effect that’s catalyzed by technology.  And, if this is the case, we should know a little more about the psychology behind this behavior.

Modified Mob Behavior

So, when does a group become a mob? And when does a mob turn ugly? There are some aspects of herd mentality that seem to be particularly conducive to online connections. A group turns into a mob when their behaviors become synced to a common purpose. A recent study from the University of Southern California found two predictive signals in social media behavior that indicate when a group protest may become a violent mob.

Tipping Over the Threshold from an Opinion to a Moral

One of the things they found is that when we go from talking about our opinions to preaching morality, things can take a nasty turn. Let’s imagine a spectrum from loosely held opinions on the left end – things you’re not that emotionally invested in – to beliefs and then on the morals at the right end. This progression also correlates to different ways the brain processes the respective thoughts. At the least intense left end of the spectrum – opinions – we can process them with relative detached rationality. But as we move to the right, different parts of the brain start kicking in and begin to raise the emotional stakes. When we believe we’re talking about morals, we suddenly have strongly held beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Morals are defined as “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.”

This triggers our ancient and universal feelings about fairness, Harm, betrayal, subversion and degradation – the planks of moral foundation theory. The researchers in the USC study found that people are more likely to endorse violence when they moralize the issue. When there are clearly held beliefs about right and wrong, violence seems acceptable.

Violence Needs Company

This moralizing signal is not necessarily tied to being online. But the second predictive signal is. The researchers also found that if people believe others share their views, they are more likely to tip over the threshold from peaceful protest to violence. This is Mark Granovetter’s crowd threshold effect that I’ve talked about before. In social media, this effect is amplified by content filtering and the structure of your network. Like-minded people naturally link to each other and their posts make for remarkably efficient indicators of their beliefs. It’s very easy in a social network to feel that everybody you know feels the same way that you do. The degree of violent language can escalate quickly through online posts until the entire group is pushed over the threshold into a model of behavior that would be unthinkable as a disconnected individual.

Trolls, Trolls Everywhere

Another study, this time from Stanford, shows that any of us can become a troll. We would like to think that trolls are just a particularly ubiquitous small group of horrible people. But this research indicates that trollism is more situational than previously thought. In other words, if we’re in a bad mood, we’re more likely to become a troll.

But it’s not just our mood. Here again Granovetter’s threshold model plays a part. Negative comments beget more negative comments, starting a downward spiral of venom. The researchers did a behavioral test where participants had to do either an easy or a difficult task and then had to read an online article that had either three neutral comments or three negative, troll-like comments. The results were eye-opening. In the group that was assigned an easy task and read the article that had the neutral comments, about 35% posted a negative comment. Knowing that one in three of us seem to have a low threshold for becoming a troll is not exactly encouraging, but it gets worse. If participants either did the difficult test or read negative comments, the likelihood for posting a troll-like comment jumped to 50%. And if participants got both the difficult test and read negative comments, the number climbed to 68%! In the three-part study, another factor that could lead to becoming a troll included the time that posts were made. Late Sunday and Monday nights are the worst time of the week for negative posts and Twitter bullying hit its peak between 5 pm and 8 pm on Sunday. While we’re on the subject, Donald Trump tends to tweet early in the morning and his most inflammatory tweets come on Saturdays.

But when it comes to trolling, there’s something else at play here as well. Yet another study, this time from Mt. Helen University in Australia, found that our own brand of empathy can also predict whether we’re going to become a troll or not. There is cognitive and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy means you can understand other people’s emotions – you know what will make them happy or mad. But affective empathy means you can internalize and experience the emotions of another – if they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re mad, you’re mad. Not surprisingly, Trolls tend to have high cognitive empathy but low affective empathy. Obviously, there were plenty of such people before the Internet, but they’ve now gained the perfect forum for their twisted form of empathy. They can incite negativity relatively free from social consequence and reprisal. Even if the comments made are not anonymous, the poster can hide behind a degree of detachment that would be impossible in a physical environment.

So, why should we care? Again, it comes back to this idea of the unintended social consequences of technology. Increasingly, our connections are digital in nature. And for reasons already stated, I worry that these types of connections may bring out the worst in us.

 

Is Live the New Live?

HQ Trivia – the popular mobile game app –  seems to be going backwards. It’s an anachronism – going against all the things that technology promises. It tethers us to a schedule. It’s essentially a live game show broadcast (when everything works as it should, which is far from a sure bet) on a tiny screen – It also gets about a million players each and every time it plays, which is usually only twice a day.

My question is: Why the hell is it so popular?

Maybe it’s the Trivia Itself…

(Trivial Interlude – the word trivia comes from the Latin for the place where three roads come together. Originally in Latin it was used to refer to the three foundations of basic education – grammar, logic and rhetoric. The modern usage came from a book by Logan Pearsall Smith in 1902 – “Trivialities, bits of information of little consequence”. The singular of trivia is trivium)

As a spermologist (that’s a person who loves trivia – seriously – apparently the “sperm” has something to do with “seeds of knowledge”) I love a trivia contest. It’s one thing I’m pretty good at – knowing a little about a lot of things that have absolutely no importance. And if you too fancy yourself a spermologist (which, by the way, is how you should introduce yourself at social gatherings) you know that we always want to prove we’re the smartest people in the room. In HQ Trivia’s case, that room usually holds about a million people. That’s the current number of participants in the average broadcast. So the odds of being the smartest person is the room is – well – about one in a million. And a spermologist just can’t resist those odds.

But I don’t think HQ’s popularity is based on some alpha-spermology complex. A simple list of rankings would take care of that. No, there must be more to it. Let’s dig deeper.

Maybe it’s the Simoleons…

(Trivial Interlude: Simoleons is sometimes used as slang for American dollars, as Jimmy Stewart did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The word could be a portmanteau of “simon” and “Napoleon” – which was a 20 franc coin issued in France. The term seems to have originated in New Orleans, where French currency was in common use at the turn of the last century.)

HQ Trivia does offer up cash for smarts. Each contest has a prize, which is usually $5000. But even if you make it through all 12 questions and win, by the time the prize is divvied up amongst the survivors, you’ll probably walk away with barely enough money to buy a beer. Maybe two. So I don’t think it’s the prize money that accounts for the popularity of HQ Trivia.

Maybe It’s Because it’s Live..

(Trivial Interlude – As a Canadian, Trivia is near and dear to my heart. America’s favorite trivia quiz master, Alex Trebek, is Canadian, born in Sudbury, Ontario. Alex is actually his middle name. George is his first name. He is 77 years old. And Trivial Pursuit, the game that made trivia a household name in the 80’s, was invented by two Canadians, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. It was created after the pair wanted to play Scrabble but found their game was missing some tiles. So they decided to create their own game. In 1984, more than 20 million copies of the game were sold. )

There is just something about reality in real time. Somehow, subconsciously, it makes us feel connected to something that is bigger than ourselves. And we like that. In fact, one of the other etymological roots of the word “trivia” itself is a “public place.”

The Hotchkiss Movie Choir Effect

If you want to choke up a Hotchkiss (or at least the ones I’m personally familiar with) just show us a movie where people spontaneously start singing together. I don’t care if it’s Pitch Perfect Twelve and a Half – we’ll still mist up. I never understood why, but I think it has to do with the same underlying appeal of connection. Dan Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” explained what happens in our brain when we sing as part of a group in a recent interview on NPR:

“We’ve got to pay attention to what someone else is doing, coordinate our actions with theirs, and it really does pull us out of ourselves. And all of that activates a part of the frontal cortex that’s responsible for how you see yourself in the world, and whether you see yourself as part of a group or alone. And this is a powerful effect.”

The same thing goes for flash mobs. I’m thinking there has to be some type of psychological common denominator that HQ Trivia has somehow tapped into. It’s like a trivia-based flash mob. Even when things go wrong, which they do quite frequently, we feel that we’re going through it together. Host Scott Rogowsky embraces the glitchiness of the platform and commiserates with us. Misery – even when it’s trivial – loves company.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, HQ Trivia seems to be moving forward by taking us back to a time when we all managed to play nicely together.

 

Advertising Meets its Slippery Slope

We’ve now reached the crux of the matter when it comes to the ad biz.

For a couple of centuries now, we’ve been refining the process of advertising. The goal has always been to get people to buy stuff. But right now, there is now a perfect storm of forces converging that requires some deep navel gazing on the part of us insiders.

It used to be that to get people to buy, all we had to do was inform. Pent up consumer demand created by expanding markets and new product introductions would take care of the rest. We just had to connect better the better mousetraps with the world, which would then duly beat the path to the respective door.  Advertising equaled awareness.

But sometime in the waning days of the consumer orgy that followed World War Two, we changed our mandate. Not content with simply informing, we decided to become influencers. We slipped under the surface of the brain, moving from providing information for rational consideration to priming subconscious needs. We started messing with the wiring of our market’s emotional motivations.  We became persuaders.

Persuasion is like a mental iceberg – 90% of the bulk lies below the surface. Rationalization is typically the hastily added layer of ad hoc logic that happens after the decision is already made.  This is true to varying degrees for almost any consumer category you can think including – unfortunately – our political choices.

This is why, a few columns ago – I said Facebook’s current model is unsustainable. It is based on advertising, and I think advertising may have become unsustainable. The truth is, advertisers have gotten so good at persuading us to do things that we are beginning to revolt. It’s getting just too creepy.

To understand how we got here, let’s break down persuasion. It requires the persuader to shift the beliefs of the persuadee. The bigger the shift required, the tougher the job of persuasion.  We tend to build irrational (aka emotional) bulwarks around our beliefs to preserve them. For this reason, it’s tremendously beneficial to the persuader to understand the belief structure of their target. If they can do this, they can focus on those whose belief structure is most conducive to the shift required.

When it comes to advertisers, the needle on our creative powers of persuasion hasn’t really moved that much in the last half century. There were very persuasive ads created in the 1960’s and there are still great ads being created. The disruption that has moved our industry to the brink of the slippery slope has all happened on the targeting end.

The world we used to live in was a bunch of walled and mostly unconnected physical gardens. Within each, we would have relevant beliefs but they would remain essentially private. You could probably predict with reasonable accuracy the religious beliefs of the members of a local church. But that wouldn’t help you if you were wondering whether the congregation leaned towards Ford or Chevy.  Our beliefs lived inside us, typically unspoken and unmonitored.

That all changed when we created digital mirrors of ourselves through Facebook, Twitter, Google and all the other usual suspects. John Battelle, author of The Search,  once called Google the Database of Intentions. It is certainly that. But our intent also provides an insight into our beliefs. And when it comes to Facebook, we literally map out our entire previously private belief structure for the world to see. That is why Big Data is so potentially invasive. We are opening ourselves up to subconscious manipulation of our beliefs by anyone with the right budget. We are kidding ourselves if we believe ourselves immune to the potential abuse that comes with that. Like I said, 90% of our beliefs are submerged in our subconscious.

We are just beginning to realize how effective the new tools of persuasion are. And as we do so, we are beginning to feel that this is all very unfair. No one likes being manipulated; even if they have willing laid the groundwork for that manipulation. Our sense of retroactive justice kicks in. We post rationalize and point fingers. We blame Facebook, or the government, or some hackers in Russia. But these are all just participants in a new eco-system that we have helped build. The problem is not the players. The problem is the system.

It’s taken a long time, but advertising might just have gotten to the point where it works too well.

 

Who Should (or Could) Protect Our Data?

Last week, when I talked about the current furor around the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I said that part of the blame – or at least, the responsibility – for the protection of our own data belonged to us. Reader Chuck Lantz responded with:

“In short, just because a company such as FaceBook can do something doesn’t mean they should.  We trusted FaceBook and they took advantage of that trust. Not being more careful with our own personal info, while not very wise, is not a crime. And attempting to dole out blame to both victim and perpetrator ain’t exactly wise, either.”

Whether it’s wise or not, when it comes to our own data, there are only three places we can reasonably look to protect it:

A) The Government

One only has to look at the supposed “grilling” of Zuckerberg by Congress to realize how forlorn a hope this is. In a follow up post, Wharton ran a list of the questions that Congress should have asked, compiled from their own faculty. My personal favorite comes from Eric Clemons, professor of Operations, Information and Decisions:

“You benefited financially from Cambridge Analytica’s clients’ targeting of fake news and inflammatory posts. Why did you wait years to report what Cambridge Analytica was doing?”

Technology has left the regulatory ability to control it in the dust. The EU is probably the most aggressive legislative jurisdiction in the world when it comes to protecting data privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation goes into place on May 25 of this year and incorporates sweeping new protections for EU citizens. But it will inevitably come up short in three key areas:

  • Even though it immediately applies to all countries processing the data of EU citizens, international compliance will be difficult to enforce consistently, especially if that processing extends beyond “friendly” countries.
  • Technological “loopholes” will quickly find vulnerable gray areas in the legislation that will lead to the misuse of data. Technology will always move faster than legislation. As an example, the GDPR and blockchain technologies are seemingly on a collision course.
  • Most importantly, the GDPR regulation is aimed at data “worst case scenarios.” But there are many apparently benign applications that can border on misuse of personal data. In trying to police even the worst-case instances, the GDPR requires restrictions that will directly impact users in the area of convenience and functionality. There are key areas such as data portability that aren’t fully addressed in the new legislation. At the end of the day, even though it’s protecting them, users will find the GDPR a pain in the ass.

Even with these fundamental flaws, the GDPR probably represents the world’s best attempt at data regulation. The US, as we’ve seen in the past week, comes up well short of this. And even if the people involved weren’t doddering old technologically inept farts the mechanisms required for the passing of relevant and timely legislation simply aren’t there. It would be like trying to catch a jet with a lasso. Should this be the job of government? Sure, I can buy that. Can government handle the job? Not based on the evidence we currently have available to us.

B) The companies that aggregate and manipulate our data.

Philosophically, I completely agree with Chuck. Like I said last week – the point of view I took left me ill at ease. We need these companies to be better than they are. We certainly need them to be better than Facebook was. But Facebook has absolutely no incentive to be better. And my fellow Media Insider, Kaila Colbin, nailed this in her column last week:

“Facebook doesn’t benefit if you feel better about yourself, or if you’re a more informed, thoughtful person. It benefits if you spend more time on its site, and buy more stuff. Giving the users control over who sees their posts offers the illusion of individual agency while protecting the prime directive.”

There are no inherent, proximate reasons for companies to be moral. They are built to be profitable (which, by the way, is why governments should never be run like a company). Facebook’s revenue model is directly opposed to personal protection of data. And that is why Facebook will try to weather this storm by implementing more self-directed security controls to put a good face on things. We will ignore those controls, because it’s a pain in the ass to do otherwise. And this scenario will continue to play out again and again.

C) Ourselves.

It sucks that we have to take this into our own hands. But I don’t see an option. Unless you see something in the first two alternatives that I don’t see, I don’t think we have any choice but to take responsibility. Do you want to put your security in the hands of the government, or Facebook? The first doesn’t have the horsepower to do the job and the second is heading in the wrong direction.

So if the responsibility ends up being ours, what can we expect?

A few weeks ago, another fellow Insider, Dave Morgan, predicted the moats around the walled gardens of data collectors like Facebook will get deeper. But the walled garden approach is not sustainable in the long run. All the market forces are going against it. As markets mature, they move from siloes to open markets. The marketplace of data will head in the same direction. Protectionist measures may be implemented in the short term, but they will not be successful.

This doesn’t negate the fact that the protection of personal information has suddenly become a massive pain point, which makes it huge market opportunity. And like almost all truly meaningful disruptions in the marketplace, I believe the ability to lock down our own data will come from entrepreneurialism. We need a solution that guarantees universal data portability while at the same time maintaining control without putting an unrealistic maintenance burden on us. Rather than having the various walled gardens warehouse our data, we should retain ownership and it should only be offered to platforms like Facebook on a case-by-case “need to know” transactional basis. Will it be disruptive to the current social eco-system? Absolutely. And that’s a good thing.

The targeting of advertising is not a viable business model for the intertwined worlds of social connection and personal functionality. There is just too much at stake here. The only way it can work is for the organization doing the targeting to retain ownership of the data used for the targeting. And we should not trust them to do so in an ethical manner. Their profitability depends on them going beyond what is – or should be – acceptable to us.

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.