Solving the Social Dilemma

I’ve just finished my article on my response to the Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’. I ran a small survey to help me in the writing of this and results are still coming in so there may be some further additions and editing to be done but I wanted to get this first version out there and see what people think. Please let me know.

Solving the Social Dilemma

The recent release of Jeff Orlowski’s documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix may prove to be an even bigger deal than their 2016 film ‘The Great Hack’. The latter left you feeling that the villains of the piece were the businesses like Cambridge Analytica who malevolently manipulated social media data to change the political narrative, influence elections and threaten democracy. TSD points the finger squarely at big tech who purposefully design social media to feed their commercial model and in the process fuck up society and the whole of mankind.

 “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product”.

Social media is not just abusing their tech to sell us stuff, they are selling us – our attention and our behaviour – without us knowing and to our detriment. TSD paints a scary future with overtones of the human batteries in The Matrix and Skynet from Terminator – AI may have started as a technology tool we used but it might become us that are the tools serving the needs of higher artificial intelligence. You think this is fantasy? Watch the documentary.

“Only two industries call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and IT” said Yale’s Edward Tufte.

Marketers (who pay for all this with their ad budgets) are trying to wean themselves off calling customers ‘consumers’. (If you drop the ‘m’ consumer is an anagram for ‘con user’). I think ‘people’ would be the best word because it simultaneously captures diversity and common humanity – the ‘we’. But I don’t think the lexicon is the issue and in fact I don’t think marketers or even the titans of big tech are the villains. They are people. A lot of the contributors to TSD, people like Tristan Harris or Justin Rosenstein, are from big tech. They have a conscience and know that many of their former colleagues do too. Marketers are not evil svengalis. They are paid to promote their products but most recognize that this increasingly means doing so in a sustainable and socially responsible way because that is what society wants. It is what will make their customers happy and they like happy customers. So what makes good people in marketing and tech do bad stuff? Two things:-

  1. Not recognizing the unintended consequences
  2. Not having a commercially attractive alternative

On the heels of ‘The Great Hack’, TSD can address the former. As ‘Inconvenient Truth’ was for climate change, this is a tipping point in the debate about social media and the issues around the misuse of the data it generates for the ‘attention extraction’ industry. We all know that something is wrong, we all know this is seriously fucked up and heading in a bad direction – but what is the alternative? What is the antidote? TSD is incredibly powerful and disturbing, very disturbing especially as it leaves you in no doubt things need to change but not much hope they will and no real solutions other than regulation (of some sort not defined) to disrupt the business model on which big tech has thrived.

Just as I concluded in my paper ‘Naked Economics; the new laws of the jungle’ the easy conclusion is that governments need to fix this – ‘they’ need to regulate. Easy but wrong because even if ‘they’ wanted to, ‘they’ can’t. It’s too complex, there is too much vested interest and there is no ‘they’. The legislation would need to be intricately drafted to cover every issue and avoid every unintended consequence. There are $ trillions at stake so expect some resistance and every government would need to act in lock step which they won’t/can’t.

So, as with the new economics, let’s focus on ‘we’ –  what we the people can do about the social dilemma that is social media data harvesting, processing and commercial application. For the wider economic context the macro levers to pull were the attribution of cost and ascribing of value to enable us to make better choices. In the specific area of data the micro levers are platforms that allow us as individuals to own, control and transact our own data.

The solution lies not so much in regulating the current business model, although that might have a role to play, but rather in creating a new business model that empowers people.

At the heart of the current model is data about 3 things:-

  • What you think
  • What you do
  • The connection between these

The tech, the algorithms, the UI and the AI that are all designed to do this can of course then be applied to change what you think and do, to get your attention and to persuade you. The business model is then to monetize this by selling it to people who wish to promote their business. It can also be sold to people wishing to change your politics but that will only ever be a small fraction of the billions social media earns. The big bucks come from big business.

The global industry for advertising and research is roughly $1 Trillion. That is how much business will pay to find out what you think and present the best version of themselves to you at the most opportune time.

What if we just told them? What if we offered the information they want to know and stuck our hand up when they had the best chance to sell something to us? Because if we did, en masse, then the revenues for facebook et al would start to evaporate.

Who would be prepared to do that? We all would. We do it all the time for purchases that are important to us and about which we are unsure. Say we want a haircut, a new car, expensive cosmetics, a new home, a piece of home electronics, a suit for our wedding. We pitch up, tell someone we are interested and then proceed to tell them everything they need to know about our lives, quite often more than they need to know. Yes we may do some research on-line and then purchase on-line but there are still many things where we meet people face to face, people that we know are there to sell us stuff, we tell them we are interested and we answer pretty much any question they care to ask. Why? Because it is in our interest to do so and we get something in return – help in making our best choice.

As long as we feel in control of the exchange of our information, our attention, our data, and this has material benefit to us we are happy to give business what they want.

I have been thinking about this for the last 5 years and I have ideas for two potential tech based platforms that would allow people at scale to exchange their ideas and their data – on their terms – with businesses and brands. These could divert a big chunk of the revenue Social Media generates directly into the hands of us, we the people, and offer what business wants quicker, cheaper and more effectively.

It would not stop the potential of big tech to produce addictive, manipulative social  platforms with the power to affect peoples’ physical and mental health, to undermine truth with fake news, to divide society and swing elections but it would take away their incentive to do so. They would eventually be left with only one option which is to make you pay for their service – and if we pay for it then we control it. It becomes the product, not us.

Let me know if anyone is interested to know more……..

Solving the facebook problem

Facebook are in the firing line yet again. Several large advertisers are boycotting them for publishing hate speech – these are big names like Unilever, Diageo, Pepsi, Starbucks. It will concern facebook, they will probably dial up their investment still further in an effort to stamp this out and their spokespeople will double down on on their well crafted defence based on that. “We are making every effort we can, it’s a tiny minority but while there is hate in the world there will be hate on facebook” I heard one say today. After all ‘we’re just a platform not a publisher per se’. There is one obvious solution which is to declare them to be a platform that publishes and impose the same kind of legal restrictions that apply to other media platforms/publishers/broadcasters. Admittedly these restrictions are not perfect. They differ from country to country, some are exercised through government watchdogs and others through a licensing system. If we go down this route the licensing option is the most effective – break the rules and you lose your license to trade, it is awarded to someone else. Can this be operated for the web – of course it can. Not every country or territory would sign up but if enough did it would flush out very quickly whether facebook were “doing everything we can”. But I think there is a better solution which takes the advertiser boycott to its logical conclusion. Reduce facebook ad revenue to zero by making it redundant as an advertising platform and forcing it to charge for its service. Facebook generates $70 billion in revenues from advertising and its costs are roughly $46 billion. But of course a great deal of its costs are incurred to generate the ad revenue. How much would they be if they focused purely on running a really good social media platform? Let’s take a stab – half? So how much would they have to generate from user subscriptions? About $7.50 per user per year. At $10 p.a. they’d be making a very decent $7 billion operating profit. It’s not quite as simple as that but the point is valid – there is a different business model available to facebook or other competing social media platforms. The challenge is how to force them to look for it. Well that is simple – take away their data advantage by creating platforms that allow people to transact their own data.

It has been estimated that your personal data – what you like, where you go, what you buy, what you watch/read/listen to etc – just as much as you want to share is worth $7,600 p.a. on average to you. Much more for high nett worth people, less for the less well-off but arguably more important. If you only earn $25,000 a year then an extra $2,500 for your data is very attractive (this has been proved – people in emerging markets and students are far more willing to sell their data or attention or opinions). Facebook’s model is based on them taking the commercial advantage for having thousands upon thousands of data points on you. The technology exists to allow you to cut them out the loop and transact your own data with whosoever you choose for your own gain.

With no – or at least much lower – ad revenue facebook and their ilk would have to find a better business model, one where people only hand over their money if they appreciate both the service and the ethics of the business. Would you renew your subscription for a business that allows hate speech or pushes content to you in irresponsible ways? No need for government intervention or business boycott’s – problem solved by giving people the rights to their own data and the means to transact it however they choose.

Existential Threat vs Existential Opportunity (with a bit of Hedonism thrown in)

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For some reason I can’t explain I have a keen ear for trends in vocabulary. I notice when certain words or phrases enter the ‘Narrative’ (that’s one by the way) and quickly get over-used to the point of cliche. Here are some other examples:-

Curation – a few years ago it burst on the scene and suddenly everything was curated.

Agency – in the sense of achieving control over events.

Trope – I think it means emerging themes or plot-lines

So…. – at some point, for no apparent reason, every reply to a question now started thus.

(Don’t even get me started on ‘Like’ or the Aussie inflection that turns every statement into a search for approval.)

Modern speak aside I’m just interested in words generally and words that enter our modern lexicon in particular. I’m actually quite nerdy about it, because when a word or phrase catches my attention I research them. I need to know what they really mean or more often their range of meaning which can be rich and unexpected. It’s been a rewarding hobby because every now and again I find enlightenment. It happened again this week.

I had for some time been interested in the word ‘existential’ and how every issue or threat or problem had now become existential. Not pressing or serious or concerning – existential.

I vaguely understood what existential meant – something that relates to existence. So in essence (a very important word we’ll come back to shortly) an existential threat is one so pressing, serious, concerning it risks our very existence.

On the other hand I also vaguely remembered that existentialism was a branch of philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and all that stuff about angst rooted in the absurdity of life.

I decided to dig around and I was right. There are two meanings to existential. One meaning does indeed relate to existence. So an existential threat would be a threat that affects existence. That is mostly how it is used today but with an added twist of ‘clear and present danger’. An existential crisis is something really serious we have to deal with NOW or life as we know it is over.

Listening to the narrative (aka stories in news and social media) we face a number of existential threats around racism, gender fluidity/equality, climate, water, population, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, Artificial Intelligence, China and Chinese hegemony (great word, look it up, it’s all about domination and a power grab) to name just a few.

I’m not being flip when I say it’s all very angst-inducing. All the more so as we are in the midst of an existential Covid-19 crisis soon to be an existential economic crisis and some unknown ‘new normal’ (there’s another trendy phrase). And don’t forget on top of all this there are the ever present existential challenges we all have as individuals – we have our own problems to deal with as regards our careers, health, family & friends.

I don’t think I’m alone in my angst, I think this will ‘resonate’ with a lot of people – not just matter or be relatable or even strike a chord, resonate.

The enlightenment for me came from exploring the ideas behind existentialism. The essence of existentialism is that life is what we as individuals make it. Prior to the existentialists philosophers like Aristotle or Aquinas believed that essence comes before existence, that there was a natural order of things, a meaning to life that determines our best actions and therefore the meaning of our existence. Existentialists believe the opposite. Existence precedes essence. The natural order is absurdity and only by the actions of individuals do we bring meaning and purpose. From good old Wiki, not my only but my most used research tool (please donate to them) I share this:-

Sartre argued that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. 

Let’s pause there and think about that.  This might seem a bit heavy but actually it is very simple and very powerful. As Ghandi said, we can be the change we want to see. Each of us as individuals can bring meaning and purpose to life by our actions. There is no “Well, that’s just the way it is” it can be what we choose to make it. The existential threats are over-whelming, the world does feel absurd, it can cause depression and angst. The way to fight this is to change what we do not what we think or say or tweet. We can consciously fight our prejudices, we can behave more responsibly, we can behave less decadently and more morally.

Of course we can also do this collectively and through our institutions and we are right to push for this to happen but it starts with us. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book on Morality we behave as if it’s never our fault. We seem to have abdicated our moral responsibility to others, the government, big business, the left, the right, Them.

I think I want to be a good existentialist. I want to mean what I do and own what I do (I will make mistakes of course but I can try). If we all do that, if we start with our own purposeful actions, it can create a better existence. We are capable of more than our labels or various identities would have others believe.

I now see the growing movement towards purpose-driven businesses, if it is authentic, for what it really is. I now see it in existentialist terms. These are businesses no longer prepared to accept life as it is. They have a purpose to make life what it could be starting with their own business.

All sounds a bit worthy does it not? Well, let me sugar the pill. After researching it long ago I converted to hedonism which favours pleasure over pain. This does not mean what most people think, which is the more Epicurean version of excess and indulgence. We all have choices in how we do things. I live in Cape Town most of the time and I have two ways I can drive to the centre of town. One is a bit quicker but the other takes me past some of the most beautiful ocean views in the world. As a hedonist I take that route most often – and yes I sometimes cycle it. Buying fewer things but items of much higher quality is the action of a true hedonist. Doing right by others, embracing diversity, making a positive difference where you’re able, these can all bring more pleasure than trouble to an ethical hedonist.

Hedonistic existentialism – do you think it might catch on? I hope so because it’s an existential opportunity to deal with the existential threats and derive some pleasure. What do I want? So, I want it to be a new trope in the narrative, we can like assume our individual agency and like curate our actions? Hedonistic Existentialism – like doing it and liking doing it?

The seedy sleuths stealing YOUR data (and your money)

For most of us e-marketing/on-line/digital advertising, call it what you want, is irritating. Ads pop up and do their best to distract you from what you’re trying to read or do on-line. If you do a bit of research about something you might be thinking of buying, and most of us do, suddenly all those ads start to target what you were just thinking about. Helpful? No, spooky, pushy, like someone following you around a store and every time you look at something they get right in your face with the hard sell. Not a store you’d want to go back to, but on-line you don’t have a choice. You want the content, the social media platform, you accept the irritation.

Most people either don’t know or don’t want to think about how this actually works, what’s really going on. If they did they would be really angry and not enough people are which tells me it’s not been properly exposed. What’s happening is a bunch of companies like Equifax or Experian are literally stalking you on-line. Without your knowledge and in reality without your permission (unless you think hitting the ‘I agree’ button equates to cognizant, informed permission) they watch where you go, where you linger, what you click and like some low-rent private investigator they package up your personal information and sell it to someone who intends to flog you something or to some credit agency who will sit in judgement on you.  You don’t know what they know about you, you don’t know who they’ve sold your data to or when or how it’s used. They make a lot of money doing this, Equifax have a market cap of $21 billion, and they keep it all to themselves. You get nothing, just ads.

And if you looked at the Cambridge Analytica scandal, you’d realise it’s gone beyond irritation, beyond just greed, your data is being used to undermine your most fundamental freedoms, the freedom of thought. The thousands upon thousands of bits of data about you are manipulated using algorithms and AI to influence not just what you buy but how you vote. They’re used to manipulate what you think.

It’s bad now and it will only get worse – you’re generating more and more data about yourself and the technology is getting better and better at using it.

But we – if enough of us acted – could not just stop this if we wanted to, we could earn an estimated $7,600 per year on average. The higher nett worth could earn a lot more, the lower income less but probably enough to make a real difference. If the technology and the platform existed to enable us to transact our data direct to the organizations willing to pay for it (with restrictions on how they use and safeguard it) we could put the equifax and Experian’s of this world out of business. We could force the social media platforms to find a different business model other than digital snitching. We would take away a lot of the ad agency revenue and force them to get back to ‘truth well told’ based on ideas.

Well guess what, the technology does exist. It’s Block Chain. And there is one platform, Datawallet, using it to give people the chance to make money from their own data. There are limitations, issues to be resolved as this excellent article in Investopedia outlines. Please read it.

This is what I was writing about in my eBook ‘What’s wrong with marketing(?)’. People owning their personal data with the power to transact it will transform marketing and improve society. It will get rid of the greedy, seedy sleuths (pimps) in the digital shadows.