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.
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:-
- Not recognizing the unintended consequences
- 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……..
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.
A really interesting read from Taulbee Jackson about the pointlessness of Brand Newsrooms. It caught my eye (in the very excellent Digiday) because I had been taken with this idea ever since Chris Satterthwaite told me about it, which was probably 10 years ago. This was of course well before the Social Media phenomenon. Chris’ idea was that every week stuff happens that brands should react to, latch on to, spin off, in order to keep a consistent brand message fresh and relevant. He used the analogy of the Newsroom, a place where all the brand people and their communications partners should meet to review what they had done, what was going on and what they should do.
Although I have spoken about this to lots of people over the years, as I’m sure has Chris, I wasn’t aware that anybody had actually tried it. So now here is Taulbee’s blog post which implies several people have and that it doesn’t work. You can read the piece but in summary he cites several reasons why it doesn’t work, the first of which is quite controversial – brands are not in the content business and should leave it to the professionals. His other reasons for the foolishness of this model strike me as “been there, tried that” realism. The approval process for brand creative is too cumbersome and consensual (compare that to a hard-assed editor), brands are lousy judges of good content (he thinks these days only the audience is), and overall it implies an agility and speed that brands simply don’t have.
Interestingly he does not mention, at least not explicitly, the main concern that I always had, namely the rigidity of the brand budget and planning cycle. This kind of “fast on your feet, learn quick, fail cheap” culture requires you to be very vague not only about where you will spend your brand budget but when and how much. I reckon you’d need to keep about a quarter unallocated with the flexibility to overspend if you were getting the results. If a story is getting traction and pulling an audience a Newsroom will very rapidly divert a lot of their resource to it. I presume they keep a number of outside broadcast units and journalists on stand-by ready to fly to Korea, Syria or “wherever the story takes us” as CNN boast. Brands are not able to react that way unless they are owner-managed like, say, Virgin (or is the brand Branson?). I suppose that might be what Taulbee means when he says corporate-owned brands have all the flexibility of a three-legged elephant.
Nevertheless, I am left feeling that while he may be right, brands are not good at behaving like a content generating newsroom, they bloody well should be, especially in a social media world. They should be good at earning media through interesting, on-message, content and stunts. They should react to what is happening and what is breaking and, where possible, latch their brand on to this. Brands should be able to keep a big chunk of their budget unallocated – perhaps not unallocated in terms of the brand objectives, which can be set in advance, but to the activity that might best achieve those objectives. There should be consistency of purpose and message but not delivery. And in order to achieve all this they must meet often, grab the insights and learnings and apply them quickly, with a fast and decisive approval process.
Other brands do this – celebrities, sports franchises, news channels, political parties – why not the brands that are supposed to be the epicenter of great marketing? Is not the realization that they can’t the fundamental proof we needed that the traditional brand management model invented by P&G nearly 50 years ago is well and truly buggered?
I think Taulbee Jackson may be right, he speaks with authority, but it is wrong that the idea of a focused but fast-reacting brand newsroom doesn’t work. It should do and I would argue in this digital, technology, rolling global news stories, social media age it has to.