Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Variety Store That Maybe Isn't



It was one of those places I’d walked past at least a hundred times en route to my favourite tragic east end mall (which just happens to have one of the best dollar stores going). It was called Rayman’s Variety, and according to the sign it specialized in West Indian and African groceries and cosmetic products. It was stuffed to the rafters with boxes and bottles and, well, how do I put this, from the looks of things inventory didn’t exactly turn over quickly. Then one day I looked in and things had changed. But only kind of. The sign was still there, the rusty bars on the windows were still there, but about 98% of the stock had been removed. The tired old walls and floors had been ripped out, but it wasn’t exactly clear what was going on, though something clearly was. Or more like unclearly.

In the weeks that followed I noticed some handwritten signage. It said ‘940 Variety’. 940 was the address on Gerrard Street East and ‘variety’ suggested it was continuing in its convenience store tradition, but in what appeared to be a more customer friendly incarnation.


Earlier this week I was walking by and noticed that the door was open so I walked in. Inside I truly found variety: chips, cold drinks, used records and books, a rack with new clothes, and coffee being sold for $1 a cup. But this wasn’t just one more example of an old place being hipsterized. It wasn’t that straightforward.


There was only one person in the store, and he wasn’t a customer. He was a guy in the midst of some store-related carpentry. I said hi and complimented him on the renewed interior. He seemed like a friendly guy who was open to some conversation so I went with that. I asked him how things were going at the store. He said things were a work in progress. He pointed at the racks of chips and said that they weren’t really making their money on those. Not a big surprise there. He pointed to the opposite wall and said they’d recently added used records and books to their wares.


This was a guy who clearly goes with a flow, as opposed to a plan. And I mean that in the best possible way. He then told me about his idea to do a version of the Tiny Desk concerts, which are exactly what they sound like; i.e. concerts done behind a tiny desk that feature artists ranging from up and comers to stars such as Chance The Rapper and Adele.



His would be tiny counter concerts instead, and he showed me where the singer would be and then pointed to another area where the rest of the band would be located.I asked him about the back area he was pointing to, as it was still being worked on. He told me about some of his plans for fixing it up. He said they had already done a few shows and social events on the premises -- with the appropriate liquor licenses and approvals of course – and said that maybe that would be the way forward for 940.

I was reminded of one of the coolest places I’d ever seen, which was a secret high end sneaker shop in downtown Boston. But this one didn’t advertise, or even have a sign. You had to know where it was, because it was hidden behind an unmarked storefront that was stocked with faded paper towel packages and cleaning supplies. One of those places you would only pick up in your peripheral vision, if at all. But if you knew someone who was in the know you could find out where this place was. But that wasn’t enough. You then had to know where the magical door was, the one that led you to a secret world of sneakerhead riches.


I told the proprietor of 940 about it and he seemed sincerely intrigued. He even had a bit of a twinkle in his eye as he mulled the possibilities. What struck me was how open he was to possibilities. I mean, how many people sign a lease on a retail space and then essentially run a series of experiments, to see what works. It may sound crazy, but it’s the brick and mortar version of the pivot of the startup world. When something doesn’t work in the tech world it’s not seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to correct one’s course. Provided that the pivot is executed quickly enough. It’s all part of the break things, fail fast mindset of entrepreneurs. Failing fast, as has been pointed out, isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It acknowledges that there are many dials in front of you and that you will be tweaking them for a while before things click into gear.


Before leaving 940 Variety I asked the proprietor-carpenter it would be okay if I took a few pictures and he said by all means (those are the ones you see here). Then I told him that the next time I’m there I fully expect to be able to press on the cold beverage case at the back and marvel as it becomes the portal to an as of yet not figured out universe. Or something else entirely.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

How big a business is podcasting?

“We started doing this because too many people thought Toronto hip hop started with Drake”. The ‘this’ in the preceding sentence is the “Views Before the 6” podcast, and the ‘we’ are Big Tweeze aka Anthony Corsi and Thrust aka Chris France, a rapper perhaps best known, to Canadian hip hop historians at least, for his shouted out role in the ‘Northern Touch’ video.  


Tweeze and Thrust were part of a panel called The Business of Podcasting, held recently at Toronto’s Ryerson University. They were among the podcasters talking that night about plying their trade online and seeing where it goes. Despite the title of the event, podcasting is a business for very few. Yes, there is an increasingly brisk business in podcasting in the genre of sponsored, or branded content, but this blog post is looking at the experience of podcasting from the point of view of individual creators not directly affiliated with individual brands.

Podcast panel participants L to R:
Gina Kennedy, Anthony Corsi, Thrust, Lindsay Bess

Those assembled for the panel talked with great passion and enthusiasm for their podcast projects. When asked about how many downloads they get no one was coy. The answers were illuminating: from a few dozen to a few hundred. But it's still pretty early days for these creators. At this level it's obviously not a business, but as panelist Gina Kennedy, host of the Radio Somewhere podcast put it: "it's not a job, it's a lifestyle". Still, the trick with so many digital content efforts is to find, and to speak to, the underserved niche audience and see how far you can take things. (Ed. Note: Though there's variation across genres and topics, a rule of thumb is that advertisers like to see about 20,000 monthly downloads per episode in order to consider putting money into your podcast.)

As pointed out during the panel, in many cities radio never picked up on hip hop, even though the audience grew and grew. As a genre, hip hop is anything but ‘brand safe’, i.e. where major advertisers want to be, so the match between hip hop and mass media like radio and TV was destined to be weak. And this is why, from outside the traditional industries, YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts emerged to serve the hundreds of millions of hip hop fans around the globe, a number of which are operating as profitable businesses. The audience and the demand was too big to be ignored, and in a reversal of the usual processes of 'getting on the air', the creators made the shows, posted them online without the involvement or approval of the usual gatekeepers, the audiences followed and told their friends, and the advertisers came in at the end of the cycle.

Even though as a technology, podcasting has been around for over 14 years, as detailed in this blog post, it is still early days in terms of the development of podcasting as an industry. We tend to think that once a technology is introduced and gets popular then dollars start to flow. The truth of the matter is that it takes a whole lot of infrastructure development until that starts to happen; from reliable metrics, to user-friendly apps to content networks and advertising networks...and we’re only now starting to get there.

So how big is podcasting as both a medium and a market? Last year there were about 30 million minutes of podcasting produced, and as a market it is currently valued at about $200 million. This value is determined by the amount of advertising dollars the medium attracted. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But a number is only big or small compared to other numbers, so let’s look at another number, in this case the value of the radio market in 2017. Over $32 billion. But podcasting’s piece of the pie is only going to get bigger, and radio’s is going to get smaller. It will take several years, and a bunch of new software and hardware developments, like making it easier to listen to podcasts in cars, but it will happen. 

For more on the State of Podcasting in 2017, see this Fact Sheet from the good people at Pew Research.
And for a statistically-based take on the question "Will radio kill the internet star?" click here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

When Data Attacks

One way of thinking about the Internet is as a giant matching machine. You have a question, it finds you an answer. You want a flight, it finds you a good deal. You want a date, it can find that for you too. Lots of them in fact.

But is this the whole story? Not exactly.

A fairly simple problem/solution scenario is how things worked in the days of Web 1.0, a pre-data collection web that hadn’t yet developed, let alone mastered, micro-targeting by such attributes as demographics, psychographics, and location. And before you cry “surveillance!” bear in mind that it is the advertising-supported, data slicing and dicing web that brings so much to all of us each day in the form of news, entertainment, and productivity tools. Not to mention that the systems that optimize marketing done online also help filter out that which could be called ‘noise’; i.e. if I don’t have kids I won’t get daycare ads on Facebook, if I don’t have a dog or a cat I won’t get coupons for kibble popping up alongside YouTube videos I watch.

Is this all for the better? As with many things, it depends how you look at it, and it depends who you ask. If you ask mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, the answer would be no.


At a recent talk held at Microsoft Research O’Neil began by describing what an algorithm is. “It’s something we build to make a prediction about the future…and it assumes that things that happened in the past will happen again in the future.”  O’Neil explained that algorithms use things such as decision trees, which contain if/then and yes/no statements and then use historical information, pattern matching, and machine learning to build models that can make thousands to millions of predictions, and can do so in a fraction of the time of a human being with a calculator and a scratch pad. 

So what’s not to like? The problem is, according to O’Neil, that the agenda of the algorithm is decided by the builder of the algorithm. What goes into the algorithm is, necessarily ‘curated’, and when some variables are selected while others are left out, then a value system is embedded in the algorithm.

These value systems in turn can affect decisions now made by machines that used to be made by humans, such as hiring, credit worthiness, professional evaluation, and insurance eligibility. Researchers, including O'Neil herself, have attempted to find out the rules that inhabit some of these algorithms, using Freedom of Information requests, but according to O'Neil many such requests have not been successful. Furthermore, many of the data-driven systems responsible for making millions of decisions are built on proprietary, or 'black box' software architectures, that are extremely difficult to reverse engineer.

But let's bring things back to how data interfaces with you in your daily life. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, why you often spend a half hour on hold when you call customer support and your friends say they get through right away the explanation may be more than “we’re experiencing larger than normal call volumes.” Maybe they are, but maybe, as O’Neil points out, it's something else. She cites the example of how it is a common practice for customer service lines to pre-determine if you’re a high value customer or a low value customer based on the purchase and credit information cross-referenced with your phone number. And, well, you can figure out who gets put through to a real live human operator and who has to listen to extended musical accompaniments of flutes and vibraphones.


O’Neil calls such processes “systematic filtering”, and is concerned that machine learning, a key component of artificial intelligence -- which is said to be the next revolution in computing -- “automates the status quo” and in turn creates “pernicious feedback loops” that not only trap people in the biases of the past but also magnify those biases as machine learning is itself based on recursive loops and neural networks.

This was not and is not the intention of any such systems of course. The point of deploying data, at scale, is to build models at a speed and complexity that far exceeds the capability of humans. As with any technological innovation, there exist unintended consequences, and the decisions made by data-driven systems are no different.

For an overview of Cathy O'Neil's book "Weapons of Math Destruction" click here.

This post also appears, in a slightly revised version, on the blog of the American Marketing Association, Toronto Chapter.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Airport raccoons, Ikea monkeys, and 'matter out of place'

Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote on the concepts of purity and danger in the mid 1960s, creating a framework through which various cultures arrive at categorizations of things that belong and things that do not, of things that are deemed to be dangerous, and things that some think of as 'taboo', while others do not. In other words, one person's threat is another person's meh/not so much.

Douglas' idea that dirt can be best understood as matter out of place, or, something relative to one's environment and attitude about it, is also helpful when thinking about the viral videos which cascade upon us daily in our Facebook newsfeed and our Twitter tweet streams. A monkey in the jungle, not a surprise. A monkey in a shearling coat in an Ikea, well, pretty alarming.


When our expectations are defied in such a manner we now have a way to express our emotional responses --  delight, shock, horror -- whatever they may be, by hitting the forward, share, retweet, or post buttons on social media platforms.

Last month at Toronto's Pearson airport there was another 'matter out of place' incident that caught the attention of the Internet: the airport raccoon.
     
   


The video was taken by an accounting professor who, being analytically minded, was interested not just in a misplaced raccoon but in the mechanisms of how things spread online. I got in touch with Prof. Graham to deconstruct his experience of somewhere between 24 and 48 hours of Internet stardom and the full story can be found here.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Your call is important to us

They are the face of multinational corporations, particularly airlines, banks, and credit card companies. They are the call centres, usually of the third world, where scripts tell the person on the other end of the line to reassure us with phrases such as “certainly” and “not a problem”, even though we, usually dialling from the comfort of our kitchens, know darn well there’s a problem, otherwise we wouldn’t be on the line with them in the first place.


“Call centre workers are the emblematic workers of the digital economy”, said Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalization at University of Hertfordshire. “They sit at the interface of the digital and the real, and at a place of tension, because people only contact call centres when something has gone wrong. And yet, they are, paradoxically, the public face of the company, where a standardized script sits in for customer service.”

The occasion for the consideration of life behind the 1-800 number was a book launch for Enda Brophy's “Language Put To Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce”. “I did the project to get away from the binary view of one of the world’s fastest growing professions”, revealed Brophy. On the one hand we have the modern, digitally connected information worker, and on the other we have the exploited outsourced labourer. “So I looked at the call centre from below, from the point of view of the worker”, said Brophy, referencing the work of historian of the British working classes E.P. Thompson.

A cornerstone of the outsourcing industry, in which business functions that don’t necessarily need to be conducted in Western countries are effectively sent overseas, the global call centre industry is a juggernaut with a value approaching $10 billion annually. Terms such as 'cyber proletariat', 'digital capitalism', and 'immaterial labour' have been used to described the provision of offshore workforces for functions such as customer service, billing, and assorted back office duties.

Call centres have traditionally been associated with Indian cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad, where a parallel industry of accent reduction and ‘call centre English’ has sprouted up. On top of learning how to twist vowels and phrases so they are more mellifluous to American ears, call centre workers also strive to pass as Westerners by taking on Anglicized names such as Robin, Karen, and Shawn. But not everything goes smoothly in the headsetted life of the cubicle farm. As part of his history of call centres from the bottom up Brophy also documented worker resistance, whether in the form of casual slacking or more organized activism.


For a more in depth look at the life of arguably today’s quintessential globalized worker, the call centre operator, you can check out these two documentaries, one on the call centres of India, the other on the call centres of The Philippines, the new capital of outsourced customer service.



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Inside the shift to Streaming TV

Chances are you're not watching television the way you used to. And why would you. Freed from the constraints of broadcast schedules, once-per-week episodes, and the relative safeness of network television fare, you can instead spend hours inside the YouTube rabbit hole, exploring whatever it is that catches your fancy, and the random places that fancy leads you. Alternately you can grab a large bag of kale chips and settle in for multiple episodes of the show du jour on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

The industry is in the midst of a massive shift, one considered in great detail at a conference held recently at Boston University entitled "Streaming, Binge-Watching & Second Screening". 


Industry executives, academics, and analysts gathered for two days in what can only be described as a majestic room to discuss the technical, behavioural, and creative changes that mark the transition to digital, on-demand television.

The conference HQ at Boston University's
 aptly named "The Castle"

Click here to read the full blog post on the many ramifications of the shift to the streaming TV environment.


Monday, May 8, 2017

The post money marketplace?

A few days ago I tweeted about a new project in which I'm participating. It's called the Artisanal Economies Project (AEP) and its mission is to formulate points of view and perspectives on the burgeoning marketplace of handmade products and the non-traditional ways in which people and products connect. The AEP is still taking shape, with interviews and articles being posted on the just launched blog, so I would call the state of things active beta.  



Homepage of Artisanal Economies Project (AEP)

I contributed my first piece to the AEP blog this weekend. The following piece originally appeared here.


In parallel to the word of the handcrafted and whimsical things found on sites like Etsy and the small batch products found at farmer’s markets Team AEP notes this: the emergence of cashless commerce. This is one more refusal of retail as we once knew it -- the big and the branded, with complimentary 2 hour underground parking – and a new set of practices in its place.

Exhibits A and B -- Bunz and Secondhand Sunday -- come from my current hometown of Toronto.

You can trade, but you cannot buy at Bunz
Source: www.bunz.com


Neighbourhood Swap Event SecondHandSunday
Source: www.seconhandsunday.ca

Additional evidence of cashless commerce can be found in neighborhood swap & sell groups on Facebook, where people list things for sale (Ed. Note: sometimes at mind numbingly trivial prices such as two or three dollars, which makes me wonder ‘why even bother’), but there are also curb alerts (objects either intentionally left or abandoned curbside) and porch pickups of items ranging from the old standby Ikea Billy bookcase to blenders and toaster ovens, to boxes filled with books, magazines, and CDs.

But let’s get back to Bunz. There are apparently only 2 rules there: No cash is allowed and don’t be a jerk. You can’t buy anything on Bunz, but you can trade. A sample of current postings on Bunz in Toronto include mud masks, a plant with no name, and a never worn dress. And remember you can’t buy any of these things, you can only trade something for them. Sometimes the trade is specified, such as a bottle of beer, and sometimes it is up to the interested party to propose something agreed to be fungible.







While messaging with a friend this weekend I mentioned that I was working on a blog post about Bunz and he told me about a friend of his girlfriend who recently traded an unopened package of paper towels and a transit token for an unopened box of tea using the site. Note that the desired currency for the dress above is also the transit token.

In a profile of Bunz last fall written by Gerrit DeVynck for Bloomberg.com, it was described as “…a quirky mash-up of the classifieds vibe of Craigslist, the sociability of Meetup and the neighborliness of NextDoor.”

To ensure safety while swapping Bunz has set up trading zones at shops and cafes, which are identified by door stickers, such as the one seen below at Tandem, a café in my neighbourhood.

A certified Bunz Trading Zone in Corktown, Toronto

Bunz founder Emily Bitze started the site in the summer of 2013 and since that time various subgroups have popped up, e.g. for jobhunting and apartment hunting, along with sites for other Canadian cities and the first U.S. one for New York. An angel investor now backs the company, which most likely never planned on becoming a business, and there are now 8 full time employees at the HQ in Toronto, responsible for iOS and Android app development, marketing, and even artificial intelligence.

What appears to be going on here – whether on Bunz or with curb alerts or at events like Secondhand Sunday -- are new options for participating in the consumer society.

And while some may say the examples here provide further evidence of the death of retail, what’s more interesting is the birth of other forms of exchange. And yes there was always a market of secondhand goods, whether at rummage sales, flea markets, or Goodwill stores, but there are some key differences this time. Now we are finding an exchange of used goods without stigma or shame. Used goods that don’t say ‘I can’t afford the new version of this’.

And all this is happening in the midst of accusations of everything in our midst being soaked in ‘late capitalism’, in which things exist for the sole purpose of being commoditized. Instead we see here the opposite of the built in obsolescence of so many goods of the 20th century, and in their place we have object lifespans limited only by their ability to find someone who needs them.

What we appear to have here is a true sharing economy, unlike the ones put forward by AirBnB and Uber, which are really pretty straightforward transactional economies. If you don’t agree, try to pay your AirBnB host with unopened packages of paper towels or some transit tokens and see what happens.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Digital Canada: More than just 10% of Digital U.S.

Further to the release of the report I recently co-authored on the value of the Internet to the U.S. economy, I was approached to pull together some thoughts on the topic as they pertain to the Internet in Canada.

I obliged, of course, and the full article can be found here, with an excerpt below.





See the full article here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

From LOLCats to Rated Dogs

We may need no further evidence of the progress we've made as a society than the fact that dogs, not cats, now power the Internet.

It's been close to a decade since LOL cats became a thing on the Internet. You know, those pictures of cats in various positions, superimposed with captions written in, presumably, kittyspeak, that drove the online world cat mad. In a good way.


Apparently it's time for the cats to move over though. Things have changed and there are millions of Twitter followers to prove it.The inaugural talk of the MIT Humor Series (not only is there one, but there's a research fund in support of it) featured academics Jonny Sun and Susan Benesch in conversation with the man behind the wildly popular Twitter account @dog_rates, exploring the phenomenon it has become and the role of humor in online discourse. Rating dogs online is pretty much what it sounds like, which is a dog-rating account. You send in a picture of your dog, and if you're lucky it receives a numerical rating, accompanied by a caption. But then again it's not. It's actually a person, who turns out to be Matt Nelson, impersonating a dog who rates other dogs, sometimes picking fights with picture submitters and viewers, and often ignoring the constraints of the 10-point rating scale. 

L to R: Jonny Sun, Matt Nelson aka The Dogfather,
and Susan Benesch at the MIT Media Lab, April 2017

Nelson started the account on a whim in his North Carolina college dorm room in November 2015, picking up 100,000 followers in his first month online. By January 2017 the number of dog rating enthusiasts on Twitter had swelled to 1 million, and as of April 2017 is approaching 1.8 million. Along the way he's direct messaged with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and Hamilton's Lin Manuel Miranda and received coverage in The Washington Post.


Yes there are lots of dog accounts on Twitter and Instagram but most of them are just cute canines doing cute things like wearing tiaras and ties. Things that make people go dawwww. Most people post pictures of their own dogs, while Nelson aggregates and then adds captions, often written in a kind of lingua franca of frequenters of the account. He explains: "The first time I used "af" people lost their minds. So then I tried to use it as often as possible. The life cycle of these things is short. I try to expand them beyond the usual few weeks so I can get the t-shirts made."

What does the workflow look like for a Twitter account rapidly approaching 2 million followers? "We're sent a stupid amount of pictures each day", Nelson told the standing room only crowd assembled on the 6th floor of the Media Lab. "1 guy condenses them to 20 to 30 pictures and then sends those to me. If inspiration hits immediately I can get the caption done in 5 seconds. If not, I put the pictures into a folder for later consideration, so it takes anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 minutes to come up with just the right caption."

While the account is primarily a combination of puppy love and inside jokes, @dog_rates does not shy away from taking a political stance, as was the case at the Women's March held in Toronto in January 2017.


...but not everyone was happy



Nelson ended up losing the most followers ever on the day of the march, when 800 dropped off. The good news is that 37,000 were added. And as the Internet is endlessly generative the rating trope has extended beyond rating dogs, to things such as rating dads.


@dog_rates founder Matt Nelson gets the pleasure of being the inspiration for such offshoot accounts  as We Rate Dads but doesn't benefit in any financial way. "Anyone can rate anything. Just like anyone can post pictures of dogs", he pointed out. But clearly there's room for it all in the world of rating things online. In addition to the Twitter account that he says often takes as much time as a full time job Nelson has an app and a book slated for publication this fall.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Internet is worth how much??

Do you ever see headlines that make sweeping claims such as “The Internet is worth $_______”, and then wonder what that even begins to mean?

If so, today is a day of edification, because a study I co-authored on precisely this topic was released this week.

When you are a hybrid such as I am, it is often tricky to explain what it is that one does. And when the project is quantifying the economic value of the Internet, the conversation can get even more convoluted.

So I had to come up with a way to describe the project to people, just well enough to satisfy their basic curiosity, but not so detailed as to bore them to tears. I came up with the following:

Think of the Internet as a framework that starts on the left side of the doodle below (yes, I’m the artist) with the Internet backbone on the left side and you, the user, Craigslisting and Instagramming away on the right hand side of the picture. 

My early conceptual doodle for this project; Click to enlarge

In between the Internet backbone on the left and you and your smartphone on the right lie the various components of the machinery of the Internet, from infrastructure, such as the provisioning of broadband, wi-fi, and cloud storage, to the advertising and marketing technologies (aka ad tech and mar tech) that enable the movement of money between brands and the the consumer-facing layer of the Internet. That's just a fancy way of saying the only part of the Internet most of us ever come into contact with, as that’s where we find things such as news and information sites, entertainment such as games and video sites, and eCommerce.

The big picture is one in which the Internet as a market-making machine can be conceptualized and then analyzed at micro and macro levels. This makes possible an assessment of its impact on not only the economy writ large, but also the effects of networked connectivity on particular industries, plus less black and white outcomes such as societal good, in the form of things like crowdsourced problem-solving and civic engagement apps.

The TL;DR answer to what all this adds up to, for the U.S. economy, which was our task with this project: $1.12 trillion contribution to the GDP of the U.S. and 4.1 million full time equivalent jobs (and an additional 6 million full time equivalent jobs in what economists refer to as indirect employment). How this was accomplished is explained in detail in the study, but rest assured many, many spreadsheets and models were constructed.

Fun with spreadsheets; all part of the job of determining the scope of Internet-dependent activity 
The mapping of the economic model of the Internet evolving, on my floor, Summer 2016

And if that wasn’t enough, we mapped the Internet-dependent employment to congressional districts in the U.S.

Image from www.iab.com/economicvalue

For those who are curious, see the methodology section of the study (Chapter 2, pages 17 through 20), which explains the methods used and assumptions made to arrive at this figure.

And for those in a bit of a rush here are some highlights to provide an overview of our findings, placed into the context of the last time this study was conducted (2012) and now.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

 To see the study in its entirety, just click here. But be forewarned; It's 118 pages long.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Taking on the fake news industrial complex

If there’s one thing most (reasonable) people agree on it's that post-truth is the new norm. The resulting uproar about ‘fake news’ is about more than just subjective narratives, because in a digitally interconnected world, stories spread with the force of not one or two or three media outlets, but via thousands if not millions of retweets, shares, posts, and comments.

 
My conference badge, should you choose
to believe it
Against this backdrop emerged last weekend's Misinfocon, an event that brought together journalists, technologists, software developers, academics, advocates, investors, a counterintelligence expert working for the Department of Defense, and even a bona fide fake news site creator (more on that coming up) at MIT’s Media Lab. In addition to support from a variety of journalism organizations and tech companies, the event received funding from the charitable foundation established by Craig “Craigslist” Newmark, whose classifieds free-for-all site ended up, quite unintentionally, removing the revenue stream that once subsidized the entire newspaper, i.e. the classifieds ads.

“There’s a lot of emotion around the topic of information right now”, said Jeanne Brooks,  one of the event’s organizers. “And there’s a lot of mistrust in media, right or wrong, and we have to design to support a deeper understanding of facts”, Brooks continued. “We have extremes to overcome.”

First up in getting to an understanding of the landscape was Claire Wardle of First Draft News, one of several Google-backed initiatives to assist with fact-checking, verification, and stemming the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation online.


Let’s start with some all important definitions, courtesy of First Draft News, because there are several nuances to take into consideration in order to analyze the situation at hand.

Misinformation vs. Disinformation courtesy FirstDraftNews.com

A taxonomy of fake news content, courtesy FirstDraftNews.com

And while we may think the fake news industrial complex --  and yes there is one -- is ‘all about the Benjamins', the crew at First Draft News did an impressive job of mapping out the full range of motivations involved, many of which have little if anything to do with dollars.

The "Ps" of fake news, courtesy FirstDraftNews.com

It’s also easy to place the blame on the Internet, for democratizing the flow of information by all but eliminating the costs of having global reach with a picture, post, or story, but of course that’s like blaming a knife for being good at slicing a tomato and also for often being implicated in killing people.

Nevertheless, twenty plus years into the consumer Internet the full ecosystem has developed, with legitimate information flowing through the same pipes as misinformation and disinformation, and increasingly automated advertising systems enabling b.s. to become a business model. We’re not just talking “…and you’ll never guess what happened next” clickbait, but intentionally misleading, and often malicious information, and the more ridiculous the better, if better is measured in clicks, as clicks mean the ability to serve ad impressions to s/he who has clicked. As but one example, from such a universe was born Pizzagate, a particularly quacky conspiracy theory implicated high ranking individuals in the Democratic party a pedophile ring run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. Think of the story and its millions upon millions of shares on social platforms as a click factory that not only furthers partisan causes but creates a digital advertising jackpot for those central to the story’s dissemination.

And on this note, one of the most intriguing people I encountered at Misinfocon was a former fake news site publisher. Yes, former. I won’t mention him by name as after being outed he had angry citizens showing up at his house and even received threats against himself and his family. If you had to pick the publisher of a fake news site out of a roomful of people chances are you would not pick this guy. Unassuming, fairly quiet, maybe around 40, with a full time job and 2 kids, he told our breakout group he would typically spend 1 to 2 hours per night posting stories that were deliberately designed to incite rage and in turn bring in dollars by way of his Google Ad Words account. Did I mention he’s a self-described liberal? Well he is. That’s who was running a vehemently anti-Democrat site that pulled in 100 million views and about $200,000 in ad revenue over the course of its short existence. “It was an addiction”, he said. “Watching my analytics page in real time after I posted a story was my fix."  

But how did he do it? There are millions of blogs and sites out there and most of them get very little traffic. “I studied the audience deeply”, he revealed, going to the sites of the likes of Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, and learning the keywords and the hot button topics. “I could often identify trends in advance, and anything anti-institutional tended to be a winner.”

We often think of Twitter as being the linchpin in making things go viral online when this fake newsman said he rarely got any traction on Twitter. “Too many educated, left wing elites and journalists."  He feasted instead on the buffet that is Facebook groups, particularly those with large memberships of white males over the age of 55. “Fake Facebook accounts are the bread and butter of spreading fake news”, he pointed out, with the irony not being lost on most of us in this particular breakout group that Facebook initially differentiated itself from its arch competitor MySpace by insisting that people use their real identity

It turns out that with a carefully crafted Facebook persona one can plant the kinds of stories that speak to people’s fears and biases and the audience takes care of the rest: sharing, re-posting, and fanning the flames of outrage. “I didn’t need to buy a spam farm or bots. I created my own, with 2 Facebook accounts with pictures of fake people with their fake kids.”

That’s crowdsourced distribution for you. 

The party did eventually end, though, and Google closed down his account. Of course there are hundreds of other ad platforms to work with, and he tried some of those in the aftermath of his Google ban, but he never came close to making the kind of money he did via Google.

By this time you’re probably wondering what the forces of sanity can do against the forces of click-based commerce hiding behind the cloak of news reporting, and I’m happy to report that there are several initiatives at work, such as:






On a systemic level there are also issues to be broached with the platforms that benefit from user-generated content, content discoverability, and its monetization – namely Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the Google-owned YouTube. Bear in mind that the platforms benefit greatly from surges in traffic, regardless of their origin. Facebook gets to say we serve 1.8 billion people globally, YouTube gets to say that billions of hours of video are viewed per day on its platform, and both share in the ad revenue generated by the traffic to their sites.

Pieces of the solution might take the form of funded research and fellowships and sponsored initiatives in such fields as journalism and media literacy, but, as one conference attendee close to the issue put it, “Mark Zuckerberg would happily contribute tens of millions of dollars to media literacy programs tomorrow, but that is not the answer. It takes the onus off of him and Facebook. What’s really needed is something that dampens virality and the incentive system.” And as we learned from our fake news making friend earlier in this post those incentives can be darn attractive.

Sample idea wall from Misinfocon
But what comes from a weekend of impassioned debate and a frenzy of ideas captured on pink post-it notes? A totally reasonable question, and you can learn about the plans and action items that came out of Misinfocon by clicking here

Click here for Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis' excellent report "Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online".