Category Archives: Internets

Rack up the views to stay alive

Stumbled across this story from Berks County about a woman undergoing chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer. Money’s tight, since she can’t work; her chemo is being provided by an ‘angel doctor.’

Her family hope to solve some of the money problem by winning a viral video campaign sponsored by the computer maker Lenovo, for whom her brother-in-law works. The company is sponsoring an employee “viral video” contest to promote a computer; a video that garners a half-million views will win $50,000. A friend of the brother-in-law entered a video, as he explains:

“I wanted my video to have broad appeal and so I got the cutest person I know, my son, Nick, to star in it. He’s a big soccer fan and so we decided to feature him learning about his favorite player, Brazilian Neymar Jr. This allowed us to feature the convertible Yoga 2 Laptop PC, plus we used it when we shot the stop motion animated introduction as well,” said DeShane.

The video itself is heart-rending to watch – it’s a little kid messing around on some Astroturf in the garage and rambling on about Neymar, with nothing said about the lady with cancer. Except that there are little explainer bubbles popping up throughout telling you about the lady with cancer and how sharing this video can help her out.

Here’s something that Lenovo’s marketing exec said last year:

You need personality. “Every message, every video helps bring personality to our brand,” he says.

And he has examples. Like a video of wine being poured onto a Thinkpad. That clip reached more than 3 million customers thanks to social media.

But Roman’s strategy isn’t just about providing viral content to the masses. It’s about getting the masses to work for his brand.

Viral ‘content’ is possibly good for building brands, since advertising really is just a fight to get a product associated in your mind with anything, anything at all, however randomly, so that perhaps you think about that product more than its competitors and for that obscure reason buy that product when you want/need that product. Viral stuff is good for driving clicks and getting advertising dollars, if you’re a click-hungry entrepreneur.

What “going viral” does not guarantee is any cash payout, unless you’re one of those teenage Vine stars who are now touring and attempting to make their six-second bit into a half-hour routine. Unless there’s some of that brand money available, and then, perhaps, you can win a contest at going viral with cuteness which will pay for cancer treatments.

How long until the protest kids start demanding Equal Twitter Followings for Equal Rights? Because if spreading the word is all anyone can do about anything, turns out that some people have inherently unfair advantages (big butts, Auto-Tune) in building their Social Networks to a point where saying anything there gets some attention.

You Won’t Believe What This Idiot Millennial Thinks About The Internet!

There’s still a brief moment when reading a profile like this about a contemporary that I shiver with fear, loathing, and jealousy.

He’s made HOW much pushing plagiarized “feel good” stuff on the Internet? He actually thinks this crap is going to change the world?

And then the moment passes and my thoughts change to pity for the techno-inevitabilist, 27-year-old Emerson Spartz, who’s been selected as the New Yorker Babbitt0Philistino of the week. Why, the man doesn’t even stop to appreciate Art after giving what he admits to be his only speech, which is on “making things go viral.”

Here’s a graph containing a particularly fine vintage of New Yorker disdain:

Spartz left the stage and walked to his office, a mile away, without stopping to see the Isa Genzken retrospective upstairs. “People have hoity-toity reasons for preferring one kind of entertainment to another,” he said later. “To me, it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at cat photos that inspire you or so-called ‘high art’ that inspires you.”

Picture swiped from list “It Might Sound Weird But Shirley Temple Grew Up To Be Really Hot And A United States Ambassador To Two Nations”

This is a story that traces its roots in American magazine writing back at least to Mencken’s disdain for most people: “Look at this capitalist who lacks any and all Taste!”

Writer Andrew Marantz says Spartz has “the saucer eyes and cuspidated chin of a cartoon fawn.” Spartz has a father who “speaks in passionate bursts that sound like unrelated fortune-cookie aphorisms spliced together,” whom also homeschooled two sons on a curriculum of life lessons culled from Investor’s Business Daily and Tony Robbins books-on-tape. A father who says his daughter-in-law, Spartz’s partner-in-virology, can’t intellectually keep up with Emerson. Right in front of her, at the dining table.

The Philistines still exist; and the Upholders-of-Culture who keep them at bay must be occasionally reminded that lots of people once read Horatio Alger and now listen to Tony Robbins (or, worse, Joel Osteen). The survival of aesthetic refinement depends on continued donations to the Arts; read this article and shake your head hard that Spartz is so foolish to equate quality with the number of shares an article gets.

Obviously Spartz’s belief that total viewers reached somehow equates to “power” or an ability to Change the World is folly. All of a sudden the same 100,000 people who click on your site through Facebook for “20 People Who Will Probably Depend To Give Up On Life By Lunchtime” will suddenly decide to take time from their online distractions to be Educated on the Issues, sure. Good luck.

Now, if you believe that some of those people might be convinced to give $5 via Paypal to the cause du jour, sure, that’s a form of impact. You’ll be right alongside the NFL and Dancing with the Stars in running little reminders there was recently tornadoes in Kansas and the Red Cross needs cash. Or, as Spartz says, if he were running a more news-heavy operation, to draw attention to an issue he’d put together a touching three-minute video full of “(s)hort, declarative sentences” and a way for folks to help out at the end. To make them feel like they’re doing something.

I Feel (X) When You Say (Y)

If I say “I love you,” or say “you’re nice,” do you feel happy?
If I say “you’re ugly,” or say “this cake you made me is nasty,” do you feel sad?

If so, you have been emotionally manipulated.

The words “love, nice, sweet,” (positive) and “hurt, ugly, nasty” (negative) were, far as I can tell, the indicator words Facebook used in its “emotional contagion” study that caused OUTRAGE when it was revealed at the end of June (guessing the terms based on this table, the database that the study’s abstract says was used).

For this study, if you’ve forgotten, Facebook messed with the algorithm that decides what’s in users’ NewsFeeds to see how they reacted when a bunch of “positive” or “negative” posts showed up in front of their faces. Would they post more good or bad posts?

People were not happy when they found out they had been studied in this way; Facebook had abused their trust, they said. This is some seriously unethical research, researchers said. From this reaction, there was the inevitable re-reaction: The commentariat pointed out that businesses conduct these experiments all the time without any scrutiny whatsoever – aren’t you glad Facebook told you this time? Plus, don’t you know advertising is trying to change your mind all the time?

Read about Facebook, its NewsFeed, and how businesses attempt to make money off the network for five minutes and it’s obvious that manipulation, both by Facebook and of Facebook, is all that happens in InternetLand. Facebook wants what the user sees to be engaging, meaning, in this day, that the user should click on as many posts as possible. The “most recent posts” feed is not really that; if the Algorithm has decided the Facebooker doesn’t “engage” with a certain type of post, said Facebooker will not see that post. (This is why my many posts of writings I’ve put work into get a like or two, and a silly profile picture will get a dozen: people do not “engage” with reading anymore, at least little that I write).

Unlike those that show the beginnings of cakes or candy, How Facebook Is Made is not yet a show filling up hours on basic cable. Most folks don’t care all that much about the workings behind the screen; their kids or grandkids or dogs are on and post things that make them feel connected to those beings, and so they get on Facebook. For this group, hearing about Facebook messing around with what they see makes them feel like their social experience is being counterfeited, that someone’s impersonating a friend through the mail. Or pushing false advertising, whatever that means anymore. It’s just wrong.

Hullabaloos over stories like the survey are useful to remind us that most people don’t often step back and say “well, yes, there are outside forces working to change my mind right now and I should be aware of them.” Lots of people make money by telling other people they are capable of Taking Control (of one’s weight, finances, psyche, career). That so many people pay for these pep talks says that making conscious choices still isn’t a favorite pastime of many humans.

There is the assumption, by those who think deeply about these things, that manipulation is something that the Viewing Public cannot avoid. For example:

Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments.

(emphasis added)

Or consider this quote in the New York Times (which has the luxury of taking five weeks to write about the hullabaloo) from a MIT management professor:

We need to understand how to think about these rules without chilling the research that has the promise of moving us miles and miles ahead of where we are today in understanding human populations …

Speaking of populations, the public, the masses: these words remind us that we can only be our own free selves if our actions are not actually determined by all of this modeling and engineering. If one is not predictable, one cannot be predicted. Although that “engineering,” that “understanding human populations,” is still a whole bunch of guesswork even in an age of Big Data, one can only hope we won’t get to a point where the Algorithm is all-determining of what is on our mind.

The word “hullabaloo” was on my mind from this article on “Blazing Publicity” written by Walter Lippman in 1927, and published in a Vanity Fair best-of:

The public interest works somewhat mysteriously, and those of us who serve it as scouts or otherwise have no very clear conception as to just what will go down and what won’t. We know that the best sensations involve some mystery, as well as love and death, but in fact we work on intuitions and by trial and error …
We do not, for example, know how to imagine what the consequences will be of attempting to conduct popular government with an electorate which is subjected to a series of disconnected, but in all their moments absolutely absorbing, hullabaloos …
The human mind is not prophetic enough to pursue the problem and solve it theoretically in advance. There is no use grumbling then about the character of some of our hullabaloos. They should be regarded frankly as experiments …
The philosophy which inspires the whole process is based on the theory, which is no doubt correct, that a great population under modern conditions is not held by sustained convictions and traditions, but that it wants and must have one thrill after another.

Whether we decide to take the thrill-ride, every day, remains our decision. For now.

Data Is Not Mine, Nor Is It Me

“Let me trade you two status updates for a retweet.”

“I’ll share three posts of yours for a half dozen likes.”

These are not conversations that occur in reality, at least from what I’ve heard eavesdropping in the street. The Kids are not yet swapping mentions on social media like their ancestors traded marbles or baseball cards.

This is because tweets, posts, updates, and hashtags are not things that can be held onto and owned. A Facebook update might become a conversation that spans a few days in the comments. Only those trading in digital popularity conserve their posts as valued possessions that can be seen, worn, bartered, used for personal gain. The only value digital archives have for most of us is personal, sentimental. They serve as a haphazard diary.

An update brings shock or regret: “I can’t believe Joey married him.” And then a night is wasted analyzing Instant Messenger conversations during the first semester of college, when everything fell apart.

Social media is billed as an ongoing conversation. Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to connect the world. On Twitter, one can have a feud, praise a salad, make a joke, and bring shame upon someone of whom you disapprove. Yet we also want some parts of ourselves put online to be our private property, like a box of embarrassing notes from high school kept in an attic. Conversations in a chat window should be private, so we think; so should pictures we wouldn’t want our parents to see. Then credit card data or naughty pictures are hacked, stolen, and spread about for public consumption, and everyone must remember nothing put online is private. The told-you-so tech writers will remind everyone about this basic fact again the next time “our data” is stolen by an attack of the Russian hacker hordes.

There’s the reality of Online Life: everything put “out there” is subject to possible manipulation by others. Castle walls couldn’t survive cannonballs; no online security system can possibly keep up with the hackers’ newest offensive weaponry. One’s only defense is staying inconspicuous: if you have little money, you can’t lose much; stay an obscure citizen and it’s unlikely that your naked pictures will circulate the Internet with your name attached.

Someday, maybe the insecurities of living online will make folks realize that nothing we call “data” is ever really “ours.” Pictures, account numbers, posts and tweets and bodily dimensions: they are all abstracted bits of information that cannot be mistaken for one’s own self, for any specific person.

So-called identities, even, have nothing to do with any one human being – it is a person who makes things and experiences the world. There is no “straight white Protestant male” way in which one experiences the world. For any one person, cultural markers certainly can affect what parts of the world may be experienced. Affiliating with any one identity has nothing to do with the experiencing self though, the essential person that acts and thinks – whether red, yellow, purple, or white.

If data determines what you do, you are not free. If our “self-image” is simply derived from the image we promote on Facebook, from the success of our “personal brand,” a product of photo shoots and status updates… your action is determined from somewhere other than yourself, and there’s no freedom in that.

Take a tour of a region where many Amish live, and the guide will invariably tell you that you should not snap pictures of the Plain People. It’s said by the guides that they believe pictures capture the soul. Whether the Amish believe this or not (and it is a belief held by other cultures around the world), the guides may be onto something: if someone’s soul can be summed up in one single photograph, s/he is truly a captive of something so simple as a picture.