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  • feedwordpress 22:31:55 on 2021/01/17 Permalink
    Tags: Book Related, , content moderation, , , , , , , section 230   

    Stop Talking About Section 230. Start Talking About The Business Model. 


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    No. No. No.

    For the past several years, I’ve led a graduate-level class studying the early history of Internet policy in the United States. It runs just seven weeks – the truth is, there’s not that much actual legislation to review. We spend a lot of the course focused on Internet business models, which, as I hope this post will illuminate, are not well understood even amongst Ivy-league grads. But this past week, one topic leapt from my syllabus onto the front pages of every major news outlet: Section 230. Comprised of just 26 words, this once-obscure but now-trending Internet policy grants technology platforms like Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, and countless others the authority to moderate content without incurring the liability of a traditional publisher.

    Thanks to the events of January 6th, Section 230 has broken into the mainstream of political dialog. Slowly – and then all of a sudden – the world has woken up to the connection between the disinformation flooding online platforms and what appears to be the rapid decay of our society.

    Difficult and scary narratives need a villain, and the world’s found one in Section 230, pretty much the only law on the books that can reasonably be connected to this hot mess. No matter if you’re liberal or conservative, it’s pretty easy to logic your way into blaming 230 for whatever bothers you about the events of the past ten days.

    For folks on the left, the narrative goes like this: The insurrectionists were radicalized by online platforms like YouTube and Facebook. These platforms have failed to moderate disinformation-driven conspiracy theories like QAnon, or the blatant lies told by politicians like Trump. (When they finally did – two days after the coup attempt – it was far too little, far too late!). The reason they can get away with such blatant neglect is Section 230. Clearly, 230 is the problem, so we should repeal it! Unfortunately, our President-elect has endorsed this view.

    The conservative view ignores any connection between political violence and 230, focusing instead on seductive but utterly wrong-headed interpretations of First Amendment law: Big Tech platforms are all run by libtards who want to crush conservative viewpoints. They’ve been censoring the speech of all true Patriots, kicking us off their platforms and deleting our posts. They’ve been granted this impunity thanks to Section 230. This is censorship, plain and simple, a violation of our First Amendment rights. We have to repeal 230! Naturally, our outgoing President has adopted this view.

    The debate is frustratingly familiar and hopelessly wrong. The problem isn’t whether or not platforms should moderate what people say. The problem is in whether or not the platforms amplify what is said. And to understand that problem, we have to understand the platform’s animating life force: Their business models.

    It’s The F*cking Business Model!

    Three years ago I wrote a piece arguing that Facebook could not be fixed because to do so would require abandoning its core business model. So what does that model do? It’s really not that complicated: It drives revenue for nearly every modern corporation on the planet.

    Let that settle in. The platforms’ core business model isn’t engagement, enragement, confirmation bias, or trafficking in human attention. Those are outputs of their business model. Again, the model is simple: Drive sales for advertisers. And advertisers are companies – the very places where you, I, and nearly everyone else works. They might be large – Walmart, for example – or they might be small – I  got an ad for weighted blankets from”Baloo Living” on Facebook just now (HOW DID THEY KNOW?!).

    When advertising is the core business model of a platform, that platform’s job is to drive sales for advertisers. For Facebook, Google, Amazon, and even Apple, that means providing existential revenue to tens of millions of companies large and small. This means that “Big Tech” is fundamentally entangled with our system of modern capitalism.

    And killing Section 230 does nothing to address that fact.

    Let’s get back to the distinction I drew above – between moderating content (the focus of 230) and amplifying that content, a practice Section 230 never anticipated. To understand amplification, you need to understand a practice that nearly all advertising-driven platforms have adopted in the past ten years: Content feeds driven by algorithms. The Wall St. Journal seems to have just woken up to this practice, pointing out in a recent technology column that Social-Media Algorithms Rule How We See the World. Good Luck Trying to Stop Them. The piece does a fine job of pointing out what anyone paying attention for the past decade already knows: Our information diet is driven by algorithms we don’t understand, serving not the health of the public dialog, but rather the business model of social media companies and their advertising customers. The conclusion: We’ve lost all agency when it comes to what we consume.

    All About Agency

    But before feeds became our dominant consumption model, we happily outsourced our agency to journalistic media brands – and to the editors and journalists who worked for those media brands. Some of us still curate our news this way – but our ranks are thinning. Back before platforms became our dominant media platform (all of ten years ago!), anyone who wanted to read the news had to exert a critical, if often fleeting form of agency. We decided which media outlets we would regularly pay attention to. We chose to read The New York Times or the Post (or both), The Wall St. Journal or The Economist. Media brands stood as proxies for a vastly more complicated and utterly overwhelming corpus of information we might potentially consume. The job of the journalists at those media outlets was to curate that information into a coherent diet that conformed to whatever that media outlet’s brand promised: “All the News Fit to Print” if you’re the Times, aloof neoliberal analysis if you’re The Economist.

    But that’s not how the vast majority of Americans get their news these days. If anything, Facebook has given tens of millions of people who otherwise might not seek out the news an illusion of news literacy thanks to whatever happens to show up in their feed. For those who do want to chose a news diet, we might parrot the agency of the pre-feed days by following this or that new brand on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. But in the feed-driven environment of those platforms, articles from The Economist, The Times, or The Journal must compete, post for post, with the viral videos of flaming Zambonis and titillating proofs of elaborate child pornography rings shared by your friends. Given the platforms’ job is to drive revenue for its advertisers, which group do you think gets more amplification? You already know the answer, of course. Hell, it turns out Facebook has known the answer for years, and has consciously chosen to show us low quality information over accurate journalism. How do we know? It has a “News Ecosystem Quality” index – a SOMA-like tuning fork for its algorithms that dials up quality information whenever things might turn a bit too ugly. Let THAT sink in.

    Given all of this, it’s seductive to conclude that the best way to limit bad information on platforms is to ask the platforms to moderate it away,  threatening them with repeal of 230 to get there. But that’s a terrible idea, for so many reasons I won’t burden this essay with a recitation (but please, read Mike Masnick if you want to get smart fast).

    A far better idea would be to coax that critical layer of agency – the human choice of trusted media brands – back to the fore of our information diet in one way or another. And if we don’t like our choices of media brands, we should start new ones, smarter ones, more responsive ones that understand how to moderate, curate, and edit information in a way that both serves the public good and understands the information ecosystem in which it operates. (Yes, yes, that’s a self serving reference.)

    As a society we’ve at least come to admire our seemingly intractable problem: We’re not happy with who’s controlling the information we consume. The question then becomes, how can we shift control back to the edge – to the consumer of the information, and away from algorithms designed to engage, outrage, and divide?

    I’m of the mind this can be done without sweeping Federal legislation – but legislation might actually be helpful here, if it contemplates the economic incentives driving all of the actors in this narrative, including the businesses who currently pay Facebook and its peers for providing them revenue.

    In short, I think it’s time to hack the economic incentives which drive the platforms. Section 230 is a dodge – we’re obsessing on a 26-word law that offers nearly every contestant in the dialog a convenient dodge from a far larger truth: No one wants to threaten the profits of our largest corporations. And given I’ve been on for a while, I’m going to stop now, and get into how we might think differently in the next installment. Thanks for reading, and see you soon.

    —-

    This post is one of a series of “thinking out loud” on our current media ecosystem. Here are a few others:

    Media and Marketing Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up For Truth  

    Facebook Is Finally Admitting It’s A Publisher

    Marketers: Your Role In Social Discourse Is Critical

    Marketers Have Given Up on Context, And Our National Discourse Is Suffering

    An Open Letter To American Corporations: It’s Good Business (and Smart Marketing) To Support Quality Journalism

     

     
  • feedwordpress 18:28:47 on 2021/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: africa, , Book Related, covid, , , , , , , , , spacs, ,   

    Predictions 2021: Disinformation, SPACs, Africa, Facebook, and a Return to Tech Optimism 


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    Never in my five-plus decades has a year been so eagerly anticipated, which makes this business of  prediction particularly daunting. I’m generally inclined to be optimistic, but rose-colored glasses stretch time. Good things always take longer to emerge than any of us would wish. Over 18 years of doing this I’ve learned that it’s best to not predict what I wish would happen, instead, it’s wise to go with what feels most likely in the worlds I find fascinating (for me, that’s media, technology, and business, with a dash of politics given my last two years at The Recount). As I do each year, I avoid reading other folks’ year-end predictions (though I plan on getting to them as soon as I hit publish!). Instead, I just sit down at my desk, and in one rather long session, I think out loud and see where things land.

    And off we go….

    1. Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. In some ways, this is foolhardy – like predicting that the election would drive 2020, only to see it overwhelmed by COVID-19. The topic of disinformation feels a bit cerebral and hard to pin down – not as concrete as a pandemic or an election cycle. But I’m convinced 2021 will be the year we all realize that our media/information ecosystem is broken – with disinformation, propaganda, and brazen falsehood its most pernicious externality. Businesses are waking up to the threat this  poses to their bottom lines (and to society at large), most scholars and policymakers are already there. In the words of former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, speaking on a recent Recount podcast: “In a society where there is no ability to distinguish between the truth and the lie, democracy will be lost.” 2021 will be a year where we search for the root causes of our failures over the past few years, and at the center of that failure is a communication system that mindlessly manufactures disinformation. A free and open democratic economy can’t run on bullshit. I’m personally devoting 2021 to exploring how we can navigate the collision of technology platforms, unfettered capitalism, broken media models, and feckless regulatory oversight. More on that soon…

    2. Facebook’s chickens come home to roost. Related to #1, yes, and it’s certainly passé to beat up on Facebook. As an OG in the space (“Facebook Can’t Be Fixed,” et al), I’m reluctant to go there once more – our troubles are bigger than one company alone. And for years the company has steamed ever forward, its fortunes unaffected by endless cycles of bad PR. But in 2021, the good ship Facebook will start taking on serious water. Incoming President Joe Biden will set the tone with his distaste for the company, and company’s tone deaf approach to communications will finally fail to deliver the company a pass. (If you missed it, you must watch this insanely scripted game of dodgeball between journalist Tamron Hall and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg). The company’s own employees are increasingly uncomfortable with their leadership, and its consumers and marketing partners are increasingly looking for alternatives to a platform they see as toxic and unwilling to change. Toss in policymakers’ thirst for an easy target and a media industry tired of the doubletalk, false narratives, and outright lies, and 2021 will be a dismal year for Facebook – in particular in the United States, where the company will likely admit that it has failed to grow user engagement. And that, to put a fine point on it, will tank the stock, full stop.

    3. AI has a mid-life crisis. The past few years have witnessed the shining resurgence of artificial intelligence – breakthrough after breakthrough has led to justifiable optimism that AI-driven innovation will solve both the mundane (Look! It can untangle corporate supply chains!) as well as the divine (Look! It can cure every disease known to humankind!). All of this and more is likely true, but humanity has yet to fully comprehend the potential negative externalities of AI, much less mitigate them. Chastened by our last bout with externality ignorance (see Facebook, above), 2021 will be the year society takes a step back and thinks hard about where this is all going. Setting up the narrative is Google’s mishandling of its relationship with leading AI critic Timit Gebru, but by year’s end, the AI narrative will be as much about hand wringing and regulatory oversight as it is about revolutionary breakthroughs.

    4. Then again, a wave of optimism around tech-driven innovation takes root. This is the counter narrative to five-plus years of a “tech as bogeyman” trope. 2021’s optimism will be driven by two major factors: First, a belief that we’re on a path to correct the worst mistakes of the past decade (see #1 – #3 above). And second, a slew of long-developing and real world proofs that technology-driven breakthroughs will bring serious benefits to society at scale. Candidates include biotech and bioinformatics (the core technologies behind the COVID vaccine), blockchain (though I’m certain bitcoin will have at least one of its several crashes this year), and lithium batteries (giving us hope on climate change and driving my otherwise random prediction on gas-powered cars, below).

    5. Google does in 2021 what I predicted it would in 2020. And what was that? That Google zags. I wrote: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” I think this is even more likely given Google is fighting off a terrifying array of massive regulatory actions, and desperately needs to avoid looking like Facebook in the eyes of its employees, consumers, and business partners.

    6. Nothing will get done on tech regulation in the US. Blame antitrust. Whether or not Biden decides to continue Trump’s FTC and DOJ actions, he will likely start his own, and keep the focus on antitrust, rather than more thoughtful legislation around disinformation, machine readable data portability, or privacy. There will be some movement – net neutrality will probably get reaffirmed and we’ll fix Trump’s H1-B messes, for example. But by year’s end folks will realize that antitrust suits are essentially kabuki, an exercise designed to go nowhere and maintain the status quo. When Facebook is aggressively calling on Washington to regulate the Internet, you know they’ve done the math and concluded nothing is really going to change. Everyone’s talking about how it’s about time for the government to step up and do something, but I’m deeply cynical about anything changing in 2021. That doesn’t mean we won’t (or shouldn’t) make progress…just that it won’t happen in a year.

    7. A “new” social platform breaks out in 2021. I’ve made versions of this prediction in the past, but my timing was off. Given the handcuffs 2021 will place on the traditional players in Big Tech, this coming year presents a perfect opportunity for a breakout player to redefine the social media category. There’s plenty of VC money ready to invest here, and both Tik Tok and Snap  have had their moments in the sun. It won’t be some ripoff version of what already exists (sorry, Parler). I’d either look to something like an evolved Signal, an app that already has a growing user base, or a from-nowhere startup that gets super hot, super fast because it’s fundamentally rethought social media’s traditional, serotonin-driven models for engagement and advertising .

    8. The markets take a breather, and SPACs get a bloody nose. Back in 1987 I was a cub reporter covering the technology industry. One of the first stories I ever wrote involved a software startup run by a fellow I immediately judged to be a hustler. In our initial interview, he laid out how he was going to use financial engineering to take his small company public via a shell company. It struck me as dodgy then, and it strikes me as dodgy now. I have plenty of industry pals who are involved in SPAC mania now, and as far as I can tell, they’re on the up and up. SPACs can be a healthy and innovative approach to financing companies. But alas, this SPAC trend stinks of easy money and honeytraps for unsophisticated investors and shady operators. So in 2021, SPACs will lose their luster, driven in large part by several spectacular failures (or worse). Related, overall stock markets won’t crash, but by year’s end, they’ll sputter as tech stocks fall out of favor and society begins to realize how much debt needs to be worked through before true growth can reassert itself.

    9. 2021 will be prove to be the last year of growth in gas-powered automobiles. There, I did it – I wrote a prediction I wish for, rather than one I can back up with my own lived experience. That said, the aforementioned breakthroughs in lithium battery technology will lead to a wave of new options for vehicle buyers, and in the long lens of history, the early 2020s will be celebrated as the period where we finally overcame our addiction to burning fossil fuels. Please, MAKE IT SO.

    10. Africa rising, China…in question. A few years ago, I predicted China was going to crash, but I now realize the world needs China to counter US hegemony. With that in mind, the breakout continent of 2021 will be Africa, home to many of the fastest growing countries in the world, and the focus of years of Chinese investment and diplomacy. After four years of US neglect, the Biden administration will realize it’s dangerously close to losing Africa altogether, and announce a massive investment in the continent. Biden’s China policy will be fascinating to watch, but I’d not wager a cent on where it lands this year.

    11. Everyone loses their shit, in a good way. Because we deserve one big ass party, damnit, when this pandemic finally lifts. This is the easiest one to predict, because, well….I’ll be right there with you. Until then, folks, stay safe, wear a f*cking mask when in public, and do what you can to help others get through what is still a dark damn time in our history. See you on the other side.


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2020

    2020: How I Did

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 18:53:51 on 2020/11/30 Permalink
    Tags: Book Related, , , , , , , , , , the press   

    Media and Marketing Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up For Truth 


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    Why “information equity” matters.

     

    An idea has been tugging at me for months now, one I’ve spent countless hours discussing and debating with leaders in marketing, media, and journalism. And as I often do, I’m turning to writing to see if I can push it into more concrete form. I’m literally thinking out loud here, but I won’t bury the lede: I believe it’s time for all major corporations – not just the companies that pushed for the #StopHateForProfit boycott – to call for a broader, more universal movement related to their marketing practices and their “Corporate Social Responsibility” efforts.This isn’t about punishing platforms, rather it’s about reimagining our relationship to them, and shifting our focus to the externalities our collective dependance upon them has created. For now, I’m calling the movement “Information Equity” – a rather dry and academic moniker, to be sure. Toward the end of this post, I’ll ask for your help in pushing the idea forward. But for now, let me explain what I’m on about.

    ***

    Some years back I helped start a company called NewCo, an effort to identify and promote companies that view business as a force for good. The idea sprang from an observation that the most successful companies often had purpose at their core, they were animated by a desire to make the world better in some measurable way. Lately the idea of business as a force for good has found broader appeal, to the point where the Business Roundtable recently revised its definition of purpose in business. No longer would the true north of business be the maximization of profit for shareholders. In its place would now sit a new lodestar: “Creating an economy that serves all.”

    It’s easy enough to dismiss such declaratives as lipstick on the soulless pig of capitalism, but these kind of statements shift societal expectations over time, and eventually they change outcomes as well. Large corporations are increasingly being held to account by employees, customers, and the communities they impact. It’s demonstrably true that business practices have changed in recent years. And the last nine months – replete with a global pandemic and a deadly serious racial reckoning – have deeply accelerated those changes. Driven by COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, and an impending climate disaster, “Corporate Social Responsibility” has now taken center stage in American business.

    Now that the klieg lights are on, the question rightly becomes: What will corporations do with the microphone?

    It’d be tempting to claim victory, and point to the change that’s already here. Less than a generation ago, it would have been corporate suicide to take a stance on charged issues like race, gender, or the environment. But today, the world’s largest advertiser – Proctor & Gamble – employs its marketing budgets to create and promote powerful films decrying systemic racial and gender inequality. The world’s largest money manager – BlackRock – has put climate change at the center of its investment and governance decisions. For each of these formerly third-rail issues – race, gender, climate – hundreds of major corporates have declared similar intentions.

    But while  race, gender, and environmental equity have become rallying cries for mainstream corporate America – and rightly so – there’s another fundamental human right I’d like to see taken up by our newly woke business leaders. This particular right – or its absence – drives society’s comprehension, education, discussion, debate and ultimately, society’s actions related to resolving historically intractable issues of human rights.

    In short, if we are going to solve our largest problems, we must first solve society’s problem with the truth.

    ***

    Over the past ten or so years, American society has lost its faith in a shared truth. We simply don’t believe the same things anymore. And in the battle to defend our particular versions of truth, we have badly weakened journalism – our historical institution of truth-telling.  We’ve not simply undermined journalism’s economic models, but more importantly, we’ve marginalized its impact and primacy in helping us determine the facts upon which society determines progress. We have questioned journalism’s motives, its  business models, and the social compact granting journalism the right to determine fact, establish reason, and debate course of action.

    I am not arguing these questions should not be raised – journalism is imperfect at best. But in abandoning journalism, we might have forgotten a larger question: If a free and fair press is not the answer to finding our common truth then … what exactly is? Think for a moment on what might replace journalism in our society. You’ll likely find yourself in a rather dark mood.

    Over centuries, we have built journalism as an institution of truth telling – in concert, in opposition, and even in cahoots with institutions of power in government, religion, and business. This truth-telling organ is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, and its record is both speckled and glorious. But it’s also the only private institution empowered by a Constitutional name check – and in the First Amendment, at that. So as far as I’m concerned, if ever there was a purpose-driven business, it’s one built around a newsroom. The mission of a news business is to fulfill the right of the people to be informed by truth. To deliver as full and transparent an account of truth as is possible. To hold truth as a mirror to power. And to demand an accounting if, once put to power, those truths do not square with the powerful’s actions.

    Without standard-bearers capable of this endless and grinding work, democracy is lost.  Without access to high-quality news reporting, the citizens of this nation will make decisions based on rumor, bias, self-interest, and fear.

    I’m all for Benkler’s concept of a “networked Fourth Estate” – that the rise of the Internet has added a multitude of actors – bloggers, non-profits, citizen journalists – to the category we might call “the press.” And the rise of social media has, indeed, given everyone with a voice an opportunity to speak. But we’ve failed to place guardrails around the institutional mechanisms which determine how these new voices are distributed in our society. At present, the inscrutable algorithms and powerful business models of our largest technology platforms determine the information diets of a growing majority of Americans. And I think it’s inescapably true that as things stand, these platforms have no incentive to change how they do business. That’s where corporations – and their advertising budgets – must come into play with a more long-term solution.

    ***

    Quality journalism at scale is under extreme duress. Yes, the Times, the Post, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal have all experienced a renaissance in the past few years. But all you readers of long form journalism, you devourers of words by the thousand, you are not the citizens of whom I speak. Your information equities are not in peril, your privilege is intact.

    What matters here is scale. Read Charlie Warzel or listen to Kevin Roose, and ponder the citizen who can’t afford (or simply doesn’t wish) to take their news from high-quality print outlets. When more than a hundred million Americans struggle to cover a $400 medical bill, society needs an advertising-supported model that brings quality information to the masses (this of course is Zuckerberg’s favorite defense for why Facebook is ad-driven, which is one of many examples of how the company has subverted the clothing of journalism without accepting its responsibilities). When the most convenient free service for news is Facebook, then Facebook will become America’s answer to news. As a result, tens of millions of our fellow citizens are caught in the jaws of systemic information bias, of institutionally-driven information pollution. One-quarter of Americans believe the recent election was possibly stolen, and a full third of us believe that the new administration may well enslave children for sexual favors. We’re in the grip of an information-driven disease – an information pandemic –  the cancerous externality of a society which has deemed the growth of our most profitable companies more important that the dissemination of fact-based information and truth.

    ***

    So what is business going to do about it?

    Boycotts are fine, but business must make combatting the lack of quality information in our society a primary and ongoing goal. Surely if corporate America can get comfortable with activism on behalf of racial, gender, and environmental equality, it can throw its support behind every citizen’s right to quality information.

    But how? How might business lead when it comes to addressing this fundamental issue?

    There are scores of ideas yet to be imagined, and plenty of think tanks, non-profits, and other organizations already working on important parts of this problem. But for all its skill at communication, the media industry has been far too silent in advancing solutions. It was just last month – last month!! – that the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a working group comprised of leading platforms, media agencies, and brand advertisers, added “Misinformation” to its long list of “harmful content.”

    That’s progress, but democracy can’t wait for a committee report sometime next year. The most important step we can take now is to declare information equity an issue worthy of support by the business community. Marketers must dedicate a small but substantial portion of their budgets – which in aggregate equate to hundreds of billions of dollars each year – to a stated commitment supporting the creation and distribution of quality journalism at every level of society. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about how this is possible without abandoning the benefits of scale, targeting, and efficiency that platforms unquestionably bring to our industry. Not only is it possible, it’s also good for business results – and society at large.

    The media industry helped to create this problem of misinformation – by funding the rise of platforms, by ignoring the externalities these platforms foisted onto society, and by growing addicted to the results the platforms delivered to our bottom lines. If we don’t renegotiate the relationships between marketers, platforms, media companies and the audiences we all serve, how can we expect anything to change?

    Just as the planet can no longer tolerate the externalities of an economy driven by carbon, and just as our society can no longer tolerate the externalities of a culture driven by institutional race- and gender-based injustice, we can no longer whistle past the graveyard of truth.

    If you agree, please join me in an ongoing conversation. My email is jbat @ therecount dot com – hit me up, and I’ll add you to an engaged community of agency leaders, marketing executives, media entrepreneurs, and others who are interested in finding a path forward. I look forward to the dialog, and as always, thanks for reading.

     
  • feedwordpress 22:01:00 on 2020/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: Book Related, , , , , , , , , , , ,   

    New Research Shows Why and How Zoom Could Become an Advertising Driven Business 


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    As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88% from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were sampling Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.

    But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with its new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Here, again, was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users  leapt from a high of 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.

    Just as quickly, however, Zoom became the subject of controversy. Like Google and Facebook before it, Zoom’s success as a product comes from an unwavering focus on convenience. Zoom makes it as easy as possible to use its platform. Employing invisible technical tricks, Zoom engineers made the platform easy to install, easy to share, and … easy to hack. Press reports about “Zoom bombing” began dominating the headlines, and as reporters dug in, so did reports of significant (and long ignored) security failings. Large corporations, state governments, and school districts banned the company’s products. Media outlets began to investigate the company’s Chinese roots – only to discover that the young firm had mistakenly routed user sessions through its servers in mainland China. Zoom responded quickly, freezing product development and focusing entirely on responding to critical security issues. The company then updated its privacy policies, in response to criticism that it might use user data in the same ways that Google and Facebook currently do (more on that below).

    But with China and the United States entering a third year of an increasingly heated trade war, and now blaming each other for the origin of the novel coronavirus, Zoom finds itself in an extraordinary position that no amount of crisis communications can overcome.  Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, is a Chinese ex-pat and naturalized American citizen. More than 700 of his 2,500+ employees live and work in China. Until March of this year, Yuan was held up as an example of the best that global capitalism can offer – an ingenious immigrant who bootstrapped his way to America and leveraged hard work, smarts, and venture financing into a multi-billion dollar fortune.

    Now Zoom’s brand – and its future – live under storm clouds of suspicion. In just four weeks, the company has inherited the full force of the American “techlash.” And the companies previously at the center of that storm – in particular the “Big Four” of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – are  happy to pass along that unpleasant mantle. What might it do next?

    * * *

    As some readers know, I’ve been a student of the “Big Four” for more than two decades. For the past 18 months, that work has focused on the terms of service and privacy policies of the Big Four. Thanks to the work of researchers and faculty at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and Graduate School of Journalism, we’ve published a study of the underlying architecture of the Big Four’s core policies, a visualization we call “Mapping Data Flows.” This tool breaks down and compares each company’s core privacy and data use policies, with a goal of giving both ordinary consumers and academic researchers insight into the architecture of control currently dominating our economy’s relationship to data.

    Given its very recent and extraordinary rise as a consumer tool, we decided to apply this approach to Zoom’s terms of service and privacy policy as well. You can find our initial findings here.

    As with every research project, our study of Zoom’s policies began with a working hypothesis. One of the most interesting findings from our initial study of the Big Four was how similar their policies were – they all collect vast sums of data, and their terms of service allow them nearly unlimited usage of that data. And of course, all four granted themselves the right to collect, process, and employ user data for the purpose of pursuing advertising businesses – a multi-hundred billion dollar industry driving what Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” We therefore asked ourselves two questions: First, would Zoom’s current terms of service and privacy policies allow them to join the Big Four in the pursuit of an advertising business? And second, given Zoom is (or was) an enterprise facing (focused on business users), as opposed to a consumer facing platform, would its privacy policies and terms of use be markedly different from the Big Four?

    The short answer to that first question is yes. And for the second? That’d be a no. As the first image below demonstrates, Zoom collects a ton of data, and its policies are quite similar to those of its Big Four cousins.

    Figure 1 – Zoom’s Data Collection visualized

    But exploring that first question – whether Zoom might become an advertising-driven business – yielded even more interesting insights:

    Figure 2 – Zoom’s data collection for purposes of Advertising.

    As the illustration from our new visualization above demonstrates, our research shows that nearly all data collected from Zoom user sessions may be used for the purpose of advertising. Despite the clarification of Zoom’s privacy policies posted on March 29th around usage of data from user sessions, nothing material changed in its actual policies. Indeed, the company writes that “We are not changing any of our practices. We are updating our privacy policy to be more clear, explicit, and transparent.”

    To be clear, Zoom does not currently run an advertising business along the lines of Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon’s (and yes, both Apple and Amazon have significant data-driven advertising businesses, they just don’t like to talk about them). So why, in their own policies, do they reserve the right to use all collected data for the purpose of “advertising”?

    As any lawyer will tell you, words are slippery things. Certainly in the context of Zoom’s current business, the word “advertising” covers the company’s role as an advertiser – as a brand that uses data to market to current and potential customers using platforms like Google or Facebook. But a careful reading of the company’s policies reveal how easily the same words could allow the company to pivot from advertiser to provider of advertising, should the company wish to. In other words, there’s nothing stopping the company from joining the Big Four as a major player in the provision of advertising services, should it wish.

    How might Zoom do such a thing? And  given its current privacy backlash, why would Zoom ever consider such a move?

    Let’s start with the How, then we’ll cover the Why.

    As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Zoom’s current business is based on what folks in the tech industry call a freemium SaaS (software as a service) model. The company makes a version of its platform available to anyone for free, and then “upsells” those free users to a paid version that has more bells and whistles, like the ability to record, larger numbers of participants on a videoconference, and so on. Pricing starts at $15/month, scaling up to thousands a month for large customers. This model is most often employed for enterprise customers (Slack is a good example), but it’s also found success in consumer-facing applications, where more often than not users pay to get rid of ads (think YouTube or Hulu). Regardless of whether the service is enterprise or consumer focused, free users always outnumber paying ones by an order of magnitude or more.

    One of the most difficult elements of a freemium SaaS model is luring those free users “down the funnel” into paying for a monthly subscription. So how might Zoom convince its bumper crop of roughly 190 million new consumers to start paying up?

    By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with all this. Zoom could implement a free service that’s supported by advertising, then encourage users to pay for a version that’s ad free. Doing so would be ridiculously simple: Just as with YouTube, Zoom could force its users to watch a “skippable” pre-roll video ad before the start of each videoconference (and it could use its data trove to make those ads extremely targeted).  Well aware that such an interruption would be an annoyance at best, Zoom could then offer to strip the ads out for customers who paid a small subscription service of, say, $5 a month. If just one quarter of its customer base decided to do so, Zoom’s revenues would jump by $250 million a month – adding a cool $3 billion a year to its top line revenue, nearly all of which would be pure profit. The resulting advertising business could easily add hundreds of millions, if not billions more. That’s five times more revenue than the company reported in its last fiscal year.

    Which brings us to the “Why” of this admittedly speculative (but nevertheless quite reasonable) exercise. And that why comes down to capitalism. Zoom is a public company with a massive valuation – more than $40 billion at the time of this writing. That gives it an unsustainable price to earnings ratio of roughly 1,750 – 76 times larger than the S&P average. The pressure to “grow into” those outsized expectations is enormous. Zoom is staring at a multi-billion dollar business model just begging to be implemented. For its shareholders, board, and senior executives, the question isn’t why it should be adopting the business model that made Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon the most valuable companies in the world. Instead, the question is simply this: Why shouldn’t it?

    In another post, we’ll explore answers to that question (and how Zoom, if it’s thoughtful, could help reimagine the core architecture of surveillance capitalism). For now, take a spin around our newest visualization, give us input in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourself – and others – out there.

    ###

    The Mapping Data Flows project is seated at Columbia SIPA – we are grateful for the support of Dean Merit Janow, as well as the support of the Brown Institute at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Omidyar Network, and faculty and staff including Mark Hansen, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Zoe Martin, Matthew Albasi, Natasha Bhuta, and Veronica Penney. Hat tip as well to Doc, who’s been focused on these issues for decades as well. 

     
  • feedwordpress 22:01:00 on 2020/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: Book Related, , , , , , , , , , , ,   

    New Research Shows Why and How Zoom Could Become an Advertising Driven Business 


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    As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88% from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were sampling Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.

    But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with its new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Here, again, was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users  leapt from a high of 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.

    Just as quickly, however, Zoom became the subject of controversy. Like Google and Facebook before it, Zoom’s success as a product comes from an unwavering focus on convenience. Zoom makes it as easy as possible to use its platform. Employing invisible technical tricks, Zoom engineers made the platform easy to install, easy to share, and … easy to hack. Press reports about “Zoom bombing” began dominating the headlines, and as reporters dug in, so did reports of significant (and long ignored) security failings. Large corporations, state governments, and school districts banned the company’s products. Media outlets began to investigate the company’s Chinese roots – only to discover that the young firm had mistakenly routed user sessions through its servers in mainland China. Zoom responded quickly, freezing product development and focusing entirely on responding to critical security issues. The company then updated its privacy policies, in response to criticism that it might use user data in the same ways that Google and Facebook currently do (more on that below).

    But with China and the United States entering a third year of an increasingly heated trade war, and now blaming each other for the origin of the novel coronavirus, Zoom finds itself in an extraordinary position that no amount of crisis communications can overcome.  Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, is a Chinese ex-pat and naturalized American citizen. More than 700 of his 2,500+ employees live and work in China. Until March of this year, Yuan was held up as an example of the best that global capitalism can offer – an ingenious immigrant who bootstrapped his way to America and leveraged hard work, smarts, and venture financing into a multi-billion dollar fortune.

    Now Zoom’s brand – and its future – live under storm clouds of suspicion. In just four weeks, the company has inherited the full force of the American “techlash.” And the companies previously at the center of that storm – in particular the “Big Four” of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – are  happy to pass along that unpleasant mantle. What might it do next?

    * * *

    As some readers know, I’ve been a student of the “Big Four” for more than two decades. For the past 18 months, that work has focused on the terms of service and privacy policies of the Big Four. Thanks to the work of researchers and faculty at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and Graduate School of Journalism, we’ve published a study of the underlying architecture of the Big Four’s core policies, a visualization we call “Mapping Data Flows.” This tool breaks down and compares each company’s core privacy and data use policies, with a goal of giving both ordinary consumers and academic researchers insight into the architecture of control currently dominating our economy’s relationship to data.

    Given its very recent and extraordinary rise as a consumer tool, we decided to apply this approach to Zoom’s terms of service and privacy policy as well. You can find our initial findings here.

    As with every research project, our study of Zoom’s policies began with a working hypothesis. One of the most interesting findings from our initial study of the Big Four was how similar their policies were – they all collect vast sums of data, and their terms of service allow them nearly unlimited usage of that data. And of course, all four granted themselves the right to collect, process, and employ user data for the purpose of pursuing advertising businesses – a multi-hundred billion dollar industry driving what Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” We therefore asked ourselves two questions: First, would Zoom’s current terms of service and privacy policies allow them to join the Big Four in the pursuit of an advertising business? And second, given Zoom is (or was) an enterprise facing (focused on business users), as opposed to a consumer facing platform, would its privacy policies and terms of use be markedly different from the Big Four?

    The short answer to that first question is yes. And for the second? That’d be a no. As the first image below demonstrates, Zoom collects a ton of data, and its policies are quite similar to those of its Big Four cousins.

    Figure 1 – Zoom’s Data Collection visualized

    But exploring that first question – whether Zoom might become an advertising-driven business – yielded even more interesting insights:

    Figure 2 – Zoom’s data collection for purposes of Advertising.

    As the illustration from our new visualization above demonstrates, our research shows that nearly all data collected from Zoom user sessions may be used for the purpose of advertising. Despite the clarification of Zoom’s privacy policies posted on March 29th around usage of data from user sessions, nothing material changed in its actual policies. Indeed, the company writes that “We are not changing any of our practices. We are updating our privacy policy to be more clear, explicit, and transparent.”

    To be clear, Zoom does not currently run an advertising business along the lines of Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon’s (and yes, both Apple and Amazon have significant data-driven advertising businesses, they just don’t like to talk about them). So why, in their own policies, do they reserve the right to use all collected data for the purpose of “advertising”?

    As any lawyer will tell you, words are slippery things. Certainly in the context of Zoom’s current business, the word “advertising” covers the company’s role as an advertiser – as a brand that uses data to market to current and potential customers using platforms like Google or Facebook. But a careful reading of the company’s policies reveal how easily the same words could allow the company to pivot from advertiser to provider of advertising, should the company wish to. In other words, there’s nothing stopping the company from joining the Big Four as a major player in the provision of advertising services, should it wish.

    How might Zoom do such a thing? And  given its current privacy backlash, why would Zoom ever consider such a move?

    Let’s start with the How, then we’ll cover the Why.

    As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Zoom’s current business is based on what folks in the tech industry call a freemium SaaS (software as a service) model. The company makes a version of its platform available to anyone for free, and then “upsells” those free users to a paid version that has more bells and whistles, like the ability to record, larger numbers of participants on a videoconference, and so on. Pricing starts at $15/month, scaling up to thousands a month for large customers. This model is most often employed for enterprise customers (Slack is a good example), but it’s also found success in consumer-facing applications, where more often than not users pay to get rid of ads (think YouTube or Hulu). Regardless of whether the service is enterprise or consumer focused, free users always outnumber paying ones by an order of magnitude or more.

    One of the most difficult elements of a freemium SaaS model is luring those free users “down the funnel” into paying for a monthly subscription. So how might Zoom convince its bumper crop of roughly 190 million new consumers to start paying up?

    By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with all this. Zoom could implement a free service that’s supported by advertising, then encourage users to pay for a version that’s ad free. Doing so would be ridiculously simple: Just as with YouTube, Zoom could force its users to watch a “skippable” pre-roll video ad before the start of each videoconference (and it could use its data trove to make those ads extremely targeted).  Well aware that such an interruption would be an annoyance at best, Zoom could then offer to strip the ads out for customers who paid a small subscription service of, say, $5 a month. If just one quarter of its customer base decided to do so, Zoom’s revenues would jump by $250 million a month – adding a cool $3 billion a year to its top line revenue, nearly all of which would be pure profit. The resulting advertising business could easily add hundreds of millions, if not billions more. That’s five times more revenue than the company reported in its last fiscal year.

    Which brings us to the “Why” of this admittedly speculative (but nevertheless quite reasonable) exercise. And that why comes down to capitalism. Zoom is a public company with a massive valuation – more than $40 billion at the time of this writing. That gives it an unsustainable price to earnings ratio of roughly 1,750 – 76 times larger than the S&P average. The pressure to “grow into” those outsized expectations is enormous. Zoom is staring at a multi-billion dollar business model just begging to be implemented. For its shareholders, board, and senior executives, the question isn’t why it should be adopting the business model that made Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon the most valuable companies in the world. Instead, the question is simply this: Why shouldn’t it?

    In another post, we’ll explore answers to that question (and how Zoom, if it’s thoughtful, could help reimagine the core architecture of surveillance capitalism). For now, take a spin around our newest visualization, give us input in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourself – and others – out there.

    ###

    The Mapping Data Flows project is seated at Columbia SIPA – we are grateful for the support of Dean Merit Janow, as well as the support of the Brown Institute at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Omidyar Network, and faculty and staff including Mark Hansen, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Zoe Martin, Matthew Albasi, Natasha Bhuta, and Veronica Penney. Hat tip as well to Doc, who’s been focused on these issues for decades as well. 

     
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