Algorithmic Bias

It’s easy to think machines have some kind of impartiality to them given they are, well, machines. But anything built by humans has a human inside it. Algorithms are no different, and just like us, they are filled with bias.

Algorithm – a word once confined to University mathematics departments and computer labs – now takes pride of place in every second tech news article, determines what you see online and why you received this email at 7am Australian Eastern Standard Time. So it pays to understand what they are, the impact they have and the biases they’re so often driven by.

So let’s go back to the start – what are algorithms in simple terms?

Algorithms 101 – An algorithm is a set of step by step instructions used to do something or make a decision.

With a definition this broad you can see that we humans use them everyday. Even sorting the laundry into darks, colours and whites, and washing them each separately is technically an algorithm. The steps to cook something (a recipe) is an algorithm. Where computers come in is that they can follow a very large number of steps, on a very large data set, and make decisions quickly and precisely. (In the clothing example above – the data set is the clothes and their colours, and the steps are where to sort each piece of clothing).

Algorithmic bias occurs when a computer system reflects the implicit values of the humans who are involved in coding, selecting and collating data to execute the algorithm. The emergent problem with the algorithms in big tech is that they’re designed to achieve corporate outcomes, not societal ones. Their values are simple: to make as much money as possible.

Algorithms now run so deep and cross-reference so much data that what we input has little to do with the outputs we receive. What we now have on the web is ‘the illusion of choice‘. It isn’t just our feeds on social forums which are decided by algorithms. Even what we search for is biased towards corporate algorithmic design parameters. Just search for anything on google you want to buy, in any category and the first bias is plain to see – it assumes you are after the cheapest version possible of every item: clothing, sneakers, airline tickets, hotel rooms, you name it. Apparently we all want to cheapest version of everything no matter what it is. Even if you put the word ‘high quality‘ before the primary search term you’ll still be guided by price. It’s not before we get very specific with words like expensive or search specific brands before we can find what we might need. Another in search is recency bias. Search will always show the latest version, or story of anything and anyone unless a clear time stamp is included.

When we look at social feeds – it’s clear that their algo-game is built on emotional leverage: birthdays, parties, engagements, births, deaths, family events and of course, controversy. These stimulate engagement and keep us on the site longer. Our desire to feel loved, important and often enraged are all that matter to them.

While these examples seem innocuous enough, the proliferation of an algorithm-based society is reinforcing many social biases such as gender, race, ethnicity and economic status to name a few. The canary in the coal mine is dead, the miners are still digging, and yet Silicon Valley are still making bank unfettered. So what should we do?

Like all technology, algorithms are neither good nor bad – they’re just tools. Tools that need to be civilised with some metaphorical workplace health and safety guide rails. They are here to stay, and so our best bet is to make them better. I see two paths forward:

  1. Change – We need to push for transparency on algorithms. Know what’s in them and have to ability to turn them off on demand. I don’t care if the algorithm owners are for-profit corporations – we can and should be able to regulate their output as much as we can a box of cornflakes. No company ever made a decision which reduced its profit until society made it so. It’s time we pushed for big tech to air their dirty laundry.
  2. Opportunity – We need to remember that every flaw in an industry, every broken promise or self-serving design leaves the door ajar for a nimble entrepreneur to make a more respectful version of the product we’ve got little choice on. Algorithm-based tech is no different. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the world is waiting for a social platform we can trust that isn’t designed around extracting unlimited hours and outrage from the people it’s supposed to serve.

Above all, we should never forget that capitalism works best when it is guided by society, not the other way around.

If you like this blog post – forward to a friend who will dig it.

Why we need to rebuild the internet

In life and in business I believe in a few guiding principles. Two I like in particular are very common across cultures:

  1. Create more value than you extract.
  2. Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.

I imagine everyone reading this would agree. Now let’s consider this juxtaposition:

What a CEO says: “We want to build a more open and connected society”

What a CEO does: Buy the 4 houses surrounding his in order to protect his own privacy.

Someone who sells privacy for a living, often without permission and tricks his customers into giving up more than they understand, wants to protect his own. The fact that I don’t need to mention the person’s name is telling. Well, you might say it’s not a fair comparison between how someone behaves in their digital and offline lives. Fair call, but consider the fact that up until last week the person in question could delete private messages from another person’s private inbox, after the messages had been sent to and received by the other party. A privacy feature he wasn’t generous enough to give to his users. Oh, by the way, I can think of another industry where ‘dealers’ call their customers ‘users’. We both get our minds messed with in ways we can’t understand and end up addicted and worse off.

It’s a well known technological trope that data is the new gold, an entirely new class of asset. And that’s where the problem lies. This asset class is so new, few people understand it. We could liken this to the age of discovery when imperialists took control of abundant natural resources, resources which were viewed by the conquered as something no one could really own or control.

The net result is that the greatest wealth creation event in the history of humanity. The Internet has resulted in a massive centralisation and control, and spawned the era of the data imperialist. Even those who understood the power of data have far less chance of leveraging it on their own, because of the dramatic impact of network effects, and zero cost digital transfers both have in creating a winner takes all economy. To quantify: the net worth of the 4 founders of the top 3 technology companies since the dot com era have a collective net worth of $281 billion dollars as of today.

The internet needs saving.

What started out in all probability as altruism – the dream of a free web funded by advertising, has become a nightmare panopticon and it’s time we pushed back. Hard.

Technology stalwart and all round good guy Jaron Lanier says we can no longer call these companies Social Networks, but ‘Behaviour Modification Empires’. Services which use algorithms to make us stay longer by giving us sugar hits of fear, jealously and other powerful negative emotions. Lanier also says that we can’t have a society where if two people want to communicate, it can only happen if it is financed by a 3rd party or corporation selling advertising. It’s worth investing 15 minutes of your time to hear him talk about it here.

But I will add a little more to his talk… the missing piece.  Personally, I hope Facebook isn’t fixed. It’s only when something stays broken that we get a chance to put something better in its place. For me that would be a social network that no one owns or controls – something funded by the people using it, without a financial corporate imperative shaping our most valued human asset – our interactions.

We need each other, Steve.

Why other industries need to call out Facebook’s advertising policy

Let’s for a minute imagine these as Corporate Policies:

Car Manufacturer: We’ll take a car off the road if an unsafe model gets out of the factory and is sold, but we can’t promise all our cars are safe until you start driving them. If you see an unsafe car out there, please let us know. 

Fast Food Outlet: If our pizza has salmonella or listeria, you can return it, but we can’t promise all our food is safe to eat. If you get sick or know someone who did, please let us know and we’ll take the pizza back. 

Packaged Goods Manufacturer: If our shampoo has chemicals that are unsafe and burn your head, we’ll change the formula, but we’re not sure until we sell it if it’s OK. If you see anyone with a burned head, ask them what shampoo they used, and if it’s our brand, we’ll happily take it off the shelf.

This is essentially what Facebook Inc. have just announced as their Global Policy for Advertising. All I’ve done is paraphrase their policy, and changed the product and industry. Here it is below for your reference:

Joel Kaplan – Global Policy VP

“We try to catch content that shouldn’t be on Facebook before it’s even posted, but because this is not always possible, we also take action when people report ads that violate our policy”

Facebook claim it isn’t possible for 2 simple reasons:

  1. Because it isn’t profitable for them to check every advertisement before it goes out.
  2. Because they haven’t been regulated in the same way other media organisations are.

While I understand 2 billion peoples comments can’t be moderated before they’re published, maybe paid advertising on Facebook should be. Facebook at least ought to be held to account financially when their ‘platform’ creates problems for society. Their current MO when anything outside their policy happens is ‘oops, sorry about that’ . They get away with it because society and regulators let them. A good starting point to fix this is to start calling out Facebook for what it actually is – a media company, not a technology business. There is a certain responsibility that goes with being a media company and its resultant influence, yet Facebook continues to flout the responsibility that is incumbent upon such power.  To call it a technology company is ridiculous. All companies employ technology – Boeing and Ford have a far greater breadth and use of technology than Facebook, but at least they admit they sell airplanes and cars. Facebook sells advertisements to their audience, not technology – seems like a media company to me.

It’s also worth noting that the update from Facebook policy resulting from controversy surrounding fake ads and alleged Russian influence on the US election didn’t address the problems of false information, only ‘transparency’ of what was published, promoted and who did it. The extreme targeting possible on Facebook is itself one of the problems. Those likely to spot a misleading advertisement are unlikely to see it. In this sense the promise of transparency is a moot point. A further quote from the statement in relation to advertising via Russian accounts below is quite telling:

” All of these ads violated our policies because they came from inauthentic accounts” 

Not because the information was misleading? And further on…

“Our ad policies already prohibit shocking content, direct threats and the promotion of the sale or use of weapons.”

Apparently advertising false information is OK? No mention of it anywhere… You can read it for yourself here. 

While Facebook promises to create a more open and connected society, it is in reality creating a more silo-ed and disconnected society. When governments first gave out spectrum at the birth of the TV era, it came with the responsibility of providing unbiased news and balanced data on issues affecting society. We didn’t let the idea of innovation or new technology interfere with creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

I think social media is one of the most amazing things to evolve in my lifetime. The power provided through connection and sharing thought has helped me re-invent my career, find like-minds and gain knowledge that just wasn’t available in the mainstream media era. For that I’m grateful.

But it is time that we took its power more seriously. It’s time to add seat belts and brakes to the data vehicles driving our lives and admit that no technology out of control or without failsafes ever benefits society.

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If you liked this post – you’ll dig my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – a manifesto to survive the tech revolution. 

You say 'ello', I say goodbye

elli sign up page

While it is around 6 months old now, and still in beta, there has been a lot of noise about Social Networking Startup Ello. And rightly so. A decade or more deep into this social connection thing people are starting to realise, that corporations like Facebook and Twitter, are well, just corporations. They just have incredibly compelling and usable products, from which they’re motivated to deliver what all public corporations aim to do – increase shareholder wealth. Nothing new there. And while some of the founders may have had, and possibly even still have rather altruistic visions…

A more open and connected world

Change the world 140 characters at a time 

… once any company becomes public, its DNA changes somewhat, it mutates and we end up with what we’ve always had. Profit centricity. This isn’t necessarily bad, profits are good, and only companies with great (or addictive) products ever turn one. It’s more about understanding things for what they actually are, or in this case, have become.

Ello, on the other hand believes there is a better way. And I agree. You can read their manifesto here. In short they promise never to sell ‘you’. What they don’t mention is that they’ve already accepted venture capital funding as part of their growth plan. Call me a cynic, but in general people who provide funds usually want some kind of monetary return at a later date.

If any social network wants to arrive and actually be, what Ello is positioning itself as, then it can never be a for profit corporation. It also probably should never be controlled by a limited number of people, or even an organisation. It needs instead to be a gift to humanity, a bit like the World Wide Web. It needs to be open source, and uncontrolled. A bit like a language really. One thing is for sure, it can never be about a financial return on investment.

New book – The Great Fragmentation – out now!

Issues with Facebook

Every time I catch up with my young niece and nephews I ask them about their social media usage. Clearly not a robust analysis, but telling none the less. Given I see them most months it has become like a usage and attitude research program. I’m interested to understand their digital behaviour patterns, and see if they align with what the media is reporting. They are all between the age of 11 and 18 years. The question is simple: What social media are you using these days? No brands or tools are mentioned.

In the past few months Facebook has pretty much fallen off their radar. Not even used to socialise. They all told me Facebook is just good for invites and parties. But they prefer Snapchat and Instagram. In fact, over Christmas all they did all day was ‘snap’ with their friends. Ok, so this is no surprise, but what is interesting is the why. When I asked them why they care less about Facebook now the answers are quite predictable:

  • It’s too busy, with too many messages. The page on FB is all messy now.
  • It’s not as good on your mobile as ‘Insta’ and ‘Snapchat’ are. They suit it better.
  • It’s just my mates, not relatives and parents and all that.
  • It’s not cool any more.

There were more responses but you get the picture. Interestingly privacy issues have never been mentioned.

What’s clear again and again with the on-line world, is that it replicates the real world. There is no delineation. It IS the real world. But it seems that every on-line brand and social channel at some point start to forget this. Usually post market success.

I really feel that Facebook cooked their golden goose when they started to manage people’s feed and decide for them what was most relevant.  This had a really big effect on brands and organisations who had invested a significant amount in the FB platform, where overnight, their investment in connecting with those who care about their stuff was diluted. Reports say that most people see about 17% of what they actually sign up to see. But I believe it had a bigger and wider effect on individual users. It reduced the need for their members to be careful with who they said ‘yes’ to and what they ‘liked’. All of a sudden they removed the need for their users to be diligent, to manage their digital investment, to ensure their feed is up to date with who they want to hear from. And when there is no consequence, there is no investment. What Facebook tried to do with people’s feeds (keep it relevant and digestible) had the opposite effect in the long run. People lost control, didn’t manage their digital home and it turned Facebook into a crowded shopping mall. People selling stuff, lots of noise, too many options, full of strangers – people you met once at a party….  In any case cool kids don’t hang out in shopping malls, they prefer alley ways, and exclusive clubs.

In my view Facebook has become the White Pages of the web – boring and busy, but most names are there…. with a few unlisted persons. Ironically unlisted for the same privacy concerns people had with phones and addresses being public –

‘Are you Sarah Connor?’

I’m certain it will continue to be used to reach out and find people, but I feel it’s days of deep connection are over. I feel as FB will morph into an older demographic as most cool young brands do when they graduate into serious commercial entities. They always lose their cache.

FB wont disappear any time soon, but the kids on it will (have). Unlike older people using social networks, kids don’t have a commercial imperative to keep them there. They aren’t at a life stage where they are managing a personal brand, or are too scared to exit for industry knowledge reasons. They simply don’t have the exit costs many of us do with social media. I personally find LinkedIn totally annoying, spam filled and interruptive  but am yet to turn it off by not wanting to offend people or miss a random opportunity. Though I’m getting closer as each day passes.  Twitter has a broadcasting and personal quality to it given it has a one-way follow mechanism, it’s also more flexible and succinct. I truly believe it will be more highly valued company than Facebook in the long run because it more easily feeds into other media, TV, events and has a zytgeist of the times quality due to it’s immediacy.  

For me all of this is more proof that power in a digital economy is far more ephemeral than the industrial era. The barriers to entry for new competitors are low, as are the exit costs for users. It’s the mere nature of a democratised economic structure.

While this is good news for all startups, it’s also worth paying close attention to the forums we choose to build our brands in.

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Being friends with breakfast cereal is over

Attracting and serving fans has been a past time of brands for the past few years on Facebook. To the point where the accumulation itself became the objective. And while I keep looking for the cracks to appear in Facebook it seems to be able to continue to grow despite its huge size. Maybe the barriers to exit the service are too high for consumers to leave? Maybe the FOMO and connectedness matters too much? But one thing I am sure of is how I feel about it personally, and from a marketing perspective.

It made sense at first: After the 50 years of the top down TV industrial complex – a period when we got told and sold, it was novel to have a direct connection with the brands. To be able to talk to the big brands in town felt good. For once our opinion was more than a letter or ‘non caring’ customer service 1800 agent. I mean they had to care, it was all on display for everyone to see. A poor response from any brand would result in a digital lynch mob attack. Finally we had the respect we deserved as the supporters of the brands. It was the connection we always wanted. It seemed to make sense for both parties. So we all connected in every way we could – and filled our digital dance card.

Then we discovered we didn’t have much in common: Both us and the brands struggled with our new found direct connection, our co-operative digital love affair. We’d read each others stuff, try and be loyal to each other and support the give and take element in this new world. We even designed new products together, made advertisements for each other and really embraced the new tools we were afforded. But it got kinda boring. I mean how many conversations can we have about breakfast cereal, tomato sauce and canned tuna? So the brands took their lessons and got wise. They realised that they had to live a layer outside of what they sold in order to create value beyond what they actually sold. They realised they had become a resource and knowledge bank in related realms to thrive in a social world. So cereal became about diet and health. Frozen meals became about a life well lived and what’s on in the city and dish washing liquid became about tricks and tips around the house. The campaigns and related brand pages sprouted like mushrooms And all this worked out pretty well…..for a while.

Until it became a spam fest: At first, we got useful information and respected and rewarded brands in the process. So brands did what brands do. More of what works, and copied those who did it first and best. The great likenomics battle of 2010 and beyond…. Until everyone’s feed was so full of junk – it became like the letter box we have no joy in opening – A letter box just filled with flyers, bills and credit card offers. The dance floor wss too full, the music was too loud. In a social media marketing sense it is the equivalent of 3am and we all just want to get some sleep already. We are over it. I don’t think I am exaggerating here, it is probably how most of us feel right now. And I haven’t even touched on all the people we said ‘yes’ to on facebook, who we haven’t seen since grade school. Like I said, it was interesting and novel at the start, but it is very difficult to care for the babies of someone you have seen in decades.

So now I’m done: Yes, there are some brands I love. Some whose products and services really matter to me. But it is certain that none of these brands ever find their way into my shopping trolly, are my finance provider or power my home. Yes, non of them are boring products from the industrial era. The only brands I play with and want to converse with are those I spend my spare time with. That’s my current definition of where I draw the line on being ‘friends’ with a corporation. And I really think it’s over for most brands trying to make their way in the social sphere – even though the numbers and analysis on brand engagement on social forums probably don’t show it yet.

Yes, brands need social: It is foolish to think that brands shouldn’t be in social media, or use the tools. It is the first place we’ll go to find them – their facebook page, or find their twitter handle. And you can be certain we’ll want an answer within seconds. It is the new call centre and probably alot of other things as well. What it isn’t, and wont ever be, is part of peoples social life. I’m betting people will gravitate back to saving that for other humans.

It’s in our make up: There only so many relationships we can have in life. Whether they are people or personified brands, we are genetically programmed to only be able to manage so many interactions. Dunbars number is the simplest way to explain this phenomenon. It’s a basic safety mechanism that ensures stability and safety, and it’s what will drive us back to a limited number of social interactions (physical & virtual).

Brands need to know where they belong: The key element to all this is knowing where we belong in peoples lives. I’m far more likely to interact with a brand that I invest my spare time with. The brands that play in my passion space. The other brands I am happy to purchase, need to understand that they are associates, micro interactions, whom I do not have time for or want dealings with outside of what they thing they actually deliver.

It’s time everyone (brands & people) realised where they belong, and took a human approach to our connections. If everyone tries to maximise social connections simply because the gates have been opened, we’ll end up with closed doors and reduced potential for trust with the connections we actually want to have.

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Instagram is my new twitter

Lately I’ve found myself checking my instagram feed more often than my twitter feed. I didn’t realise it at first. But I noticed it only when a few of my twitter friends commented on my lack of tweeting. Clearly I’m still using both, but increasingly instagram is what I give my small doses of available attention to. I remember the time when this happened to facebook, the time when I slowly started coming back to facebook less often, and starting giving my attention to twitter. And it is happening all over again for me.

It really does feel like there are only a few channels I can invest in at one time. Maybe it is Dunbar’s number is at work again?

If I had to understand why this is happening I’d just put it down to noise. When there are a lot of voices shouting at once, it is very difficult to hear what anyone is saying – the conversation is replaced with a hum of city noise, interspersed with the occasional siren or loud car horn. Instagram feels more intimate at the moment. It feels like twitter did when I first got there. I have so few people in my feed I can see everything. A few crew who have organically organised themselves to share some of their life. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, and it feels like I have a greater sense of control that my other feeds. Sure, I have to take a photo of all my thoughts – but most thoughts we have can be augmented with a pic quite easily. In addition, this need for a picture reduces the amount of banal posts I see in my feed.

Increasingly I am convinced of one thing – as soon as ‘everyone’ arrives at a party, it’s time to find somewhere more interesting. And what this means for entrepreneurs, is that if your party is cool enough, people will eventually seek you out.

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