I came back recently from 2 weeks in Thailand. I say Thailand, but 93% was spent in Bangkok. The trip was fun, but tiring for the 3-year old boy in 100% humidity and 95-degree temperature.
We saw lots of temples and Buddhas. My takeaway from the trip was I’m not sure we as a world are capable of creating things that will last the test of time. We make so much more, but as a ratio of day to day stuff versus the awe-inspiring, we are headed in the wrong direction. Maybe that isn’t true. Biology demands quantity to achieve quality. We are programmed to procreate so the most adaptable will survive. Our genes constantly mutate to produce as many permutations as possible. It’s possible since we can see and have access to all the junk today the quality seems far and between.
But tell me, what is the equivalent in our time that comes close to matching the brilliance in design and detail to the above?
The wife has a cousin who moved to Bangkok a few years back. He got married, settled down and now has a couple of kids. His wife was a reporter. Once they had kids, she decided that the hours required weren’t conducive to raising children. So, she got a job in external communications for Facebook. That piqued my interest. I asked what her job entailed. She said she liked her job because she could interact with former colleagues. Their job was to ask for Facebook’s position on different matters. For example, why Facebook wouldn’t take down posts that encouraged genocide.
Now, throughout history, companies have always done business with the bad guys. Companies like IBM and General Motors, through subsidiaries, profited massively working with the Nazis. Of course, Facebook is not itself encouraging genocide, but even sites like Breitbart would actively remove comments espousing those types of views. Facebook’s problem is that with the sheer volume of postings on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, now matter how much AI or how many human moderators they hire, there is no feasible way to take down all terrible content. If Facebook makes the transition to remove the News Feed and transition to ephemeral encrypted one to one or group communications, will the situation get any better?
In Thailand, for the first time in my life, I experienced selfie-culture on a grand scale. The number of selfie sticks and posing in front of 700-year-old Buddhas was ridiculous. Organically, lines formed at the best places to pose for photos. The fact that the guide is discussing that this Buddha was moved here when the Burmese attacked 300 years ago, the fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized, takes time away from getting that perfect group selfie shot.
Eugene Wei, a former Facebook employee, has an excellent essay on why social platforms have been successful. Basically, social platforms are a new way of accruing social capital. If you are a Gen X’er or older, more than likely, you have built up enough social capital. You’ve been plugging away at jobs and are middle management (or will be soon), you are married with kids, have a house, neighbors, and friends. Your path is more or less clear. Social platforms then are really a tool for communications (generally what they were intended for in the first place). But if you are a millennial or Gen Z’er, your support network isn’t as strong and you are probably financially hamstrung. There is a high probability that you are under-employed and don’t quite have that predictable future path forward. The way to create social capital is to present a curated version of “living your best life” nonsense. And this works because youngins have one thing that older generations don’t: time.
An example of generating social capital. While standing in line to board BTS (Bangkok’s train system), there were 3 young professionally dressed young women in front of us. Glancing, nonchalantly and non-creepily, over at their phones, all three had uploaded short videos showing the stage of a panel discussion from a conference they had probably just attended. They were scrolling and clicking furiously through the list of people who viewed and liked their videos. There was nothing educational or informative about the videos. It was to show off that they had been to a conference and they had exciting careers. Social capital generated one photo at a time, one video clip at a time.
On to a darker subject, as a technology, I don’t know how Facebook can deal with bad guys live-streaming their stupid and evil actions. The algorithms that surface “interesting” and “engaging” content from friends also surface videos of evil people doing evil things. To programmatically create an exception for edge cases (and for the volume of material posted on Facebook, these are a still relatively small numbers) has always been a sheer nightmare for anyone who has designed systems or written code. And QA’ing such outliers is even tougher. And that is what we are asking Facebook to do.
Theoretically, Facebook will try to filter out and remove more hate-related content. I don’t have high hopes.
Of course, the question becomes how are previous technologies not criticized for similar bad actors? Bank robbers used to plan using land lines. The Internet changed the level of connectedness. One person cannot call 500 friends to share news easily. The network effects were limited by what we could do physically. One could share Nazi propaganda, but there was a limitation on how many pamphlets one could print out and the speed they could disseminate.
That friction is gone.
There are 2 ways obvious ways the situation could be fixed. First, as users of social platforms, we could stop viewing offending content or engaging with it. But as humans, we lack the self-control to do this, hence why we have so much click-bait. Second, Facebook could add a ‘Dislike’ button. Unfortunately, this may never be implemented since Facebook will have to address it with advertisers. The assumption would be since YouTube has a dislike button, Facebook could implement it as well. Maybe since YouTube has had it since the beginning, users and advertisers are comfortable with it, but Facebook fears addressing downvotes with the bad PR they are hammered with constantly already.
This past weekend, my mother-in-law was telling us which photos our relatives liked from our Thailand trip. She had been sharing the pictures on WhatsApp with relatives all over the world. I mumbled I didn’t really want our photos on Facebook. She responded that she was using WhatsApp, not Facebook. When I told her that Facebook owns WhatsApp, she shrugged. How do you tell others not to share bits and pieces of you without your permission? I may have given a friend or colleague my phone number and email address, I may have shared photos with them. I didn’t consent for him or her uploading it to Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. We have no laws for this kind of stuff. We never needed it because the technology didn’t exist to process and identify and make connections, aggregate data, and build profiles in real-time, continuously. The problem isn’t just that we have given up our own privacy, it’s that our friends and families are violating our privacy unknowingly and none of us are adequately able to converse about it with them.
These following thoughts have rattled around in my head for a few years now. Some of us in the marketing space don’t feel right doing digital advertising. The lack of transparency in advertising platforms is mind-boggling. I finally decided that our company needs to stop doing digital advertising for clients. We have spent too many hours talking to clients about YouTube and brand safety, too many hours discussing the need to exclude hate sites from Google AdWords. The underbelly of digital advertising platforms gets worse and worse every year.
This isn’t without its own tribulations. Convincing current and potential clients that we will do the marketing plan and strategy, messaging, voice and tone, visuals, and creative concepts, but not create online ads is a tricky sell. Especially when every marketing agency is knocking on their doors promising expertise in all parts of the marketing stack.
Over time we have transitioned most of our clients to use other agencies specifically for digital advertising, and we are working on moving the rest over this year.
It’s the right path for us.