2012 09 03

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Contents

Feature Cast for 2012-09-03

(00:00:17.242) Intro

(00:02:50.824) Hacker Word of the Week: fortune cookie

(00:03:26.760) The Value of Privacy

  • If you aren't paying for it, you are the product
    • This quote, often repeated around the internet
    • It was offered in a discussion in a discussion of the social news site Digg
      • From a couple of years ago when that site's business model was visibly changing
    • I am frustrated that the discussion around the value inherent in our private data
      • Including a surfing and viewing habits has not really evolved since
    • The observation isn't really all that unique to the post-network world
    • So much of the traditional media, over the air and in print, operated on this same assumption
    • I think we have almost unnoticed slipped across some critical line that was evident before
    • For print and broadcast, tools for quantifying engagement were crude
      • Limited to self reporting in voluntary surveys and sample driven services like Nielsen
    • The options for a consumer's control were equally limited but arguable more effective
    • In exchange for free content, you could either accept it with ads or opt out
      • By turning off your television set or not buying or picking up some periodical
    • With the advent of the network, that has changed, for good and for bad
      • But more weight has been given to how much more value publishers extract
        • Than whether they are giving back that much more in exchange
    • Worse, outside of industry circles there is little discussion about this proposition
    • I have seen just enough of the interaction with online advertiser
      • To understand their obsession with metrics has ramped up with the perceived ability to collect them
    • In many ways, the tracking ad networks keep trying to get away with
      • Just represents a logical end point of collecting more and more data
        • To prove to those advertising products and services that their dollar will be well spent
    • It is no wonder, to me, that we struggling with protecting individual privacy in this context
      • When any real debate along those lines gets shut down by a moral panic
        • Of how shutting off the flow of value to advertisers and by exchange publishers
        • Will kill the content industry, both players who bridge from the pre-digital world
          • And even wholly online offerings
    • I am strongly reminded of debates also from a couple of years ago kicked off and magnified
      • By a piece by Ken Fisher on Ars Technica suggesting ad blockers
        • Would make online publishing far more of a challenge
    • http://arstechnica.com/business/2010/03/why-ad-blocking-is-devastating-to-the-sites-you-love/
    • The site experimented for 12 hours with preventing content from showing up
      • For any visitor who used one of the more popular tools to block ads
    • Thankfully the site chose not to pursue this measure on a permanent basis
    • The site learned at least a little bit that conversation and engagement
      • Need to be at the forefront of any efforts around evolving the exchanges
        • Where value ideally should flow in both directions
          • To those spending time and attention based on worthwhile content
          • And those trying to sustain content creation through whatever means
    • Sadly, I see little evidence that at that time or since thinking has broadened
      • Beyond the pressure from advertisers to ensure views and produce high quality metrics
    • The exchange in this example and many others like it is still relatively simple
    • Moving into the world of social networks where questions of privacy are more fraught
      • Driven not just by users paying with their attention but also with personal and behavioral data
        • Much more strongly begs why users are not given more shift
        • In terms of a clear statement of what exactly they get in exchange for that data
    • I am not convinced that an honest offer as opposed to the troubling slyness of many such services
      • Will take all of the value out of the space, making it hard or impossible to generate revenue
  • The refusal to treat users with honesty and fairness is eroding their agency by eroding their control
    • I co-wrote an op-ed on Slate about how unilateral changes to privacy policies are problematic
    • What I didn't find a way to work into that piece was this very question
    • The lack of tools to audit the effect of privacy settings
      • Robs each user of any real ability to understand what they are giving up
    • Worse, the language in which Google couched the value it was delivering to users by this change
      • Was vague at best, not making a compelling case as to why a user should accept them
    • More than anything, this lack of engagement about how each party might, or might not, benefit
      • Is what has continued to stay with me, causing the question to keep bouncing around my skull
    • If Google, and others making similar changes, are so convinced
      • That this is in the best interest of their users
        • Then why are they so coy about spelling out exactly how they will benefit?
    • I do get that the pace of innovation does make some possibilities harder to define
      • But it remains that Google here clearly felt it was important enough for them to make the change
    • It cost them time to draft a unified policy, to set internal direction, to publish and explain
    • Why undertake that cost unless there was some clear, direct benefit?
    • If that is the case, why not be upfront about how this affects
      • The exchange of personal data for services rendered, in unambiguous and specific terms?
    • The failure to do so results in a failed opportunity for competition over these exchanges
      • Which may very well explain the lack of clear expression in the first place
    • Facebook has taken this to an extreme few others have approached
    • Changes to privacy policies and controls are unveiled with little or no warning
    • The effect of changes to privacy controls are almost always difficult to understand in practice
    • Recently Cory at BoingBoing highlighted some tricks that Facebook uses
    • This is my concern in a nutshell, that one of the most visible services building its business
      • On the volunteering of user information is resorting to tricks
        • Rather than a clear, honest dialogue about value to its users
    • Facebook's stock performance not withstanding, they have an immense number of visitors
      • Even factoring in the grain of salt that one should on published statistics
    • Even with the astonishingly small percentage of people who click on ads, let alone buy based on them
      • The odds should already play in their favor
    • More powerful than any promise of personalized ads is the social lock in
      • The dirty not-so-secret of all these social offerings
    • Even where there are compelling, competitive alternatives like Twitter and Facebook
      • Users are drawn in more because of who is actively using these networks
        • Than any direct, inherent value in their design, capabilities or even advertising tactics
    • One cynical response to how free social services, if not free content, would dry up
      • If users were asked very clearly and explicitly for specific data in return for concrete value
        • Is that peripheral and complementary concerns often mitigate
    • This is true in the case of the network effect keeping people on sites they'd otherwise quit
      • As well as on the other side, where publishers want to get rid of ad blockers
    • In the example I mentioned earlier, of Ars Technica experimenting with not serving those blocking ads
      • They overlooked the case of how even someone not paying participating in that direct revenue scheme
        • May still drive value into the site and how it supports itself
    • Do a search for link economy and you'll see a lot of discussion about how social sharing
      • Affects the simpler, pre-network models of understanding reach and stickiness for advertisers
    • At a minimum, I suggest there is enough slack in the system for another experiment
      • Except instead of tackling the simpler case of ad blocking
        • Let's see Google+ engage for a week or a month with some set of users
        • Clearly articulating what it is they are giving user who are willing to share more data
    • I submit that the world won't end, far from it, they will learn more, in less time
      • Than through others ways of trying to improve and increase value in social networks
  • This is about failing business models at the expense of user privacy
    • In the pre-digital, pre-network world, the best an advertiser could do
      • Was a rough estimate, some heuristic for where placement and spending would pay off
    • The obvious promise of moving to a post-digital, post-network world
      • Was that data could be collected directly
    • We've certainly seen a new industry crop up around such analytics
    • The problem is that there is so much more to collect and analyze
    • This is the obverse of Clay Shirky's notion of a filter failure
      • That for users of networks, the flood of offerings overruns the ability
        • To find what is most useful or interesting
    • Advertiser networks and statistics services compete on how to make sense
      • Of an ever increasing set of signals that may or may not bear
        • On whether a given user chooses to click an ad to learn more, or even better to buy
    • Data isn't enough, it has never been enough
    • Companies that do well with advertising, whether traditional or online
      • Get that they have to cultivate actual intelligence about their customers
        • If not also build up some actual engagement to potentially converse rather than just collect
    • I think there are some encouraging signs alongside the worrying privacy erosions
      • That drive my main consideration, here, about honest and fair dealing
    • Some companies are building savvy social presences that represent their brand
      • And encourage engagement beyond even the most targeted of big ad spends
    • Better yet, I think there may be a way to experiment based on such smart efforts
    • The promise of more data collected is better targeting and personalization
    • I think the take on this has been largely too mechanistic
      • And hence hard to articulate as a clear win for those being asked, or worse not asked
        • To give up the necessary fuel to make personalization engines work
    • I don't know how typical I am, but I increasingly only use automatic recommendations as a first pass
      • Getting at some rough sense or survey of a space of things in which I am interested
    • I rarely, if ever, buy based solely on such selections as they don't speak to satisfaction or quality
    • Before actually undertaken that most valued of activities, actually buying something
      • I always read at least the top and bottom few customer reviews
        • To understand the possible strengths and failings of something I want to buy
    • Where I can get a bit of insight from someone I know, or even with whom I am just acquainted
      • That counts for even more as it is a solid proxy for my own experience
        • Rather than a manufacturers claims or some brute trend in purchase or viewing data
    • If I am going to give up data for bulk analysis, I want a result that comes closer
      • To the sort of inputs I trust more strongly when making actual decisions
    • If a clueful actor in this space offered to connect me with reviewers that would likely help more
      • I'd much more gladly knowingly and explicitly give up what personal data makes sense to drive that
    • Perhaps that shifts from personalization to reputation but I think
      • That's what Facebook is clumsily trying to luck into anyway
    • They are collecting massive amounts of social signals, trying to turn those into ads that won't annoy
    • Sadly, I believe they are failing, at least for a vocal minority of users
      • Rather than meeting or exceeding the conversion rates expected by traditional approaches
    • Is suspect that has rather a lot to do with their poor stock price performance since going public
    • If I am right, that there are new business models that must be developed
      • Both to realize my desire for a clearly stated value exchange and new and better means
        • To supports content, products and services of all kinds
      • That is a much, much harder challenge than just striking the right balance for user privacy alone
  • The challenge to service operators
    • To speak plainly and clearly with users about why they want our data
      • Then has to be coupled to models that more clearly align with clear value to users
    • Even if the scale tips just a little away from users
      • That is not equitable and needs to be addressed
      • Especially where that tipping also erodes privacy choices
    • Using personal data solely for profit without offering something in exchange
      • Is the very definition of unfair and needs to be spoken about and treated as such
    • Worse, I am starting to think that the current way of colecting private data
      • Really is a failing proposition on the face of it
    • It is flogging old ways of connecting users with companies that overlooks how much more complex
      • Network mediated interactions actually are, mistaking raw data for keen insight
    • More daring experimentation is called for, ones that respect privacy lines that should not be crossed
      • And bargains that should explicitly and fairly be framed
    • Such experimentation admits the possibility of failure, hence needing some safeguards
      • But doing so also allows for at least the same value, if not substantially more
        • In a world where users are treated with respect and ultimately given the control they deserve

(00:22:00.891) Outro

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