Another Idea for Facebook — or Any Other News Feed Publisher Out There

Give users more direct control over what they see.

People loooove complaining about their newsfeeds.  Not just on Facebook, either. If there is a website that uses algorithms or content personalization systems to “curate” content for users, someone is complaining about how the robots aren’t doing it right.

The other day, I saw an article somewhere in which the author was upset because she clicks on every single gruesome murder link she is shown and for some reason the algorithms that control her feeds think that’s what she wants to see. In spite of clicking on every single one, she swears that she doesn’t REALLY want to see that. Apparently, she sold her self-control on eBay or something.

Anyway, here’s my thought: let users have more direct control over what they see.

Facebook asks people to help them teach their robots how to make the newsfeed good.  These little surveys pop up and ask things like, “Does this feel like an ad?” and “Do you want to see more posts like this?”

That’s nice and all, but it never really gets at what I really want.  Here’s an example: there’s this heterosexual man with whom I am friends on Facebook. I enjoy most of the content he posts and shares. EXCEPT. He likes to post pictures of semi-nude women. They’re beautiful women, but I don’t want to see those. At home, I just keep scrolling, but at work it creates some nervousness and awkward moments. I don’t want to block him because I really like all the other stuff he posts.  Similarly, I have a few friends who share pictures of beefy guys in similar states of undress. Cool but, you know, NOT cool.

So, why can’t I have a setting that allows me to say something to the effect of, “Show me only the G-rated things?”

Or, “Hide all mentions of Sarah Palin.” Because I never ever need to hear about her ever again.

Or, “Limit posts about kale, Obamacare, Senate Democrats, Crossfit, lizard sex satellites, and Florida Man to less than six per day.”  Strike that. I want to see more Florida Man and lizard sex in space. But let’s keep the other stuff to a minimum.

Let me have some explicit, not simply implicit through surveys, say in how my feeds should be filtered!

Now, I realize this would take a clever user experience designer and some engineers to make this happen. But I know these folks exist. Hop on it!

An Idea for Facebook

Facebook is catching a lot of hell right now because of this ridiculous “emotional contagion” study.  I think there are a lot of legitimate questions and concerns about how this experiment was designed and conducted, but I have a suggestion for how Facebook might avoid the kerfuffles and do a lot of good for science.  Here goes:

At the beginning of some period of time — like a month — they could post a giant opt-in screen to everyone’s newsfeeds:

RESEARCH MONTH!

This month, we are opening our data and newsfeeds to researchers. All experiments have been through an ethics review. None of the data used will be sold or used directly as part of a business strategy. If you’d like to participate, click YES. If not, click NO. At the end of the month, we will tell you which studies you were in — if any. And we’ll alert you when the results are published so you can see what we learned.

As a FB user, my posts are private, but I would love to open my data up to science like this.  And I would like to know what my data was used for and what they found.

Seems like good fun and good PR to me!

Rationalizing the Sometimes Irrational Customer

A coworker of mine shared this article with me this morning: Rationalizing the Sometimes Irrational Customer.  It sent me off on a bit of a rant that I thought I would share in a modified form for the world.

I hate the presumption that because humans have individual values defined by their particular knowledge, experience, and life context that their decisions are “irrational.”  This is the underlying premise of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and I would argue that it leads to the baldly manipulative paternalism suggested in Nudge.

Here’s a perfect example of the problems from this article.

First, he says, “Factors such as life experiences, framing of situations, habits, self-control or lack thereof, social impacts, and decision fatigue are examples of important components for determining what makes people behave as they do.”

Then he says that the wrong way is this: “Classic economic theory tells us that consumer behavior is born of certain traits: unbounded rationalism, willpower or restraint, even selfishness.”

Why is it irrational to draw on your life experience when making a decision? If you can’t draw on the knowledge you have exactly where does the “right” knowledge come from and how can anyone access it when they’re in the middle of all the various economic decisions they have to make in a day?  I would suggest that if the first set of considerations is right, then in order to make the second set of traits wrong then he should add “omniscience” to his list of traits because obviously humans do not have that, but would mean the opposing argument here is a straw man and classic economics — in spite of evidence to the contrary — has never, ever applied to the human experience.

Finally, he says, “The problem is that consumers don’t always follow these rules of thumb or conform to our experience and wisdom.”

So, just because consumers don’t do what presumably human marketers believe they should — based on the marketers’ COMPLETELY RATIONAL AND FULLY INFORMED — knowledge and experience consumers must be throwing reason to the wind and acting like lunatics with credit cards and unless you’re peddling hookers and cocaine that is a problem for your business? I don’t think so.

Further, the evidence of this supposed problem is the fact that marketers’ predictions about consumer behavior aren’t 100% accurate.  I have to wonder where this imaginary marketer got a set of consumers that were 100% identical in every (possible and impossible) way in order to make a prediction that they might even plausibly expect to be 100% accurate. Sarcasm aside, he’s posed a problem for our universe based on presumptions from an imaginary universe of platonic ideals that he says comes from classic economics.

This isn’t how any marketer, data analyst, or classical economist I’ve ever heard of actually approaches the challenge of their work. No one has ever honestly expected their segmentation strategy would result in 100% conversion rate from their target segments.  That’s why we use statistical, probabilistic modeling and normalization techniques. My own microecon professor was what might be called a “classical economist” and his commentary on human economic behavior was always posed as “If you want to achieve X, then you should proceed as Y.”  He did not assume everyone wanted to achieve X — which is what behavioral economics does do.  And that makes me want to tell them to go mind their own business.

However, all that aside I do think he makes a valid point about what it takes to drive better results: “[A]n organization should move from an assumption-based business culture to a strategy-driven, fact-based culture informed by analytics.”

Yes. Duh.

Too often marketers do make assumptions about their customers and fail to check those assumptions against the data. That’s not because the consumers are being “irrational” but rather that the marketers are. The marketers are not using evidence and experience to make decisions.

So, the point and the problem here is not really that the consumers are sometimes irrational, but rather that marketers are too often irrational and obstinate in remaining ignorant as they approach the customer.

Recommended Reading: Simple Program Design

A friend of mine home schools her children and one of them expressed an interest in learning how to code. I shared a list of apps and games that could help, but also shared a book that I used way back when I was a developer.  It’s a bit dry for kids, but if you’re interested in learning to code or design software it’s a must-have in my opinion.

The Death of #DailyDigital

I will tell you this: rushing every morning to read all the latest tech and advertising news sites in my feed just to pull out three to five articles to comment on is tough and the obligations of work and life frequently stand in my way. So, I’m going to take a little break from doing them every day in the format I’ve been doing them so that I can focus on some other personal initiatives I have in mind.

But in case you’re curious, I’m doing a bit of “academic” reading/listening on product marketing, product management, programming, and computer science lately.

Of course, with this change, I will need to focus on producing more original content for my blog here.  So, please stand by!

UPDATE: One of the benefits of not having to rush to find things to post every morning is that it gives me time to read and enjoy more of the content I come across every day. If you want to see what really catches my eye, I invite you to follow me on Twitter, where I Share links directly from my Feedly.

Examples:

Just be ready for a lot of history, science, and random foolishness.

#DailyDigital Apple Continues to Distract Everyone from Everything Else

This morning I have a smattering of interesting tidbits for you. First, video is getting quite a bit of attention and television continues its collision course with the digital world. And then there’s an interesting piece on event data worth reading. Enjoy!

The growing pains of video ads, in five charts
Video is a fast-growing area for online advertisers and content creators.  This article is interesting because it takes a straight-forward, simplified look at some of the trends seen in online video in recent history. This is particularly poignant given that Google is pushing forward with additional investment in the video space and Nielsen is digging more deeply into video to look at cross-device/platform measurement.

AT&T Says Bulking Up With DirecTV Will Help It Squash Programming Costs
The AT&T acquisition of DIRECTV is still a ways out, but I keep watching it because it’s sort of interesting to see a telco cable provider acquiring a satellite cable provider. In particular, I think the potential for addressable TV here is pretty significant.

A programmer’s view of Apple’s new Swift language
This is kind of nerdy and off-topic, but when I get a minute I kind of what to poke around in this new language that Apple has rolled out.

Event-Level Data Enters The Spotlight
The question of media attribution is VERY interesting to me and here’s a nice article discussing some of the different approaches and how the market is evolving to take a more mature, more robust view of user activity in tracking the path customers take down the marketing funnel.

One Last Blast:

#DailyDigital Apple Apparently Rules the World

Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference yesterday completely overwhelmed my feeds. No one was really talking about anything else.  I saw lots of mildly interesting things, but not a lot to really offer any commentary about.

The MOST interesting thing that happened was that I had saved an article on Ad Exchanger headlined as “With Brands Wasting Millions, Bot Traffic Is More Than A Nuisance.” I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to the article I shared yesterday that said ad fraud was an overblown and poorly reported issue that was little more than a mild irritation. Well, this morning, the article seems to have disappeared. So, I wonder what THAT’S about.

Anyway, here’s the one article I wanted to offer a bit of commentary on for this morning’s #DailyDigital post:

Data-driven digital marketing triples conversion rates (study)
Adobe has issued a study of how marketers benefit from data-driven decision making. The numbers tell a very compelling story and it’s worth a look.

One Last Blast:

#DailyDigital Still Not Catching Up Edition

As usual, I amassed more articles than I could reasonably post last week and ended up just clearing them all out and starting over this morning. That story is getting old, so I think I’m going to have to figure out something new for dealing with those days when my usual schedule is disrupted.  In the meantime, here’s a list of links from this morning’s review.  Enjoy!

The frighteningly overblown reports of online ad fraud
Well, here’s something new and different. Even while the online advertising industry works to reduce fraud, the author here is outlining an argument for why we should calm down about ad fraud.  The premise is that the journalism around the product is pretty shoddy and we’ve all been whipped into a frenzy over poorly-reasoned arguments, unresearched data points, and biased sources.  It’s an interesting and thought-provoking piece.  But taking a chapter from the book of arguments here, I think we should point out that the author is from a display ad platform company who has a vested interest in calming people down about the amount of fraud out there. (My logic professor would NOT be happy about this type of argument, by the way, and I feel like I have to point that out so that he doesn’t send me an angry letter.)

When Small Screen Is First Screen
Here’s a VERY interesting piece about how smartphones have become a indispensable part of our business lives.

Experian On The FTC, Addressable TV And Why ‘More Isn’t Better, It’s Just More Junk’
Experian has been doing some restructuring so President Rick Erwin gave an interview to AdExchanger and spoke about their realignment, strategy, and their addressable television offering.

Cross-Device Tracking: Don’t Believe The Hype
This is a very interesting piece on cross-device tracking. The author is primarily focused on the recognition step — which is obviously critical to the whole process — while a lot of the cloud marketing systems are focused on making the match.

One last blast

Podcast Listening

Now that I have a little bit of a commute to work, I’ve started listening to podcasts regularly again.  Many of them are helpful for work, so I thought I would share my list.

Note: I listen to my podcasts using the iTunes podcast app on my phone. I have tried to use Stitcher, but I didn’t care for it and not all of the ‘casts listed here are available there.

Work-Applicable

Manager Tools — This is mostly focused on managers and managing people, but even though I don’t presently manage a team I find it very helpful and enlightening in terms of helping me work to be a better employee.  They emphasize the DiSC personality/communication style tool along with lots and lots of clear, consistent communication. And they talk about how to actually use those things. It’s REALLY good.

Career Tools — This podcast is more broadly applicable to professionals at all levels and provides advice/recommendations on how to be a successful professional. I actually wasn’t aware of this podcast (all my friends who listen to Manager Tools only ever mentioned the first podcast) and I found out about it while poking around on the website.  So far, of the episodes I’ve listened to, it’s pretty basic information, obvious to anyone who has been in the workplace for a while. But it’s nice to hear things you know articulated and sometimes it’s good to be reminded.

HBR IdeaCast – Harvard Business Review’s podcast is usually very short and covers an extremely broad range of business topics. Sometimes it’s a little too fluffy (because of the short, audio-only format, I think) in my opinion, but 75% of the time I come away with some interesting thing to think about. Also, it’s really surprising to me how frequently topics covered in this ‘cast turn up in conversations.

The Product Coffee Talk - This is a new ‘cast to my queue and I’ve only listened to one episode so far, but the focus is on product management, product development, product marketing, and other related topics.  It’s too early for me to have a strong like or dislike for the cast, but I am hopeful.

Product Management Pulse – This is another new addition to my list, but I like the emphasis on Pragmatic Marketing principles. If you’re not familiar with Pragmatic Marketing, it’s a product management methodology that focuses on making product decisions based on real-life information from customers and the market at large.

Six Pixels of Separation –  Mitch Joel is just great.  This is an advertising/agency-focused podcast. They generally discuss marketing from the perspective of delivering effective, compelling messages.  There are lots of collaborative episodes with other agency folks here and the occasional interview.  Generally, these episodes are an hour long, which I find to be a bit too long for the topics, but I also find Joel to be so likable that I’m willing to allow for slight excesses in the length of the commentary.

Grammar Girl – Clear, effective communication is important for everyone. That’s why I’m putting this podcast in the “work-applicable” group. Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and her podcasts are short and useful with lots of good examples of how to employ the rules of grammar for the greatest effect.  Highly recommended for everyone who speaks or writes in American English.

Non-Work

The Moth – This is podcast made of recordings from story-telling performances. All of the stories are true to the recollection of the speaker and they range from hilarious to heart-breaking. The duration of the stories also varies a lot. I find it interesting from the perspective of performance, spoken word, and story construction all at once.

Philosophy in Action – Dr. Diana Hsieh is a professor of philosophy and her podcast focuses on practical ethics, but because she takes her topics from audience questions the topics can range into epistemology and politics as well.  It’s a great resource for thought-provoking ideas and principles for leading a happy, fulfilling life.

Freakonomics Radio – If you don’t know about Freakonomics you’re probably a cave-dweller and I am interested to know how you’re reading my blog from there.

Stuff You Missed in History Class – From the “Stuff You Should Know” family of podcasts and websites, this is a history-focused ‘cast. They do focus on recorded human history up until about the 60s, although they recently did a ‘cast that discussed events from the late 80s. I love these nerdy ladies!

Stuff You Should Know - Similar to the above, but this podcast talks about pretty much anything. Science, technology, history, politics, law… ninjas. You name it. Josh and Chuck, the hosts, are somewhat easily distracted, so if you can’t handle people chatting off-topic for five to ten minutes out of every hour-long podcast, you might end up giving this one a pass. But I do recommend checking it out once or twice for a topic you’re interested in — like ninjas — before you give up on them.

Radiolab – This is my favorite podcast on my list. It’s mostly science-focused and they go all over the place. There is also a LOT of sound engineering that goes into this show — like the modern version of old radio serials that used sound effects — so it’s aurally fascinating in addition to covering really interesting content.

This American Life – This is another show that you have to live in a cave to have not encountered at some point in your life. NPR. Stories. Ira Glass.