February 28, 2015

Episode One Hundred and Ninety Nine: Just No; Don't Do That, Either; Seeing Like The Internet

0.0 Sitrep

I started writing this on Thursday, 26 February, 2015.

1.0 Just No

There are friends of mine who remind me that a) I don't work in advertising any more, b) I don't have to think about advertising any more and c) the problems of advertising, and that advertising agencies have, are nothing that I'm being paid to think about any more.

An easier, better way of saying this if you're British is to imagine someone telling me to LEAVE IT SHARON, HE'S NOT WORTH IT, where Sharon is me, and he is the entire advertising industry. But, as those much smarter than me have observed, he wouldn't let it lie.

An even even easier, better way of saying this is simply: trigger warning - digital advertising.

And so, via a promoted tweet from The One Club[1], an august institution of advertising excellence, I excitedly click over to Entrepreneur.com to see The Four Digital Advertising Trends That Are Reshaping Advertising[2] which if you've been reading for a while you won't be surprised to hear completely did not fail in any way to disappoint my already lofty preconceptions of exactly how digital advertising and, specifically, four of its trends, were reshaping the business of advertising. 

The first, and I genuinely shit you not, was that mobile video advertising is a Big Deal. If you're to believe the author (and in this case, I don't see any reason not to), mobile video consumption has increased by 400% in the last two years, which seems fair enough. 

I'm just going to excerpt these two little bits. First is the opening sentence:

Mobile video consumption is growing rapidly and providing advertisers with a way to reach consumers when they are paying attention.

And then: 

 

Mobile video viewers are what you might call a "captive" audience. When TV commercials begin, people look down at their phones. On the bus or subway, people focus on their digital screens instead of the ads passing by in the cityscape. When radio ads begin, people change the station. However, when people are already looking at their smartphone, nothing is going to distract them. Use mobile video ads to take advantage of this undivided attention.

to which - and I may be projecting here - my assumption is that our author actually means that mobile video consumption now offers a suite of shitty products where you can *interrupt* consumers and hopefully guarantee better attention. This is pretty much reinforced in the second excerpt, where the author describes mobile video viewers as a "captive" audience, in a sign that the ad industry - in this case, and by extension, views endorsed by The One Club - isn't really interested in moving away from an interruptive model and instead is thankful that finally someone is able to deliver back to them the literally captive audience they had in the golden days of only n broadcast channels and literally fuck-else to do than watch bad tv and the ads in between them. 

You know what's fucking annoying? The fact that autoplaying videos are coming back on mobile sites. Mobile video ads aren't a way to take advantage of undivided attention, especially if they're being used as gates. They're a way to seriously piss me off. 

The second trend is essentially "hey, have you heard of Buzzfeed and Vice", ie "native advertising" to which one of my experiences at Wieden when trying to work with Buzzfeed was that they, well, weren't necessarily *excited* at the prospect of working to create native content around a certain FMCG. But, to be honest, how many of us are. The third trend is basically making up for a whole bunch of fraud and appears to say: hey, so digital advertising was making numbers up and defrauding clients to the tune of potentially $11b but hey, it's all better now, so, um, please do more? 

If there is one partial truth it's that the last trend - behavioural data - in theory should make ads that are more relevant and more effective, but again, those aren't the brand ads. This was something I spent a lot of time thinking about when I was working at Wieden: sure, the targeting is better, but when you're trying to motivate a whole bunch of people who've spent most of their lives wanting to make really great TV ads, the creative opportunity of a well-placed but relevant Facebook ad just doesn't cut it if Nike is asking for a 2 minute brand anthem spot because they want to remind everyone during the Olympics that they're number one. 

In other words, bullshit, The One Club, and bullshit Entrepreneur.com.

[1] https://twitter.com/oneshow/status/570800477409046529
[2] http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/242393 - The Four Digital Advertising Trends That Are Reshaping Advertising

2.0 Don't Do That, Either

So Code for America is in the middle of hiring for a User Researcher (hey! Are you a user researcher? Are you based in America? Do you know a user researcher who is? Do you want to help us fix government so it works better? Why not apply!) and it turns out that we use TheResumator[1], a piece of software-as-a-service that helps make the process of recruiting easier by, I dunno, helping you collaborate on job descriptions, post them, and then collect candidate information as they apply through some sort of candidate-relationship-management system, and then presumably make sure that everyone who's supposed to provides feedback from interviews and all that stuff. 

So I'm busy looking at how many views our listing has received and how many people have applied when I realise that the candidate names aren't blinded: as in, I can see the names of the people who're applying. At Code for America we take diversity seriously - I like to think that we're one of the counter-examples of Ivy-League Educated White Male Dude Tech-Related Business that's based in the Bay Area, and was reminded of, frankly, depressing stories about what happens when you blind orchestra conductor and player auditions (women actually get in), and also, more recently the news that when teachers blind-marked young boys and girls maths papers, boys outperformed girls when teachers knew pupil names, and vice versa when teachers didn't[2, 3], suggesting that teachers may have overestimated boys' abilities and underestimated girls' abilities. 

So. Simple question: Tweet at TheResumator and ask them if they have the ability to blind candidate names because that (hopefully) simple change would have a real impact on our ability to select the best candidate for a job, and work against any innate biases we might have. I have to admit here that my assumption was that Twitter would be pretty effective as a customer support and feedback channel (you know, pretty young SAAS startup, all that jazz) but only now, when I look at what they're actually using Twitter for[4], it looks like, well #brand #engagement of the detestable kind mainly because, like exclamation marks were an indicator for mental instability in Terry Pratchett's world, the overuse of #hashtags is similarly so in the world of, uh, whatever it is that entry is in Business Town. 

Anyway, here's what happened:

Me: @theresumator hey, is it possible to configure your product to blind candidate names? Would really help when trying to be non-discriminatory

theresumator: @hondanhon No, we don't have the ability to "hide" candidate info.

Me: @theresumator Any plans to?

theresumator: @hondanhon Not at this time. But you are welcome to submit feedback and suggest a feature request.

This is, of course, for those of you old enough to remember training sessions delivered on VHS tape in the mid late 90s, where as the instructor I would pause the tape and ask the audience if they had spotted the mistake that TheResumator had made. Because, my next tweet:

Me: @theresumator But I just gave you feedback and submitted a feature request.[5]

makes that pretty clear! 

Look, it's not like I subscribe to some sort of weird customer entitlement thing, and it's also not clear if TheResumator knew that I was an existing customer (or that the organisation I work for is a customer), and I definitely don't want to get sidetracked into some weird black hole of talking about stupendously out-of-proportion customer entitlement issues. But. The thing that I'm getting my head around here is that literally the simplest thing to do would've been to log this as a piece of feedback and a feature request internally, say, "hey, thanks for that! We'll let our developers know" and hey, I don't have anything to write about for a newsletter episode. But instead, we get this!

Theresumator: @hondanhon @hondanhon [sic] Hi Don [sic], please submit your feedback and feature request here: success.theresumator.com/s/

Me: @TheResumator is there a reason why I have to give you feedback twice? Do you understand you're making a customer do more work? [6]

I mean, a) steady on, no need to use my Twitter handle twice there, just the once will make sure that it gets to me, and b) I'm not Don (an aside: this happens to me a lot in America and even happens when people have *typed in my email address and domain name* so I literally have no idea what's going on there) c) as a Brit, I find it hard to deal on an emotional level with URLs that contain the word "success". because honestly, so eager, and d) let's just go into this.

I have just provided feedback and a feature request, and I'm being asked to do so again, through a different form. 

Anyway, the whole exchange ended like this:

Theresumator: I will have a customer service rep submit this. For the future, this is where you can submit feedback: success.theresumator.com/s/ [7]

So, I suppose if I can try and wrap this whole sorry tweet exchange up on a positive or actionable note, it's that: (user story hat on) as-a-user, I wanted to provide feedback to the provider of a service I was using so that I could potentially see that service improve. As-a-user, I didn't give two shits about what communication platform I used to provide that feedback, and used the one that was closest to hand. The mistake on Theresumator's part appears to be - again, looking at the evidence as to how they describe and both use their Twitter account - is that it's pretty much an outbound broadcast marketing channel, and only rarely a conversational one, and in the light of the interaction I had with them, one where whoever was running "social" had nothing to do with "customer service" to which, well, hello silos. 

So. Don't do that.

[1] https://www.theresumator.com
[2] http://www.nber.org/papers/w20909 via
[3] Young children must be protected from ingrained gender stereotypes - Laura Bates, The Guardian
[4] https://twitter.com/TheResumator
[5] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/566285918752219138
[6] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/566311201299116033
[7] https://twitter.com/TheResumator/status/566313651162710016

3.0 Seeing Like The Internet

This is all I'm going to say about _that dress_: that it feels like, at least for the Western, English-speaking parts of the internet (a network with *multiple, partitioned collective intelligences being spawned, partitioned by language and character sets!) yesterday was potentially the moment when a layer of neurons got together and decided to think about white balance for a bit and come up with (at least some sort of) random firing that resulted in one of two answers as to what colours made up a certain dress. 

You can tell that I've been reading about convolutional neural networks and that I've been going back and brushing up on my elementary understanding of the visual cortex: a network of people arranged just so, all being fed the same input, all being asked: is this one thing or is this another, a web of connections between each of those nodes, with some connections being stronger than others, and then: certain connections becoming reinforced whenever Buzzfeed or Wired or Vox or whomever decides to write an Explainer about what it means to see what you think you're seeing. 

As a relatively recent parent and someone who's never actually *done* any cognitive psychology, it's interesting to see a group of people doing what a baby does. I wonder what some part of the internet is going to do next. 

--

... and I finished writing this at 9:25pm on Friday, 27 February 2015. I'm in Vancouver, BC after having spent the better part of the day driving up I-5 at various speeds between zero miles per hour and over a hundred kilometers an hour and then only at the last minute last night remembering that I'd actually need a) my passport, and b) maybe my Green Card. Anyway, I'm in Canada now. And everyone seems nice so far.

Have a good weekend,

Dan