On the Ethics of A/B Testing

[I have a hunch that this will be the first in a series of posts...]

The ethics of A/B testing are back in the news this week.  First it was Facebook, fiddling with our emotions.  Now it’s OkCupid, meddling with love.

As with the Facebook study, the details of the specific OkCupid experiments are less of an issue than the sheer fact that they are being conducted in the first place.  I decided not to weigh in on the Facebook controversy last month (Tarleton Gillespie has a nice roundup if you’re interested), but one of the things that struck me at the time was that the study itself was oversold.*  Pretty much everyone participated in the overselling.  The authors wanted us to think they’d found something extraordinary (as every author always does).  Critics of all stripes wanted to agree, so they could focus on the broader implications of this extraordinary study.  And those critiques fell into roughly three camps:

#1. Facebook has too much power!  They shouldn’t be able to manipulate people like this without any check or oversight!

#2. People should become better informed!  Companies do this all the time, and no one realizes it.  If we want a better internet, we have to demand a better internet!

#3. Academia shouldn’t be involved! The Institutional Review Board (IRB) messed up or wasn’t properly consulted here!

Each of these three perspectives take us toward a different ethical question.  Personally, I’d rank them #2>#1>#3 in terms of importance.

Regarding #2, one of the great things about the Facebook Study is that it spawned the Facebook Controversy.  Everyone vaguely knows that Facebook manipulates their algorithm for learning, fun, and profit.  Nearly everyone chooses to go about their merry way, blithely ignoring the implications of this manipulation.  Facebook partnered with academics, and that led to a public conversation about those implications.  Let’s file all it under “positive-but-unintended consequences.”  Ethically, if we want the public to be more aware, then we should also hope that these companies keep publishing their experimental findings.

Regarding #1… Yes, Facebook is crazy-powerful.  It is a quasi-monopoly and a quasi-utility.  It ought to be at least somewhat regulated as such.  But I have difficulty getting too incensed about this for two reasons.  First, the FCC currently isn’t even willing to treat Internet access as a public utility.  Comcast is the most blatant monopolistic empire of this century.  Let’s get around to regulating Facebook after we convince the government to follow basic common sense and expert consensus on regulating ISPs.  My pitchfork and torch are already spoken for.

And second, A/B testing (experimentally manipulating the user experience to track results) is indeed standard business practice for large websites and digital organizations.  Daniel Kreiss has written about this in the Obama campaign as “Computational management.”  I’ve described it in civil society organizations as “passive democratic feedback.”  In Christian Rudder’s (President of OkCupid) post about OkC’s recent experiments, titled “We Experiment on Human Beings!“,  he writes:

We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook “experimented” with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.

I think Rudder is basically right.  These experiments are a core source of data on what users want.  Organizations that don’t run tests aren’t listening to their users/customers/members.  Ethically, I think organizations should learn to listen better, and listen responsibly.  But I don’t think we should be angry that they’re listening at all.

Regarding #3, academia’s role in all this, I have decidedly mixed feelings.  IRBs were designed as a check on the power of researchers to unnecessarily harm subjects in the name of science.  IRBs are important because academic research has a specific type of power and authority.  But we probably have less power and authority than we’d like to think… particularly in the digital arena.

Facebook and Google and OkCupid hire research scientists.  They conduct experiments all the time.  If University-based academics keep this research at arms’ length, the research still happens.  It just doesn’t get presented at our conferences or published in the journals we happen to read.  And that leaves academic social scientists further adrift from the lived experience of actual human beings in modern society.

So yeah, there should probably be some improvements to the IRB process for online experiments of this type.  But I’m not sure if that’s the right ethical line-in-the-sand to draw.  It’s easy to argue over IRB reforms, because academics have the ability to directly affect the state of Institutional Review Boards.  We can decide what sorts of studies we’ll participate in, even though we can’t decide what sorts of studies will be performed beyond our cloistered halls.

Publicly-engaged/publicly-oriented scholarship is always messy.  As experimental research finds a welcome home outside of academia, it becomes even messier.  Christian Rudder tells us, “if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”  The more we acknowledge and engage with this reality, the better off we’ll be.

 

*The authors claim to have found evidence of “emotional contagion”: by modifying the Facebook newsfeed to contain slightly more positive or more negative postings, they were able to observe an impact on users’ posting habits.  Put plainly, if you see lots of positive posts on Facebook, you become marginally more likely to post something positive.  Negative posts tend to suppress negativity.

That’s a legitimate finding, but it isn’t actually proof that Facebook affects our emotions.  It’s proof that Facebook affects how we express emotions within Facebook.  And that might just be evidence of commonplace social norms, applied to a social network site: If I’m having a bad day, and everyone on Facebook is sharing happy news, I’m a bit less likely to pipe up and spoil the mood.  That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve adopted my peers’ emotions (as reported via Facebook algorithm).  It just means that I’m adopting similar phraseology to what I’m seeing around me.

 

The Red Queen’s Race, and Media Entropy in Campaigns

We live in the best of times for political persuasion: campaigns have more data then ever before.  They use that data to target, target, and refine.

We live in the worst of times for political persuasion: the old pipelines for reaching a persuadable audience — television, landline phones, and mail — are growing rusty from disuse.

This is the big takeaway from journalist Andrew Rice in his feature article, “How Far Can Political Technology Reach?”  It’s excellent writing, I strongly recommend it to you.

Here’s the key passage in Rice’s article:

THE INNOVATORS ARE always working around a central irony: The very advances that make it possible to know so much about voters also make them more difficult to reach. A DVR records your viewing habits, but it also allows you to fast-forward through the standard 30-second campaign spot. Spam filters are rising; network audience numbers are falling. It takes plenty of invention just to counteract the relentless force of media entropy.

I remember noticing this same trend when I was interviewing nonprofit direct mail professionals for The MoveOn Effect.  I heard two countervailing reports, often from the same individuals: (1) Prospect Direct Mail has become more efficient than ever.  With more data and better modeling, organizations could do a much better job of building an initial mailing list.  The days of blind list swaps are over; now we can fine-tune and microtarget.  (2) Prospect Direct Mail is in its death throes.  People under 55 don’t pay bills through the mail anymore.  Response rates are so low that mail will inevitably switch from profit center to resource drain.

We see this same Dickensian pattern in polling: we’re living through a veritable revolution in modeling and aggregation techniques, all while response rates dip into the single digits.

And, as Rice reports, we see it in television and online ads. He quotes NationBuilder founder Jim Gilliam:

“The stuff I am extremely skeptical of is this idea that we can turn data into ad campaigns and magically turn people into voters,” says Jim Gilliam. “That’s not real.”

Now, all of this isn’t to say that technology in campaigns doesn’t matter.  It matters a great deal!  It matters for how campaigns are run.  It matters for who gets rich off of them.  It matters for how they engage (or don’t engage) citizens.*

And it also matters for who gets elected.  The sum total of all the testing, targeting, and refinement may only be a couple percentage points at the polls, but in the deeply polarized country we live in, those couple percentage points decide the balance of power.

Still, the point of this blog post is that (a) Andrew Rice’s article is really good, you should read it, and (b) he captures this balancing act better than most.

Viewed in isolation, the rise of testing and microtargeting can seem all-powerful, even ominous.  Much of the journalism on the subject has a tendency towards alchemy or mysticism: “these new campaign pros have math!  All bow before them…”

Viewed as a whole, the evolving industry looks much more like the Red Queen’s Race. “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

 

*necessary plug: you should read, at a minimum, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Daniel Kreiss and Jennifer Stromer-Galley.  They all make excellent beach-reading, I promise.

I Won’t Attend Netroots Nation Next Year in Phoenix (and you shouldn’t either)

I’ve spent the past 48 hours stewing over Netroots Nation ’15.

The Netroots Nation convention will be in Phoenix next summer.  Markos Moulitsas has announced that DailyKos will not be participating or supporting the convention.  So long as SB 1070 is still law in Arizona, so long as latinos are routinely harrassed and threatened by agents of the state, Moulitsas has pledged not to spend a dime in the state.  He writes:

As a Latino, I do not feel safe in Arizona, a state that continues to profile and harrass Latinos because of the way they look. So I’m not going to go, nor am I going to put my family or my staff at risk.

This whole controversy calls to mind the 2012 American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting boycott.  The APSA convention was scheduled for New Orleans that year.  Louisiana had a “super-DOMA” statute on the books.  If an LGBT political scientist got sick while attending the convention, his/her partner would be denied hospital visitation rights.  Many APSA members felt that it was wrong for the association to hold our annual meeting in a state which puts members in this sort of jeopardy.  They organized through petitions and joint letters to the APSA leadership.  They pointed out that the association changed the location of the 2011 APSA meeting from San Francisco to Seattle because of labor disputes in San Francisco.  APSA wouldn’t cross a picket line (good!).  But it didn’t accord the same respect to the rights LGBT members.  The APSA leadership ignored these protests, and the New Orleans meeting proceeded on schedule.*

I’m particularly reminded of a conversation I had with my former undergraduate mentor a few months before the APSA boycott.  He told me that he would be boycotting the annual meeting.  His longtime friends and colleagues in the discipline were boycotting as well.  But he also told me that he expected me to attend.  “You’re still pre-tenure and building your career,” he said, “this meeting is important for your job, you should be there. No one will think less of you for it.”

So I signed the petitions and the joint letters, but I also booked my reservations for the damn conference.  “Looks like I’ll take a stand next time,” I told myself.

Well, this sure seems like next time.

Here’s the argument in favor of selecting this conference location:

We are going there because that’s where our voices and presence are needed right now. We’re going there because that’s where organizing power is needed right now. We’re going there because that’s where we can have the greatest impact and affect the greatest change. We as a community need to go there because we need to join those on the ground who are fighting this fight everyday.

That sounds nice and all, but it rests on a misdiagnosis of what a national convention siting decision can accomplish.  National conventions don’t build lasting local activist infrastructure or organizing power.  If you go back to San Jose or Minneapolis or Providence, you won’t find concrete examples of progressive power building that emerged because the Netroots Nation convention was held there in years’ past.  That isn’t how it works. We fly in, we enrich the economy, we shine a brief spotlight, we fly out.  That’s all.

But national conventions are a real boon to the local Chamber of Commerce and elected officials.  Conventions are a concentrated form of economic power.  Cities compete for them.  You can use that power to reward your allies.  You can use it to demand concessions from your wavering targets.  You can use it to impose an opportunity cost on your enemies.

To the organizing committee’s credit, they are right that placing the conference in Phoenix will put immigration at the top of the Netroots’ radar.  (Or, to be more precise, it will signal that immigration is already at the top of the Netroots’ radar.)  And that’s a laudable choice. I can see how they came to believe that this would be bold and empowering.  Any Presidential candidates who chose to attend the event should be ready for some tough questions.  But Arizona isn’t the only border state.  They can accomplish those goals without putting attendees in this position.

Here’s (one part) of Markos Moulitsas’s argument against the siting decision:

 …look to labor: Netroots Nation refuses to hold events in cities without union hotel and conference facilities. They’re not “taking the fight” to non-unionized locations because we, as a movement, stand for the right of people to organize and we don’t reward those places that deny those rights. It’s the right call. Also, would the conference have been happy to stay in Arizona had Gov. Jan Brewer signed the virulently anti-gay SB 1062 earlier this year? Hard to see that happening.

Latinos deserve that same kind of respect.

Markos is right.  Latinos are being targeted in Arizona.  Flying 4,000 people in for a weekend of workshops, keynote speeches, and a rally or two doesn’t provide lasting help.  The local Chamber of Commerce and elected officials will happily endure our presence so long as we’re all staying in their hotel chains and buying their products.  On Sunday, the conventioneers fly home, leaving their money behind.

You know what would have an even bigger impact?  Publicly dropping Phoenix because it has racist laws on the books.  Make it clear that their anti-immigrant agenda costs the city tourism dollars.  That would “shine a light” too.  That would be grist for news stories and tough questions to public officials.  That would provide more tangible long-term help to the activists on the ground than a few mainstage speeches and breakout panels, and solidarity marches.

The bottom line is this: if you are an undocumented American, or if you look a bit like an undocumented American, then attending a conference in Phoenix involves putting yourself at risk.  The Netroots Nation organizing committee shouldn’t be assigning that risk on behalf of thousands of other people.

Among the ~4,000 expected attendees next year will be plenty of individuals who are required to attend by their jobs.  Netroots Nation 2007 (which was then still called YearlyKos) played host to a televised presidential primary debate.  It’s a safe bet that Netroots Nation 2015 will be angling for another one.  That’s an awful lot of early career campaign staff who will have to attend the convention whether they feel right about it or not.  Those of us who don’t have to attend have the responsibility to speak up now and object.

Netroots Nation isn’t APSA.  Netroots Nation cares about this fight for justice. That’s why they’ve selected Phoenix in an attempted show of solidarity.  But selecting Phoenix also requires every Latino attendee to accept a type of risk that every white attendee gets to avoid.  And it does so while providing much more of a boon to local officials than it does to local activists.  I understand that they reached this decision in good faith, but it’s still the wrong choice.

I hope the organizing committee rethinks this decision.  Otherwise, I can’t in good conscience attend.

 

———-

*Fun Fact: The APSA meeting was eventually canceled because a hurricane hit New Orleans during the week of the annual meeting.  Some might call that cosmic retribution.  I call it bad planning.  Simple rule, folks: don’t plan a big meeting in Louisiana during hurricane season.  Or in Rochester during the winter. …Or in Phoenix during frickin’ JULY!

The Deliverability Sinkhole

File this under “Things I Got a Little Bit Wrong In My Book”:

That’s a quote from Laura Packard, who really knows her stuff.  She’s highlighting a problem that rarely gets talked about: e-mail deliverability.

In The MoveOn Effect, I talk a lot about how the shift from direct mail to email has changed organizational membership practices.  The short, oversimplified version is this: Direct mail carries a marginal cost for every additional recipient, so it incentivizes smaller lists with high response rates.  Email carries virtually* no marginal cost for additional recipients — sending an email blast to 10,000 people costs the same amount as sending it to 10,001 people.  The lack of a marginal cost per recipient incentivizes larger lists with lower response rates.  Hence, we get a lot of multi-issue progressive generalists… like MoveOn, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, Demand Progress, Credo Action, Leadnow (Canada), 38 Degrees (UK), GetUp (Australia), and Campact (Germany).

*Whenever I talk about the diminished marginal cost of increasing the size of your email membership, I include a verbal asterisk.  I say that the costs “approach zero” or “approximate zero.”  And when I do that, it’s because I’m tiptoeing around the deliverability sinkhole.

There is an artificial aggregate cost to adding low-performing email addresses.  ISPs are constantly monitoring mass email traffickers, looking to identify spam algorithmically.  The cost of being algorithmically treated as spam can range from being diverted to the “spam” folder in gmail to being automatically rejected and returned to sender.  Being auto-filtered as spam is a problem.  Being undelivered is a disaster.  And one of the biggest flags for deliverability trackers is aggregate open rate.  If 98% of your recipients are not opening your message, then ISPs are going to guess that you are spamming them.

The big problem for online political organizers is that deliverability issues requires a distinct skillset and knowledge base.  Spammers and scammers have poisoned the well with increasingly sophisticated tricks meant to fool the filters and land messages in your inbox.  ISPs and whitehat engineers have increased their own sophistication in response.  It is probably too much to ask nonprofit civil society organizations to keep up with all this algorithmic sophistication while also making headway on their actual political/civic goals.

The practical result is that small issues like dead email addresses in a mailing list can compile into big deliverability problems.  If your email list is too broad, vague, and unresponsive, then you may get stuck in the deliverability penalty box.  It’s a sinkhole, forcing large organizations to pay for outside technical assistance.  And while this marginal cost isn’t nearly as large as the cost of direct mail printing and postage, it’s an important element that often goes ignored.

So consider this my way of coming clean.  When I talk about the marginal costs of online communication dropping toward zero, I’m consciously talking around sinkholes like deliverability.

The practical costs of online communication are always higher than the theoretical costs of online communication.

Upworthy Is People

This is meant as a brief follow-up to last night’s post about Upworthy. Jordan Fraade responded to my critique via twitter with the following reply:

@davekarpf@ntabebe vouching for their personal goodness/awareness of injustice. i’m talking abt ed strategy, not curators’ personal beliefs — Jordan Fraade (@schadenfraade) June 10, 2014

I think this is a pretty interesting disagreement.  Fraade feels that curators’ personal beliefs are distinct from the editorial strategy/organizational model.  This lets him lump Upworthy together with copycat sites like viralnova and policymic (where, he notes, he used to work).  I think that the identity and beliefs of the curators — who you hire, essentially — is actually quite central to the model.

Swap out all of Upworthy’s curators, and you no longer have Upworthy.  Selecting the right people as curators is a crucial first step.

Digital curation sites like Upworthy move content through a three-stage process.  They gather inputs (videos, infographics, or other distinct pieces of online content) at stage 1.  Once they select something worthwhile, they move to stage 2, creating a frame.  This stage includes brainstorming 25 potential headlines for each piece of content (a process that Koechley learned while working at The Onion), then pick the best 3 or 4 headlines.  They then run those headlines through a proprietary analytics engine, nicknamed the “magical unicorn box.”  They discuss technical details of this analytics process on their R&D blog.  Then in stage 3, they promote that content through Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, and the website.

 

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Stage 3 is highly visible.  Stage 2 is harder to see, but there’s been plenty of journalism on the subject.  Stage 1, is mostly invisible, and has been left entirely unexplored.  Copycat sites like Policymic and Viralnova have mimicked stage 3 and approximated stage 2, but they haven’t attempted to adopt the same stage 1 as Upworthy (as far as I can tell, at least).  Independent Journal Review is trying to occupy the “conservative upworthy” landscape, but it sure looks like they’re just latching on to stage 3, not even bothering with stage 2.

Stage 1 is about finding the right content.  It is a subjective process, based on shared taste and values.  Or, phrased differently, stage 1 is entirely about ideology.  What topics and issues deserve a better megaphone?  What narratives and conflicts best illuminate those issues?

And that brings me back to Fraade’s critique.  He takes issue with Nitsuh Abebe’s New York Magazine feature article, “Are You Cynical EnoughTo Hate Upworthy?” (which you should really read, btw.) When Abebe asked Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley whether they were cynics, Koechley replied “have you met any cynics here?”  Fraade offers the rejoinder,

This is a skillful evasion of the question. No one particularly cares whether Pariser and Koechley are cynics. What’s cynical is the strategy of finding “meaningful” content about social or political issues, and adding an emotionally manipulative headline, monetizing the results, all the while claiming earnestly that your goal is to make the world a better place. So it is that two liberals may end up playing an outsize role in shrinking the horizons of liberalism.

I don’t think Koechley was evading the question, though. I think he was directly answering it.  Upworthy’s success rests on hiring the right people.  Many of those people come out of progressive politics, and that isn’t an accident.

You could construct a cynical version of Upworthy.  Just hire cynical people.  But the result would be a distinctly different organization, with different content, different brand concerns, different impacts and a completely different funding model.

Or, put more simply, Fraade’s criticism of the Upworthy model only holds up if we avert our attention from a big chunk of the model itself.

Another Opinion Columnist Took a Cheap Shot at Upworthy… You’ll Totally Guess What Happens Next.

Every month or two, it seems like the same cranky opinion piece gets written about Upworthy.  The latest, “Upworthy’s unworthy politics” comes from Jordan Fraade at Al Jazeera America, bears all the hallmarks of the genre: There’s (1) the glib references to “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines, (2) the equating of A/B headline testing and “clickbait,” (3) the pretend-OUTRAGE that the site is neither a non-profit advocacy organization nor a venue for traditional journalism, and (most importantly) (4) the lack of any actual understanding of what Upworthy is trying to achieve.

Here’s the worst passage from Fraade’s think-piece:

To the extent that Upworthy has stated goals, they basically run along the lines of “We want to help you share things that are meaningful,” and “We want viral content to be a tool for social good.” (Upworthy also has actual goals, which involve making money for itself and its investors.) The site leans left; its 30-something founders both worked at MoveOn.org during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the ideology of the site and others like it isn’t a recitation of the Democratic Party platform. It’s not really a cohesive liberal worldview of any sort. Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures. It’s what happens when liberalism is treated as merely a set of lifestyle preferences.

There are two head-smackers in this paragraph.

First, describing Upworthy’s founders (Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley) as having “worked at MoveOn during the 2008 presidential campaign” is a bit like saying San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich “worked for the Spurs during the 2012 NBA lockout.”  Pariser was the Executive Director of MoveOn from 2004 through 2008, and was central to turning the organization into a progressive juggernaut.  He’s also the author of The Filter Bubble, an excellent book about the danger of online echo chambers (close readers might recall my shoutingloudly review of the book, incidentally).

Upworthy was created as a partial solution to the Filter Bubble problem.  This is pretty important contextual information for anyone who wants to actually understand the site.

Second, Fraade asserts that “Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures.”

Bullshit.

I’ve met a lot of Upworthy staff.  Every one of them is deeply aware of systemic barriers and perverted incentive structures.  I’d go so far as to say that this sort of awareness is one of the things they look for in the hiring process.  And I’ve watched a lot of Upworthy videos.  Nearly every one of them deals, in one way or another, with systemic barriers to social change.

They just don’t deal with it in  Fraade’s preferred format.

Though Fraade never gets around to describing a solution or preferred model, his complaints all center around the supposed lack of nuance in Upworthy content.  Upworthy does not promote 6,000 word essays on mass incarceration.  It doesn’t produce two-hour documentaries on race in America.  Its vision and values aren’t neatly arrayed in a platform or manifesto for our perusal.  And, since it has become massively successful, it is now a convenient vessel for us to place blame for the failings of the broader media system.

Here are four basic things you should actually understand about Upworthy:

1. Upworthy is curation, not journalism.  Upworthy isn’t meant to replace The New Republic, MSNBC or The New York Times.  They don’t hire journalists or film crews.  It plays a strict curatorial role.  They find quality content, tinker with the headlines and visual frames, and try to help videos about the health care system get as much traffic as videos about kittens.**  If you’re pinning your hopes for the future of journalism on Upworthy, you’re going to be disappointed.  They aren’t journalists.

2. Upworthy reaches beyond the echo chamber. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating.  Outside of elections, the politically-attentive segment of the American public is vanishingly small.  The biggest barrier for activists trying to engage in a public conversation about inequality, or fracking, or racism isn’t that the other side is reframing the debate; it’s that almost no one is paying attention.

Upworthy reaches between 40 and 80 million individuals per month.  That’s between 10 and 30 times larger than any program on MSNBC.  What Pariser and Koechley have done seemed downright impossible.  They have found a way to reach large segments of the American public with substantive progressive content.  It may not always be the specific content you or I would choose, but I would argue that it is the most dramatic change in the political information landscape of the past 5 years.

3. (High clicks)x(High shares) = virality. Upworthy has been surprisingly public about their model.  One of the most important elements is their “virality equation” (see below).

Upworthy Virality

 

“Clickbait” generally refers to headlines that draw a lot of clicks, often in a misleading fashion.  That isn’t an accurate representation of Upworthy’s model, though.  Upworthy measures both shares and clicks.  If shares and clicks are both low, the content isn’t particularly exciting.  If clicks are high but shares are low, then you’ve probably caught people in a “clickbait” trap.  When shares are high, but clicks are low, it indicates that the content has the potential to engage a large audience, if and only if it is framed correctly.

And that’s where Upworthy’s vaunted A/B testing regime comes into play: they fiddle with headlines for highly-shareable content, helping it to get clicks.  The Upworthy model doesn’t work for clickbait junk.

4. Upworthy is a force multiplier.  Upworthy is not meant to be political activism.  But it is activism-adjacent.  One of the biggest evergreen problems for social movement organizations lies in reaching beyond the choir and gaining the attention of the broader public.  Upworthy doesn’t solve this problem on its own: the most popular videos on the site don’t end with a stirring call-to-action or even with a “donate” link.  But when advocacy groups create polished, high-quality content, Upworthy potentially serves as an engine for mass appeal.

As an example, consider John Oliver’s EPIC net neutrality segment on Last Week Tonight.  Oliver is also activism-adjacent.  He educates his viewers on Net Neutrality — a major, but-also-boring matter of public importance.  He is funny and informative.  He ends with a call to all internet commenters to do what they do best: leave angry comments on the FCC’s website.  Originally airing on HBO, the segment drew about 1 million viewers. It was then rebroadcast via digital links, embedded in blog posts, facebook walls, and tweets.  It quickly galvanized a torrent of FCC input, crashing the government agency’s comment site.

Upworthy is now helping to give Oliver’s segment an extended boost, under the headline “John Oliver Goes Off On An Epic, Fact-Checked, Mic-Dropping Rant For 13 Minutes That You Need To See.”

…I guess Jordan Fraade doesn’t see much value, or nuance, in posts like this.  I do, though.  I think it’s significant that a curation site like Upworthy can help drive public engagement with substantive policy issues.

The site isn’t a replacement for high-quality journalism, or for high-quality activism.  But it isn’t supposed to be.  It’s filling a vital niche in our patchy public discourse — a niche that no one else has been able to fill.

That ought to be celebrated.  Or, at least, it ought to be accurately described before we critique it.

 

*Fun fact:  Upworthy.com never actually uses that phrase.

**Related note: kittens are stupid. Dogs are amaaaaaaazing.

Public Speaking in an Era of Distraction

I’m giving a little speech this Friday.

Nothing terrifying: the audience will be large, the comments will be brief, I’m far from the main attraction.

It isn’t a standard research talk, though, so I’ve had to devote more time than usual to the work of preparing my remarks.  And that’s led me to wonder about how the demands of public speaking change in an era of smartphones and twitter.

In talking with friends and colleagues, the standard advice has surfaced again and again: “just tell a story.” “People will remember your story much better than they’ll remember any specific advice you give.” “Offering a personal narrative will make it more relatable.”

Sure, that’s true.  People do learn through stories.  Facts and figures, divorced from narrative and context, fade immediately from memory.  A good story can persevere.

But the more I fiddle with these speech notes, the less convinced I am that “just tell a story” is the right benchmark anymore.

The problem is that, when you walk onto that stage, you have a very brief window to grab and hold the audience’s attention.  Within the first 30 seconds, audience members will be subconsciously evaluating whether you are worthy of a cognitive commitment on their part.  The speaker is competing with email, Twitter, and Facebook.*

Put more plainly, when I hear a speaker launch into a story, it often signals that this is a fine opportunity to check my smartphone.  We’ll be here for awhile, I can probably afford to tune out.

It’s a similar challenge to the one William Zinsser highlights in his classic textOn Writing Well. Zinsser writes (chapter 9), “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.”

Public speaking used to afford a bit more luxury than public writing.  The first sentence of your speech doesn’t have to induce the listener to proceed to the second sentence.  They’re stuck with you.  Walking out is a lot more disruptive than flipping to another article.  You’re the only show in town, so to speak.

I don’t know if that holds anymore, though. You either say something tweet-worthy, or you lose their attention to the tweetstream.

This isn’t to say that storytelling isn’t important anymore.  It’s important in speaking, just as it’s important in writing.  But it does leave me to conclude that it isn’t enough.

The job of a public speaker is to grab the audience’s attention, convincing them to make a cognitive commitment.  Then s/he has to do something with that attention, offering something pithy and meaningful.  Story and narrative can help hold attention, but attention can no longer be assumed.

So I’m beginning to think that “be provocative” is a more useful standard than “tell a story.”  Speeches, like articles, require a strong lede.  Otherwise, your listeners just stop listening.

And, as a corollary, a new metric for the quality of a speech might be “how many times did the audience tweet about this?”  Because if they weren’t engaging with you on twitter, they were probably engaging with something else.

 

 

*Well, maybe not Facebook.  Last I checked, their app was still terrible.

 

 

Tea Party Mobilization and the Long Con

(Via FirstPost, which you really ought to sign up for)

I’m a few days late to this party (blame end-of-semester administrative duties), but Matea Gold at the Washington Post wrote a dynamite piece this weekend about where exactly all that Tea Party money is ending up.

(TL;DR version: it’s lining a few consultants’ pockets.)

The accompanying infographic tells the story pretty well.  Groups like Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots raise millions of dollars every election year, under the promise that they’ll spend it on “the ads, the get-out-the-vote campaigns, the research and the volunteer training sessions we need to take the fight to the big-spending incumbents!”  Instead, they cut large checks to their staff, and even larger checks to their vendors (who happen to also be staff or board members).  And that leaves virtually nothing  (1-2%) left for actual campaign activities.

What interested me the most was the Tea Party Patriots response to the WaPo story:

In less than five years, we have placed over a quarter of a billion (with a b) email messages directly into the inboxes of conservative Americans. In the mail, we have disseminated over 34.7 million messages into mailboxes of our citizens. Over 1.2 million people have signed online petitions or taken some other activist action from email communications and over 600,000 have signed hard-copy petitions or taken some other step in activism related to our principles.  Since October, we have generated over 3 million calls into congressional offices supporting our issues.* (emphasis added)

Those sound like big numbers.  But if you step back for a moment, they really aren’t.  They’re examples of big, countable numbers, but they really don’t count for much.  Consider:

-250,000,000 email messages placed in inboxes over 5 years sounds huge.  But if they have a list of ~1.2 million people, then that averages out to about 1 email per week.  They’re essentially using alternate language to announce “we send a weekly e-newsletter.”

-34.7 million pieces of mail over 5 years is ~7 million/year.  Depending on the size of their direct mail list, that’s probably a fundraising mailing every couple of months.  Once again, they’re just describing a run-of-the-mill direct mail program.

-1.2 million online petition signatures is embarrassingly small.  In five years?  For an issue generalist that can switch from Obamacare to elections to Benghazi to Duck Dynasty/culture war issues?  Credo Mobilize gathered nearly 4 million petition signatures in just its first year.  MoveOn Petitions and Change.org regularly host petitions that receive between 100,000 and 1,000,000 signatures (hell, the duck dynasty petition at Change.org alone ended up with 118,000).

-only the last two numbers — 600,000 offline petitions-or-other-actions and 3 million phone calls — seem to have any substance at all.  Tea Party Patriots can make the congressional phones ring off the hook.  That counts for something.  But it hardly justifies the outlandish payola schemes documented in the Post story.  The most-recognizable Tea Party organizations are succeeding in making their founders very wealthy, while putting in only the barest effort towards building genuine activist infrastructure.

This whole episode is reminiscent of Rick Perlstein’s (brilliant) November 2012 Baffler piece, “The Long Con.”  Perlstein documents the long history of hucksterdom amongst conservative “advocacy” groups.  Entrepreneurial conservative activists launch organizations, build memberships that they can bilk for some cash, and sell those names to pyramid schemers and other con artists.  They are never, ever, ever held to account.

It’s a received culture among rightwing advocacy groups.  The fat checks that Tea Party Express and company write to themselves are standard operating procedure on the right.

This is yet another source of the partisan technology gap.  We get different “netroots” groups on the right and the left because these groups are operating according to very different established norms and routines.  Pile all the groups into a single data analysis and you’re bound to miss out on these very real, very important distinctions.

*This quote comes from Personal Democracy Media’s FirstPost.  That’s a daily email, so I have no way to hyperlink it.  I’ll urge you again to sign up, instead.

 

 

My Spammers and Me, Part 2

[part 2 in an unintended series.]

Ugh. Does this happen to everyone?

I have a google alert set for my name and my book title.  I do this because I’m a huge narcissist it’s a valuable curation tool for anyone with an even slightly public profile.  Last night, I received a google alert about a new blog post mentioning my name and my work.  It was titled “Adding a New Dimension To Looks With Plastic Surgery.” (screenshot below – I’m not linking to it)

Huh. I didn’t talk much about plastic surgery in the book.  This should be an… interesting connection.

Then I clicked the link.  Here’s what I saw.

SpamblogThat’s my blog.  Well, more precisely, it was my blog until a few weeks ago.  Now it belongs to a spammer impersonating me.

When The MoveOn Effect came out, I had the bright idea of creating a book-blog, where I could post upcoming events and write short pieces related to the book.  It took about 10 minutes to put the thing together on wordpress.  The free blog address was themoveoneffect.wordpress.com, and I also paid eighteen bucks for the domain name themoveoneffect.com.  But the whole thing never really came together — the book tour was so hectic that I didn’t get around to updating the site, and I just kept blogging at shoutingloudly instead.  So last month, I decided not to pay the eighteen bucks to renew the domain name.  It’s a dormant blog, I’m working on a new book now, what’s the point in spending the money?  Might as well just let it expire.

What happened next is that a spammer grabbed the domain name*, scooped up and duplicated the content**, and started writing new posts under the name davekarpf**.  It’s a pretty basic scam — either you get a new spamblog to improve your search engine optimization, or you force the former owner of the domain name to pony up the cash to buy it back from you.

It didn’t occur to me that I should worry about something like this, specifically because themoveoneffect.com was already a dormant blog!  There isn’t a lot of value in grabbing a domain name that no one was visiting or linking to.  But apparently there’s just-barely-enough value for the spammers of the world.  Great.

I’m working on resolving the issue.  I’m not crazy about having someone posting beauty tip spam in my name.  I’m also not going to pay a ransom, though.  In the meantime, I see two takeaways:

1. This is why we can’t have nice things online. If you look closely at the screenshot, you might notice that the comments are turned off, and there’s no address for contacting the author.  The title, facebook link, and first post on the page all signal that I’m the author (indeed, I created all that content).  A random visitor to the site would have no reason to suspect that it was fraudulent impersonation, and no easy recourse for checking.

2. Spamming isn’t just for inboxes anymore.  Spammers prey on blogs that are much further down the digital food chain than you might think.  I study this stuff for a living, and have written research articles about spamblog-driven decay in online metrics, and this still took me by surprise.  Spammers are the worst.

And that, dear friends, is the story of how my night got ruined.

…At least we’re finally getting some nice weather.

——

*This is legal.

*Definitely not legal. Blatantly illegal, in fact.

Hashtag Activism Isn’t Activism (A comment on #cancelColbert)

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” -Emma Goldman

That was one of my favorite slogans, back in my organizing days.  I met plenty of campus activists who were permanently serious.  The stakes were dire, and nothing was ever a laughing matter.  I couldn’t stand those activists.  I always felt their personal severity made them a lot less effective in their work.  They existed in an echo chamber of constant agreement, and drove away anyone who failed to tow the party line.  And their tactics always adopted the form of “let’s make our peers feel uncomfortable!  Then they’ll all realize…”

I was reminded of all this last night, when I briefly logged on to twitter and saw the #CancelColbert trending hashtag.

Here’s what happened: Dan Snyder (owner of the Washington Redskins) has faced increasing pressure over the racist name of his team.  He decided to defuse that pressure through a PR maneuver, launching the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.”  He’ll give a little money to Native American communities, so long as they’ll agree to be photographed in Redskins gear.  (If he’s polite, maybe he’ll leave the money on the bedside table…)

Colbert ran a segment on Snyder, pointing out the absurdity of it.  He ended by announcing that, in the spirit of Snyder, he’d be launching the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”  It was, in my opinion, an appropriate skewering of a desperate and offensive PR move.


Comedy Central’s @ColbertReport account tweeted the punchline to the joke.  Losing the context made the joke completely unfunny.  As Erin Gloria Ryan points out at Jezebel, “The bit only works as a whole; it doesn’t work in parts. Colbert’s character is saying here that naming a charity “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” is just as offensive as naming a charity the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” That’s the joke.”

From there, it appears the professional “twitter activists” took over.  Tweeter Suey Park announced her outrage at Colbert’s “racist joke” and launched a #CancelColbert hashtag.

Now, Colbert isn’t in any actual danger of cancellation.  And Park explained on Huffington Post Live that she used this language because “unfortunately people don’t usually listen to us when we’re being reasonable.” So that’s fine, make an unreasonable demand, start a conversation.  Park will gain some more twitter followers out of the exchange, Colbert will tape his next segment, and we’ll all move on to another outrage in time for dinner.

But I can’t help being reminded of those far-too-severe environmental activists.  The #CancelColbert “conversation” hasn’t been much of a conversation.  When invited onto Huffington Post Live to explain “why Cancel Colbert,” Park’s immediate response was “well that’s a loaded question.”  She then went on to accuse the host (who was giving her airtime) of “silencing” her.

Episodes like this one don’t build your movement. They concentrate your movement.  They foster an umbrage mentality and more-serious-than-thou sensibility.  It isn’t fun for anyone, and it isn’t appealing to anyone.

This hashtag activism is the digital version of an old, severe strain of activism.  Unfortunately, it’s a strain that gives activists, as a whole, a bad name.

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.