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.

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 regularly host petitions that receive between 100,000 and 1,000,000 signatures (hell, the duck dynasty petition at 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, and I also paid eighteen bucks for the domain name  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 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.

News Coverage of Economic Immobility: Free of Historical Context

A recent Harvard study has found that economic mobility has not changed substantially in the last couple decades.

This has been framed repeatedly in the media as “mobility has not declined.” The Times headline is literally, “Upward Mobility Has Not Declined, Study Says”.

The NPR headline, “Study: Upward Mobility No Tougher In U.S. Than Two Decades Ago“, captures that story’s spin. Over at the New Yorker? “Social Mobility Hasn’t Fallen: What It Means and Doesn’t Mean“.

The reason for this framing is surely that political leaders of several stripes have contended that mobility actually is going down. Remarkably, this has included not only by Obama and other Dems, but also visible Republicans like Paul Ryan.

Still, just because political leaders are wrong does not justify using their claims as a starting point. A more accurate headline would be, “Study Finds Economic Mobility Remains Low”. Economic mobility has been remarkably low in the US since the middle of the 20th century. The new Harvard study is a valuable addition to the literature, but it is consistent with years-old studies suggesting that we’ve plateaued near the bottom of the scale.

Here’s a graph from a 2007 study using Social Security data, showing how mobility dropped sharply in the 1940s and ’50s, and has stayed low since then. (Click for a larger version.)

Graph: Decrease in Economic Mobility

Even the 1960s and ’70s had slightly more variability in mobility and were (on average) higher in mobility. The Harvard study, however, covers the working years of those born in the 1970s and later — that is, roughly the last twenty years.

Look again at the graph. There is about a 3% chance that somebody in the bottom 40% will climb to the top 40%, and vice-versa, in a given year. Through 1950, the odds of moving up from the bottom to the top 40% were at least 6%, and as high as 12%, depending on the year. Compared to that range especially, the Reagan years basically saw everyone cemented in place.

When mobility is already so very low, and has been for decades, the key finding of this study is not that it has failed to drop further. This is akin to a sports section headline of “Cubs Fail to Win World Series”. Nobody would write that headline. “Cubs Wrap Another Miserable Year” is more like it.

This would likely be true even if the GM had promised a title at the start of the year — though the New York Post would probably go with throwing that promise back in his face. Sadly, the reporters who cover economics research know far, far less about that subject than sports reporters do about the games.

These headlines are a good example of political coverage only taking place within the boundaries set by policy leaders, even when the facts should militate otherwise. Political reporters and editors don’t know whether economic mobility has gone up or down over the 20th Century; they only know what Paul Ryan and Barack Obama say about it. That’s shameful, of course, when good information is publicly available — much of which is readable to the outsider.

Shouldn’t reporters be fact checking whether mobility really has gone down? Asking politicians where they got their data? Reading enough books and scholarly articles (or at least the darned abstracts) to have at least a semblance of an idea where to start looking for such an answer? Regardless, they are not doing so, and it takes the PR flacks at Harvard (who have apparently done their job very well this week) to put such research on their desks.

Thankfully, both the paper and the coverage have put this finding in the broader context of growing concentration of wealth. On this question there is widespread agreement that inequality is (a) worse in the US than in any other industrial country, and (b) growing. Here’s the relevant chart from the 2007 study linked above that shows the growth of inequality:

Graph: Rising Economic Inequality

This graph depicts the “Gini Coefficient,” which is a measure of economic inequality. Inequality dipped after the war, and it has climbed steadily since then. This graph stops in 2004, but it has continued unabated in the decade since as well.

The study and the coverage are also right to highlight important geographic differences in mobility. A kid who grows up in the bottom fifth in San Francisco or New York City is over twice as likely to reach the top fifth as a similarly positioned kid growing up in Atlanta or Charlotte. (Could it possibly be that collective investment leads to greater mobility?) Check out the Times‘ really cool interactive map of economic mobility.

This wealth of great detail notwithstanding, the new Harvard study’s framing in the news headlines and leads is disappointing. “Cubs Not Champions” is not the right frame; this is a lot closer to “Cubs Continue Futility”.

P.S. Thankfully, economic inequality is now being treated as an economic problem. In that vein, we should be looking at the political explanation for inequality — which brings me, for the umpteenth time, to Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. If you have not read this book and give a gram of care about inequality, go read it now. Even for those with no training in economics or political science, it’s a very accessible — and persuasive — read.

My Trouble with VictoryKit

We lost Aaron Swartz a year ago today.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about VictoryKit, Aaron’s final unfinished project. He told me just a little bit about it last year, when we were both at the OPEN Summit.  The overlaps between his tech product and my emerging research puzzle (on analytics and activism) were uncanny, and the last conversation we had ended with a promise that we’d discuss it further soon.

As far as I can tell, VictoryKit is a growth engine for netroots advocacy groups.  It automates A/B testing, and draws signal from a wider range of inputs (open-rates, click-rates, social shares, etc) than usual.

The thing is, as I’ve conducted my early book research and learned more about VictoryKit, I think I’ve identified a real problem in the design.  I’m worried that VictoryKit automates too much.  It puts too much faith in revealed supporter opinion, at least as it is constructed through online activity.  And in the long term, that’s dangerous.

VictoryKit is designed to “send trickles, not blasts.”  The idea is to be constantly testing, constantly learning.

I heard Jon Carson from OFA give a talk last summer where he remarked “if you get our email before 8AM, you’re in our testing pool.”  OFA basically is the industry standard for email testing.  They test their messaging in the morning, sending variant appeals out to random subsets of their list*. They refine their language a few hours later, based on the test results, then they can send a full-list blast in the afternoon.  That’s one of the basic roles of A/B testing in computational management.

VictoryKit gets rid of the full-list blast.  Instead, you keep feeding petitions into the magical unicorn box**, it judges which petition is more appealing, and it then sends that petition to another incremental segment of the list.  I haven’t looked into the exact math yet, but the basic logic is clear: analytics represent member opinion.  Automate more decisions by entrusting the analytics, and you’ll be both more representative and more successful.

The problem here is that our revealed preferences are not the entirety of our preferences.

A.O. Hirschmann wrote about this in “Against Parsimony.”  Essentially, we have two types of preferences: revealed preferences and meta-preferences.  Revealed preferences are what we do, what we buy, what we click.  But Hirschmann points out that we also have systematic preferences for what kind of options we are presented with.

I always think of this as the Huffington Post’s “Sideboob” problem.  Huffpo has a sideboob vertical because celebrity pics generate a lot of clicks.  That’s a revealed preference: if Huffpo gives us a story about inequality and a story about Jennifer Lawrence at juuuuust the right camera angle, JLawr will be far more popular.  So Huffpo provides a ton of sideboob and a medium amount of hard-nosed journalism.


If the Huffington Post gauged reader preferences through different inputs ((by asking them to take online surveys, for instance), then they’d get a different view of reader preferences.  More people click on celebrity pics than will say “yes, that’s what I want from the Huffington Post.”

There’s a narrow version of economic thought that rejects meta-preferences as being unreal.  If people say they want hard news, but they click on the celeb pics, then they must really want the celeb pics.  But that’s unsupportable upon deeper reflection.  People are complex entities.  We can simultaneously watch junk tv and wish there was higher-quality programming.  New gym memberships peak around new years and late spring, as people who generally don’t reveal a preference for regular exercise act on their meta-preference for healthier living.

In online political advocacy, the signals from revealed preferences are even weaker.  We click on the petitions that are salient, or engaging, or heart-rending.  But we want our organizations to work on campaigns that are the most important and powerful.  Some of those campaigns won’t be very “growthy.”  But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

Take a look, for instance, at question #6 in Avaaz’s 2013 member survey.  Avaaz asked global members their opinion on a wide range of issues.  It also asked them “how should Avaaz use this poll.”  Only 5% thought their opinions should be binding on the organization.  The other 95% felt it should be as minor input or as a loose guide.  When asked, Avaaz members announce a meta-preference that the staff reserve a lot of room to trust their own judgment.

The problem with analytics-based activism is that it can lead us to prioritize issues the most clickable issues, instead of the most important issues.  That’s what can happen if you equate revealed preferences, as evidenced by analytics signals, with the totality of member preferences.

There’s a simple solution to that problem: maintain a mix of other signals.  Keep running member surveys.  Make phone calls to your most active volunteers to hear how they think things are going.  HIre and empower the right people, then trust their judgment.  Treat analytics as one input, but don’t put your system on autopilot.

If I understand it right, VictoryKit promotes exactly the type of autopilot that I’m worried about.

Maybe Aaron would have had a good rebuttal to this concern.  He was incredibly thoughtful, and it’s entirely possible that he envisioned a solution that I haven’t thought of.

But today, one year later, as we reflect on his legacy, I want to offer this up as a conversation topic:

Does VictoryKit automate too much?  And if so, how do we improve it?

*I have a hunch that they also test during the day. …otherwise their response pool would be biased toward earlybirds.

**Adam Mordecai refers to Upworhty’s analytics engine as a “magical unicorn box.” Adam Mordecai is funnier than I am.  Ergo, I’m going to start stealing language from him.

Frank Luntz as a Man Out of His Time

Molly Ball has a typically excellent article at TheAtlantic, profiling Republican spin guru Frank Luntz.  In the 1990s, Luntz was the guy who told Republicans that they should rename the estate tax “the death tax.”  Since then, he’s become a fixture of political media, synonymous with spin.  He is a one-man-confirmation of all your most cynical fears about congressional politics.

The premise of Ball’s article is that Luntz has grown depressed and disheartened about the American public.  I think the more surprising thing is that the man truly seems to believe that his techniques still work just fine.  Consider:

“I spend more time with voters than anybody else,” Luntz says. “I do more focus groups than anybody else. I do more dial sessions than anybody else. I don’t know shit about anything, with the exception of what the American people think.”

Focus groups and dial sessions were the cutting edge of 1994.  They’re laughably antiquated today.  And what’s more, they were never a perfect approximation of public opinion.  They’re useful-but-limited tools that reveal an imperfect artifact, which in turn can serve as a stand-in for public opinion.

Focus groups and dial sessions are technologies that can help you pick out particularly resonant phrases and images.  They were excellent tools back when the 30-second attack ad was virtually the only messaging vehicle in town: (1) Run a focus group.  (2) Find resonant language.  (3) Produce a commercial.  (4) Test it with some people.  (5) Run the commercial.  (6) Get paid crazy money.  Sounds like a pretty sweet gig.

The problem for Frank Luntz isn’t that people have gotten “more contentious and argumentative”*.  The problem is that his two nifty tools aren’t the only game in town anymore.  We’ve realized that campaign ads are pretty weak persuasion tools.  We’ve developed plenty of other outreach mechanisms (*cough* Analyst Institute *cough*) that don’t rely solely on Luntz’s preferred form of crafted talk.  And we’re developing new techniques for gauging activated public opinion through social media and analytics.**

Luntz is a lot like the old school scouts in Moneyball. He “knows baseball,” and he knows it based on the same old techniques that he pioneered 20 years ago.

If he seems sad, it’s probably because he’s in denial about how the game has changed.


*I’ve just started reading Berry and Sobieraj’s new book, The Outrage Industry.  I’m pretty sure they would argue that we have gotten more contentious and argumentative.  I’m inclined to agree.  But I find it hard to believe that’s the real problem Frank Luntz is facing.

**Which is the subject of the book manuscript that I’ll go back to working on as soon as I’m finished with this blog post.