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.

The Day We Fight Back, Perspective, and The Long Game

Tuesday this week was The Day We Fight Back.  Thursday this week there was a massive snowstorm up and down the East Coast.  The two may have more in common than you might think.

The Day We Fight Back was a day-of-action protesting government snooping.  Evoking memories of the SOPA “blackout” day of action, a coalition of 6,000 websites added a banner (see below) urging visitors to take action against NSA surveillance.  The single day of action generated half a million emails to legislators, 89,000 phone calls, and over 300,000 petition signatures.  …Not bad for a day’s work.

boingboing DWFB

 

The snowstorm, meanwhile, was the “biggest storm since Snowmaggedon in DC.”  We got about 8″ of snow in my neighborhood.  Classes were cancelled. The government closed down. My dog loved it (see below).  But it didn’t live up to the multiple feet of snow that fell on DC back in 2010.  It was just a really big snowstorm. Nothing to see here, move along.

photo (41)

Both the protest and the snowstorm were treated as “the largest [rare event] since [EPIC event].”  That’s true, but the framing also detracts from thinking about their overall impact.

The online reaction to the protest has been pretty muted.  The New York Times Bits Blog labeled it “The Day the Internet Didn’t Fight Back.” The Verge posted a story titled “Not many of us actually fought on The Day We Fight Back.” TechCrunch offered a (pretty cool) side-by-side comparison, “SOPA vs NSA Protests, In Pictures.”

All of these articles return to a common refrain: this just wasn’t as EPIC as the SOPA Blackout.  Where was Google? Where was Wikipedia? The New York Times piece even concludes with some Reddit-snark: “Online petitions. The very least you can do, without doing nothing.”*

It’s true, The Day We Fight Back was no SOPA blackout.  But should we have expected it to be?  As event co-organizer David Segal from Demand Progress put it, “To mark all organizing a success or failure by measuring it against the single biggest online activist moment ever is ridiculous.”

There were (at least) three important differences between the SOPA moment and The Day We Fight Back.

(1) SOPA was defense, The Day We Fight Back was offense. When the SOPA blackout happened, some awful legislation was imminent.  The Day We Fight Back calls on Congress to support The USA Freedom Act and oppose the FISA Improvements Act.  Neither of these bills are facing a vote right now.  It is a lot harder to galvanize a public to stop something bad than it is to support something good.

(2) SOPA was a direct threat to major Internet companies.  NSA surveillance is an indirect threat. The Stop Online Piracy Act was a threat to Google and Wikipedia themselves.  It was a power-play by Hollywood to turn the Internet into a giant copyright-enforcement engine.  Organizing against SOPA didn’t happen overnight either.  But one reason why TechCrunch’s side-by-side photos showed more participation from big websites during the SOPA blackout was because those websites had more directly at stake.

(3) SOPA was first, and that yields an innovation edge. The sheer scale of the SOPA blackout makes everything else look smaller by comparison.  I wrote about this in my chapter of Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up To Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet.  Part of the blackout’s effectiveness came from it never having been done before.  Once “we’ve fought back” one time, targets begin to adapt and the power of the tactic slowly dulls.

The point here is that, like judging every big snowstorm against Snowpocalypse (or every hurricane against Katrina), judging a massive day of action against the SOPA blackout will obscure the impact of the action itself.

The Day We Fight Back wasn’t supposed to be as large as the SOPA Blackout.  And even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had the same direct impact, because getting Congress to pass a proposed law doesn’t happen as fast as getting Congress to abandon a proposed law.  The Day We Fight Back was part of a longer campaign.  It yielded mass attention, and increased cohesion within a gigantic, cross-partisan coalition, and it built a list of committed supporters who can be contacted for future actions.

And that’s the real point about online petitions.  Sure, they can be “the very least you can do without doing nothing.”  But they can also be a damn good initial entry point into the broader campaign.  555,000 people took action through their system on Tuesday.  That’s 555,000 people who have signaled their interest and can be re-engaged for later actions.

Active issue publics don’t appear overnight.  They don’t rove the digital terrain, waiting to ride in and save the day.  They are built through time, action, and effort.

The real question to ask about The Day We Fight Back isn’t “how does it compare to the SOPA blackout.”  The real question to ask is “so, what’s next?”

 

 

*Okay I’ll admit it, that’s a pretty good line.

Facebook at 10, and Internet Time Revisited

Robinson Meyer has a nice piece at TheAtlantic, discussing Facebook’s web publishing surge.  Websites within the Buzzfeed Partner Network now get nearly 4x more traffic through Facebook than through Google.  That’s… a pretty big deal.  Google used to be synonymous with the “attention backbone” of the internet*.  Now, it appears as though the Facebook “wall” is overtaking the Google search.

It’s a particularly timely piece, because Facebook just turned 10.  And Facebook’s digital publishing surge is not a natural outgrowth of its ten years of success.  As Meyer puts it:

“The kind of traffic surge from Facebook—so vertiginous to be almost hockey-stick-ish—wasn’t an accident. Facebook didn’t grow at that rate in 2013, especially among U.S. users, and “naturally” eclipse Google. As I’ve written before, Facebook’s directing that kind of traffic because it wants to direct that traffic—it wants to be a digital publishing kingmaker.”

I remember learning about Facebook in 2005.  I was in grad school, and a teaching assistant for a large undergraduate intro-to-politics class.  All of my students had created Facebook accounts to go along with their Myspace accounts.  Since I had a university email address, I created one too.  But I didn’t see much point to the site.  It was an exclusive, barebones version of Myspace.  No one I wanted to socialize with was on the thing, and “poking” seemed innately stupid.

Facebook-as-digital-publishing-kingmaker was not foreseeable in Facebook’s initial years.  Hell, it wasn’t even foreseeable two years ago.  Facebook changed as it grew, and as other parts of the World Wide Web grew around it.  That change doesn’t occur along a single vector, or in response to a stable five year strategic plan.  I’ve written on this subject before.  It’s a concept that I call “Internet Time.”

In secular time (normal human being time) a decade isn’t really that long.  Ten years ago, everyone was watching J.J. Abrams shows on television (and Lost hadn’t disappointed us yet), and watching Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien on the big screen.  Hollywood was being awful about copyright, and environmentalists were warning that it was long-past-time that we got serious about addressing climate change.

By comparison, 10 years is an eon in Internet Time.  Blogs were still in their nascent stage ten years ago.  The iPhone wasn’t invented until 2007.  The iPad was science fiction. Hell, YouTube didn’t even exist in 2004.

This is a pretty important distinction.  It means, when we study Facebook use over time, the object of analysis is unstable.  Facebook in 2014 performs a different function than Facebook in 2009.  And this isn’t simply because people have started to use it in different ways.  It’s because Facebook’s engineers have modified the system itself.  In its first few years, the Facebook Wall didn’t exist.  Then it provided you with status updates from your friends.  Now it provides you with news and opinion pieces, and steers you away from low-quality content farms, and charges companies to boost their wall content.  All of these engineering decisions and policy decisions matter.  They make Facebook at 10 something different than Facebook at 7 or 5 or 1.

When we study Facebook’s role in politics, or news, or entertainment, our empirical research has a relatively short half-life.  By the time an article makes it through peer-review and publishing, the object of analysis may have changed in ways that invalidate  many of the findings.  (Example: if someone conducted a solid study of Facebook and digital publishing traffic in 2011, it likely wouldn’t be published until this year.  Those findings would be robust for Facebook circa 2011, but inaccurate for Facebook circa 2014.)

This all reminds me of a passage from Kurt and Gladys Langs’ classic 1968 book, Television and Politics. (further discussed at QualPoliComm).  the Langs discuss how television does not reflect reality, it refracts reality.  The introduction of the tv camera alters and helps to create the scene.  The Langs write “Refraction inheres in the technology, but the particular angle of vision rests on the decisions and choices within news organizations and how an event is to be reported.”

Facebook is also a refracting media technology.  And the angle of vision rests on the decisions of engineers and A/B testers.  But that angle of vision is also constantly changing, constantly evolving.

We can be confident that social media refracts, rather than reflects.  But Internet Time means we constantly have to revisit just what is being magnified or obscured.

 

*”Attention Backbone” is Yochai Benkler’s term.  I love it and am borrowing it for a slightly different context here.  You should read his recent paper about the SOPA mobilization, though.

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.

But!

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.