I’ve been a user of social media for more than 10 years and I was among the first to write about its potential long before there were social media products. The original research on 5 degrees of separation and the Kevin Bacon game that illustrated the power of social networking fascinated me. I started writing about it and even wrote a paper in about 2002-03 that called for social networking and analytics to become part of the CRM suite. I was a fan of James Surowiecki’s classic, “The Wisdom of Crowds” and thought that was a prescription for settling many tricky research questions. But now nearly 20 years later, I’m dismayed by what social media has become and I find myself calling for its abolition.
Ok, social media isn’t going anywhere. The freedom of speech embedded in western democracies will ensure that even to the point that social media is eroding the very freedom of discourse that supports it. But that only places more responsibility on each of us to ensure that this class of products is used appropriately and not as a force for good.
Revelations about Russian social media use to worsen domestic political arguments among Americans and influence political discourse leaves me shaken. But so does the advertising model and profit motive that drives it. They’re really two sides of the same coin. Social media’s primary product is the user and the products do a great job of gathering crowd data and statistically analyzing it to feed recommendations back to advertisers. It is not wrong to say that we are enabling it to help in force-feeding the consumer culture.
Surely there must be a higher calling for the great technology that we’ve midwifed in the last few decades?
A tsunami of negative press is evolving about social media and the ways Russian intelligence services subverted it to sway America during the last election cycle and even today. I am not using any weasel words to suggest that Russian intelligence purportedly or ostensibly hacked the election. The election scandal walks like a duck and it quacks and with two sources of verification I’m calling it. For back-up the Mueller team issued a 37-page indictment against 10 people and 3 organizations alleging it.
Consider a recent New York Times article, “To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook” by Sheera Frenkel and Katie Benner. It says in part,
In 2014, Russians working for a shadowy firm called the Internet Research Agency started gathering American followers in online groups focused on issues like religion and immigration. Around mid-2015, the Russians began buying digital ads to spread their messages. A year later, they tapped their followers to help organize political rallies across the United States.
The social media instruments of choice? Facebook and its photo-sharing cousin, Instagram.
Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times in the 37 page indictment which charged the Russians with “executing a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.”
Now, Facebook and all the other social networks are not charged with any wrong-doing; they are, at least for now, the unwitting dupes of a sophisticated and well-planned effort. Fine, I get it. My dis-ease with Facebook (and Twitter) was summed up well by Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism who is quoted in the Times article saying,
“Facebook built incredibly effective tools which let Russia profile citizens here in the U.S. and figure out how to manipulate us,” Mr. Albright said. “Facebook, essentially, gave them everything they needed.”
If that’s true, and it seems hard to dispute, can social networking tools be unquestioningly used for good ever again? Are they, like fire arms, inherently dangerous and only capable of one use?
Call me bad names if you wish but as bad as that is, it is the thought that the big social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others as well as Google and Amazon all capture a raft of information about us for the purpose of force feeding us things that advertisers desperately want to sell.
How effective are their tools and techniques? A separate article, also from the Times, shows a small sample of the online ads that the Russians used during the election that pick at the scabs of our society.
There’s one designed to fan Southern animosity using a Civil War theme,
There are also ads that tell African Americans not to bother voting or that suggest that the white government is against them. Another showing a picture of Hillary Clinton with an X across it and the caption “Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama’s anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda.” It goes on and on.
You don’t have to like Clinton or Trump to understand that these things erode our democracy because they make it harder to have dialog between opposing parties and without dialog there is no compromise. But by extension, if social media can be successfully used against us in an election, and Facebook admits that such ads reached 150 million Americans during the 2016 election, this stuff can and is being turned against all of us in every day commerce.
They’re still at it,
Another article in the Times (Feb 19, 2018) “After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced” by Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakabayashi offered this chilling summary,
One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.
The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many of those accounts had been focused on the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The bots owners don’t care which side of any debate they take and seem to prefer running both sides to ensure divisive reactions. Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism summarized the situation,
The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration,” said. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”
Mostly I am disappointed that social networking isn’t really living up to what we envisioned. It’s a realization of social networking that each of us, according to the theory, is no more than 5 touches from any other person on the planet and for most connections it’s fewer.
The practical application of social networking has to do with Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar was a British anthropologist who observed that humans can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 other humans. The number puts a practical limit on all kinds of things that depend on close relationships. For instance a military company is comprised of not more than 150 individuals for reasons of cohesion. The company is the building block of all military units because every member has every other member’s back and they all know it because they have personal relationships.
In the middle ages, monasticism spread for similar reasons. Civilization was saved in Western Europe because whenever a monastery grew above Dunbar’s number, extra members were sent out to establish another miles away. This happened naturally mind you, not because someone had an algorithm but because organizations just got too big for comfort.
Social networking today has blown up Dunbar’s number. While I wouldn’t suggest that I can have anything like a relationship with the few thousand poor souls who follow me, I can at least keep them interested by occasionally flicking off a crumb of my existence for their consumption. But it’s pointless and all indications are that it’s harmful for multiple reasons to the body politic.
So I’ve quit Facebook. Actually, they don’t let you quit, they deactivate your account so that you can come back. I really hope I don’t back slide though. I never got much from facebook and the harm it does to society weighs heavily on me. I’m just one person with an opinion but it would be wonderful if other people did the same.
Disruptive innovations drive the economy. First there’s nothing, then something appears in the market and we all realize we’ve been missing the product or service our whole lives. We rush to buy it but soon the market is flooded, copycat products emerge, price erosion commences and the disruption becomes so commonplace that we ignore it. Important disruptions have a chance to become managed utilities, oligarchies with restraints. How can you tell where you are on this wild ride? A few pointers below.
- The market is suddenly full of low cost competitors that only do part of what your product does.
- The plain vanilla version is no longer enough. Customers want variety.
- You can’t keep up with enhancement requests and your service function is overloaded. Customers are getting grouchy.
- The glowing articles about you that once filled the media are being replaced by stories about product deficiencies and unhappy customers.
- Customers are delaying new orders until a product issue is fixed. Maybe they’re auditioning a competitor.
- Various governments want to invent ways to regulate you. None can agree on a common approach and you run the risk of becoming the little Dutch boy with his fingers in the dyke.
- Meanwhile your company is trying to automate the product as much as it can and to reduce the need for service. This makes customers happier and reduces overhead so that you can compete in a low margin world.
There are more issues but you get the idea. The bloom is off the rose as the poets might say. The plain fact is that nothing is “wrong” markets do this. Say’s Law (the Law of Supply and Demand) says, “Supply creates its own demand.” But what they never tell you is that’s only true in new markets. There’s such a thing as oversupply and when that happens prices drop. Your success breeds competition which breeds commoditization, and downward price pressure.
You might not see all of the symptoms in the short list above because products differ. For example, if you’re lucky enough to have invented something that the world, or a good part of it, can’t live without and it’s so successful that it discourages competition, your customers might not boycott or refuse to reorder. Instead they might take their complaints public.
That’s a particularly nasty problem for social media companies and other tech vendors today as customers are rethinking their use. Ten years ago social media was hailed as a great new thing that could link people around the world and offer new possibilities for business and even world peace. Today not so much.
Last week the New York Times ran a story about technologists dismayed by their creations. In “Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built” reporter Nellie Bowles writes,
A group of Silicon Valley technologists who were early employees at Facebook and Google, alarmed over the ill effects of social networks and smartphones, are banding together to challenge the companies they helped build.
They’ve organized the Center for Humane Technology http://humanetech.com whose home page says the group aims at “Reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”
This isn’t the first time people deeply involved in tech have sounded a warning and introduced course corrections. Many like Gabe Zichermann have attributed our uneasy relationship with modern tech to what Zicherman calls the addiction economy, an outgrowth of the attention economy. Gabe Zichermann is the cofounder and CEO of Onward, a mobile app that uses machine learning to help people strike a balance in how often they use technology.
A decade ago, before social media really got going, frustrated customers would find creative ways to pillory vendors. One popular approach was to start a website with the company’s name and “sucks” appended to it. The gods of the internet naturally collated those sites last in searches but if you knew what to look for you could find untold horror stories told from the customer’s point of view.
It got so bad that I invented a metric, the Sucks Score and I wrote about it in a book. It was a simple calculation of the number of hits you got when searching. I haven’t looked for those signs and symptoms in years simply because social media has taken all of the (minimal) work out of the process. Today we can flame anyone on social media and it takes no special skill. Even a septuagenarian businessman can effectively leverage the technology.
But what happens when the go-to technology of social interaction becomes the disfavored and disrespected? That’s when you really know that your 15 minutes are almost up. What to do about it?
First, take a breath, then another. Knowing this kind of thing happens all the time is no help when it’s happening to you. But things could be worse—your brainchild could have been bought and chopped up. Time to take a look at your business model. If it’s the same one you started the business with, think again. A recent article in the MIT Sloan Business Review points out that some of the most successful models involve incorporating partners and their capital into a grander scheme of entrepreneurship. Business models are coming back into vogue and there will be more in a future post.
We’re number 2 in CRM blogs that is. Every year Chris Bucholtz ranks the best CRM blogs and once again the Beagle blog is in second position right behind the estimable Paul Greenberg. You can find all of the rankings here. Thanks so much for continuing to read this site. Without you who knows where we’d be?
The IT industry has been playing whack-a-mole since its inception. We’ve been applying sophisticated technology to our biggest business problems not once but repeatedly as each new generation of technology offers and delivers order of magnitude improvements to our business processes. In some cases we’re on our fourth or fifth iteration of solutions.
For instance, about 25 years ago most business processes were manual. People did things for customers and often this involved paper documents. Document management systems came along at the end of the last century to modernize documents by storing them in digital format for quick retrieval. The improvements saved businesses millions of dollars in overhead and the problem was deemed solved.
However, digitizing a document (a very good idea) is not the same as automating the process that the document participates in. For many businesses modern document storage and retrieval supports manual business processes. These businesses still spend a lot on printing documents and manually or semi-manually routing them around the building or throughout the customer base. Today businesses looking to tackle business process automation are rightly investigating ways to keep documents from being printed even as they circulate.
That’s a different problem from the earlier one defined by storage. It wasn’t even visible when document digitization was thought to be the key need. If you manage business processes that still use lots of paper and printing, welcome to your personal edition of whack-a-mole.
Today’s edition of the problem comes with an especially menacing complication. Many CIO’s would love the chance to streamline their document dependent processes and the ROI for most of them is readily apparent in avoiding the costs of paper, printing, and better customer engagement. But with upwards of 80 percent of their budgets on average dedicated to keeping the lights on, it’s hard to grab even the low hanging fruit if it means a purchase.
You can find the lowest of the low hanging fruit not in some exotic business processes but in the every day customer administration that organizations spend so much time in. From professional services to healthcare to finance, opportunity is easy to spot in any business that produces a custom or semi-custom product or service directly to customers. Advancing regulation also plays a role increasing the amount of paper documents involved even in routine processes. So the problem is not getting better and whack-a-mole is really just a feeble attempt to keep it from getting worse.
The solution to this dilemma may be as simple as changing software vendors. The original digital document vendors may not have an incentive to change their business models or their products to address the new reality. They’ve defined solutions to “document management problems” but in an era that needs business process solutions, their models and technologies may be a bad fit.
If any of this feels familiar there’s a lot you can do. First look for new solutions that avoid putting documents back on paper, for example, to capture a signature. Signature capture is one of the easiest processes to digitize with modern software. Also, consider what’s in your documents. Are people still reading them on multiple occasions to understand what promises and commitments your company made that need to be implemented? Or are there customer commitments buried in physical documents that indicate future purchases? Paying people to read documents is expensive and unnecessary.
Digital documents, unlike those on paper, can feed the data they contain to analytics engines. The resulting insights might drive an ROI many times greater than the cost savings from simply automating the storage and retrieval of documents.
My two cents
As good as document digitization solutions were twenty years ago, the business need has changed and many vintage systems show their age today. Modernizing document based business processes can, in many cases, offer attractive ROIs that even budget-constrained organizations will benefit from. The key to all of this might be in how we frame the business problem. Is it the same document problem your business fixed decades ago or did time and circumstance change the need to something greater? A new generation of solutions based on more modern demands can provide order of magnitude improvements. The first step may be to evaluate the problem with fresh eyes.
The just concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was a time for world political and business leaders to come together to think bigly. But it would be a mistake to think that a confab of leaders would produce the last word on anything though you can certainly see the outlines of the future from what they all said.
From another perspective though, Davos, looks like an echo chamber of the bright and the powerful talking about what would be good for them, not necessarily what would be good for the global community. An article from the conference by Joe Kaeser, president and CEO of Siemens, AG provides a synopsis of the meet-up and its ideas giving a strong and unintentional implication of what could go wrong.
He begins with a big idea percolating at the conference, the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
Although we have only seen the beginning, one thing is already clear: the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the greatest transformation human civilization has ever known. As far-reaching as the previous industrial revolutions were, they never set free such enormous transformative power.
This would be the first time a revolution of this type was telegraphed in advance. Usually they are discovered by historians and other social scientists trying to figure out how we got here. Kaseser implies we know where we’re going and we do but only in a general sense. We need to maintain some respect for randomness as expressed by Ian Malcolm, the character in “Jurassic Park”. Malcolm was always reminding us to consider the unknown unknowns. For him it was living things mutating, for us it’s the free market, mutating. As for great transformations, let’s not forget inventing agriculture and civilization back in the Bronze Age.
Kaeser’s piece is really a self-serving paean to technology, which his company knows a thing or two about. But it should not be taken as a recipe for future success. He writes,
If we get the revolution right, digitalization will benefit the nearly 10 billion humans inhabiting our planet in the year 2050. If we get it wrong, societies will be divided into winners and losers, social unrest and anarchy will arise, the glue that holds societies and communities together will disintegrate, and citizens will no longer believe that governments are able to fulfill their purpose of enforcing the rule of law and providing security.
Acknowledging there will be 10 billion of us on this tiny planet by mid-century is good. But it would be better if he acknowledged that there are more than 60 million people on the run from their countries according to the UN, because they are (mostly) climate refugees. Another 780 million people live on less than $1.90 per day. Provisioning for these, and other, classes of unfortunate people, classes that are likely to grow by 2050, should be something that Siemens and the other engineering and tech companies at Davos will of necessity have a hand in. Absent that the descendants of the politicians in attendance will have some harsh conflicts to settle one way or another.
Last week the New York Times ran a story that could easily foreshadow a more dystopian world at mid-century. In “Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern,” Somini Sengupta writes of the devastating affect climate change has on the world community,
Nigeria. Syria. Somalia. And now Iran.
In each country, in different ways, a water crisis has triggered some combination of civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency or even full-scale war.
It traces how declining water resources turn farms to wasteland incapable of producing crops to feed domestic populations. Sengupta writes of Syria,
Its drought, stretching from 2006 to 2009, prompted a mass migration from country to city and then unemployment among the young. Frustrations built up. And in 2011, street protests broke out, only to be crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad. It piled on to long-simmering frustrations of Syrians under Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule. A civil war erupted, reshaping the Middle East.
The Syrian mess, along with Nigeria, Somalia, and the potentially nuclear tipped Iran, could give very different meaning to Kaeser’s trope “If we get it wrong, societies will be divided into winners and losers, social unrest and anarchy will arise.” By the way, that’s not even all of the bad news. The Times article also offers this,
“The World Resources Institute warned this month [January 2018] of the rise of water stress globally, “with 33 countries projected to face extremely high stress in 2040.”
You can count China and India in that group right now. Both countries have nukes and they might also have the wherewithal to escape that eventuality but others might not be so lucky.
It’s great that Davos turned its attention to the world at mid-century. But it would be greater if they and we didn’t stride around thinking that we have it all figured out. We don’t. The free market and human behavior can assure us of this. The problem of too many people and not enough resources should be top of mind in a gathering like this for if we can’t discuss these hard issues at Davos, where can we discuss them? And if the answer is that we can’t discuss them anywhere then what’s the point of rich people swarming over the Swiss Alps in winter like ants at a picnic?
Discussing 4IR in mostly technological and economic terms short-changes everybody. It frames a discussion of the future that only extends the current technology paradigm but doesn’t replace it. The paradigm has served us well but the demands of the future include more jobs and more resources to support more people, not automation and commoditization. They are polar opposites.
But the free market is operating just fine. Next year virtually every carmaker on the planet will begin bringing out electric vehicles in quantity. That is a signal event that will transform the world creating new market demands and reshaping the world. It will help to determine, what we make and how we sell it and where and how we live. That’s a revolution. Davos will catch up but as a fast follower and not as the innovator it fancies itself.