Graph Search, Facebook’s new frontier

Photos I like

When Facebook first started hitting the mass public conscious, maybe about 2008/2009, I read a blog post that was making the argument that the CIA (or was it the FBI?), was behind some of the funding. Not all of the funding, as far as the CIA/FBI was concerned it really didn’t want to be funding all of it. The argument was that they would want just enough of a foot in the door to be able to see the data, all those self-declared social networks. I read through the claims of money men and dodgy connections, people sitting on this board, and that board, boards of companies apparently known to have connections with other companies that were apparently known to be CIA/FBI fronts. It wasn’t massively convincing to be honest. The reason I kept reading to the end was that, it seemed to me, that if the FBI or the CIA didn’t have a piece of this new wonderful soon to be all conquering data thing, then they certainly should have, considering their raison d’etre.

Today we are all much more aware of what the social revolution has done in terms of generating personal data on private servers, and seemingly very comfortable about that too. We are also much more aware that the governments of the world simply aren’t shy of asking for whatever data they want, Google publishes a report every year and it’s not the tinpot republics, it’s us, it’s the UK and the US and France et al. In short these are paradigmatic shifts that have effected over a very short time span. So, even if the Feds had been buying influence all that time ago, it appears today, that they have decided to just ask, with some success, for access instead.

The point of all this being that the social layer contains very interesting, some might say, valuable information. Indeed this is the reason why Facebook was valued so strongly at IPO. There was a belief that as the owners of the biggest most specific and unique personal data set in the world they would surely find a way to leverage that data to sell effective ads to advertisers.

So, far that simply hasn’t happened. The utility of the data, as made available to advertisers, for targeting their ads simply hasn’t translated into enough sales, and the various innovations that Facebook have experimented with have also struggled to deliver performances that make them a mainstay of the modern advertising plan.

At the heart of this challenge is a truth which I believe is bad news indeed for display advertising on Facebook’s platform. Facebook is an essentially personal platform. Indeed it is the most personal mass adopted platform we know of. Because small ads (web display ads are essentially small in comparison to say TV, let alone big outdoor posters) generate smaller relative rates, and because Facebook usage is heading to mobile (smaller again), we would need to dominate the Facebook experience with advertising to get anywhere near to the revenue requirements of Facebook’s IPO.

Furthermore the more we work out how to get advertising into the Facebook feed (and I’m not even going to account for whether the ads will work or not yet), then by definition, the less personal the Facebook feed becomes. The less personal the Facebook feed is, the less time people will spend interacting with it.

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Faced with such a challenge what would you do? The answer it seems is to build a search engine.

Broadly speaking there are 3 business models for the web that are relevant to social properties.

  • The classic fee model, you pay for a service, a simple quid pro quo.
  • The freemium model, where scale is built with a functional free entry level product, which is monetised against a small sub section of users that need greater functionality and are willing to pay
  • Search advertising, the search model delivers a highly actionable form of consumer intent

It’s very difficult to retrospectively enforce a fee on a previously free service, such a move would destroy Facebook’s biggest asset, the size of its user base. Similarly the freemium model could also have a negative effect on the inherent user base, although exactly how they rolled out such a plan would increase or decrease such a risk. With such a large user base small but high frequency payments can be substantial when scaled up. Indeed Facebook is in the middle of trialling such a product with the pay for contact concept where you can pay to be able to access people that are not actually in your network.

The 3rd option, which of course has Google as a proud exemplar, would seem to be the longer term goal of the recently launched graph search. If there was a business model to try to emulate then surely it would be Google’s. To do that, you first have to build a search engine.

Facebook have been fairly clear about what they are up to actually, even if the ‘evidence’ we have are conversations from promotional interviews.

Steven Levy’s piece in Wired is revealing, in several ways.

““Right now our user experience on Facebook is a little passive,” he says. “Graph Search is a way to ask a specific question, to express an intent in some way. And of course an advertiser would want to target that intent. That’s what search ads are for.””

“Graph Search will be improved based on how people actually use it. So Facebook plans a slow introduction, limiting the initial rollout to a small number of users. Zuckerberg’s expectation is that by the time it becomes available to millions it will be considerably improved.”

So we know at least 2 things.

The delivery of the full vision of graph search will take some time. Amongst other things it doesn’t for example currently cover status updates or posts and it will only deliver real time location once it is ported to mobile (it is desktop only at the moment).

Secondly we know that an ad search product will arrive at some point. This alone is reason enough to take a long hard look at graph search.

It’s on an invite only beta roll out so the chances are that most people, today, will only have second hand access to what graph search is and what it looks like. I do not have access, I don’t even have a live Facebook account, I ditched the whole thing some time ago convinced that their lackadaisical attitude to privacy was something I didn’t want to get into bed with.

Fortunately, as it’s a search product it’s quite easy to conceptualise just from looking at a few screen grabs. The open web has been very kind and provided us with just that, courtesy of Tom Scott at his site

Tom’s site is somewhat comedic and dramatic, although he is not actively seeking to make the arguments for those concerned with privacy. Nonetheless, almost as a result of its flippant nature, we can get a really great flavour of exactly what graph search might be able to deliver. Some are mildly amusing.

EDL and Curry

Others really are anything but amusing

Islam men and women

The results returned by graph search are people, or more accurately people’s facebook profiles, pictures or places, and where the search query can not be satisfied with these data sets (that exist on Facebook’s servers courtesy of your Facebook sharing), Bing has been included. And indeed the inclusion of Bing is somewhat revealing. It suggests that the goal is to become more than just a tool for finding your old photos on Facebook. It clearly wants to become a serious destination for search functionality, the kind of functionality that transcends Facebook’s borders.

This, by the way, reveals the biggest challenge on graph search’s horizon, being useful outside of the confines of what Facebook already is (a warm pigpen where ‘friends’ share things). Much of what is being demonstrated, the bits that actually seem like aha moments are inherently personal, such as ‘photos of my friends before 1990’ which would return a host of delightfully nostalgic pictures of you and your friends from 20+ years ago. I think that’s pretty cool actually, even if it doesn’t stretch the tool outside of Facebook’s borders.

If you read a number of the reviews, promo pieces and reports there are a smallish number of classes of search that get mentioned time and again.

  • Photos of you and your friends
  • Finding a romantic interest / stalking (depending on whether or not the piece is positive or negative)
  • Organising a party of some kind
  • Recruitment
  • Where your friends like to eat
  • Where your friends have been
  • What music are my friends listening to
  • What books are my friends reading

Out of this entire list I only see one thing that is actually stretching Facebook into new directions and that is recruitment. Indeed it appears as though it might be quite a powerful tool for employers seeking to poach talent. In Zuckerberg’s words.

“One of my favorite queries is recruiting,” Zuckerberg said. “Let’s say we’re trying to find engineers at Google who are friends of engineers at Facebook.” He typed in the query and found, not surprisingly, that there were lots of people who met those criteria. Each one was represented by a little rectangle of information — their profile photo, along with snippets of key information like where they went to school, where they live, and the names of the mutual friends……..

…….“The good thing is that there’s people at the end of these connections,” Zuckerberg said. “You can find the right people or content page and then send a message.”

Everything else on that list just seems to make the existing Facebook experience a little more precise. I can’t tell you how many of my friends claim that they only use Facebook, ‘these days’ , to organise parties (or more likely small drinks at the pub, trips to the cinema – we aren’t getting any younger. I also think some of them are fibbing, by the way. I’m pretty sure, some of them at least, are still addicted to their feeds – who is doing what and where). Graph search certainly promises to add greater precision to that process although I remain unconvinced why one needs that precision.

Think of inviting friends out for a meal. Using graph search for such a task seems somewhat  dissonant to me, it forces me to ask myself all kinds of questions about the nature of friendship. From my perspective I already know, without a search tool, all the people who I would want to spend a friendly evening with in a restaurant and which cuisines they have problems with.

But, my problems here are irrelevant, I am an avowed non user anyway, and I’m getting on a bit, I’m not the target audience. That said there is still a concern here, regardless of my surly grump. How does this extend Facebook into new territory?

Let’s move back a step. Why does that even matter? Why is new territory important?

It matters because we are interested in whether or not Facebook can make a profit from graph search. Can it live up to its IPO valuation? And eventually, although the timescale will be long (myspace after all is still with us) will Facebook survive?

I have 2 questions that are focussing my thinking here.

1. Can graph search deliver actionable intent

2. Can graph search survive privacy requirements

The answer to number 1 is yes, but in a somewhat limited fashion in comparison to something like Google. This is why the issue of extending outside of Facebook’s current borders is so important. Google is outside of Facebook’s borders.

One commenter observed that they could now only invite friends that enjoy Thai food, to a prospective meal at the local Thai restaurant. There is clearly an expressed intention here. He is clearly intending to take a group of people to a Thai restaurant. For that reason it’s not beyond the bounds of feasability to suggest that a well placed ad might move him from restaurant A to restaurant B.

But here’s the thing, he’s probably already got a restaurant in mind. This whole idea of a social night out starts somewhere right?

  • He knows a great restaurant he wants to share with his friends
  • He has a desire to spend some time with his friends, but he’s not sure where to go

It’s rare to contact some people for a night out, and then ask them where to go. And whereas, clearly graph search means you wouldn’t have to ask them, the search tool would answer the query for you, I remain unconvinced that people think in these patterns.

I don’t really buy that he neither knows who he wants to dine with, or where he wants to dine with those people that he hasn’t yet identified. By the time he gets to Facebook he surely has one of those ideas, if not both, pretty much understood? Isn’t that just the way people mostly work? (Mostly is an important quantification here, there are always exceptions, the search ad business however is one of volume, not exceptions).

Maybe he has a desire to experiment with Thai food? But I can’t really imagine him doing that with a large party of people.

The one category where I can see graph search being useful to him is if he has his eye on someone ‘special’ and needs the cover of a big night out. And that takes us back to romance /stalking. I will expand on this area when I look at privacy in a moment. But for now it is a great example of how graph search extends precision into the existing facebook experience, rather than outside of it.

I think many people will still use Google to look at reviews of the various Thai options available. There is another paradox at the heart of graph search. Zuckerberg wants this tool to aid in the deepening of Facebook’s original mission, to be a tool of discovery. And why not, it’s a rather nice mission after all.

Again using the Thai restaurant as an example, if you know your friends well (the people you see most days, your family, people you have real relationships with) then you already know where their favourite Thai restaurant is, you’ve probably already been there with them. But then there’s the other kind of friend on Facebook, the old school mate, the colleague you met twice, the stranger you agreed to friend but who you are too embarrassed to unfriend and the person whose name you recognise but you’re not sure where from.

Ok, those people might well be able to guide you towards the discovery of a wonderful new Thai restaurant, but if you’re asking strangers anyway (I don’t care for the nomenclature, but these people are strangers as far as restaurant recommendations go) then why wouldn’t you go to a tool that allows you to query the opinions of all the strangers on the internet? Well, you would, quite frankly. It’s called Google and it would guide you to websites that have been built specifically to aid you in the discovery of new Thai restaurants.

And take a breath.

Will there be actionable intent? There might be some, but enough to be a business to rival Google (or to even get close)? No I don’t see it.

The second question, can graph search survive polite notions of privacy, is also a bit of a busted flush in my opinion. Let me explain why.

It would help to redefine the terms a little. Privacy, as strictly defined by the social paradigm, isn’t really the concern. Facebook has been clear that graph search will not surface data that could not already be surfaced via existing interfaces within the tool as it stands today.

Even putting aside many people’s concerns with the complexities of the privacy controls (even Zuckerberg’s sister can’t get those right!), and even putting aside the fact that Facebook has changed the TOS so that you can no longer opt out of search en masse (which by the way tells you all you need to know about their intentions here. If they really wanted to reassure the sceptics that they respected your wishes this would be the easiest thing in the world to offer them, but they won’t), the problems you need to consider are obscurity and aggregation.

Obscurity, or rather the protection of obscurity is what is really at stake. I read about this intriguing perspective in a piece in the Atlantic by Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger, from, respectively, Samford University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The principle can be stated simply. It is the recognition that although data is public, the fact of its obscurity (partially defined as being hard to get hold of) means that people are still protected from its being used nefariously. A lot of data is public but very rarely if ever accessed, largely because it is difficult to do so.

We need to add in 2 additional concepts to discuss the possible harms here. Firstly the idea of edge cases being the focus of harms. I’m all right Jack is not the hallmark of a decent society, there are already examples of young gay people being outed against their wishes by this destruction of obscurity.

Most people aren’t gay. Does this mean you should not be concerned? Of course it doesn’t.

The second principle, and the one that crystallises this issue for me is the power of data aggregation. The potential to release previously unavailable insight and actionable data from happily shared information by combining it with other happily shared information. Some aggregation will not cause any problems, but again the edge cases, where the insight generated was most certainly something that the original sharer did not want revealed could be deeply unsettling.

Furthermore data aggregation, via graph search, makes the whole concept more actionable to considerably larger swathes of the population. Take for example this from graph search.


Single women


I’m going to pull this out a little.

Single Women – Ok, sure why not it’s no secret hey, and you’re looking for that great partner to share your life with, why would you hide such a thing.

Who live nearby – Again, on its own who would worry about that. It’s a big city right?

Who are interested in men – well, it makes sense to be straight up about that, it’s certainly not a secret is it?

And like Getting drunk – mmmmh. When did I tell Facebook that? Maybe when I liked my friends party pictures… mmm I’m not sure. Anyway I guess it is true, so what’s the harm?

Ok, so I don’t need to truly spell out what is wrong with this situation. We can just acknowledge that 4 pieces of information, shared separately, for innocuous and non-threatening reasons when combined together paint a very different scenario.

This is where graph search takes things to another level, see the tools on the side of the page, filter and expand (refine and extend)? So, it also becomes very easy to look at pictures of these people (don’t want to waste your time right?) but also if you need some more information to find them you can filter the detail to close in more accurately. You might only know that they live near you, which might put them in a group with 250,000 other people. But once you know that they work at widget company incorporated, well that’s a different matter, now they are in a group of only 50 (a lot easier than a ¼ million to sort through) and you know where the office is.

Right, time to nail my colours to the mast, although if you’ve read this far I’m guessing you know which side I’m on.

I think graph search is a truly dreadful extension of the Facebook empire, that will not only strip away what small protection remains (data obscurity) but will also hasten the day when a truly disgraceful and unforgivable crime is committed, one that removes the technology world’s ability to operate within safe and sensible boundaries with regard to data collection and data usage.

I’ve long said the biggest threat to the data status quo is the potential of aggregation. I had images of unpleasant men with access to industrial data, running queries in secret moments snatched in downtime at their places of work. From the relatively innocuous farming of data about people on holiday, to target empty houses for burglars, to considerably more nefarious acts of blackmail and violence I have long considered there will be an occurrence, an edge case no doubt, but an occurrence that causes enough outrage to get effective laws put in place.

Laws put in place because of outrage rarely get put in place and get it right. This is not an outcome I want to see. I want us to stop foolishly pushing the boundaries.

I never once imagined that the tools to hurry this potential would be delivered to every facebook user on the planet. Never once.

And, not that this is the crucial vector here, but I can’t see this damn thing even making them any decent sort of money either. Regardless of reach, from an advertiser’s perspective we haven’t, here, even considered the issue of data accuracy.

I am not a data luddite. My career is all about using data for marketing, I am on G+, Quora, Twitter, Linkedin and this blog. I am not an advocate of pure anonymity as a default setting online (although it should be an option in many situations), nor do I decry the clear need to monetise the current crop of free internet services.

But, is a little sense too much to ask for? Of Mark Zuckerberg? Who once said…

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he said in an interview for David Kirkpatrick’s 2010 book, “The Facebook Effect.” Facebook users have “one identity,” he said.

One man, who can’t now even claim that he didn’t know what might happen, has decided that that long standing and deeply necessary reality of humanity, the ability to wear 2 or more hats (to borrow from Sir Humphrey) should be abolished. It is beyond my comprehension that he has taken it upon himself to make this real. Others have written many words in order to insult Mark Zuckerberg, so I don’t need to, I shall just leave us with the rather sad thought that it clearly is too much to ask for, a little sense that is.

Clearly far too much to ask for.

r/pics January 2013

Big ones (ideas)…. The difficulty facing sponsored content

Apology ?

Have they worked it out yet ?

I used to have a disagreement with a colleague about how knowledge of digital advertising strategy should intersect with knowledge of offline advertising strategy. The argument was really silly because we couldn’t even agree on certain structural ‘big’ concepts that were fundamental to the topic.

For example, and this pretty much defined my whole position, I don’t think you can claim the mantle of communications strategist, in today’s world unless you have both on and offline knowledge. If you only have one of the 2 then you are a tactician, not a strategist. Clearly, my colleague disagreed.

To be fair the whole topic of strategy, as in what is strategy, is peculiarly fuzzy. There are rabbit holes aplenty waiting to break your ankle when you start trying to put tight definitions on the difference between strategy and tactics. Perspective, vantage point and scope are crucial and can sincerely change the application of the 2 disciplines. As such I’m not having a go at anyone holding job titles such as ‘digital strategist’. I sincerely see the value in the role and I see that it is quite feasible to have a digital advertising strategy. In the same way you can have a sales strategy, a buying strategy, a TV strategy and even a measurement strategy.

Nonetheless the higher up the responsibility ladder you go the less these distinctions can be valid and eventually you get to a point where a strategist needs to be able to cover the lot, handing out iterative briefs to the sector specialists (in this context, tacticians) which will inform the wider strategy. This was the level of application that we were arguing about and I consider it a simple argument, if you haven’t got experience and knowledge across all channels then you can’t call yourself a communications strategist. You might still be a valuable property; it’s just that you aren’t writing the strategy, you are contributing to it.

As acknowledged, there are levels and sub levels and lots of different ways of structuring these 2 disciplines. And, for sure, there are many ways of managing this successfully. However, I still consider the ‘big’ idea here, that strategy at the top table requires knowledge of everything on that top table, is accurate, and most importantly its simple. It, quite frankly causes me more disconcertion that this is considered debatable than any of the challenges involved in actually writing a communication strategy.

And pause…

…that’s been quite a roundabout way of making a simple point, which is this.

In general, but with specific regard to media, technology and marketing, there are some ideas that are deeply formative, affect a considerable percentage of the landscape, are really straightforward to understand but which are aggressively contested.

Easier to understand, but no less troublesome is the fact that sometimes what is contested is how the idea gets applied, as in what it means, as opposed to the idea itself.

This is what’s at the heart of some of the strangely optimistic opinions you will hear about the future of mobile advertising. In that debate the ‘big’ idea, not really challenged by anyone, is that advertising likes to take up as much space as is possible. It’s long been considered that bigger ad units are more effective, and this is reflected, categorically, in the pricing. In newspapers a full page ad is more impactful than a half-page ad, in TV a 60 second ad is more impactful than a 30, outdoor advertising trends to ever bigger spaces and half the appeal of cinema advertising is the size of the screen.

Digital advertising is not well served by this idea. Display units for web advertising, are not only small, but they are fighting for attention alongside the content itself (which is another reason why full pages in magazines and newspapers have been so attractive).

The woes of digital display advertising (Google’s adwords are a significant exception) are best demonstrated by the well documented tribulations of journalism, where online audiences are not able to garner the same revenues as offline audiences did (and this is not a volume trend, the price per thousand, the relative price, is smaller, following the fact that bigger is better and almost always more expensive, although that’s not the only factor, of course).

Fortunately it’s not all bad news though, as there most definitely is a role for digital display advertising, this post is not an anti-digital piece, far from it. I am, however, surprised to hear about and see so many individuals and companies (advertising and tech) waxing lyrical about the new opportunity for mobile display.

The big idea, that big formats are more effective is even more relevant here. Mobile screens are dreadful places to run ads. There is little else to add to the debate beyond the dimensions of the screen, which are small. And to just hammer the point home, small is bad.

I have previously written a more complete treatment of this trend. Which is here.

We are still left with a bit of a predicament, or, if you are in the business of making, selling and planning advertising you are left with a bit of a predicament might just, be more accurate.

People are spending more and more time on their mobile platforms, and, even if we assume a level of sainthood (that doesn’t exist) and limit our money extraction to that which is required to pay for execution and not profit, we still desperately need to monetise all the currently free content and free apps and free services or they will either go away or morph into useless sludge.

There are several options in play.

One that gets a great deal of attention, largely because it’s been championed by Facebook and Twitter is the whole sponsored content idea. Facebook calls its product sponsored stories and they have melded it into the social wrapper that is their landscape, the stream.

It’s not really a new idea though; we used to call them advertorials.  They were considered funny beasts that had a very specific set of uses. There was an admission, which was rarely mentioned explicitly by anyone, that these ad formats worked because they appeared in the media as if they were editorial not advertising. It was a simple deceit, but a deceit for sure. Which is why, at the end of the day, advertorials had to have a big disclaimer at the top of the page outing themselves as ‘Advertising Features’.

There was a, again, somewhat unspoken acknowledgment, that advertising needed to be distinctly separate from editorial. Advertising dollars were not to be seen to buy editorial endorsement. I remember as a junior ad manager at a financial services company, being surprised when over lunch with the ad sales manager and the editor of a tightly targeted magazine (its mission was to give advice to consumers on one specific financial product only, sort of like ‘Savings Account Monthly’ except I’ve clearly made that one up), the editor excused herself when we started to discuss advertising rates (which was the only reason they were footing the bill for lunch, let’s be honest).

As she disappeared (to make a phone call, or a cigarette perhaps) I remember distinctly thinking it was crazy that she would be unaware of the magazine’s rates, or their strategy for attracting advertisers like me. And it would have been crazy if it were true, which it could not have been. The magazine only existed to make a profit, that profit was chiefly derived from advertising revenues and if they routinely told their readers that the bottom half of the financial services market was appalling, then they effectively cut their own possible revenue market in half. Editorial had to have a relationship with revenue.

The whole thing was a charade.  A carefully constructed charade where there was never a conversation about editorial content, simply an unspoken unacknowledged assumption. The editor leaving us to the financial end of the discussion was simply a part of the plausible deniability that she felt was required, I was amazed (or perhaps naïve is a more accurate description of where my mind was that day).

Just revisiting that lunch and typing about it makes me feel old because I’m not sure these quaint barriers exist anymore, at least not in digital domains. And to be sure they were quaint. If that magazine had taken our money and then turned around and trashed us, there would have been angry phone calls indeed, but much more pertinently, a decision to never spend money with them ever again. Everyone involved knew, but it was never once stated out loud.

As a quick aside (relevant) It’s worth looking again, briefly, at what the internet has done to modern journalism. Have you ever wondered why your big weekend Sunday papers have so many (maybe that should be, did have…) lifestyle sections, Cars, Property, 100 best getaways etc? As much as it’s nice to think that it’s because you want to read them, the real reason is that they were created to attract advertisers. In the examples above, that would clearly be advertisers selling cars, houses and holidays. The newspaper was a bundling device and the revenue came from advertisers.

The internet, on the other hand, is the world’s greatest un-bundling device. Say you love the Sunday Telegraph’s news coverage, but hate their automotive correspondent. Online the automotive writer you want to read is only a click away, and increasingly not even in the wrapper of a newspaper at all (so no ad revenue for the Telegraph). It’s a painful double whammy for the old journalism model. They get clobbered by the horrors of small ad units, and then they get walloped by the destruction of their bundled ad revenues also. All this, by the way, explains the continued, and foolish, experiments in trapping users inside walled gardens.

Returning, to my very enjoyable lunch (I recall a thoroughly pleasant afternoon for what it’s worth), you can see that with such a specific editorial remit, we didn’t really need to explain that we expected at the very least to be mentioned neutrally, but under no circumstances would we have imagined an editorial mauling. I should also say, for the record, that we didn’t think we were buying positive editorial at all. We were trying to buy customers as cheaply as possible. Customers that would be attracted to us because we had prominent position with such a relevant magazine, that might have been a cover mounted CD with lots of information about our products on it (provided by us, of course). We were after the unstated, but actual effective endorsement that such an association could bring.

Advertorials, of course, deliver exactly the same thing. It may say in clear language, at the very top of the page, ‘Advertising feature’, but it was no accident that we would have paid for a journalist to write it, instead of an agency copy writer, to get as close to the tone of the publication as possible. No accident at all.

Now, again, I’m not on an anti-advertorial rant here either. I’m very much of the opinion that if you make it plain what you are doing, as in ‘Advertising Feature’, then the consumer has no claim for being duped. Still we knew we were buying a device that more closely generated publication endorsement than a normal ad unit did. It’s a bit like those ads that print fawning quotes from Mr James Walling of Basingstoke. Surely no-one has a clue who James Walling is, but they still buy more products than they do from the same ad without his (possibly fictional) endorsement.

Are people stupid?

No, this isn’t about stupidity, it’s that up to a point people understand what’s going on, and, again up to a point, they don’t mind.

For sure, the ads are using a barrage of psychological tricks to increase their effectiveness, but the people responding to advertorials are not under the impression that they are reading normal editorial copy. They know the advertiser has paid for this ad, and they don’t mind. They are of the opinion that they have decided to purchase, or not, based on the facts of the situation.

There are lines, however, that should not be crossed and the iterative reality of digital communications is going to help us find these lines more quickly than ever before.

The Atlantic recently made a mistake and they have learned from it. Indeed in their apology they say:-

“It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake”

The full apology is in the image at the top of this blog post.

What did they do that was so egregious? They sold a piece of their digital edition to the church of scientology as sponsored content. It turned out to be a big old puff piece.

Sounds unremarkable right? Well, yes and no. They clearly made some mistakes. Or, in the language that I’m trying to explore in this post (which has become 3 times longer than expected), they got the big idea, with regard to advertorials, wrong. How could that happen? Well, for a start, I’ll bet few people have really explored what we know about advertorials and applied it to sponsored content.

Your readers do know what’s going on with paid for content, but they still expect some form of editorial sense to be exercised. For sure, they know that the advertiser paid for the content, but they certainly still want it to exist within certain reasonable limits. Or, more accurately, if the content strays outside of those reasonable limits it will jar and produce a dissonant experience. The reader will lose the trust they have built up with that publication.

This is because, and here is the big idea, (drum roll….) the advertorial works by inducing editorial endorsement. That’s the whole point of an advertorial. The advertiser knows this, the magazine knows this and the reader expects this.

So, when the Atlantic published this huge scientology piece, the fact they labelled it sponsored content, which they did, was immaterial. It wasn’t that the label was too small (although it was), or that the comments seemed to be moderated by the scientologists themselves (I don’t know if they were or not but they shouldn’t have seemed to have been), or that running over several pages it looked like ‘real’ editorial (which is the whole idea).

No, the simple reality is that the reader still expects there to be editorial oversight. If they didn’t then advertorials/sponsored content would be no different to normal ad units.

How could this happen I asked a few paragraphs ago? Here’s the main reason. The Atlantic is experimenting with sponsored content to try and tackle the overarching problem with digital display advertising. As such, they did not think about the effectiveness of the advert from the advertisers perspective, the problem they were trying to solve was getting advertisers to part with advertising budgets. The people running the experiment were probably digital technologists, I’d bet they didn’t once make the connection to advertorial content.

The scientologists have done us a huge favour. If this had simply been a misplaced piece of sponsored content for a product that the Atlantic’s readers did not wish to buy, a weak product, then there would have been no outcry, just a piece of failed advertising.

The Atlantic as endorser of the church of scientology though? That blew the thing up to a point where we could see the challenges facing the whole concept of sponsored content.

Does this mean we should abandon sponsored content as the answer to the woes of online display advertising as a business model? Yes and no.

There is no reason why we should not use the technique, as I said before it has a long and rich, successful history. The trouble is that it can only be used, effectively, relatively sparingly. There was a reason why all advertising was not advertorial advertising. If every advert is an endorsement then NO advert is an endorsement, there has to be real editorial oversight or the reader (prospective customer) will stop fulfilling their half of the bargain.

Let’s zip back to my enjoyable lunch, all those years ago. I made the point that if the magazine I was lunching with trashed the bottom half of the market, then they halved their potential advertiser customer base. That would have been true. The other side of the coin, however, was that if they ran advertorials for the worst products in the market, then their editorial integrity would be shot and their reader base would have deserted them. They could, however, take display advertising from anyone without any challenge to their editorial integrity.

So, there we have the big idea at the heart of sponsored content. However much we go to lengths to demonstrate a divide between advertising dollars and editorial integrity it has to be an artificial divide, the whole success (for the advertiser) depends on the consumer believing there is an implied endorsement. As a result of that it follows that sponsored content can only be a sub section of advertising inventory as implied endorsement is meaningless if everything is an endorsement.

Will this slow down the different sponsored content experiments? Nope. Not by even one second. The first results will look quite good, especially in comparison to similarly priced digital display units. The performance loss (for advertisers) comes after the reader realises that the implicit endorsement is no longer real, and that will take a little time. Doh.

Charlie Don’t Surf…….

…..or, so we were told anyway. Considering what was going on, on the beach at Mekong at the time, it might seem as though Charlie was quite sensible with regards to his surfing habits.

I’ve been pondering a very different type of surfing lately, digital surfing. And although it might seem somewhat frivolous to try and build a point from such a seminal movie snapshot as the one I have referenced here, there is actually something to be said for it.

apocalypse mug

OK, so Colonel Kilgore is commenting on the generic surfing habits of the indigenous population of the Mekong delta, rather than their innate desire to surf or not, today. But if we depart from the fictional imagery just a little we can ask 2 questions that are actually relevant.

Considering how much is going on, on the internet in general, at any one point in time. And considering that the average number of friends someone has on facebook is 234. And considering that the average twitter feed follows between 30 and 50 people. And considering that many now have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, G+, Instagram, Quora, Pinterest etc. And considering that most of these people will also have a personal email and a work email and a smartphone with several content apps (even if they are only news apps) and some form of SMS or messaging tool. And considering that some people actually still visit the open web itself, even if that’s via a reader or heaven forbid just nakedly on a website itself.

Right, so considering all that…

How? How do you do it? How in the world can anyone keep up with all that content?

Getting back to my, somewhat criminal, bastardisation of Apocalypse Now.

Charlie Don’t Surf. Not at all. The best we can say, maybe, is that he’s flapping about in the broken waves on the beach, What he certainly isn’t doing is majestically carving across the surf for his and others pleasure.

Answers that include any automation along the lines of Tweetdeck or the algorithms that charge Google reader for example, are not adequate mitigations I’m afraid.

The one (Tweetdeck) does nothing much to help you read more great content, it just helps you to filter out the dreck according to filters you choose, to which I respond, why are you following the dreck in the first place?

And the same goes for the Google readers of this world. There are a variety of schemes that people set up to prioritise their content feeds, but essentially what we are faced with is some form of automation telling you what you might like to read.

And, whereas that might be mighty useful (and at least one person I know who I hold in high regard, swears by this approach to using Google reader), it’s not really surfing, it’s more like sitting in a dinghy (apologies but temptations to stretch the analogy are too much sometimes).

Charlie don’t surf. He just doesn’t.

That was the simple question of the 2. The harder and more valuable question is this.

If we accept, and I think we should, that someone out there is surfing then how are they doing it?

Why should we accept that premise? Well, because for the web to act as a filtration mechanic, utilising all the data that feeds the various search algorithms and all the data generated by social interactions and the data generated by whatever sharing mechanic you care to mention. For the various mavens and respected bloggers whose advice and admonitions to read this or read that are eagerly followed by the rest of us mere mortals.

For all that, someone, somewhere is reading enough stuff to understand and say, read this, don’t read that.

And I want to know how they do it.

One of my favourite blogs is Confused of Calcutta, written by JP Rangaswami of

JP writes deeply researched, heavily cross linked posts that can take a week to consume (sharing time with my other life obligations) in full, notwithstanding that the comments section will be valuable also and often generates new thoughts via the discourse there.

Now, somewhere on his site I once read that he keeps up with the writing of 300 people. Subsequently that number has become a glittering beacon for me, a target, an aspiration. Definitely an aspiration, because not only do I not keep up with the writings of 300 people, I haven’t yet even identified the 300 people whose writing I want to keep up with, but whose best intentions to inform me I shall surely fail.

And JP also has a job too! A big job.

Another blog that features highly on my list is Ribbonfarm, where you will find Venkat Rao (amongst other places, as far as I can tell he blogs in at least 3 locations). Venkat also writes deep dense and long posts that are full of ideas and often warrant multiple readings which yield subsequent values.

I’m not able to keep up with all the output of either of these guys, so I come back to them on a stop start basis, consuming their content in binges. (A sign of age, I no longer binge drink, I binge read blogs. Doh).

Venkat was the one to start me thinking on this whole topic actually.

Something that he does very well, and that I find particularly useful, is that he reads the huge fat books, often histories, which fill me with dread and fear. The books, in short, that I feel I probably should read, but I don’t. And then he writes blog posts about them. Not trivially either, or as a review. He might typically write up an 8,000 / 10,000 word essay, inspired by a book he’s reading which is also informed and made more valuable by his wider thinking and / or reading of other relevant texts. And, those? Those posts I gobble up greedily.

As I realised that this was an effective proxy, for me, to gain some of the insights and learning from those big scholarly tomes, I also realised that the same might also hold true at different levels.

And so I came up with this, a consumption cascade, each level potentially informing the next, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other.

1. The damn big intellectual book (DBIB)

2. The damn big intellectual blog post/essay (DBIBP)

3. The damn big blog post (x8) (DBBP) – other people’s opinions

4. The aggregated big blog post (ABBP) – assimilating other people’s opinions

5. The blog post as perspective (BPAP) – commenting on a part of the DBIBP

6. The blog post as reportage 1st party (BPAR 1) – this happened to me

7. The blog post as reportage 3rd party (BPAR 3) – this happened to her

Some fuzzy observations:

1. Posts at all levels could have been influenced by the damn big book at the top, even if the author has never even heard of it

2. As you go from 1 to 7 it takes less time to write a post, and less time to read it

3. As you go from 1 to 7 the size of the audience increases

4. Sometimes content from the top and content from the bottom comes together to make really valuable content in the middle

And now you are thinking, so what?

Which is a fair question. When I had finished putting it together I realised it was much more useful if you were writing content rather than simply reading it. I enjoyed that realisation as it fits with the observation that today’s reading involves a lot of writing (and vice versa).

From that perspective it has, essentially, sharpened my research habits.

However, because my writing is organic (in as much as I write about what comes at me from my reading) it seems a little OTT to call it research, as it’s mostly reactive not active. Usually when a number of pieces of content (that I am reading) start to converge in an area, that’s when I start to plan a post.

And that struck me. It struck me that that was a little like a filter, a content algorithm, but an organic one that only existed in my head and probably under any deeper examination defies the definition of an algorithm.

So I looked at how I consume content, and what I do with it. Neither of which I had ever deliberately structured.

The single most important tool in my content sorting behaviour is Pocket (formerly Read It later) because it’s the interface most available to me during reading opportunities (my commute for example).

Content goes in, usually from my laptop browser, and some gets read really quickly. The length of the piece is a factor, without a doubt, but so is how interested I am in it. How busy I am is another factor that massively influences how much I get to read, as is whether or not I am currently bitten by a traditional book (less and less these days) and for a small number of writers, who has written it is also important.

But then, over time there are bits of content that have been in the app for a while, and they fall into 2 categories. Stuff that I just don’t want to read, adjudged by it simply getting looked over so often (that eventually gets binned), and stuff that I really really want to read, but are substantial commitments because they are big pieces of writing. Nathan Myhrvold’s 20,000 word memo was one of those. I think it sat in pocket for 3 months before I eventually made an active decision to put aside 2/3 hours one weekend to read it properly.

There is one other behaviour with regards to pocket. As I get to a point where a certain blog post is forming, brewing, I find I might prioritise pieces that are relevant. I use the favourite feature in 2 ways. To remind me what I need to read, and also to mark out certain articles that are to be referenced in a post, or that are to be formative thinking for a post.

But here’s the thing, I’m telling about you these behaviours as observations not as a functional thought out scheme for consumption. I never decided to consume like this, it was an emergent behaviour that fell automatically out of installing the Pocket widget in my browser and on my phone.

It works, for me.

Now, if someone can tell me how JP keeps up with 300 writers I’d be very grateful because, whereas I suspect a big part of it is simply that he’s stunningly clever and reads very fast, and has considerably more efficient cognition, I also suspect that there must be something in his consumption scheme, even if that scheme is as organically derived as mine. And, If I can copy even a small advantage that really would be nice.

Overheard snippets of an imaginary conversation

– All of you. Unbelievable.

– Why?

– You’re asking why.

– Ok.

– Because of your uncritical. Yes, your uncritical. Your uncritical everything. For the sake of all that is good, get rid of it.



– When something new and exciting arrives did you ever ask if its a good thing? And if you found you needed other information to answer that question did you go and find that information. It’s important. Strive to understand what is happening, why it’s happening.

– Have an opinion. A real one.

– And, maybe you still use that service, even with misgivings maybe, but at least do so with knowledge.



– Do the reading, do the goddamn reading, however much it seems like a pain. You need to be able to spot the edge case. The situation where your arsehole is about to get invaded by technology. A personal disaster.

– If you decide to use that technology don’t be the disaster.

– The disaster that gets the law changed. Not to stop the law being changed, this isn’t activism, but to not be the disaster. Disaster isn’t good. Don’t be the disaster.

– Do the reading.  

The Despair Squid – the prat version of Rimmer

Set up: The Red Dwarfers are investigating the wreckage of the SSS Esperanto. It quickly becomes apparent that the crew of the Esperanto have all killed themselves and eventually it is realized that the suicides were due to severe depression caused by a toxic hallucinogen. Subsequently attacked by a giant squid, they crash Starbug which explodes seemingly killing all. However, it transpires that in fact the entire series has been a total immersion gaming experience and that they have all been wired into a gaming terminal for the last 4 years. The great Timothy Spall plays Andy, the technician who welcomes them ‘back to reality’. It soon becomes apparent that in the game each character can in fact, and should in fact, have achieved all of their innermost desires.

ANDY (Brummie accent): he [Rimmer] was a handpicked special agent for the space corp, he had his memory erased and was programmed to behave like a complete twonk, so no-one would suspect he was on a secret mission to destroy Red Dwarf in order to guide Lister to his destiny as the creator of the 2nd universe………………………..



ANDY: here hang on a minute, are you seriously telling me you were playing the prat version of Rimmer for all that time…for 4 years…ho ho ho whoa, that’s a classic that is, a classic

Observation: Back in our world, (not the Red Dwarf fictional universe) it strikes me that if there is a god, a compassionate and loving god (and the positive architectures of any of the main religions will do), then surely the only way to interpret what has happened, history as we understand it, is that God is Timothy Spall, and we have completely ballsed the whole thing up and played the prat version of Rimmer for all eternity. Doh.

10 Youtube videos from 2012

Charlie Brooker nails the appalling way that the media responds to mass shootings

The Live and Let Die alligator stunt. Who knew they were real alligators

Awesome visual trick and how to make it. The brain is so easily tricked

Tim O’Reilly’s keynote of OSCON 2012

Michael Phelps sinks a monster putt. Swimming’s not enough !

Britney Spears’s live microphone without autotune. You knew it would be bad, but this bad!

Lenny Kravitz comes across a choir singing his tunes in the French Quarter in New Orleans

Plurality, a great little film (15 minutes) investigating a privacy free future. A film maker with a future, surely

A very public spat between 2 fairly strange academics that once were lovers. Surreal

My most favourite TV magician clip ever