Thursday, 5 April 2018

Social Media Wants to Sell You Stuff (or Sell You)

Social Media Wants to Sell You Stuff (or Sell You)

Lately, there has been an uproar about a company named Cambridge Analytics mining Facebook data to use in a political advertising campaign, which may have helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election.  It’s all quite the over-reaction, in my opinion.
Of course social media wants to know all about you, and sell that information.  That’s how they make their money.  They all do it, and they do it all the time.  Below are a couple of examples from my own experience.
Just last week, I was temporarily blocked out of Twitter, because their bot thought I might be a bot, as well.  Interesting concept, that, proving your humanity to a machine – sort of a reverse Turing Test.
But to be honest, who really knows what the bot to human ratio is on Twitter.  Twitter seems to drive a reasonable amount of traffic to this blog, which makes one think that their must be a reasonable proportion of humans out there.  At any rate, whenever I don’t bother with Twitter, traffic does fall off noticeably.
But maybe a good proportion of the visits to the blog that Twitter generates are just more bots.  It’s the internet – it could be bots all the way down, to borrow a phrase from philosophy about the concept of infinite regress.  Indeed, maybe the movie “The Matrix” could be best interpreted as a virtual world of internet bots, that have evolved and been taken to their logical extreme.  But for some reason, they quit trying to sell each other stuff and now they just like to fight in highly stylized ways and have a fetish for slow-motion bullet trajectories.
Anyway, in order to unlock my account, I had to send Twitter my mobile telephone number.  If it was just a matter of proving my humanity, a Captcha session should have sufficed.  Alternatively, an email exchange with a code would have worked.  Those are the usual practices.  But, they wanted my mobile number, which they didn’t have, since I signed up with Twitter at a time when I didn’t have a mobile phone (or it was an old one that I rarely used).  So, I am suspicious that they just wanted my phone number, as that has value to advertisers and merchants.
Then, a few days ago, I answered a Quora question (something about probability theory).  Before I knew it, Quora (owned by Google, I believe) wanted to know more about me.  So, now they know that I am a statistician and work at a university.  No doubt, that information has value to advertisers and merchants as well.
The upshot being, social media companies aren’t charities – as they say, if you don’t know what the product is, the product is you.  It’s a variation of the old poker saying, “if you don’t know who the sucker in a card game is, it’s probably you.”
That being said, as someone with some limited experience with targeted internet advertising, I think the whole idea is seriously overblown.  In my experience with advertising books on Amazon, I have found that about 1 click per thousand impressions is standard.  So, I very much doubt that many people that saw the political Facebook ads paid any attention to them.  Most would have just scrolled past.
The ones who did click through, were probably committed to their choice anyway.  Those sorts of ads are great for confirmation bias, but I doubt that they change many minds.
In my case, for those who people who do click on an Amazon ad, I have found a little under 10% actually buy a book.  So, again, the idea that targeted ads are a magic bullet, that persuades people to go along with your product or idea is seriously overstated.  People just aren’t that easy to manipulate. 
Of course, everyone in this controversy has their own self-interest to be considered.  The so-called mainstream media is appalled by the idea that Facebook has been used for political manipulation, and is therefore advising everyone to avoid Facebook.  That would be handy for them – a lot of readers would come there way if they weren’t spending time on Facebook, as would a lot of advertisers.
Various political players probably also have ulterior motives.  There was some talk that Zuckerberg might pull a Trump, and run for president, by using a takeover of the Democratic Party as his vehicle.  Clearly, the status quo would prefer that not to happen.  This controversy might well sink such plans for Zuckerberg, assuming that he really was inclined that way.
On the other hand, you have to wonder if Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t smiling to himself, just a bit.  After all, a lot of potential clients might be thinking “If Facebook advertising is so powerful that it can turn the election to Trump, surely it can sell my handbags (or whatever)”.

Anyway, now that I have finished that social media opinion piece, I will prove that the hidden purpose of “free” social media is to try to sell stuff to you, either now or in the future.  That includes this blog, so, you should buy my book. :):)
Seriously though, it is an interesting read for those who like to think about cultural matters.  It’s about a fascinating road trip through western North America, in a big rig.  It covers a lot of cultural issues, pertaining to actual working class life.  That’s  real life, a lot different from social media life.

On the Road with Bronco Billy, A Trucking Journal

Here’s the summary: =======================================================
What follows is an account of a ten day journey through western North America during a working trip, delivering lumber from Edmonton Alberta to Dallas Texas, and returning with oilfield equipment. The writer had the opportunity to accompany a friend who is a professional truck driver, which he eagerly accepted. He works as a statistician for the University of Alberta, and is therefore is generally confined to desk, chair, and computer. The chance to see the world from the cab of a truck, and be immersed in the truck driving culture was intriguing. In early May 1997 they hit the road.
Some time has passed since this journal was written and many things have changed since the late 1990’s. That renders the journey as not just a geographical one, but also a historical account, which I think only increases its interest.

We were fortunate to have an eventful trip - a mechanical breakdown, a near miss from a tornado, and a large-scale flood were among these events. But even without these turns of fate, the drama of the landscape, the close-up view of the trucking lifestyle, and the opportunity to observe the cultural habits of a wide swath of western North America would have been sufficient to fill up an interesting journal.

The travelogue is about 20,000 words, about 60 to 90 minutes of reading, at typical reading speeds.

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