For a billionaire, lying and talking is usually the same thing but, what if this time he is telling the truth?
Famed and infamous Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Post regarding the need for stricter internet regulations. A quite interesting take from who once was all for freedom of speech, connectivity and social experimentation.
Also not long ago, he vowed to “clean-up” the content on Facebook to avoid the spread of misinformation and the opinion bubbles. These are groups of people that align themselves with some sort of identity, and use any information that confirms their belief, and disregard any information that may dispute it.
And, of course, the cynic in all of us assumes he is looking out for himself. As most billionaires do while on TV. “He must be lying,” we scoff, “because he only cares about his bottom line, his investors, his profits and his toys”. Suddenly he’s no better than Murdoch, Soros, Bloomberg, Trump, Bezos, Slim, Putin or Maduro. They are talking, so they must be lying.
However, when it comes to Zuckerberg, and this time alone, I believe him. And I do because firstly, what he is saying is crucial, and secondly, on this rare occasion, his interests are actually aligned with those of the general population for four very specific reasons.
1. The Chatbot
Of course, we all love to call a company and have an auto-answering robot spend 25 minutes navigating us through 75 menus, all to ‘helpfully’ avoid the nuisance of talking to an actual human being. The Chatbot is essentially that, but in a website. More often than we think, we are chatting with a computer, be it the corner restaurant, the e-commerce website, or a social media page.
And why would any company not do that? Do the math. Cost of a person, with insurance, unemployment, vacation and so on? Over $1,000 per month. Ship this job overseas, and the price may drop to $400. A chatbot? Between $50 and $150 per month, and it takes care of more than 50 conversations simultaneously.
“The cynic in all of us assumes Mark Zuckerberg is looking out for himself. As most billionaires do while on TV. “He must be lying,” we scoff, “because he only cares about his bottom line, his investors, his profits and his toys” However, this time, I believe him.”
All good, and who cares about the customer, because we know deep down a $1.32 discount over human customer service for less than 1% incidence ratio, is far more important at purchase time. End of the day, the consumer wants to get the thing, use the thing, feel guilty about buying the thing, and then complain about this, that or that other thing. It’s part of the buying experience.
As with anything tech, AI is coming into the picture, and chatbots are constantly learning language patterns and responses, evaluating conversation successes, and all to become better at fooling the human trying to return a water filter because the company sent the wrong size.
Now, what happens when a chatbot talks to another chatbot? That’s what, essentially, the Google Assistant (you all surely saw the video of the phone making a call to the beauty salon and booking an appointment all by itself) is going to devolve into. A computerized delegate that will talk to, probably, another computerized delegate at the other end.
Now, imagine this situation. The owner of this beauty salon wants to hurt his competitor and sets a thousand chatbots to interact and troll them online. Within a few seconds, the unsuspecting business’s page is down and now they need to actively work to recover it, losing resources and time in the process. Expand these to all sorts of brick and mortar, or online businesses and defending from chatbots becomes overly expensive. It seems far-fetched as AI is still an unknown to most of us, but within a decade it will be nearly as common as the land line.
But why would Marky Mark care about this, you might ask? Well, tons of interactions between companies and consumers are now happening on Facebook. That’s people’s first choice with their internet provider, their phone vendor or even their favorite restaurant. If this becomes a conversation between computers, why would these companies stay on Facebook? And if said companies become unresponsive, why would the users (the actual product of Facebook) try to interact with them?
2. The Automated Content Creator
Following the AI route, it is now possible to automatically scan a wide range of opinions and get a computer to come up with not only specific content to be distributed to the friendly eye (remember, we all are embedded in opinion bubbles) but also with comments that create engagement, conversation and controversy.
This is a problem. As more and more people get their news from the internet, from sources evermore unreliable, the world is dividing into factions that live in their own realities: it does not matter what the truth is, but rather, what you feel is true. And when you find confirmation of that, you run with it, associate yourself with that faction.
But what happens when these AI’s proliferate to the point that they generate far more content than human content creators? And, as they are programmed to do, participate in the conversation about them almost exclusively?
“As more and more people get their news from the internet, from sources evermore unreliable, the world is dividing into factions that live in their own realities: it does not matter what the truth is, but rather, what you feel is true.”
Here’s what happens. Advertisers realize they are paying to show ads on computer timelines instead of actual people, and they just stop spending money on Facebook. And that’s really not good for Mr. Mark Zuckerberg.
3. The Click Farm
Most of the sites we visit with certain regularity make their money from advertisers that: a) get us to see them; b) have us click on those ads; and c) get us to purchase the products from said ads. Obviously, the best measure of this model is how many people actually spend money on the displayed product. But the overflow of ads (we see about 2,400 per day) is such that, if they didn’t charge on the click and the view, they could not pay for the electricity required to maintain the service in the first place.
With the ‘pay-per-click’ program, consequently comes the click farm. These are banks of phones, plugged in, tuned into facebook or other popular websites with lots of ads, constantly scanning and clicking on adverts. Why? Because the brand is hiring an ad agent, the agent is hiring a digital media specialist and the media specialist goes out to get lots of clicks for the least possible price. They work on commission, after all…M
This is terrible for companies like Facebook. The more useless a click becomes, the less anyone will pay for it. And things like CTR (click-thru-rate), conversion ratio, available views and other metrics become not only terrible, but deceiving.
“The overflow of ads is such that, if companies don’t charge on the click and the view, they could not pay for the electricity required to maintain the service in the first place.”
And that’s because Marketing and Sales are often separate departments. So long as I get the click and the engagement, who cares about how good the product is? How well it’s made? How accurate its pricing? And how good the customer targeting? I get paid for clicks and engagement and public opinion. Sales… is the next office. Talk to them.
Cookies. Trackers. Snippets. ActiveX. Browser ID. These are things used by analysts to understand consumer behavior. I recently installed Pi-hole, a domestic DNS – the thing that converts whatever.com into the code that takes you to the website – you can use to block and analyze your internet traffic. It turns out that 41% (for those not familiar with math, that’s almost half) of the traffic generated by my network of four laptops and five phones is advertisement content and ad tracking. This traffic is minutely analyzed by the big techy companies to discern what ad to show me. They look into our internet history, device, geographical location, where we have been recently and where the AI predicts we are likely to be next. Repeat, 41%.
Traffic analytics and user behavior pattern study is a billion dollar industry. Companies like Google, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook are Big (capital B) players in this arena. This is a hugely profitable business as most of the analysis is done by computers that learn by themselves. Translate into: relatively low running costs.
If we start setting up AI to completely emulate humans, these analysis become evermore inaccurate to the point of useless. And useless means the companies won’t buy them. And ‘not buy’ means, curiously, less profit.
“It turns out that 41% of the traffic generated by my network of four laptops and five phones is advertisement content and ad tracking. This traffic is minutely analyzed by the big techy companies to discern what ad to show me.”
Take email as an example. Spam now accounts for 55% of all email traffic, worldwide. Once more, machine-generated, and easily ignored. And therein lies the reason why Mercedes, Coca-Cola, Amazon and/or any other blue-chip company engages in email marketing. But they never do spam mail. It just doesn’t work. Hence, spam is used by fake pharma, sex enhancers, scam artists and snake oil sales schemes. Make your ad platform (read Facebook) as irrelevant and watch your profits disappear.
So, what do we do now? – Regulation
Finally, there is a disconnect between what internet giants know about us, and what we think they know about us. They are privy to more information than our spouses. And they have come to the realization that we are barely smarter than a chimp with a machine gun: funny to watch, uninteresting after a while, and stupid overall. Our value to them lies, exclusively, as targets for advertising
And if a lack of regulation fosters an environment where the digital chimp, virtually identical in behavior to us, becomes big, two things will happen:
- The value of all these companies, Facebook among them, will vanish as nobody is interested in showing an ad to a program. They want the chimp, the attention, the click from a real person, and the analytics cannot distinguish the flesh from the byte because, remember, these digital programs emulate a human completely, and evermore accurately.
- The people will end up abandoning the platform or putting safeguards not to interact with useless content. Nowadays every email program comes with a spam filter, and adblocks are becoming the norm.
Markberg knows this. He’s still a billionaire more interested in profits than our wellbeing, but right now, his interests and ours go together. Because if we leave Facebook because nothing and nobody is real anymore, his company stops being attractive to the money.
What that regulation looks like is still anybody’s guess, but it’s necessary and it’s urgent. Actions, globally, need to be put in place. Otherwise, we are not far off from droves of fake outrage, by fake humans over fake facts in fake places just to divert, and this is important, real money.
Meanwhile we, the chimp, are still emotional creatures that react to a story rather than to evidence. And as long as we prefer to live in an emotionally comfortable reality, unrelated to what’s really happening, this scenario is nearer than you think. Hence, the youngest ever billionaire is actually telling the truth. And we better listen. Go figure…