Thought Starters: A look at Facebook, Snapchat, hidden truths and London

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at adtech bloat, Facebook and Snapchat’s role in the social media landscape, the truth behind the statistics and London’s changing economic landscape. 

There’s been a lot of coverage about the growing adtech bloatware face and the countervailing rise of ad blockers as consumers look to improve their user experience and increase their privacy. I have considerable sympathy for the media sector which is in many cases scrabbling for a decent revenue model. But the situation doesn’t look great when consumers end up footing the bill with growing data chargers as highlighted by Rob Leathern:

When I cover deceptive ad practices/fraud, some people find it interesting, sure, but when I have explained how mobile websites are making far less money from ads than you’re paying in mobile data… People. Got. Pissed.

A recent report in The Information (paywall) points to consumers using Facebook less to share their personal thoughts, although figures from GlobalWebIndex indicate these might be part of a broader trend:

Decline in personal sharing on social networks

Ben Thompson puts Facebook’s position in the context of the broader social media landscape, contrasting it with the more personal mediums such as Snapchat (see below). Facebook’s launch of Moments and Facebook Live suggest it’s not happy being typecast in just this role:

It is increasingly clear that there are two types of social apps: one is the phone book, and one is the phone. The phone book is incredibly valuable: it connects you to anyone, whether they be a personal friend, an acquaintance, or a business. The social phone book, though, goes much further: it allows the creation of ad hoc groups for an event or network, it is continually updated with the status of anyone you may know or wish to know, and it even provides an unlimited supply of entertaining professionally produced content whenever you feel the slightest bit bored.

The phone, on the other hand, is personal: it is about communication between you and someone you purposely reach out to. True, telemarketing calls can happen, but they are annoying and often dismissed. The phone is simply about the conversation that is happening right now, one that will be gone the moment you hang up.

The growth of smartphones has had more than a helping hand in the growth of sexting among teenagers. This has raised serious questions for lawmakers who face criminalising teenagers using child pornography laws that were designed with different situations in mind and risk compounding the problem as Madeleine Thomas reports:

“You can allow them, or you can prohibit them, but [teens] are going to sext and they are going to have sex regardless,” Hasinoff says. “The potential for harm that technology creates is legitimately new, but the way we’re dealing with it is just completely the wrong approach. If you think you can stop it by criminalizing consensual sexters, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Snapchat is one of the platforms most closely associated with sexting with figures from comScore showing the disproportionately high share of younger age categories when compared to other social networks in the US:

Demographic Composition % of Major Social Networks

Snapchat’s recent launch of an updated version of its mobile messaging platform with a richer range of features again put it in the spotlight and left many marketers wondering how they can get onboard. Dakota Shane Nunley does his bit to pour cold water on some of this excitement pointing out there are plenty of situations where Snapchat simply doesn’t make sense:

Snapchat is not for:

  1. Big brands looking to be “relatable” (unless those brands are buying space on Discover, Filters, or paying Influencers)
  2. Businesses not based around an individual or personality
  3. People without a social following elsewhere
  4. Most small to mi-sized businesses

The commercial launch of Oculus Rift has left many commentators wondering whether virtual reality is the next big thing. The platform’s hardware costs mean that it’s not going to challenge the smartphone for the foreseeable future but that will change over time. For a closer look, it’s worth having a read of Benedict Evans’ look at the different development paths and the relationship with its cousin, augmented reality:

If one can answer those questions, then AR has the potential to be a new computing platform in a way that VR cannot – AR can be with you everywhere whereas VR needs a room, and so AR could be the next universal computing platform after mobile. 

The transition from physical to digital distribution of music has been a far from smooth one with no shortage of musicians complaining that the shift to a streaming model is leaving them out in the cold. Figures from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry suggest the industry may have now turned a corner with the fastest revenue growth since 1998 – whether that money reaches musicians remains to be seen:

Music sales growing at fastest rate since 1998

The Guardian is one of my go to news sources even if I am not always in sync with their view of the world and their drift to a more lifestyle format. Given this, I was disheartened to read Michael Wolff’s analysis of the organisation’s management under Alan Rusbridger which suggests it may face the same fate of other newspapers struggling to make the transition to a digital world:

Alan Rusbridger’s disciples consider him a visionary, but the former Guardian editor oversaw enormous losses, a huge fall in circulation and a ruinous faith in free content. Now, as he returns as chairman of its parent company, has his legacy of unchecked idealism condemned the iconic brand to terminal decline?

Right through my university career I identified as politically correct reflecting strongly held views on the sexism, racism and homophobia of various aspects of contemporary society. Given this, I’ve watched with considerable interest recent debates around political correctness particularly in American universities of today with commentators pointing to activists overreaching and the silencing of broader debates. Whilst I feel too far removed to give a considered judgement, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s article in The Atlantic and Lauren Modery’s commentary on Medium gave me plenty of food for thought.

Tim Harford has become one of my favourite commentators, separating the truth from fiction in news reports via the More or Less radio show/podcast and his regular column in the Financial Times. A recently penned feature article profiles the distortion of statistics and outright lies by politicians looking to shore up support among the general public – something well worth reading as UK approaches the Brexit referendum and the US head towards their presidential elections:

Perhaps the lies aren’t the real enemy here. Lies can be refuted; liars can be exposed. But bullshit? Bullshit is a stickier problem. Bullshit corrodes the very idea that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered by a careful mind. It undermines the notion that the truth matters. As Harry Frankfurt himself wrote, the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Whilst we’re on the subject of politics and its impacts, CEPR have had a look at the economic impacts of Brexit and it’s unsuprisingly not positive:

The economic consequences of leaving the EU will depend on what policies the UK adopts following Brexit. But lower trade due to reduced integration with EU countries is likely to cost the UK economy far more than is gained from lower contributions to the EU budget.

Even setting aside foreign investment, migration and the dynamic consequences of reduced trade, we estimate the effects of Brexit on trade and the UK’s contribution to the EU budget would be equivalent to a fall in income of between 1.3% and 2.6%. And once we include the long-run effects of Brexit on productivity, the decline in income increases to between 6.3% and 9.5%. Other possible political or economic benefits of Brexit, such as better regulation, would have to be very large to outweigh such losses.

Diet is one area where we’ve seen the media and public opinions shaped by evidence that often falls well short of gold standard in scientific research. Ian Leslie’s fascinating coverage of attitudes to sugar points to a situation where strong scientific wasn’t enough to change societal norms with personal politics getting in the way of the truth (see below). Unfortunately many countries are now paying the price with growing obesity rates:

It is a familiar complaint. By opening the gates of publishing to all, the internet has flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist. We no longer live in a world in which elites of accredited experts are able to dominate conversations about complex or contested matters. Politicians cannot rely on the aura of office to persuade, newspapers struggle to assert the superior integrity of their stories. It is not clear that this change is, overall, a boon for the public realm. But in areas where experts have a track record of getting it wrong, it is hard to see how it could be worse. If ever there was a case that an information democracy, even a very messy one, is preferable to an information oligarchy, then the history of nutrition advice is it.

There’s been growing awareness of discrimination faced by women in the workplace, reflected in the lack of women in leadership roles and the gender pay gap. Whilst a lot of attention focuses on the need for flexibility in the workplace and familial demands, research from ICEDR suggests that what thirtysomething women are really interested in is better pay:

The top 5 reasons people in their 30s leave companies

London has long had a character that set it apart from the rest of the UK both in terms of its international character and its economic output. One of the more recent consequences of this is the growing squeeze on poorer residents, reflected in the decline in the number of children eligible for free school meals as London’s central boroughs increasingly gentrify (see below). It’s no surprise that first time buyers are finding it increasingly hard to get on the property ladder compared to the rest of the country with regulation compounding the problem of population pressures:

Free school meal eligibilitySilicon Valley with its sea of office parks provides a rather different development model to London. Hunter Oatman-Stanford provides a fascinating look at the growth of this suburban corporate campus model as companies looked to flee inner cities. Unfortunately by sealing themselves off from the rest of society, businesses risk losing touch with the noisy and chaotic world they’re in many cases trying to serve:

While many modern office developments specifically include lounges or multipurpose zones where employees might randomly interact with one another, these spaces are entirely limited to office staff—with the aim that conversations would further relationships or spark ideas beneficial to the business. “I look at Apple’s Norman Foster building, and it’s 1952 all over again,” Mozingo says. “There’s nothing innovative about it. It’s a classic corporate estate from the 1950s, with a big block of parking. Meanwhile, Google is building another version of the office park with a swoopy roof and cool details—but it does nothing innovative.”

Online dating is reshaping the way people meet their flings / boyfriends / girlfriends / future partners. You can see this in Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas’s research from the US (see table below). The 2009 cut off date suggests the graph is substantially underreporting the current situation given the growing penetration of smartphones, services such as Tinder and growing social acceptance of online dating.  Alex Mayyasi reports on some of the consequences of this trend including a likely growth in assortative mating which is ultimately likely to undermine social mobility:

How straight couples met their partner

Whilst we’re on the subject of relationships, it’s worth reading Gay Talese’s account of one motel owner’s voyeurism. You might not learn a whole lot about human relationships, but it does makes for an entertaining read.

The featured image is a GoddoG mural from Bordeaux published in ekosystem.

 

Thought Starters: mobile internet, adblockers, sexism in the workplace and the developing world

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read over the last week or so, highlighting the more interesting trends, developments and changes in the world we live in. This time we’re looking at the growth of mobile, the role of adblockers, the impacts and origins of sexism in the workplace and the internet in the developing world among other things. Happy reading.

The growth of mobile has seen the emergence of a whole new range of digital channels, but Visual Capitalist’s research points to the largest platforms all being controlled by Microsoft, Google or Facebook. That being said, there are range of platforms (WeChat, Snapchat, Slack, Netflix, Spotify) that fall short of a billion users but dominate within their respective sectors or geographies and could present a challenge to the market incumbents:

Apps or programmes with more than one billion active users

The IAB (US) recently released research which profiles how American consumers are using their PCs and smartphones. What is apparent is the continuing move to mobile  although the same research points to computers still registering a higher volume of internet views pointing to the different ways these devices are used:

Nearly Two-Thirds of All Internet Time is Spent on a Mobile Device

Google and Facebook have responded well to consumers’ growing use of smartphones, taking more than half of the available mobile ad revenues and leaving the remaining players fighting over the scraps in the US. eMarketer’s forecast suggests this isn’t going to change any time soon:

Net US mobile ad revenue share by company forecast

A continuing note of concern for media operators is the growth of adblocking with 22% of Britons using the software with this rising to 47% among 18-24 year olds according to Internet Advertising Bureau (UK) commissioned research.

Dean Dubley’s analysis suggests the introduction of mobile adblocking services won’t decimate the online media sector but is likely to further strengthen the hand of Google and Facebook:

The bottom line is that screaming headlines in stories like those from ZeroHedge (link) about “the risk to Internet companies’ business models” are nonsense. Ironically, it’s Google and Facebook’s approach to advertising that is safe. Small online publications using other advertising channels may not be so lucky. I noticed this tweet referencing mobile advertising growth forecasts from Goldman Sachs (link) which seems to suggest that Wall St is sanguine about the adblocking “threat” and that rapid growth in revenues will continue.

Among the likely responses by media operators to growing adblocker usage is a growing reliance on native advertising which is reflected in Enders Analysis’ recent forecast for Yahoo:

Forecast for the growth of native advertising in Europe

Whilst a few apps such as Facebook are nearly universal in their appeal, others give a clearer indicator as to who the user might be. Researchers have looked to profile the correlation between the ownership of different mobile apps and various demographic characteristics and income to develop profiles of mobile users. You can check out who they think you are in quiz – they got my gender and age wrong (I’m definitely male and over the age of 32) although I’m guessing not being a US resident probably didn’t help the profiling process.

Slack has been touted as the solution to the problem of information overload in the workplace with over 2 million daily active users. Samuel Hulick provides a more sceptical view warning that this “asynchronish” is in many cases compounding rather than addressing the problem:

Maybe you will say I’m afraid of commitment, but I’m just not interested in a relationship that seems to want to swallow up more and more of my time and attention, and demand that more and more of my interactions with other people go through you first.

Jeff Goodell has written an extended feature article on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Worth a read if you’re keen to get up to speed with what’s happening in the sector:

Despite advances like smarter algorithms and more capable robots, the future of superintelligent machines is still more sci-fi than science. Right now, says Yann LeCun, the director of Facebook AI Research, “AIs are nowhere near as smart as a rat.” Yes, with years of programming and millions of dollars, IBM built Watson, the machine that beat the smartest humans at Jeopardy! in 2011 and is now the basis for the company’s “cognitive computing” initiative. It can read 800 million pages a second and can digest the entire corpus of Wikipedia, not to mention decades of law and medical journals. Yet it cannot teach you how to ride a bike because its intelligence is narrow – it knows nothing about how the world actually works

Developments in software technology including artificial intelligence are rapidly expanding the scope of what computers can do. Nathaniel Popper profiles Kensho’s role in automating some of Goldman Sach’s research roles, highlighting how automation is increasingly emerging as a threat to white collar jobs:

The lead author on the Oxford paper, Carl Benedikt Frey, told me that he was aware that new technologies created jobs even as they destroyed them. But, Frey was quick to add, just because the total number of jobs stays the same doesn’t mean there are no disruptions along the way. The automation of textile work may not have driven up the national unemployment rate, but vast swathes of the American South suffered all the same. When it comes to those A.T.M.s, there has, in fact, been a recent steady decline in both the number of bank branches and the number of bank tellers, even as the number of low-paid workers in remote call centers has grown.

This points to a disconcerting possibility: Perhaps this time the machines really are reducing overall employment levels. In a recent survey of futurists and technologists, the Pew Research Institute found that about half foresee a future in which jobs continue to disappear at a faster rate than they are created.

Virtual reality is another technology that’s spilling out of the lab. Whilst it’s great to see the technology in the real world, Daniel Harvey profiles how a lack of diversity is leading to accidental sexism reflecting wider problems in the tech sector:

Based on that pattern it should come as no surprise that VR suffers from much the same. Motion sickness in VR has plagued the format since its inception. Women have shown a greater tendency toward VR-induced nausea than men. But why? It’s all about unconscious bias and technology’s notorious self-selection bias.

Discrimination is certainly not something exclusive to the tech sector. The absence of women in the boardrooms of many FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 companies reflects a range of barriers and will hold back their performance given they’re less able to reflect the needs of half the world’s consumers. It’s worth heading over to The Economist site where you can play with an interactive version of the following:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/thebestandworstplacestobeaworkingwoman&%3Ffsrc%3Dscn/=tw/dc

Facebook recently released its State of Connectivity report which profiles barriers to internet access for the developing world as part of its internet.org initiative. The key barriers to access highlighted in the report are the state of connectivity, availability of infrastructure, affordability, relevance and readiness of the population:

Barriers to internet access for developing world consumers

A valuable complement to Facebook’s report is Pew Research Center’s recently released research which looks at smartphone ownership and internet usage around the world including developing countries:

Percent of adults who use the internet at least occasionally or report owning a smartphone

With Britain’s Brexit referendum coming up on the 23rd of June, The Economist has profiled the regions that are europhile and eurosceptic:

UK regions' attitudes to Brexit

Whilst Europe is generally becoming more urbanised, this process (like technology) is unevenly distributed with different cities experiencing significant growth (Istanbul, Brussels, Amsterdam) or decline (Katowice, Ruhr, Katowice, Ostrava, Bucharest):

Europe cities growth and decline

Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui profile changes in patterns of relationships and marriage in the US, highlighting the role of assortative mating in reinforcing social class and undermining social mobility:

Assortative mating is the idea that people marry people like themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them. It was common in the early 20th century, dipped in the middle of the century and has sharply risen in recent years — a pattern that roughly mirrors income inequality in the United States, according to research by Robert Mare, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. People are now more likely to marry people with similar educational attainment — even after controlling for differences between men and women, like the fact that women were once less likely to attend college.

The featured image is a mural by ecb / Hendrik Beikirch for the St+Art India event in New Delhi and published in StreetArtNews