Category Archives: Commentary

Social Web Readings and Commentary

Herein lies a text dump of the reflections I did for my Social Web class. Meh.

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I found the article confusing at first because I lacked the context of what MOOs or MUDs were. Once I read up on those, I realized that what this article in summary was the shift in decision making power in the game to the majority, as well as the creation of tools to police its users.

This reminds me of the game Twitch Plays Pokemon, where players could determine what the game character does by pressing key combinations. The program would process each player’s key in sequence. The task then was to see if the internet hivemind could complete the game even with the chaos that ensued. It took some minor updates to the methodology before it was completed.

Considering this in the context of LambdaMOO, it could be said that the the viewpoints of the majority can be considered the most amenable in any dispute or decision-making process. This is why the final choice was made to implement a voting scheme in-game to carry out tasks which require administrator rights. The implied notion was that concentrating power in the hands of a few people was not desirable. In addition, the administrators did not want to arbitrate in any more disputes.

In sum, making a decision such as kicking out a player is difficult to do so in a personal capacity. However, once you have the majority of people agreeing to your decision, it is easier to do so. And this is what LambdaMOO became.

I find the tables in the paper a challenge to make sense of. However, from the graphs that follow, the main takeaways from the paper are that high editor concentration leads to greater improvements in article quality. However, as time passes and the article improves, more power needs to be relinquished to the masses because ostensibly, the latter does a better job in the maintenance of the article. This is new to me because I have always thought more people involved would always lead to better outcomes. I also like the longitudinal study done for the “Music of Italy” article as it shows the activity of certain groups of users during the infancy of the article.

This article was novel because it postulated a model for conflict detection and resolution. I think it is eye-opening to see how researchers think of quantifiable statistics as proxies for issues like maintenance work (like reverts) and conflicts (Controversial Revision Count).

Also, I think their work on the Revert Graph opens up a lot of possibilities for improving Wikipedia moderation tools. For example, such a tool can be run on each article, giving everybody an overview on the possible bias that they might subconsciously take on the article. Since Wikipedia prefers a nuanced perspective in article writing, extra caution might be given to users who fall on extremes of the Revert Graph. Also, an alert can be given to users who have a biased perspective (based on their reverts) before they commit any changes to the article.

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week 5

The Effect of Online Privacy Information on Purchasing Behavior: An Experimental Study

The conclusion of the study is that “people will tend to purchase from merchants that offer more privacy protection and even pay a premium to purchase from such merchants.” However, as seen from Figure 4 on page 15, there is also a substantial number of people who ignore the presence of privacy cues. For the case of sex toys, with privacy information disclosed, more than 30% of participants bought from the lowest priced vendor, comparable to the most privacy-protecting (highest-priced) vendor. This shows that price is still a strong predictor if a buyer is going to purchase from a vendor, irregardless of privacy concerns. Finally, I feel that this study is at best, unrealistic in the real world. P3P is all but forgotten on the internet and only Microsoft Internet Explorer supports it. If you inspect the network data when you surf Facebook, there is a header that says ‘p3p:CP=”Facebook does not have a P3P policy. Learn why here: http://fb.me/p3p’ – Facebook says that the P3P standard is now out of date.

I regretted the minute I pressed share: A qualitative study of regrets on Facebook.

This study looks into the different types of posts that Facebook users are likely to make and then regret. The main types revolve around posts made in the heat of the moment, associated with undesirable activies as well as those that were not intended to be seen by a specific group of people. A useful extension to the study would be to analyze posts made on Facebook that were subsequently deleted. I cannot confirm but it is likely Facebook has a copy of all posts made, even though it was subsequently deleted, as some (undisclosed) information is deleted only when one permanently deletes one’s account. From this post history, users can be asked the reason why they deleted certain posts, and more accurate data can be gleaned.

Jason Hong: Smarter Phones

In his talk, Hong surmises that privacy concerns arising from the use of smartphones are mainly due to users not being aware of the things that smartphone apps are doing to their personal data such as location and device ID. To dispel such concerns, users should be made more aware of the details each app is requesting. Personally, I feel that a context-sensitive alert about the requests for data each app is using would be beneficial. For example, when downloading Google Maps from the App Store, a prompt that this app would be using location data would not be shown because most users know that this would be needed. However, if a bible app requests for location data, a visible prompt would be shown that such location data is probably not needed for proper functioning of the app. A possible way to get information on what app requires what kind of data to work properly would be to crowdsource information from users. For example, what percentage of users deny the app’s request for data – if the number is high, it is highly possible that users do not think that such information would be necessary.

Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity

In her talk, Boyd points out that privacy is alive in the sense that people do care about it. Privacy is about having control over how information flows. However, companies fallaciously think that people do not really care about privacy because the latter discloses their personal information on the online public sphere, often unintentionally. She then proposes that companies do not egregiously change privacy settings on behalf of users, or ask users to opt out of a possibly controversial feature rather than opt in. She also adds that people takes the public sphere into account when sharing information. When they feel comfortable, they tend to share more, often unknowingly. The onus is then on the company to ensure they are well-informed.

This brings to mind a feature that Facebook implemented a few years ago with the introduction of the Activity Feed called Beacon. Facebook intended to extend the social graph from the Facebook site to what users do on other sites. When someone gets a movie from Fandango, this activity would pop up on the Facebook feed. There was great controversy when users pointed out it would be problematic when someone buys a book called “Coping with Cancer” and the purchase was posted on Facebook for all to see.

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WK 5 EXPERIENCE

Facebook’s privacy policy is located at https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy and it is a refreshing change from the legalese that other websites have. Of course, Facebook has an offical one (https://www.facebook.com/full_data_use_policy) that overrules the more interactive version.

It is grouped into 3 main parts – what information is collected, how Facebook uses this info, as well as how they share such data

In the first part, the main types of data being collected are listed. The more notable ones are data about the frequency and duration of the user’s activities, which are possibly used to determine who the user is engaging with. This might be scare some people who are not used to such a granular level of tracking. According to one website (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/30/facebook-track-cursor_n_4178508.html), Facebook is even tracking mouse movements and clicks, in a bid to improve user engagement via A/B testing. Another data of concern is those from third-party partners. Althrough phrased in a nuanced way, these can include data brokers who seek to link your offline transactional data with those that are conducted online via the myriad Facebook buttons on countless websites these days.

In the second part, they clarify that the information is used to improve their services. The one that is of note here is the part about info being used to show and measure ads and services. They have an entire page dedicated to ad privacy and explanation – https://www.facebook.com/about/ads which is also written for the layman. They also mention cookies, but users might not know what they are. A possible way to improve in this aspect is to call is “cookies or tracking beacons” to make know to the user the intent of said cookies, that is, tracking.

Finally, the longest and most detailed portion is the one on information sharing, and rightly so. It is grouped into two parts – sharing on Facebook and sharing with external parties. For the first part, it covers most of what we know about Facebook sharing. When certain Facebook features are used such as Facebook Login, your public info is shared with them – this includes your username or user ID, your age range and other information you choose to share. They are also allowed to share information with other companies owned by Facebook. The second part covers sharing with third-party partners which include advertising agencies as well as research partners. While the former has language that only “Non-Personally Identifiable Information” will be used for the purpose of advertisement targeting and tracking, the latter does not have such information. In the latter case, such partners “must adhere to strict confidentiality obligations in a way that is consistent with (said) Data Policy”. However, this means that this could be the weakest link in the chain that could deanonymize users. If said vendors or partners not adhere to Facebook’s policies, private information that could identify users could be leaked out. This is the most seriously lacking part of the whole policy page.

Overall, I think Facebook’s privacy policy is presented in a very succinct and easy to understand manner with great use of subheadings to delineate each portion. Links to interactive help tools are provided allowing the user to see how their public profile look like from a search engine, for example. Some of the information presented by Facebook is intentionally vague, possibly because it might be too technical for users to understand. Of course, a more conspiratory perspective is that Facebook is hiding something so that it can hide behind vaguely fleshed out terms.

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MIDTERM COMIC 1

One day companies might know you better than you know yourself.

It has already happened – Target is able to identify 25 products that can accurately ascertain if you are pregnant or not – and send you coupons before you even need them.

When you get a membership card from Target, they are not offering you discounts for free – they seek to link your real world purchases (credit cards used) with your online impulse buys. Some even sell or ‘exchange’ your anonymized information with so-called data brokers. However, research has shown that such anonymized info can pretty much identify a specific person with great accuracy.

One day, such tracking will be so pervasive and invasive that we will wonder if there was ever a notion of privacy.

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Week 6

How to Ask for a Favor: A Case Study on the Success of Altruistic Requests

In summary, this paper concludes that showing gratitude, showing intent of reciprocity and an urgent need, as well as a higher status within the community, will increase the probability that one will have one’s request fulfilled. Mood, politeness and similarity were not significant factors.

Before, looking into the meat of the paper, I predicted that only gratitude, reciprocity and urgency were contributing factors. I did not find status to be particularly important because status indicators on Reddit require one to click through to the user profile; unlike forums where you can see how many posts or the ‘flair’ the user has. My guess is that because money is involved, people tend to see that the user was not just created to get free pizza from people. They would like to see an active user in Reddit – as a proxy for how much contribution said user has made in the community.

Investigating the Appropriateness of Social Network Question Asking as a Resource for Blind Users

I like this idea of crowdsourcing for social good. I downloaded the VizWiz app to see how it worked first hand but could not get it to work as the app keeps on crashing at some portions. As expected, the anonymity and speed of on-demand services like Amazon Mechanical Turk makes it a very compelling option to get crowdsourced services at a fee. I did some research on fraud rates on Amazon MTurk to see how much fraudulent completion of tasks were there. One possible reason why Facebook would not be effective is because Facebook’s EdgeRank selects what would be shown on a person’s newsfeed – if a user is not particular active on Facebook, or posts updates that are not particularly popular, their updates would be shown on the website as much. In recent months, there have been a shift towards contextual display of updates to people who demonstrate interest in a particular topic. For example, if I post an update about a new Pusheen Box, Facebook would show my post more to people who like Pusheen. Depending on perspective, this might be a good or bad thing to VizWiz – good because the posts would be more targeted to people with the knowledge to answer questions correctly – bad because the posts would see a more limited audience now. Personally, I feel that Facebook would be a less effective medium for VizWiz users because those users do not ask questions which require subject matter experts.

EXPERIENCE

I had some experience with Tomnod – a volunteer crowdsourcing website that takes satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe to find things. One of their more notable ones that I signed up for was the search for MH370. They provided satellite imagery of the sea floor for people to identigy wreckage. For this task, I decided to try Tomnod again. I started off with the California Valley Fire 2015 campaign, which asks users to look for damaged buildings and impassable roads based on imagery before the fire as well as infrared imagery after the fire. I was pretty frustrated doing it because it seemed they hadn’t improved their infrastructure since I last used it. The site still lagged like crazy and the images refuse to preload, making for a very frustrating experience scrolling the huge expanse of land. My browser crashed a few times during this ordeal.

I switched to a different campaign – tagging Indonesia forest fires and burn marks. I spent around 1.5 hours on this campaign. It was easier to use than the previous one, probably because there is only 1 image to load for each tile. In my time there I explored 3455 tiles (~1700 sq km), tagged 245 objects and achieved consensus on 210 of them. Consensus meant the number of people who agreed with me on my tags. The other features of the site was progress updates disguised as a form of gamification. For example, when I explored 100 Km2, a notification pops up saying “100 Km2 Super Explorer!
You have explored through a full one hundred square kilometers!” I feel that the interface could be made better so users don’t feel irked by the clunkiness. Instead of showing the whole map, they could show the users one tile at at time. Also, they could potentially highlight areas where other users have highlighted to show examples of what is correct or wrong.

2nd Readings

Showing Support for Marriage Equality on Facebook

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s epic paper on slacktivism (Small Change) and his results are particularly relevant. Slactivism does not require much effort on the part of users, and that is why it is such an easy and popular way to support a cause. It is an effective way to get people to sign up for a cause. Moreover, such slacktivism harnesses so-called weak ties prevalent in social networks – people do not know each other personally on Twitter for example. To bring about real change, strong ties must be formed. This happens when we know someone personally taking part actively in a cause. When we know someone personally taking part, we are more likely to transition from slacktivism to actual activism.

In defense of “Slacktivism”: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook logo as digital activism

Slacktivism can be helpful if the people who ‘passively’ contribute from the comfort of their homes actually believe in it. However, as it is, many people jump on the bandwagon so that they are not left out, or they want to be seen as ‘liberal’ in the eyes of their friends. This isn’t particularly helpful. However, I surmise that companies treat slacktivism as a form of viral marketing – such word of mouth will further their organization’s aims through awareness – whether it makes a real impact there and then does not matter.

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We Are Dynamo: Overcoming Stalling and Friction in Collective Action for Crowd Workers

The paper discusses the idea of galvanizing crowd workers to band together to further their rights, akin to a virtual workers’ union. Similar to how Uber labels its drivers as contractors, online workers have limited recourse. For example, on Mechanical Turk, requesters often mark work as unsatisfactory even though it might be done well, so as to reduce their cost. In their online community, stalling and friction served to undermine their efforts to establishing effective collective action. The solutions the authors propose is useful not only in collective action but serve as good general guidelines for a community.

The Future of Crowd Work

The paper discusses ways in which online crowd tasks sites could be made better. Much of the problems crowd workers face are that instructions from requesters are not clear, or they are not paid for tasks which they completed but the requesters declare to be not up to scratch. The authors propose creating a career ladder for such crowd work but I feel that this is not feasible. The state of micro-tasks are such that they are meant to be low-paying, non-skilled tasks. The fact that a lot of these involve liking Facebook posts, or even clicking on ads mean that such tasks are not very legitimate after all. 3 years ago, I actually did make my own micro-tasks website, modelled after microworkers.com, which aims to help workers out by reducing fraud performed by the requester, by implementing an API that automatically verifies the work done by worker, rather than leaving the requester to manually approve them.

2nd Readings

The Mirage of the Marketplace

I believe that Uber was so successful simply because it disrupted the taxi industry which had remained pretty much static for the past few years. Previously, taxis with their medallions were pretty much entrenched in the transportation industry in US as the medallions gave them a virtual monopoly. Moreover, in other countries, pricing tiers meant that taxis were not available at certain times of the day. For example, in Singapore, taxis would go into hiding 30 mins before the peak hour rates start, so that they can bide their time until those higher rates start. Instead of alleviating traffic jams, taxis increased congestion during those peak hour periods. However, Uber came in to solve this problem.

Having said this, Uber is simply using technology to faciliate transportation. Much like how eBay and Amazon used technology to get goods delivered from manufacturers to consumers, Uber works on the basis of delivering transport from drivers to riders. The ‘algorithm’ which the article says is a mirage, is simply used to better the rider experience by improving speeds and satisfaction, even though some cars were simulated.

EXPERIENCE

I took a few Uber rides and asked them why they wanted to be an Uber driver. One of them said the flexibility appealed to him. He said he was a night person and liked driving passengers at night. He added that he earned more too, from fetching passengers on red-eye flights from PIT. When I asked if he minded not having any employee benefits, he shrugged it off and surmised that there had to be a trade-off. He added that Uber’s technology has indeed made connecting passengers to drivers easier. When asked about the future, he said he had no plans to change jobs unless legislation forced him to otherwise.

Another time, the Uber driver said that he intended to use his Uber earnings to get a foothold into the real estate business. His brother bought a few houses from his savings, rented them out (to sketchy people month-to-month) and has a stable income now. He said he does freelance web consulting work at home and whenever a potential passenger requests for a ride, he takes it up to get extra income. He also added that he does not like the rigidity a 9 to 5 job entails, and that was why he does freelance work – it even pays better. Finally, he said he hoped that Uber and Lyft instills some kind of community in its drivers – a lounge for other on-demand drivers to connect would be good.

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Using social psychology to motivate contributions to online communities.

This reading discussses two experiments about overcoming social loafing – whether framing uniqueness and benefits, or goal setting are possible solutions. While uniqueness increases contributions, benefits do not, probably because users probably have subconscious reasons for doing so (ie. altruism) and feel that reminding them of benefits reduce their proclivity for contribution. I did not expect this result as from a web marketing perspective, one would remind potential users about the benefits of signing up. According to Kraut, users might have seen those messages as manipulative and acted opposite to their recommendations simply to preserve their autonomy.

The second study showed that specific goals increased user contributions. What I hoped they explored was whether a very low goal will reduce user contribution. Their lowest goal level was the median number – 8 ratings per week. What if they had intentionally put a very low goal of 2 ratings per week? Would it otherwise persuade people who just logged in and did not rate because 8 ratings were too effortful? Would it reduce the ratings of very active users? The conclusion of the study was that group work increased contributions (contrary to hypothesis and what we know about the collective effort model) and very high goals reduced the rate of contribution.

Understanding the motivations, participation and performance of open source software developers: A longitudinal study of the apache projects.

The paper talks about whether various factors influence use-value and status motivations, as well as level of contributions to the field of open source software. I was confused as to what use-value motivation actually meant (and still is) while I know status motivation refers to the motivation derived from knowing one’s status can be elevated in the future. The paper states that use value refers to the contribution to solve a problem of personal use benefit. Does this refer to a case where I contribute to a code project because a feature which I personally find useful was not present, hence my use-value motivation increases? In any case, a part which I found interesting was that being paid to contribute increases intrinsic motivation by virtue of increasing status motivation. This runs contrary to what I learnt in social psychology. When people are paid to do things, they attribute their continued action of that task to the money, and not an intrinsic reason. If one is not paid and continues doing the task, there is no extrinsic motivation (money), hence I will (perhaps falsely) attribute an intrinsic one subconsciously – I like doing it. Hence, it is posited that monetary incentive would reduce the motivation to participate.

Evidence-based social design: Mining the social sciences to build online communities.

Although a tad long, the paper was very insightful, with very actionable strategies for motiviating contributions online or offline. With the deluge of information online, it is easy to execute some of the ideas in the paper. For example, many marketing funnel pages employ such strategies by stating a limited time period (“you have 3 hours left to sign up”) or showing that other people have joined, or requests that target people’s interests. As a corollary to the previous reading, this paper states that reward increases contribution if it is a sufficiently high amount; it can be done away with if you are given a small contribution. One point to think about is how or why micro tasks websites are so popular given that the pay rate is so low. Do people unknowingly become self-absorbed into the tasks that they spend too long doing it? Or do they like contributing to the myriad research studies on MTurk?

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Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial
Cultural Market

This was an interesting study, but with a few weaknessses. It is strange that their subjects are mainly teenagers and not adults, yet they argue in their paper that even if they tested it with adults, the overall amount of inequality and unpredictability would be similar. It is a bad assumption to make, because it is possible adults are not swayed by weak cues like amount of numbers. This is something to think about. Additionally, in experiment 2, they ordered the songs by popularity of downloads, with less popular songs very far down the page. Did this choice of presentation influence the unpredictability? I am of the opinion that those music that appeared above the fold will be seen more, and thus downloaded more, while those down the page would not be, thus exacerbating the Gini coefficient. I believe an additional control case ordering songs with least popular songs at the top of the single column page would allow the researchers to control for page layout bias.

Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter

This paper concludes that a cost effective marketing strategy could entail normal users sending out sponsored messages, rather than a very popular celebrity. Also, in addition to their current methodology, one could extend upon this project by considering the speed at which a URL is shared. A link shared 100 times over a few minutes could be considered to have greater influence than one shared over a few months. Finally, an interesting point to note is that a significant amount of content on Twitter is actually spam (https://www.fastcompany.com/3044485/almost-10-of-twitter-is-spam) with spam accounts retweeting the same set of links over and over again.

Reading, Writing, Relationships:

This study was pretty in-depth and dispelled some of the common misconceptions about how Facebook is disrupting traditional communication methods in a bad way. On the contrary, such social networks can complementing existing ones. Also, having more weak ties do not crowd out strong ties, so it can be said that having more friends on Facebook does not mean that one knows less people more closely. The second research conclusion was that direct communication like messages help increase tie strength. This conforms to what people would hypothesize – pokes and likes are not meaningful forms of expression. The final conclusion was that losing a job increases weak tie interaction and decreased satisfaction arising from communicating with strong ties, especially if the latter is not in the same pickle as the former.

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1) I asked my friend to make a Wikipedia edit. He protested that Wikipedia is already comprehensive as it is and any further edits by him would not stand to scrutiny. I told him to make an edit anyway and he told me edited the article which expressed an amount in 1920 dollars in more recent amounts. I believe a bot came by and wrote on his talk page that his edit has been reverted, telling him to use the sandbox while he worked on citing his source.

2) I asked my friend to hwork on Galaxy Zoo and she felt frustrated. Some of the photos that were given were photos which had too many tiny galaxies, making it hard to classify them properly. I believe this was a problem faced by many of people in class as well.

3) I got one of my friends in Singapore to set up an OKCupid profile since he is a bit lacking in the love department. He had reservations – “What if my classmates see me there? They will think I am desperate”. He put a profile photo of a plate of noodles instead of his real self.

4) I got my friend to read the iTunes legalese. He said no thanks. I showed him this link (http://itunestandc.tumblr.com/) that presented the same in the form of a comic. He enjoyed it.

5) I did a twist on the crowd-working one by asking someone to work on 2Catpcha which is a middleware API for defeating captchas by getting lowly paid crowd workers to solve them manually. I got dissed at – imagine earning 75 cents for solving 1000 captchas and a chance to get carpal tunnel syndrome.

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Dr. Google will see you now

Like Ryan, I believe that search trends on Google can be useful but we would do well to be careful to curve fit our hypotheses and bias to the data we get. One of the more notable projects at Google Research is the Flu Trends project (https://www.google.org/flutrends/about/) which was recently closed. Because flu is such a common symptom, the results consisntely overpredict the severity of flu in regions – too much can lead to paranoia. That being said, ‘nowcasting’, as this strategy is being called, does have a place in economics and predictions.

The Wisdom of Crowd

I trade for a living, and I see this phenomenon of crowd wisdom every first Friday of the month, when the Non-Farm Payrolls (NFP) comes around. NFP is the biggest news event which shows the employment health of the US economy. Every month, people will post their predictions on NFP on Twitter. One of my favourite things to do is to compile a sample of predictions of Twitter users and get the average of their predictions. They are actually surprisingly quite accurate. I guess this prediction model can be improved if I had chosen only US based Twitter users, who are more likely to be in tune with the ebbs and flows of the US economy. Another interesting example I can think off hand is the use of satellite images to capture the parking lots of various (strip) malls. The more cars parked in front of a business compared to the previous year, the more likely it is doing well. Hence, investment firms can have better conviction in buying their stock, even before earnings results are released. This shows the power of crowd wisdom.

Mistaken Analysis

Ahhh, I didn’t read this before I made my first article post, but yes – analysis needs to adapt to changing technological trends. For example, big data analysis is used in Singapore to predict traffic patterns and determine the best traffic light timing for each junction, depending on the road and time of day. If we were to wholesale use data from 10 years ago today, it will definitely not be as useful.

Should Reddit be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?

I believe that as a platform, Reddit isn’t too blamed. The discussion that arose from that subreddit is a form of crowdsourced, citizen journalism, a field of which merits a lot of controversy in itself, if you look at how people takes things in their own hands in China. The thing is, I believe education is the key to making such platforms work. Just like trolling is commonplace online, supposed facts should be taken with a pinch of salt online. People who are influencers need to be more discerning about the things they disseminate on their online social media accounts lest they spread half-truths and sully their own reputation.

EXPERIENCE

I perused topics from this list – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_controversial_issues and settled on the Historicity of Jesus which is a hotbed for religious controversy as seen on the talk page. A quick glance of the talk page tells me that in a way, meaningful contribution to Wikipedia entails the jargon that comes with editing the page – things like WP:SPS, WP:SELFPUB and WP:DUE are thrown about as though it was the norm. Those, by the way, are acronyms used to refer to making a neutral point of view in writing a Wikipedia page. It seems like the main source of contention on the page is the veracity of certain sources, as well as a certain Christian slant which frankly I do not really detect. Also, there has been huge debate on what is history and what is not factual (and hence not considered history).

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Mining Our Reality

This article is pretty outdated in the sense that data sharing between entities have become more secure and standardized. For example, there is a service (I forgot the name, but it is pretty big and used by many businesses) that allows you to get the person’s physical address from his/her email address, without both parties disclosing their email addresses. Both parties run their email addresses through a standard one-way hashing algorithm known to both parties and see if they match up. If there is a hit, they retrieve the other details. In the same vein, much of the internet’s data brokers work the same way. The more egregious ones attempt to link up your real life activities with your online activities. They do this by offering you membership cards and loyalty coupons so they can track you both in-store and online. Data is being sure that’s for sure, but there needs to be a line drawn. The service I mentioned at the start of my post is very creepy.

Inferring friendship network structure by using mobile phone data

This study shows the advatanges of using handphone behavioral data over self-reported data. Increasingly, such features are used to cut down on cognitive biases inherent in self-reports. For example, Dark Sky the weather app uses the pressure sensors in iPhones to crowdsource data on whether a particular place is going to rain. Also, Waze the map app uses your location data to automatically tell other users if there is a traffic jam on a particular stretch of road, based on how fast you are going. In this respect, data insights from smartphones are able to serve as a proxy for other types of data such as relationships.

Reality Mining: Sensing Complex Social Systems

I’d like to point out that Bluetooth technology these days have been revised in view of the privacy concerns of yesteryear. Last time, people could send other people contacts via Bluetooth without the recipient knowing. I created a MIDP app to do such pranks on the trains. Lol. But seriously though, Most bluetooth devices these days are not broadcast publicly anymore – the user has to explicitly say they want to pair their device with other users. Nonetheless, I like this study alot as it took an innocuous piece of technology to identify social patterns. I can see how this is useful in situations like urban planning and crowd control during events. The privacy implications are even more real with the 3m accuracy provided by GPS and GLONASS technology. Moreover, it is easy for apps to get location data on Android phones since the permissions are baked in upon installation.

The Livehoods Project

I found it hard to appreciate the implications of the paper. The clustering algorithm, could cluster checkins of people to distinct groups, but that’s about it. Without further research like interviews with people in those clusters, not much information can be gathered. Moreover, in any city there are bound to be clusters of folks which makes up the identity of an area. I expected that their algorithmic clustering would have highlighted certain distinct features of an area – for example, the flow of people from other regions to Market District to buy groceries, for example. This would be more useful in the sense that we now have the ability to see which neighborhoods are underserved in terms of these amenities.

EXPERIENCE

I used to use 4square before it became Swarm, primarily because I used it to document places that I have been to in a particular region. So when I was cafe hopping around NYC last winter, I checked in at each place I went. When my friend asked me what to eat at NYC, I just gave her the list of check-ins. Pretty nifty. Over the past few days, I checked in to mostly lecture halls and classrooms. Pretty boring to be used on campus actually. But I guess that’s CMU for ya. Anyway, Swarm is so much more gamified than last time. And there are more obnoxious ads forced in your face right now. I really want to like it, so I will give it a spin during winter break. A few of my friends use it, including my dad, so it is fun to see what they are up to (and where they work and live :O ) Again, if you are checking in to place X every 9am and place Y every 6pm, people are going to know where you work and live. Use judiciously.

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Cooks or Cobblers? Crowd Creativity through Combination

Cooks or cobblers? Cooks take raw materials and conjure a scrumptious meal out of it. But cobblers take something slightly imperfect and mend it to be somewhat functional. Hence, I would have to say this paper strongly proves the point that crowd creativity is like cobblers. The chair, whilst creative (which I think is already pushing the limits of its definition), might not be ergonomic, functionable or useable. Also, many users have their interpretation of what should go into a product, leading to feature bloat. Say you are designing a stool for a person to sit on. Someone might add seat contours so that it fits your butt cheeks snugly, another might want to add an AC below it to cool your bottom during summer, or a deodorizer underneath so your farts won’t stink up the room while seated. Point is, this study centers on the fact that all coordination can be mediated through designs, which I think is a blasé perspective. If you want to see a good way on how such crowdsourcing can work well, take a look at Quirky. I am a member there for quite some time, and the processes there for such work impresses me. (https://www.quirky.com/invent)

Redistributing Leadership in Online Creative Collaboration

The author is right in pointing out that Pipeline bears much similarity to GitHub; he argues that Pipeline aims for breadth rather than depth, but GitHub also has very strong administrative tools like Pipeline made, in addition to its world-class version control system. That said, there has been much movement in software development towards depth aka “niche” areas. You have Foursqare and Swarm as one example; and Facebook’s main app, Messenger, Camera, Groups, Pages, Notify, among many other apps that serve only one purpose. There is an article online on why they decided not to integrate all functionality into one single app – those interested can do a quick search to read it. I would say in terms on task delegation, Pipeline’s tools reduced the friction of admins – the main problem they were trying to solve. Yet, I feel that just like GitHub is known for code collaboration and Wikipedia for knowledge editing, perhaps Pipeline should focus on one niche area – image collaboration perhaps? Then they can develop tools such as realtime online editing of images (plenty of plugins online to do this) as well as displaying comments on the image canvas.

Science by the Masses

This was a very interesting article even though it was dated 7 years ago. When I started reading it, I doubted that Innocentive would be successful, because I thought a technical field like science and technology would be difficult to vet and verify, especially over the web. However, it seems like I was wrong. A key factor on why they were successful is that solutions to science often require a different perspective from a person in a field other than the one being researched on. This is shown by the conclusion that “the further a challenger was from a person’s field of interest, the more likely they were able to solve it”. Also, such specialized knowledge may be possessed by researchers not employed by the company, and such crowdsourcing allows companies to reach out to a wider audience. Moreover, it is cheaper than traditional research methods – why not harness the collective brainpower of the world’s scientists? Perhaps one day InnoCentive can expand into other domains too, not just science and tech.

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DMCA: A Balanced Public Policy Brief

11 years ago, the authors of the paper recognized severe shortcomings arising from the DMCA

15 Years After Napster: How the Music Service Changed the Industry

This article talks about how Napster forced industry’s hand in trying to change how music distribution works. Industry was slow in predicting people’s music needs, and thus Napster and later, iTunes then Spotify filled that gap. While I concede that it is copyright infringement, the fact remains that there will stil be a big group that will not pay for music no matter how easy any service makes it to be. This group is content with searching YouTube or Chinese websites to satisfy their music craving, even when popular services are down. We can see this in the recent Popcorn Time takedown – not only did other services take its place, more popped up like a two-headed hydra. These group of users was never a lost revenue stream for companies. In fact, the freemium models of Pandora and Spotify allows artistes and companies to make some money out of this group of people, when previously they could not.

The 2 Teenagers Who Run the Wildly Popular Twitter Feed @HistoryInPics

This is an eye-opening case into the issues of copyright infringement in social media. Even Facebook (the company, not its users) have been accused of piggybacking on the original creators of viral videos, which Facebook users have reuploaded on Facebook. Previously, Facebook embed Youtube videos in news feeds; while they still do now, its algorithm shows videos uploaded on Facebook’s platform much more than on ther platforms – to keep eyeballs to their site. Facebook relies on safe harbor protections – it is not responsible or infringements by user-generated content, unless it blatently ignores DMCA notices from content owners. To this end, I can see that the 2 teenagers running @HistoryInPics doing the same to avoid copyright problems – they can simply ask for submissions by its wide swathes of followers. I am sure they would have no lack of submissions. If they receive a violation notice, they simply take it down promptly.

Tracking Users for Fun and Profit

Advertising in today’s world has been pretty much accepted by most Internet users. A useful rule of thumb is that if a website is not selling you anything, then you are the product. After all, many websites exist with a profit motive. However, advertising has also spawned a cottage industry in tracking users effectively on both online and offline mediums, and this has caused much concern to other people. The end goal of such tracking is to persuade and influence people to buy more of their products by analyzing their shopping habits. In this short paper, I provide a brief overview on the modes of online advertising and how they attempt to influence people to buy more of what they are peddling.

Social Media Tracking

It is indubitable that Facebook and Twitter have become ubiquitous. They also contain a treasure trove of personal data. Previously, search engines like Google had to infer the age, gender and demographics of a user based on the websites he or she visits. With Facebook, people willingly provide that info when they complete their profile or like pages and links. While there is much advice to fill up your profile with fake personal info, most do not take heed of that because Facebook is ostensibly more useful when you provide real information. After all, who would want other people to wish you happy birthday on your fake birthday? Hence, it is easier for companies like Facebook to target you with more relevant ads. Are you a 21 year old female college student? Perhaps ads for a sale for clothes could be shown. What about an unemployed 40 year old man? Ads purporting get-rich-quick schemes can be displayed. In itself, this might not be a bad thing. However, there should be some concern that such a considerable amount of personal information is concentrated in the hands of a few companies.

In one such case, Facebook intended to partner with other websites to share activities of users on external websites directly on Facebook’s news feed. This service, called Beacon, created an uproar because it did not allow users to opt out of the feature. For example, if one bought a book called Coping with Cancer on Amazon, one’s purchase will show up on other people’s news feeds as “Your friend XXX bought a book “Coping with Cancer” on Amazon. Click here to check it out”. Facebook’s intentions were clear – from persuasion theory, social proof is one way of influencing people to take action on partner websites. Simply put, people are more likely to buy something if their friends bought it. However, they implemented it in a way that third parties were privy to personal information on the Facebook platform. As can be seen, such data sharing among different websites can lead to privacy leaks and unwanted information disclosure.

More worryingly, there are companies such as Lookery that attempts to segment users into various demographics based on their website visits over participating websites. In fact, I used Lookery a few years ago and they paid $0.10 per 1000 visitors, which while seemingly very little, is quite substantial considering they place no ads on your website – only an invisible JavaScript beacon tag is placed. Although they promised that no personally identifiable information is stored and transmitted, prior incidents like the AOL search data leak leaves much doubt. In that particular case, AOL released detailed search logs to many users for research purposes. Although AOL did not specifically disclose which user queried what terms, it was possible to identify users based on their search terms. In many cases, specific individuals were even identified. It is of concern that such advertising beacons, while in itself is anonymized, can be cross-referenced with data from other providers to provide enough information to identify users. Therefore, online advertising can be used to identify users, which is an ethical problem in the broader schemes of persuasion.

The Rise of Data Brokers

The traditional role of data brokers was to provide firms with a way to get demographic data, or verify personal information in that firm’s database. For example, in the case of fraud prevention in an online shopping portal, firms can cross-reference a potential customer’s email to their shipping address. How it works is that the firm provides a one-way hash of their customer’s email and address and provides it to the data broker, and the latter returns a result indicating if they have an exact match. Either parties do not have access to the email or physical address that is being queried, since a one-way hash is being passed, with the hashing algorithm known only to those two parties at that point in time. However, some people are still spooked by the fact that personal data, even though encrypted, is still being passed around different companies in the normal course of business. With so many parties involved in a transaction, there are more points of failures in a privacy leak.

The more contemporary role of data brokers now involve bridging real-world and online actions to a person. For example, if Coca-Cola launches an online advertising campaign on Facebook, measuring its effectiveness would be hard without data brokers. These companies, via deals with multiple retailers, get transactional data of specific products in purchases made in-store, aggregate them and present them to clients to gauge advertising effectiveness. It can also work in the opposite way as well – Walmart might want to track and compare the shopping habits of those in-store vis-à-vis those online. In this case, the “bridge” is your loyalty card – if you use your card at a brick and mortar store, then enter it online to enjoy a discount, then retailers will know that the online persona is the person registered in your membership card. Data brokers can then help Walmart market products that you are more likely to buy on not just Walmart, but on other websites as well. At this point, your online identity can be associated with a physical one. An example of such a company is Datalogix, which tracks more than $1 trillion in consumer spending across more than 1400 retailers. This data is then passed to data cooperatives which act as a central clearinghouse for personal information across multiple companies, online and offline so that they can be homogenized into a machine readable format, to be resold to other advertising agencies.

As some critics rightly point out, data brokers have operated even before the Internet matured, perhaps even more unscrupulously. If you have written down your details to take part in a sweepstakes or lottery, you have effectively signed away your personal information to a company which purportedly helps facilitate the lottery. In fact, data brokers back then were subject to little regulation. Paid services existed which allow you to get someone’s address from their phone number, and vice versa, for telemarketing purposes. The modern form is encapsulated in the company Towerdata which prides itself on finding a person’s social media accounts and physical addresses based on their email addresses. Additionally, this service called Email Intelligence allows interested parties to buy “demographic, interest and purchase data for more effective list segmentation and personalization”. As can be seen, such exchange of personal information is not new, but due to increased frequency of data leaks, people are more concerned now than in the past.

Conclusion

In sum, online advertising can be seen to infringe on users’ privacies, all for the ends of getting people to buy more of their products. This has very much to do with the ethics discussion we had this week. Previously, advertising was pretty much a benign medium – you search ads with a particular keyword, and was shown ads with those keywords. Now, advertising has gotten so far to the point that Walmart and Target are able to know whether you are pregnant, even before you actually conceive – all based on big data analysis of your online habits derived from a variety of online and offline sources.

What a world we live in.

Discussion

Here’s an interesting discussion question that allows you to think about the future of advertising.

  1. Do you think privacy and advertising can ever be segregated? That is, can effective advertising happen without breaching users’ privacies? Do such advertising firms exist now?

United Breaks Guitars – Lessons for the Public Relations Playbook

Abstract

The United Breaks Guitars case study shows that social media cannot be overlooked in a company’s customer service operations. Dissatisfaction with the company can propagate like wildfire over the Internet. In the short discussion piece that follows, this author attempts to show the significance of social media in public relations, as well as suggesting how United could have done better amidst this negative publicity.

Introduction

It is indubitable that social media has changed the public relations playbook for many companies. Previously, before the user-generated content Golden Age that Web 2.0 brought about, people who felt aggrieved had little recourse against the company. Now, people are able to tweet their frustrations, write a rant on the company’s Facebook page, or in this case, make a music video. In all cases, the actions taken by them are highly visible. Contrast this to a private email complaint to the company – the latter is definitely less visible and subject to less public scrutiny. In addition to increased visibility, the complaints are also able to be propagated much more quickly. Case in point – when someone uploaded a video of a FedEx delivery person throwing his fragile packages into the porch, that video was shared thousands of times over various social media platforms. Taken together, social media is a potent force to be reckoned with in a company’s public relations playbook – one that requires a different strategy than the one of yore to counteract.

For ease of discussion, I will segment my analysis of the case to distinct time periods in the life cycle of a public relations incident – pre-incident, during incident and post-incident. This allows the reader to gain a perspective on what a company should do in a situation like United Airlines was in.

Calm before the Storm

Since social media is such a powerful voice online, the attention given to it should be commensurate to its influence. In the case of United, we see that there were glaring ineffective use of social media. In July 2009, United Airlines used Twitter to only disseminate promotional messages and flight disruptions to its followers. While some followers might like the fare deals posted on its feed, United could have taken a more proactive approach on social media.  A cursory glance shows that tweets that mention a company on Twitter are usually negative. For United, this would mean complaints about delays, rude ticket agents, inept efficiency and its ilk. There was no such effort on United’s part to address these complaints. Today, the situation on the ground (pun intended) has improved drastically with United actively responding to customers’ complaints on Twitter, inviting them to message them so that they can investigate further. In one instance, someone reported an issue with the gate number on their e-ticket. United replied telling them to message them so they can ask the Mobile Apps team to rectify this. This is a step in the right direction. Moreover, most of the replies to complaints took less than an hour (minutes in fact), which is commendable. In a time-sensitive business like flights, customers expect their concerns to be addressed swiftly [1]. Customers use social media to air their complaints because it is easy and fast to do so; likewise, they expect a response to come quickly too. As can be seen, United Airlines used social media ineffectively previously.

Next, it would seem like United did not have dedicated personnel for their social media presence. From the paper, “United employees were encouraged to monitor social media for mentions of United Airlines”. Crowdsourcing was a good step by United so that each staff member has a stake in addressing issues concerning the company. This was instrumental (pun unintended) in the early spotting of Carroll’s video, and the subsequent reach out to him by the managing director of customers solutions at United. Without this policy in place, the video could have been seen only after all the mainstream media outlets have reported  on it, which could be even more disastrous. Whilst such crowdsourcing is a not a replacement for full time social media service staff, companies that opt for this route can improve on this further by providing incentives for staff to report customer incidents which are left unaddressed to the main customer service team. All in all, companies will do well to have dedicated customer service agents to address social media issues.

The Aftermath

Of course, the United debacle would not have happened had the United agent approved his claim in the first place. In this part, we take a look at how United handled the social media firestorm. Firstly, United was vague in their Twitter reply to Carroll. While this might be an off-the-cuff reply, there were no subsequent follow up on what exactly they did to “make it right”.  It was not until after they have reached out to him did they detail their poor response to his claims. Notice how Rob Bradford reached out to him. He is the managing director of customer solutions at United. What United should have done was to get the CEO of United to reach out to him instead. Since his complaints had been seen by millions of people, the CEO should have apologized, not anyone down the corporate ladder. This shows that United is not serious about the matter. Also, it would seem that United had taken to more actively tweeting to tell people their solutions. Perhaps a better approach would be to embrace traditional media and online news sites by writing a press release.  They could also have placed a statement on their corporate website or via a shareholders’ meeting. Thirdly, the response by United was weak because they did not address any punitive actions that United would take should such an incident happen again. They only promised to use that in training materials, but failed to communicate to its customers how its customer service would be overhauled. For example, one can take a look at how Amazon does customer service. While there are customer agents at every step of the way, one can email the head of Amazon Jeff Bezos directly at his personal email – jeff@amazon.com. [2] This shows sincerity in reacting to complaints. United could follow in Amazon’s footsteps if they really want to go all the way in this respect. A highly-reactive from-the-grounds-up approach would be to fire employees who lack customer service discretion. However, this has the knock-on effect of decreasing employee satisfaction so the pros and cons definitely needs to be weighed. Hence, one can see that United not only exhibited a weak response during the incident, it also failed to show its customers its sincerity in improving its services after the fact. Sometimes, from the customer’s’ point of view, education of frontline employees is not enough, they want to see a hardline stance on egregious actions by employees.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, United’s social media action plan seemed to have improved since the article was written. The key points to take away from this is that companies should use social media to not only produce content, but also consume feedback from its social media followers. Also, they need to address such feedback promptly, with dedicated personnel to handle such matters, rather than delegating it to everyone. If a public relations disaster would occur online, companies should get their top guy to address the issue personally, especially after it has blown up to such proportion. In communicating to the public, companies should demonstrate sincerity in changing their practices by thinking from the customer’s perspective. The best solutions are always to involve the customer experience personally – for example, the ability for customers to contact the CEO directly. Strategies like educating customer service employees are likely to be seen as impersonal since customers are not really privy to any improvements behind the scenes.

References

  1. http://www.convinceandconvert.com/social-media-research/42-percent-of-consumers-complaining-in-social-media-expect-60-minute-response-time/
  2. http://gizmodo.com/jeff-bezos-if-you-have-a-problem-with-amazon-email-me-1724561248

Is Crowd Wisdom Really Wise?

With all these talk in recent years about crowd sourcing and big data, I wanted to delve a little bit deeper on the costs of crowd wisdom. It is easy to see how crowd wisdom can be beneficial to society as a whole; for example, there are many crowd volunteering websites that aim to aggregate crowd decisions for social good. One of them is Tomnod which rose to fame when they used satellite imagery to crowd source data on where the missing MH370 plane is. However, in subtle ways, crowd wisdom might not be all that good.

In one of the more telling problems of crowd wisdom (herd mentality in particular), Sunil Tripathi was implicated as a suspect in the Boston marathon bombings because a Reddit user posted in the forums that they looked alike. Soon after, more people started agreeing with the first poster, and spread like wildfire over Twitter. It went into mainstream notoriety when mainstream media reported it over TV and newspaper. The lack of fact-checking by the latter was disturbing. However, this shows one thing – that crowd wisdom can turn mad. Critics of this point might point out that crowd wisdom works best if people are independent – they have no knowledge of other’s ideas. While this can be replicated in a laboratory setting, the fact is that it is difficult to ensure this online. People invariably will use search engines or share it on Facebook, which leads to a decoupling between reality and ‘reelity’. It is what makes crowd wisdom a dangerous idea to wholeheartedly believe in.

Secondly, the issue of privacy comes in. In recent years, due to the proliferation of smartphones with embedded sensors, app developers have been using the sensors to predict weather or traffic. Dark Sky, a weather app on the Apple App Store, uses pressure sensors on the latest iPhones to crowdsource data on whether it is going to rain in a particular region. Waze, a traffic directions app, uses your phone’s speed and location to crowdsource data on traffic conditions. If you are moving slower along a particular road, the app may intelligently tell other road users that a traffic jam might be imminent, and to reroute road users accordingly. It seems beneficial until you realized the same app can be used for nefarious purposes. Previously, Tinder, a dating app, uses one’s locations to tell potential dates where you are. Whilst other people see you as “3 miles away” in a vague sense of distance, some tech-savvy people figured out a way to perform deep-packet inspection of the traffic to find out your exact coordinates. It turns out that the actual coordinates are actually being sent to your phone, which then processes the data in conjunction with your location to provide you with the distance. Hence, it is possible to know where you potential ‘dates’ live, and possibly stalk them. This is a design flaw more than anything else though, but it still shows the flaw of crowd wisdom – when companies attempt to collect everything that it is possible to gather from a particular user, the possibility for irresponsible disclosure is heightened.

Thirdly, it might not be even accurate at all. As seen in class, the more variables there are in a particular prediction, the less accurate it becomes. For example, predicting how many leagues in the depth of the Marianas Trench requires people to have some notion of a league, in addition to predicting the depth of the trench. A more popular example which deals in big data was Google Flu Trends, which was recently shut down. Although it wowed researchers by predicting flu trends ahead of a full-scale epidemic, it constantly overstated the severity of it. People were too prepared, it seems. Whilst this might not be a bad thing, I can see the flaws of trying to extract information from crowd data – it might be fairly accurate now, but might not be a few years down the road.

Finally, I would like to end off with some food for thought. How do we ensure that crowd wisdom is indeed accurate? We might take a look at the intricate system Wikipedia has in place for its editing – talk pages, a system of editorial processes and its ilk. Is it possible to generalize for online communities and spaces?

The Future of OPOWER

Abstract

The idea of using social norms and behavioral science in environmental conservation is not new; however, the uniqueness of OPOWER’s approach is that they combined actionable strategies with subtle cues in their monthly energy reports. This being said, the paper surmises that there might be significant challenges in the future in trying to make OPOWER’s strategies more prevalent. In the short discussion piece that follows, this author attempts to elucidate these challenges, positing a nuanced basis for said issues and suggesting possible solutions.

Introduction

OPOWER is a publicly listed energy-efficiency software company that aims to reduce energy usage through social cues derived from behavioral science. Their results work on the premise that normative influence runs deep in people’s predilection to energy conservation.  Such normative beliefs mean that people tend to be more greatly affected by the conservation efforts of similar people around them. This was a milestone in energy conservation because energy reduction is the only method which provides a net positive value in benefits accrued to society, and OPOWER made it a cinch to integrate into existing utility billing systems. Contrast this to solutions like replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent lights, or installing photovoltaic panels – both require a significant sunk cost, the value of which can only be recouped over a long run. OPOWER’s solution, on the other hand, saw an almost immediate reduction in energy usage without any significant costs.

However, there are significant roadblocks to OPOWER’s widespread implementation. Firstly, there is the issue of boomerang effects (8) which might cause people who use less than average electricity to regress to the mean. Next, there is skepticism among utility companies that their methods will work on their customer base due to demographic differences. Finally, there have been questions on the sustainability and extensibility of OPOWER to other countries – would it work overseas without much modifications?

Mean Reversion

The boomerang effect describes a social phenomena where attempting to persuade people to do things in a certain way (such as conserving energy) unexpectedly results in them doing just the opposite. In this case, OPOWER knew its strategies would cause higher energy-usage households to consumer less energy, but it would also cause lower energy-usage households to use more energy. To counteract this, OPOWER used injunctive messaging such as smiley faces to signal approval and disapproval for their current energy usage. Subconsciously, the smiley faces serve as a reinforcement and approval indicator for people to continue with their above average performance. However, as seen in Exhibit 4, the boomerang effect still played its hand, albeit to a smaller extent.

One possible solution is to introduce subtle language cues into the energy report, as well as a revision of the presentation of the statistics. In figure B, we see that the Social Comparison Module (SCM) provides absolute statistics on energy usage comparison. (ie. I used 1033 kWh vs 784 kWh for my efficient neighbours) Instead of making absolute figures the central to the SCM, relative figures could be provided instead. For instance, one can place the user on a bar chart on a percentile basis. If I used 32% more energy than my efficient neighbors, then I would be placed in the 90th percentile, for example. Instead of saying “You used 32% more than your efficient neighbors”, the language could be revised to “90% of your efficient neighbours use less energy than you. What this serves is to provide reinforcement that a substantial number of people are ahead of the user when it comes to energy usage. Even if one is below average in energy usage, there will still be a percentage of households that are still using less than you. In this case, the optimal energy usage to strive for is the one that used the least. Hence, the boomerang effect can be mitigated to a certain extent.

Slow Adoption by Utilities

As mentioned in the case study, there has been less than favorable responses from utilities about the adoption of OPOWER strategies. One point that is noteworthy that most utility companies are for-profit. If they promote energy reduction, less profits accrue to them due to transmission and distribution revenue. To offset this, most companies depend on tax breaks or grants from governments in achieving green objectives. In Pittsburgh, Duquesne Light charges all customers a small sum of money in each monthly bill to recover the costs of implementing a program to educating customers on energy usage, in their WattChoices program. Without some kind of financial incentive by government stakeholders, there is a conflict of interest in power generation companies – both to their shareholders as well as energy conservation groups. Moreover, those companies believe that the demographics of each state mean that people would not be receptive to the idea at all.

It is difficult to tackle this problem due to said conflict of interest. Hence, an effective solution would call for some form of government intervention, one that does not shackle electricity generation companies, but rather rewards people for reduced energy usage. To take a leaf out of health care, some insurance companies pay people to keep fit – they provide complimentary gym passes  and even reward you based off the activity that you do [1]. The premise is that insurance companies would have a positive expectancy due to increased health that their customers have after keeping fit, even after the costs incurred in such perks. This can hopefully be applied to energy conservation, except that there is no clear stakeholder involved here – the environment benefits, but a clean environment is a public good. From economic theory, such a public good will not be funded at all. Hence a solution would have to involve the government. One way to go about this is to continue the healthcare approach – the government can offer tax breaks or refunds for reduction in energy usage, either in absolute or relative terms. Such a measure would be funded by discounting the fact that due to the reduces energy usage, less money would be needed to maintain existing power generators, or build new power plants.

To a Sustainable Future

With all these strategies being bandied about, one thing is almost certain if OPOWER sticks to its current method. It might be useful to consider the fact that people will tend to be numbed to such messages after some time. Energy conservation is not a Boolean entity. Consider the fact that some people might use more energy than other households, simply because there are more people living in it. How would we prevent such users from being discouraged and not care about energy conservation? To take a leaf out of obesity studies, most dieters successfully lose weight. However, when their weight loss flattens out, they inevitably get discouraged and start to eat more. To bring in the energy usage perspective, the most avid energy reduction users would, in the near future, start using more energy. What is needed then is a way to engage them over a long run.

One possible idea is the use of dynamic messaging. Instead of saying the same “You use xx% less energy than other households”, it might be possible to present the information in a different layout every time, like in infographics. Appealing to people’s emotions is also a good way. For example, “From the electricity you reduced this month compared to last month, you have provided enough electricity to power a school in less developed countries for 24 days.” Instead of bandering about with terms like kWh which most users do not understand, this strategy actively engages people with the real-world consequences of their actions.

Conclusion

In this short write-up, I considered the future of OPOWER as the authors of the Harvard Business School case study raised in the prologue and epilogue of their case study. I argued the need for the government to intervene because of a conflict of interest in energy conservation, as well as suggested possible amendments in data representation to avoid the dreaded boomerang effect. Finally, I also explored the possibility of changing how data is represented – not only to keep people engaged, but to allow them to see the real-world effects of their energy reduction (or increase).

Auspicium Melioris Aevi

Future Discussion

  • Do you think OPOWER should consider telling everyone that they are above average energy usage, even though they are not, thus doing away with the boomerang effect? The advantages of such a strategy is obvious, but is the key issue here ethics?
  • For those statistically inclined, would a percentile based approach really do away with the boomerang effect.

References

[1] http://www.wired.com/2014/12/oscar-misfit/

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/health/20brody.html

Nudge Effects and Government Intervention in Public Health – Oped #1

My interest was piqued on the concept of nudge theory when I read about a study which successfully got high school students to make healthier food choices in their school canteen, simply by making the choice to choose fruits and vegetables more convenient, attractive and normative [1]. It got me thinking about the potential of nudging in public governance and regulation, a field that I am particularly interested in. It is plausible to extend the application of nudge theory from a hyperlocal space (like a school tuck shop) to a neighbourhood or even the entire country. Indeed, this concept was broached albeit briefly in class when we discussed how we can use nudge effects to persuade people to increase voter participation in the recent judicial elections. Amongst the points brought up were getting people to like the candidates’ Facebook pages, or telling people the importance of the elections. In this post, I explore the use of nudge theory as a substitute for public regulation in the health domain. I will describe each strategy in turn and end off with a nuanced evaluation of their effectiveness.

On Government Regulation

There is no lack of literature in the use of nudge effects in government regulation. In fact, Cass Sunstein who posited the idea of nudges used to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. However, to the casual observer, it seems that most government interventions work via explicit law and regulation, rather than subtle nudges. There are a few reasons why this is so. Taking a leaf out of economic theory, it is known that government regulation has both demand-side and supply-side portions. An example of the former is an outright ban on smoking in public spaces, hence making consumers smoke less. In contrary, a supply-side decision would entail imposing a hard limit on the number of cigarettes all producers can produce, hence reducing the amount in the market. Both serve the same purpose – to reduce public smoking. To this end, they work very well. Every 10% increase in tobacco prices result in a 4% fall in demand from consumers (2). Further, in America, such policies have been so effective that tobacco companies have looked to other developing markets to increase their revenue since growth locally have been stagnating. As can be seen, government regulation seems to be an effective measure. This arises from the irrationality of most people. Given perfect information about the health risks of smoking, people still tend not to reduce consumption. Advertising is one possible cause of this irrationality – smoking is portrayed to be hip or cool. In this respect, the heavy hand of the law such as adopting public smoking bans is required. This moves people away from accepting public smoking as a social norm. Hence, government regulation is seen as effective by many.

However, social psychologists have pointed out that government regulation may not be effective. For example, the problem of boomerang effects. Boomerang effects occur when a measure is used to bring about a specific intent, but the opposite of that actually happens. In essence, government regulation can backfire and worsen the situation. Continuing the case on smoking, in Asia, there have been massive spikes in the consumption of illegal cigarettes due to tax duties imposed by the government (3). Illegal cigarettes do not have the same quality control as legitimate ones and could contain more poisonous chemicals in their manufacture, hence it brings more public harm. Whilst government regulation is intended to reduce the consumption of cigarettes, the nett effect was to steer consumers to illicit sources where the government can control less effectively. Secondly, such regulation may not be cost-effective. It takes effort and money to properly enforce policies. Policy without enforcement is ineffective. With these disadvantages, it is not surprising that scholars have been considering nudge theory in getting people to make personally beneficial decisions.

On Nudges

Nudges were first mooted by Sunstein. He defined it as ‘any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives’ (4). By choice architecture, he meant the environment in which allows people to more easily make decisions that maximise their well being. In his research paper, Marteau notes that nudges are comparatively lower in cost, and appeals to governments who do not subscribe to the in loco parentis doctrine. For example, we can make smoking less appealing by reducing smoking cues – these can include removing public cigarette stubs and ashtrays in dustbins, or getting people to sign a form acknowledging health risks each time they want to buy a pack of tobacco. By doing so, these measures attempt to nudge people into accepting non public smoking as a social norm. This can lead to cascade effects as well – if there is no second hand smoke in the surroundings, smokers will be less inclined to start smoking as well, leading to positive externalities. Moreover, by constantly reminding them of the health risks, we might possibly get them to be constantly aware of its dangers. Of course, there is the possibility that people are numbed to such a measure. This can be seen by a law in some countries forcing cigarette manufacturers to put images of people having diseases arising from smoking. Most smokers ignore the photos on the pack.

However, there are detractors who, while conceding that nudging can be effective, they can only be truly effective when combined in concert with some form of legislation. For example, how do we get shopkeepers to make buyers to sign a health risk form? It is indubitable that it needs some kind of local law to enforce it. Secondly, nudging can also be done by the private sector to further their interests as well, if we further the definition of a nudge originally proposed by Sunstein. Their strategies can be inimical to the effectiveness of government nudging; this possibly calls for some kind of intervention to render their strategies moot.

One thing is certain is that nudging has sparked interest in the wider field of behavioral theory that can ameliorate public health problems. Obesity alone costs $200 billion in health costs a year. The UK Cabinet has a Behavioral Insights Team dedicated to such issues and published a very interesting paper on the various issues. While no concrete government policy arose out of this, the paper shows how nudging is designed to still improve public health while respecting consumer sovereignty.

 

In conclusion, I believe the public policy challenge is clear. While nudging can be very effective, two forms of government intervention is still required – legislation to implement the nudging strategy nationwide, as well as regulation to prevent other parties from counteracting said strategy. It is also clear that government regulation is effective in itself; however, because it disrupts free market dynamics, governments have to take note on where to draw the line.

Possible Discussion Questions

  • In government regulation, there are limits as to what the government can or cannot regulate, such as free speech. Do you think the same limits apply to nudging?
  • I mainly discussed about nudging on the consumer-side in this post. Is it possible to extend nudge theory to the producer sector as well or can only government regulation help? For example, how would we nudge food companies to not use hormones and fake additives in their food, other than outright banning them?
  • What are your viewpoints on this issue? Do you think nudging or regulation is more effective?

(1) Smarter Lunchrooms Can Address New School Lunchroom Guidelines and Childhood Obesity (http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(12)01478-3/abstract?cc=y=)

(2) http://www.paristechreview.com/2011/10/26/nudging-smokers-new-frontiers-fight-against-tobacco/

(3) http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-is-no-4-for-illicit-tobacco-use-1-in-4-cigarettes-here-illegal

(4) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness Thaler and Sunstein

(5) Judging nudging: can nudging improve population health?  http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d228

(6) The Healthcare Costs of Obesity http://stateofobesity.org/healthcare-costs-obesity/

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Influence and Persuasion – Commentary #1

Just some of the opinions I have regarding the readings this week

Before the year 2000, organizations like Apple, Pepsi and Coke used television and newspaper as the primary medium for advertising their products. They relied heavily on the 30 second commercial for creating the brand awareness. Ever since the advent of Internet, these companies have migrated to different channels for advertising. They have started employing nudges to attract more customers online. In this blog, I would be focusing on how nudges created and used by companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook to generate revenue are invading the privacy of the users.

In 2004, Google launched its email service called ‘Gmail’. Gmail became one of the most popular and widely used email services across the world. Though it is a free service, Gmail became one of the most important apps for Google as it generated a lot of revenue through ads. This email service gathers data regarding the sites that you have visited. They also display ads that are extremely relevant to your current needs. For instance, if you just now received a mail from your friend regarding vacation in California, they display hotel’s ad as a text. This text will be placed right on the top of your inbox so that it is visible to you when you are checking your emails. By placing a relevant ad on the top, you are most likely to click on the link [1]. How do they display relevant ads in Gmail? Google reads all the emails present in your inbox and then displays an ad based on the email’s content. When you click on the ad, Google will receive the money from the advertiser.

Apart from Google, e-commerce websites like Amazon track the websites and products that you have searched so far. When a person logs into Amazon, it will recommend products based on the data they have collected relevant to search preferences. Apart from the shopping history, these companies also recommend products that are specific to your location [2]. Social networking websites like Facebook employ a different type of tactic. Apart from gathering location details, they also keep track of the pages that your friends like. If your friends like a particular product on Facebook say a restaurant in your location, Facebook will display ‘ABC and 5 others like this’ on news feed where most of your attention would be. By displaying that, you are most likely to check out what your friends have bought (social proof). If they have liked a restaurant, you are most likely to try it out.

After collecting the data, these organizations are not going to delete them. For instance, Google or Amazon will not delete your history from their servers. They are going to build on top of that and learn more about you using latest technologies. Is it safe? I think the data will be stored safely. However, there have been many instances of security breach. For instance, TJX, a shopping store, had all of the data about their users stored insecurely in their servers. Anonymous hackers hacked their store’s account and made them public [3]. Is it ethical to collect information about a user? I personally feel that it’s not ethical to collect data about you without your permission and use them for creating nudges. As discussed in the ‘Privacy Nudging’ lecture, a person can use the App Permission manager in Android to prevent apps from collecting information about you. The users can also make use of ad blockers or incognito mode for browsing using desktop. So what do you guys think? Do you think this is an ethical way of creating nudges? Please feel free to comment on this topic.

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You mentioned that “nudges created and used by companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook to generate revenue are invading the privacy of the users”. Can you elaborate on the nudges used by said companies? In the case of Gmail, you mentioned Google “places a relevant on the top”, but I think that would be tough to qualify as nudging since it lacks a user objective.

What I think would be more evident is Facebook. Every so often, Facebook will notify you on the site to do a Privacy Checkup[1] which prevents users from sharing information that they don’t intend to. Before, the privacy settings were deeply embedded in the bowels of Facebook that people do not make sure they are correctly set the way they want it to be. With this tool, more Facebook users are nudged into adjusting their privacy settings, which is a step in the right direction privacy-wise after their privacy brouhaha a year ago.

You mentioned in your views that “it’s not ethical to collect data about you without your permission and use them for creating nudges”. You gave the example of Android apps collecting unnecessary information. At this point, I am pretty confused about what your a nudge entails. Does showing an advertisement to a user constitutes a nudge? Personally I don’t think so. Sunstein defines it as anything that influences our choices that leads to *improvements* in the rationality of decisions people make. Such nudges are informed by the findings of behavioural economics.

[1] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/facebook-to-prompt-users-with-a-privacy-checkup/
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“There is an app for everything”, so much so that Apple has trademarked the quote for their advertising campaigns. If one looks at majority of the apps developed, especially the ones using the open data from the US government, one can see that they are variations of a standard set of applications that help with credit processing, medical aid, tax filing, bill payments and so forth. This is understandable as these applications are used a lot by the public and there is the incentive for a third party to monetize through ads. Seeing the success story of one such company motivates other players to enter the domain. But how does one persuade someone to use your data for the public good?

The flaw in this model is that it takes a very long time for some player to enter into the niche markets (by niche, I mean the agencies that are not targeted by most of the third parties – Center for Dietary Studies for example), and more often than not, it does not address what the niche community might want. To encourage diversity of applications for government agencies, the US government spawned the idea of Challenge.gov. Challenge.gov is a technical platform and list of challenge and prize competitions, all of which are run by more than 80 agencies across federal government. These include technical, scientific, ideation, and creative competitions where the U.S. government seeks innovative solutions from the public, bringing the best ideas and talent together to solve mission-centric problems. This platform is available at no cost to all federal agencies to help them list their challenge and prize competitions and learn how to engage the public through this innovative approach. To read more on this – https://www.challenge.gov/about/

This approach succeeded in persuading and motivating people to create solutions that leveraged the organization’s data and create solutions specific to the target audience. Crowdsourcing the solution helped in alleviating costs for the organization and incentives persuaded the public to respond. Since this is backed by the US government, it prompted a lot of response to every government agency posting a challenge on the platform – https://www.challenge.gov/success-stories/

We can see some of the techniques we learnt in class at play. We can see Authority at play here. Since this backed by the US Government and not just any other organization, people tend to take notice and participate in the challenges more than what a standalone organization could have achieved. Also we see the role of Reciprocity at play. Incentives for creating the solution outweigh the efforts needed to put in and thus people are motivated to contribute.

I believe that Challenge.gov is a great example of influencing and persuading third party to contribute more to projects without looking for monetization through the market. A non – profit organization for example can tie up with a well- known commercial company and organize hackathons to get the solution that they want – check out – http://www.hackingeatingtracking.org/, where this organization partnered with Harvard Med School and other big players to come up with innovative solutions for their problems.

So what do you guys think? Is latching on to big fry to promote our interests a good way to persuade someone? Looking forward to seeing your comments.

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You mentioned that the name cachet afforded by the US Government led to more active participation. Perhaps the monetary prizes have a significant role in motivating involvement? Just something to think about.

As to your question if getting ‘big fry’ to promote your interests is effective or not, it all depends on what you mean by effective. If you mean performance-per-cost effectiveness, there have been studies that show otherwise. [1] This paper can be distilled into a few main points: 1) influence to difficult to measure and predict; 2) ordinary influencers might be more cost-effective than ‘big’ influencers; 3) influence works best via quantity (number of influencers) rather than quality (fame of influencers) For example, in a case study, Lady Gaga and Michelle Phan were given brand endorsements for a cosmetic product on Twitter. Even though Lady Gaga had almost 100 times more followers than Michelle Phan, it was the latter that got more clicks on the Twitter link. A possible explanation is that when your social network is smaller, it becomes more personable and hence followers are more likely to engage with your content more. As can be seen, how popular the person or company is might not be a determinant of effectiveness in influence and persuasion.

[1] http://winteram.com/papers/wsdm333w-bakshy.pdf

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An Expanding and Expansive View of Computing

I attended Jim Kurose’s talk on the advances in computer and information science and engineering primarily because I wanted to gain some insights on the state of technology today, as well as get his novel interpretations of the future of the field, being at the crossroads of both industry and academic in his role as Assistant Director at the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate at National Science Foundation (NSF).

During the first half of the talk I learnt that the National Science Foundation mission was more than just advancing science without a specific aim. I had always thought that grants were given out as long as the idea seems plausible and if it succeeds, would boost the development of science and technology to a certain degree. It turns out that NSF’s aims to advance science so as to boost national health, economic wealth and social welfare as well as defense. There are 5 main arms that CISE is focusing on – these 5 are part of the White House Initiatives. These include data science, smart systems, understanding the brain, smart cities, and a nationwide strategic computing initiative. Of those facets, I am most familiar with the one on brain science with the creation of the BrainHub to look into brain science at CMU. I believe this was done after President Obama announced an initiative to research into brain science so as to find new ways to treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s or autism. I think these are great domains to research into, though we should not neglect the security aspect of it. Sometimes, trying to network anything leaves us more susceptible to attacks via side channels. I believe that an engineer can add value to brain research. For example, in 18-220, we learnt about Telegrapher’s Equations in a coaxial transmission line which incidentally can be used to model the transmission of an action potential, an electrical impulse through the axon of a neuron in our nervous system. After all, both science and engineering are cross and multi-disciplinary – both fields are not mutually exclusive.

He later talks about the details of CISE such as its organization chart and finances, which aren’t that all interesting. However, the partnerships that NSF has forged are essential to their success at each cycle of development – from discovery to innovation. This can be seen at present as many companies license patents from universities to be used in consumer-facing products. This way, researchers can leverage their resources and increase the speed at which R&D is being conducted.

Kurose then talks about each emerging field of CISE. He recognizes that a national-scale experimental infrastructure would benefit research so that parallel computation data can be exchanged across institutions from both coasts quickly. He proposes the use of a public cloud infrastructure to achieve this. He also goes into the central theme of his talk, which is that computing should focus more on societal applications, while not neglecting the human aspect of it. It is also beneficial to let computing be pervasive around us, to the point that it does not get in the way of everyday life (ie. it just ‘knows’). Finally, he notes that investment should not solely be poured into upstream research, but also into its most basic tenets – quality computer science courses for students. With that, they have developed pedagogies and curricula for a PreAP as well as Advanced Placement course in Computer Science Principles. I think this is a far-sighted move on their part since there is likely to be more positive externalities in quality computer science education. One proposal to think about for engineering is whether our pedagogy can transition to a more application-based, hands-on education, rather than the systematic, theory-based one we have now.

In sum, I feel that I gained some insights into the role of NSF and what they have done in improving the quality of research and education. However, he did not cover some of the points he promised to make in the questions the audience posed in the middle of the session, such as the one on Power and Water sustainability – how much research has been done in ensuring such natural resources remain available into the future? Also, I would actually like to learn more about the NSF funding process – how grants are given and what the process is like. Last year, I went for a talk on patent registration and I found the whole process very enlightening – I was hoping this talk would shed some light on this process.

Thoughts on Yelp Tech Talk

I attended the Yelp Tech Talk, organized in partnership with Society of Women Engineers. It was held at Margaret Morrison Room A14 on the evening of 29th September. What appealed to me about the event was the topic on Yelp online advertising and how Yelp optimizes it so that everyone benefits – the advertiser gets a steady stream of customers, customers get to discover great new food, and Yelp earns a cut from the advertising fees. Personally, I have been keeping abreast of the pay per click advertising industry because it is a fascinating field. From advertising optimization to fraud detection to machine learning analytics, there are many domains in advertising which interest me. Hence, I wanted to explore how Yelp does things differently from Google, if they are.

The first half of the talk was more of a pitch to tell students how great Yelp is, and how each Yelp employee can look under the hood and work on a feature based on feedback from customers. They gave the case study of a person asking Yelp why they could not order take-out directly on the Yelp website, when they were already searching for what to eat. Subsequently, he discussed how his team made an API, or an interface, for other companies to integrate their services on the website in a tighter way. For example, OpenTable is able to use this special API link to display the number of free reservations on Yelp, while other on-demand services can choose to provide deliveries for a particular food place.
What I garnered from this segment of the talk is that it does not pay to go all-in to every segment in your market. Rather than creating a whole new subsidiary like Yelp On Tap to provide food delivery or reservations, Yelp chose instead to provide the necessary infrastructure for other companies to more tightly integrate their services on Yelp’s website. This is counterintuitive to many business people – after all, why lead people away from your site when you could be the one profiteering off this new segment? However, I believe Yelp might have reasons for doing this even though it was not discussed. Firstly, they might not have the necessary knowledge to succeed in that niche. OpenTable probably knows how to do it right; why reinvent the wheel and try to compete with them? Secondly, Yelp is a lean company and they might not want to waste resources on things that do not add any innovation to the industry. After all, integrating services is not innovation. Finally, they might be emphasizing Yelp as a platform, much like how Facebook is. When Facebook tightly integrates features like embedded YouTube videos on their site, they are not leading users away; rather, they actually gave more reasons for users to remain on the website since they can watch the video on Facebook. Similarly, Yelp users do not need to navigate to another app to make a reservation – they can do it all from within the app.

The latter part of the talk discusses the Yelp Auto Bid Genius, which is an internal algorithm which determines what ad to show to customers. She demonstrated that the highest paying ad does not necessarily get the top spot – a combination of click through rates as well as bidding rates do. She discussed about Yelp ad formats, including click-to-call where the advertiser pays each time a call is made to the business from Yelp. I was disappointed that she didn’t go in depth in exploring conversion tracking – how effective advertising on Yelp can be when measured quantitatively. Yelp advertising can cost up to $600 for every 1000 times an ad is shown, which makes it insanely expensive. There are many occurrences of competitors viewing a particular ad many times to drain the advertising budget of their opponents. How does the business know that the customer came via an ad on Yelp? Some of the methods off my head include using special coupon codes which can be assigned to the viewer of the ad. However, I was wondering if there is anything Yelp can do to further increase the tracking and engagement of its users. For example, if I view a listing on Yelp and I go to that place to have a meal, paying for it using my Yelp-branded credit card, then Yelp can perhaps give me a 5% loyalty rebate for using Yelp. Although Yelp technically loses money, it will gain a lot of insights into the users and activities of Yelp. Of course, the privacy concerns must be looked into, but as it is, Yelp engagement is practically non-existent. Users only fire up the app or website only when they need to, which can be a good thing too, since this means each visitor on the website is a ready paying customer.

It was an interesting evening to think about advertising on a ‘new’ platform like Yelp. I was previously more acquainted to text ads on Google and those intrusive display banners on the web, but I have gained some appreciation of what it takes to make advertising on Yelp more effective, and the technology to make it work effectively.

25 Things About Metaphors

1. COMPARING TWO UNLIKE THINGS

A metaphor is a little bit of writing magic that allows you, the writer, to draw an unexpected line between two unlike things. You are comparing and connecting things that have no business being compared or connected. How is a wasp like an auto mechanic? A banana like a storm cloud? How do you talk about a nuclear winter while evoking a beautiful symphony? The metaphor is the writer holding up one thing (“a double-headed dildo”) and asking — nay, demanding — that the reader think of something else (“a floppy slice of freshly-baked zucchini bread”). It is a subversion of expectation; a sabotage of imagery. Metaphor is metamorphosis. You can tell that’s true because they both have “meta” and “pho.” Or something.

2. BECAUSE COMPARING TWO SAMEY THINGS IS SILLY

A metaphor fails if it’s obvious. Comparing two alike things is meaningless in terms of providing engagement and enlightenment to the audience. “That horse is like a donkey” simply isn’t meaningful. We already know that. We describe the things that need describing. You wouldn’t say, “This double-headed dildo is like a single-headed dildo” and call that a metaphor. All you’re doing there is thwacking the audience about the head and neck with your +5 Double-Headed Dildo of Obviousness.

3. LITERARILY, NOT LITERALLY

Further, a metaphor is not to be taken literally. “A snake is like a worm” is literally true, and thus fails as a metaphor. Metaphors operate best as purely figurative. Life is not literally a bowl of cherries. The power of metaphor is in its ability to transcend the real; in this way, metaphor is like an artsy-fartsy version of sarcasm. It is a beautiful lie. I say one thing, but I mean another.

4. SIMILE VERSUS METAPHOR

A simile uses like or as to connect things; a metaphor eschews both words. Simile: “My love for you is like old lunchmeat. Still here, but way past its expiration date.” Metaphor: “My love for you is a zombie. Dead but still walking around.” The simile creates a little distance; this is like that. Not same, but similar. A metaphor undercuts that distance. This is that. Not just similar, but absolutely (though abstractly) the same.

5. A PHD IN SYMBOLOGY

Metaphors and symbols are not the same thing. A metaphor is stated outright. I say it. I write it. I don’t hide from it. When I say that “her vagina is like the blown-out elastic in a pair of old underpants,” or, “his dick is like soft serve,” I’m not trying to hide what I think or feel. I’m shoving the imagery right into your eyeholes. A symbol is far cagier, far more guarded. A character who symbolizes something (sin, colonialism, addiction, zoo-keepers, reality television) does so in an unspoken way. The author never takes the time to complete that picture. A metaphor draws the line between two unlike things. The symbol never draws the line — it just casually gestures in the direction of the other thing, hoping you’ll connect the dots yourself.

6. TAKE LITERARY VIAGRA TO EXTEND YOUR METAPHORS

A metaphor that kicks open the door to its cage and runs around a little before being put down is an extended metaphor, or a “conceit.” It refuses to be kept to a single iteration, and will get its roots and shoots all up into the paragraph where it initially appeared. The metaphor continues — it’s not enough to say that “urban development is like a cancer” and leave it at that. The metaphor grows and swells, blister-like, using the whole paragraph to explore the metaphor to its fullest: gentrification is metastasis, developers are like free radicals, rich guys like tumors, and so on and so forth.

7. ELEGANCE IN SIMPLICITY

Err on the side of simplicity rather than complexity. The weightier and more Byzantine a metaphor becomes, the more likely that it becomes unstable, untenable, overwrought. When I say, “John’s a dinosaur,” the message is clear: he’s old-school, probably too old-school, and if he’s not careful he’s going to get face-punched by a fucking meteor. But I don’t need to say all those things. I don’t need to beat the metaphor into the ground until it’s a pulpy, shitty mess; it’s not a watermelon, and I’m not Gallagher. The audience wants to do work. They want to take the metaphor and help draw the line. Hand them a simple machine, not a Rube Goldberg device.

8. WINK, WINK, NUDGE, NUDGE

Some metaphors are implied. When you say, “Gary’s coming for you, Bill — that guy can smell blood in the water from a mile away,” we’re using a metaphor to imply that Gary is a shark, but without actually saying that he’s a shark. The power here is in letting the audience bring a little something to the table. The danger here is you reach too far and fail to make the implication click.

9. BROKEN METAPHORS ARE BRICK WALLS

Some metaphors just don’t work. You maybe think they do, because in your head you’ve drawn a line that makes sense to you and… well, nobody else, you fuckin’ goon. The reader’s sitting there, scratching his head, wondering just what the hell a blue heron has to do with a head cold and what happens is, it stops the reader dead. Every component of your writing is binary — it’s either a 1 or a 0, it’s either Go, Dog, Go, or Guy Running Full Speed Into A Tree. It’s lubricant (facilitates the reader reading), or a fist (forces the reader to stop). A broken metaphor asks the reader to stand over the confounding imagery, chewing on it the way one must jaw hard on a hunk of gristly steak. Make sure you’re not putting out metaphors that are clear to you and only you. Think of the reader, not of the writer.

10. MIXED METAPHORS MAKE US THROW RED BULL CANS AT YOUR HEAD

If I wanted to mix metaphors, I might take that love/lunchmeat/zombie metaphor and smoosh those fuckers together: “My love is like a zombie — it’s dead and walking around long past its expiration date.” It’s mixed because it’s in effect creating a metaphor within a metaphor: love is like a zombie, and a zombie is kind of like lunchmeat in that it has an expiration date even though human bodies and zombies don’t usually have expiration dates and love isn’t really a zombie and besides, zombies aren’t real anyway. So, it’s asking the reader to draw the line and say “love = zombie, but zombie = lunchmeat.” It’s not the worst mixed metaphor ever (as one could suggest that a person’s date of death is his ‘expiration date’). You can, of course, get a whole lot worse — the worst ones build off cliches (“Don’t look in the mouth of a upset gift horse of another color before the apple cart or… s… something.”)

11. CLICHES MAKE ME KICK-STAB YOU THROUGH A PLATE GLASS WINDOW

Let me define for you: “Kick-stab.” It means I duct tape a diver’s knife to the bottom of my boot, and then I focus all of my chi (or: “ki”) into my kick as I drive my knife-boot into your chest so hard it explodes your heart and fires your ragdoll body through a plate glass window that wasn’t even there before but the force of the kick was so profound it conjured the window from another universe. All this because you had to go and use a cliche. Cliches are lowest common denominator writing and serve as metaphors for unimaginative, unoriginal turd-witted slug-brains. KIYAAAKAPOW *kick* *stab* *krrsssh*

12. SHOW US YOUR BRAIN

Ew, no, not like that. Put your scrotum back in your pants, you monster. No, what I mean is: metaphors represent an authorial stamp. They’re yours alone, offering us a peek inside your mind. When a reader says, “I would have never thought to compare a sea squirt to the economic revolution of Iceland,” that’s a golden moment. The metaphor is a signature, a stunt, a trick, a bit of your DNA spattered on the page.

13. THEY ARE THE CHEMICAL HAZE THAT CREATES UNEARTHLY SUNSETS

Look at it another way: a sky is a sky is a sky. But when we cast against the sky a chemical haze or the ejecta from a volcanic eruption, it’s like a giant fucking Instagram filter — it changes the sky and gives us heavenward vistas and sunsets or sunrises that are cranked up on good drugs, revealing to us unearthly beauty we never expected to see. The haze or the ejecta are entirely artificial — applied to the sky, not part of the original equation — but it doesn’t matter. That’s metaphor. Metaphor is the filter; it’s a way to elevate the written word (and the world the word explores) to something unexpected, something unseen. Metaphors are always artificial. But that fails to diminish their magic.

14. HOT MOOD INJECTORS

Metaphors do not merely carry tone; they can lend it to a story. The metaphors you choose can capably create mood out of the raw nothing of narrative — a metaphor can be icky, depressing, uplifting, funny, weird, all creating moods that are (wait for it, wait for it), icky, depressing, uplifting, funny, or weird. A metaphor is a mood stamp. A tonal injector. Consistency in the tone of your metaphors is therefore key.

15. METAPHOR AS RIB-SPREADER TO SHOW US A CHARACTER’S TRUE HEART

A metaphor used to describe a character tells us more about the character than a mere physical description — saying a character is gawky is one thing, but then saying he “walks like a chicken with a urinary tract infection” paints for us a far more distinctive and telling portrait. Evoking those things (the chicken, the yellow of urine), suggests cowardice. It also suggests that he probably puts his penis in places he shouldn’t. Like hamster cages and old Pringles cans. Or chickens. #dontfuckchickens

16. FUCK THE POLICE

Metaphor is part of description and we use description when something in the story breaks the status quo — when it violates expectation and so the audience must have a clear picture of it. You don’t talk about every tree in the forest; you describe that one tree that looks different, the twisted old shillelagh where the character’s brother hanged himself. Metaphor operates the same way: you use a metaphor when you want us to know something new, something different. It’s you pointing us to a thing to say, this thing matters.

17. METAPHORS OPERATE BY A BEAUTIFUL SHORT CIRCUIT OF THE BRAIN, PART ONE

Metaphors aren’t just some shit writers invented so they can strut about like pretty purple peacocks. It’s not just a stunt. Metaphors are part of our brains — not just writer’s brains (which are basically rooms where armed chimpanzees force drunken dogs to chase meth-addled cats all day long), but the brains of all humans. Here’s the cool thing about metaphors: our minds know the difference between the real and the metaphorical, and yet, our brains respond to metaphors often the same way they would to reality. You call someone a “dirty bastard,” and our brain pulls the chemical triggers that make us think of, or even feel, a moment’s worth of uncleanliness. How fucking bad-ass is that? THE BRAIN BE STRAIGHT TRIPPIN’, BOO. (Article: “This Is Your Brain On Metaphors.”)

18. METAPHORS OPERATE BY A BEAUTIFUL SHORT CIRCUIT OF THE BRAIN, PART TWO

Another awesome thing the brain does with metaphors? We’re sitting there, reading, right? And the part of our brain that’s active is the part associated with reading and language. Ahh, but when we encounter a metaphor, our brain short-circuits and leaves that area — it freaks out for a moment, and kung-fu kicks open the door and runs to the area of the brain more appropriate to the sense triggered in the metaphor. In describing a smell or a touch, the brain goes to those areas and highlights that part of your skull’s mental meatloaf. Example: words describing motion highlight your motor cortex. What this means is supremely bad-ass: it means that good description and powerful metaphor are real as real gets. They trick our brain into a reality response! Stupid brains! Ha ha ha, eat a dick, brain! I just fooled you with words! (Article: “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction.”)

19. THE SENSORY PLAYGROUND

This tells us then that metaphors should use all senses, not just the visual. Mmkay? Mmkay.

20. DOWN IN THE METAPHOR MINES

You can stimulate metaphorical thinking. At the simplest level, just make a concerted effort. Walk around, look at things, feel them, smell them, try to envision what those things remind you of — a summer’s day, a calculator watch, a used condom, a wicker basket heavy with roadkill, James Franco. Take one thing and then ask, how is it like another? Find the traits they share, both literal and abstract (hint: it’s the abstract ones that really matter). You can also force such stimulation: sleep or sensory deprivation will do it. So too will the right amount of al-kee-hol (not too much, but not too little, either). Probably the biggest category of “metaphorical stimulator” comes from hallucinogens, which are illegal and you should never do them. BUT IF YOU DO NEGLECT MY ADVICE AND WOLF DOWN A PALM FULL OF FUNNY MUSHROOMS AGAINST MY DOCTORIAL PROHIBITION, you’ll find that your brain makes crazy leaps between things — the very nature of hallucinations is due to the powerful tangling of sensory neurotransmitters (note: not a brainologist). Hallucination is metaphor; metaphor is hallucination.

21. POE TRAY

Another critical way to train your brain to love the metaphor: read poetry. Lots and lots of it. Old and new from every geographic region. Then: write it. Poetry is often a doorway to a metaphorical wonderland. You know what else is a doorway to a metaphorical wonderland? Churros. Mmm. Churros.

22. PROFANITY IS A KIND OF METAPHOR

I want to point this out because, well, me and profanity? We’re buds. We’re bros. We’re in the Fuck Yeah Sisterhood. We went to space camp together and sold Girl Scout Cookies together and lost our virginities togeth… you know, we don’t need to keep talking about that. What I’m saying is, when I say, “Dave is a shithead,” I don’t mean he’s actually got a literal pile of feces roosting on his shoulders. When I say, “Fuck you” in anger, I don’t mean I actually want to fornicate with you. (I mean, probably.) Profanity is abstraction. It’s dirty, filthy, gooey abstraction. And it is wonderful.

23. METAPHOR IS A STRONG SPICE

Don’t overuse metaphor. Every paragraph can’t be a metaphor for another thing — sometimes you just have to say the thing that you want to say without throwing heaps and mounds of abstraction on top of it.

24. BLOOD MAKES THE GRASS GROW

No, wait, sorry, I mean, “Practice makes perfect.” Silly me! If you’re not particularly comfortable with metaphors, if they make your throat tight and your body tense and cause you to pee two, maybe three drops of scaredy-urine into your Supergirl underoos, you merely need to practice. Sit down. Write metaphors. Let your brain off its chain and see what it comes up with. Write a whole page — hell, a whole fucking book — of the damn things. Nobody’s reading these. No pressure. Care little. Just write.

25. METAPHORS ARE PART OF AN ARTISTIC FREQUENCY

Narrative can, at the basic level, exist in a way where it tells us what has happened or is happening. Right? It serves as a simple explanation, the story being the literal actions taken and words spoken. John went to the grocery store. There he saw Mary. John and Mary kissed by the cantaloupes. John said, “I love you.” Mary Tasered him in the nipples. John died. Mary took his shoes. Whatever. But our storytelling can have levels that go above and below our words, that exist outside the literal flow of events and dialogue spoken. We have subtext. We have authorial intent. We have theme and symbol. And, drum roll please, we have metaphor. Metaphor elevates our narrative. Subtext is an invisible layer but metaphor is very visible, indeed: with metaphor we’re adding new colors to the sensory and experiential wavelength. This is why we use metaphor: to elevate storytelling to more than just the story told.

20 Good Habits You Need To Start In Your 20s

Our 20′s are the most pivotal points in our lives. This is the time in which we become responsible for how our future will unfold, due to the important actions and decisions that make up this exciting yet confusing stage.

This is when we mold the direction our lives will take, and the way we will handle all of the obstacles that stand in front of us completing the journey we have chosen to embark on.

The 20s brings upon a lot of questions, doubtful moments and uncertainty. It is maybe one of the hardest points in a person’s life because that is the first time we truly face ourselves in the mirror seriously and ask what the hell are we going to do with our life and how are we going to do it.

This is a scary concept for many of us, as throughout the first 22 years of our lives we are used to being in school and having our parents’ help us get anything we wanted or truly needed. It is truly the first time we are considered independent adults and the decisions we make during this period will rest with us forever.

Here are the 20 best habits that we feel everyone should have in their 20s to make the most out of this stage in life by crafting a valuable and fruitful future. Enjoy.

 

20. Focus on the activities and people that make you happy.

This isn’t high school anymore, where we have to please people just to be considered cool and fit in. This is the real world and in the real world all you have to worry about is yourself and not what others think about you. Do what you feel will help you attain the life you wish to have, be around the people you truly enjoy hanging out with and engage in what makes you feel most fulfilled.

19. Trust your instincts on new opportunities.

Opportunities are never given, they are taken. Stop waiting for handouts in life and go out there and get what you want. Trust your instincts because if it doesn’t feel right inside it wont feel right for you as time goes by. Trust that little voice in your head and do what you feel is most beneficial for your well being and satisfaction.

18. Build the courage to face your fears.

If you haven’t already noticed, the real world is filled with a lot of intimidating phases you must participate in to grow up. Don’t ever hesitate to give yourself a chance to be everything you are capable of being. What brings out the best version of yourself is the act of standing up to what scares you most.

The only person telling you to be afraid of these things is you. Engage in discomforting activities that you know will make you a stronger, more courageous person afterwards because they will never fail to do so.

17. Focus on the resources you do have access to.

We have witnessed so many people sit there and complain that they can’t get where they want to be in life because they don’t have the necessary resources to assume control. It’s time to stop being a cry baby about this sort of thing. You wont be given any handouts so be ready to work hard.

Life is about making something out of nothing what makes you so special that you would be awarded a head start? Focus on the opportunities you DO have, and exploit the resources you DO have access to.

16. Be less busy, and more productive.

Being busy is a good thing but managing your time is more important. You are not superman and you can’t do 100 things at once. Many people make the mistake of spreading themselves too thin and thus losing control of the opportunities they can no longer take full advantage of.

It’s easy to be busy but you need to be productive and effective as well. Focus on the tasks that your life will benefit most from. Get the necessary things done, the things in which you will be most at peace with yourself upon completion.

15. Make your goals a priority. 

If you make a goal, you better stick by it because there wont be anyone to push you to do so. You will eventually learn that the direction your life takes is based on how you act on accomplishing your goals. Stay focused on your ambitions. Tomorrow may never come, so start today instead.

14. Accept your humanness. 

Own up to your mistakes, admit you are only human and understand that your 20s are a learning curve. You will screw up, it will hurt, but it is the only way you will learn how to take the next step most effectively. Take in all the answers to the tests you receive after approaching something the wrong way or simply being careless.

13. Seek less approval from others.

You are going to learn a cold hard lesson that many people that you think care about you might actually be haters and users. Stop seeking approval from people and stop worrying about what other people think about you. Be proud of who you are and don’t let the opinions of the those who wish they had your courage bring you down. Remember, a lion does not worry himself over the opinions of the sheep.

12. Ignore society’s comparisons.

It will never help you to compare yourself to other people and believe that you will never amount to their success. Stop renting an identity, be you and live your life without comparing it to someone else’s. You are far more nuanced than anyone else’s narrative you try to fit yourself into, and more complex than society’s story of what ‘should’ be happening in your life.

11. Believe in your ability to succeed.

Fate and self belief are the two biggest factors of succeeding in this world. Unless you believe that what you are after is in fact possible to attain, you won’t get anywhere. You need to always maintain a belief in your own ability to succeed, doubting yourself will only distract you from the steps you should be taking to get closer to your dream.

10. Manage your money before it starts to manage you.

We live in one of the greatest recessions known to mankind, there are not many jobs out there and the entire world is about to simultaneously file for bankruptcy. Spend your money wisely and don’t spend above your means. The last thing you want to do is be living pay check to pay with so much uncertainty as to whether or not you will survive on your own.

9. Let the wrong people go.

You are going to come across many different types of people in life, so you don’t have to be everyone’s friend. You will come to realize who your true friends are, supporting you through thick and thin. You will also, however, encounter a fair amount of poisonous individuals that will try to hold you back from getting what you want for their own benefit.

Cut them off and don’t let them intrude and ruin your life. You can’t make everyone happy in this world, so don’t bother trying. Don’t be so quick to lend out your trust.

8. Appreciate your true friends, and return the favor.

You true friends are the ones that you can call during any time of the day and will be there to help you no matter what. Return the favor of being a good friend and don’t ever forget where you came from. Friendship is what will keep you humble throughout your journey, and as long as you continue to show appreciation for the love you are given, it will only come back in larger doses.

7. Understand right from wrong

This isn’t college anymore, it is time to grow up and take responsibility for your actions. There is a right time and place for everything and by now you should know what will help you in the long run and what is simply a waste of time. It’s okay to have fun, but not during a time when you know you could be working harder to accomplish your goals.

6. Choose happiness. 

Happiness is a choice that varies in substance for many people, so you need to create your own kind of happiness that you find most fulfilling or stimulating. There is nothing you need in order to be happy other than the choice to do so. Let go of the worries you have for what may or may not come your way. Focus instead on the good things that you can give, create, inspire and choose to experience, right here, right now.

5. Learn to cope with anger effectively.

Your 20s are an emotional rollercoaster of confusion and enlightenment. You will feel a significant amount of emotional stress and you need to understand how to control it so it only helps you dominate your 20′s with efficiency and pride.

When you begin to let your emotions start controlling you and your decisions is when you are destined to fall off a cliff. Unless they force you to work harder or more passionately, ignore the bad emotions and let the good one’s carry you to new intellectual heights.

4. Make your own destiny. 

If you want to be successful then you need to create the life that is most deserving of such pleasures and reward. Don’t just sit there and talk the talk. You need to learn how to walk the walk and stick by your word. You have the power to make your own destiny and that starts with the decisions you make and the actions you take to become worthy of success.

3. Create priorities.

Priorities will help you understand what is important in creating the life you wish to have and what is only stopping you from being the best version of yourself imaginable. Life is going to offer many distractions that will attempt to throw you off course from your goal.

It is ultimately up to you to stay disciplined at all times and understand how to spend your time and energy in accordance to your own well being. Don’t waste your time on social media or being a club rat. These things won’t make you a more intelligent person with a better grasp on how to handle life’s important choices.

2. Stay away from a routine based life.

Don’t turn into a pedestrian by settling for the first thing that life gives you. Security and stability may seem less harmful at first but they prevent you from experiencing the greatest adventures and rewards this world could possibly offer. You will be presented with a lifestyle that appears comfortable, doing the same things each day with little or no excitement or mental growth involved.

This is why you need to remember that to take advantage of the wondrous opportunities life has in store for you, you must get comfortable with the uncomfortable and choose the road that is most interesting, regardless of how complicated or unnerving it may be.

1. Always keep in mind that life is somewhat unpredictable.

Some of the great moments in your life won’t necessarily be the things you do; they’ll be things that happen to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t take action to affect the outcome.. You have to take action, and you will. But don’t forget that on any day, you can step out the front door and your whole life can change in an instant – for better or worse.

To an extent, the universe has a plan that’s always in motion. A butterfly flaps its wings and it starts to rain – it’s a scary thought, but it’s part of life’s cycle. All these little parts of the machine, constantly working – sometimes forcing you to struggle, and sometimes making sure you end up exactly in the right place at the right time.