Online Comments: Steps to Bringing the Civility Back

If you’ve traveled online and social media circles long enough, you’ve probably seen the meme; “Wait a minute, someone is wrong on the Internet. It’s a funny meme, but also one that tugs on the emotions of plenty of folks who may be intellectually or emotionally involved in a specific topic.  And of course, the advent of social media platforms and comment systems such as Disqus, means that just about anyone can critique a blog post, article, or book.

ExplainingIn a departure from the usual fare on this blog, I’d like to attempt to answer two key questions: 1) is there an obligation to review and critique content you don’t necessarily support and 2) is there a civil and respectful way to disagree?

Author Nassim Taleb—who is no stranger to critics—believes the best approach to dealing with a blog, article or book you don’t like is to say nothing at all. In a Facebook post, he wrote; “Never write a negative book review. It is a step below badmouthing. A bad book is its own bad review.”

Predictably, there were 100+ comments on his Facebook page, some suggesting negative reviews provided future readers a warning to avoid a time and money waster. A typical response from this camp included; “If I paid money for a book and I took time to read it and I think it’s a bad book, don’t I have a duty, as a reviewer, to say so?”

Others lined up behind Dr. Taleb, suggesting the best course of action is to ignore online content that doesn’t synch with our worldview.  This comment was a typical response for this group: “Why play god with someone’s livelihood? Keep your opinions to yourself. Isn’t that a golden rule?”

In terms of online commenting, I believe in some instances we’ve lost the art of civility, especially as we sit behind glowing computer screens without the benefit of seeing how our comments affect others.  To substantiate this point, one online editor told me; “I have noticed that people do not behave online as they would in real life.  It’s like they forget the words are attached to actual people!”

For those who feel the need to “correct others in their erroneous thinking” (especially in political seasons), might I gently suggest some simple advice?

If you must critique, make sure your comment is valuable and beneficial to the discussion. If you are a subject matter expert, and have a divergent view from the author, present your credentials and your opinion without attacking the author.  It’s OK to disagree with an author without calling them out professionally.

Second, take a humble and respectful approach to commenting.  Perhaps you are an expert on a specific topic, with more experience than the author.  If you disagree with an author’s point of view, suggest alternate resources that might explain the topic differently.  Show-off your intelligence and/or experience with a careful and thoughtful response.

Third, remember that content on the internet tends to live forever (and that includes online comments). With hard drives constantly dropping in price, it’s easier than ever for online companies to store and archive content (and comments) in perpetuity. Want to write a scathing comment? Think really hard before you press “submit”.  A hurried or rushed emotional/sarcastic comment may affect your personal brand for years to come.

Fourth, Nassim Taleb says that those who critique should have “skin in the game”. If you are going to comment positively or negatively, ensure that your online persona is easily identifiable. Include your full name (no anonymous profiles), website, Linkedin profile, or Gravatar when commenting.

Now, I need your help to further develop these thoughts. It’s also possible you may disagree with some of my conclusions. So let’s kick off the conversation with a few questions:

  • Do you have an obligation to review or critique content that doesn’t fit your experience and/or personal view?
  • If you read a bad book, article, or post, should you warn others about it?
  • Are there instances when it’s OK to critique with an anonymous profile?
  • Outside of the four methods outlined in this article, are there further ways to disagree and/or dialog with an author without getting personal?

Has Personalized Filtering Gone Too Far?

In a world of plenty, algorithms may be our saving grace as they map, sort, reduce, recommend, and decide how airplanes fly, packages ship, and even who shows up first in online dating profiles. But in a world where algorithms increasingly determine what we see and don’t see, there’s danger of filtering gone too far.

The global economy may be a wreck, but data volumes keep advancing. In fact, there is so much information competing for our limited attention, companies are increasingly turning to compute power and algorithms to make sense of the madness.

The human brain has its own methods for dealing with information overload. For example, think about millions of daily input the human eye receives and how it transmits and coordinates information with our brain. A task as simple as stepping a shallow flight of stairs takes incredible information processing. Of course, not all received data points are relevant to the task of walking a stairwell, and thus the brain must decide which data to process and which to ignore. And with our visual systems bombarded with sensory input from the time we wake until we sleep, it’s amazing the brain can do it all.

But the brain can’t do it all—especially not with the onslaught of data and information exploding at exponential rates. We need what author Rick Bookstaber calls “artificial filters,” computers and algorithms to help sort through mountains of data and present the best options. These algorithms are programmed with decision logic to find needles in haystacks, ultimately presenting us with more relevant choices in an ocean of data abundance.

Algorithms are at work all around us. Google’s PageRank presents us relevant results—in real time—captured from web server farms across the globe. Match.com sorts through millions of profiles, seeking compatible profiles for subscribers. And Facebookshows us friends we should “like.”

But algorithmic programming can go too far. As humans are more and more inundated with information, there’s a danger in turning over too much “pre-cognitive” work to algorithms. When we have computers sort friends we would “like”, pick the most relevant advertisements or best travel deals, and choose ideal dating partners for us, there’s a danger in missing the completely unexpected discovery, or the most unlikely correlation of negative one. And even as algorithms “watch” and process our online behavior and learn what makes us tick, there’s still a high possibility that results presented will be far and away from what we might consider “the best choice.”

With a data flood approaching, there’s a temptation to let algorithms do more and more of our pre-processing cognitive work. And if we continue to let algorithms “sort and choose” for us – we should be extremely careful to understand who’s designing these algorithms and how they decide. Perhaps it’s cynical to suggest otherwise, but in regards to algorithms we should always ask ourselves, are we really getting the best choice, or getting the choice that someone or some company has ultimately designed for us?

Question:
*  Rick Bookstaber makes the case that personalized filters may ultimately reduce human freedom. He says, “If filtering is part of thinking, then taking over the filtering also takes over how we think.” Are there dangers in too much personalized filtering?

Transparency: Do Customers Want to Peer Inside the “Black Box”?

From politician salaries to calorie counts on restaurant items, “transparency” is a key buzzword in government and business circles. However, high interest in cloud computing, data warehousing “to go,” and other analogous concepts beg the question of whether customers really want to peer inside the black box or whether an opaque approach works best.

Increases in the call for transparency are legion. Health inspectors post food safety grades for eating establishments. Websites track lists of political campaign donors. And restaurants redesign bars, kitchens, and more to show patrons how drinks and meals are prepared. All this, in order to give customers a window into processes for product and service creation.

And to be sure, there’s definitely even more opportunity for transparency in product creation, especially in financial services. As an example, Michael Lewis’ Big Short cites how via the securitization process, hundreds of subprime mortgages were packaged up and divvied into “tranches” of investment quality. Through securitization, it was tough to estimate the contents of a particular asset-backed security. One hedge fund manager exclaimed; “I didn’t know what the (expletive) was in the things. You couldn’t do the analysis. You couldn’t say, ‘Give me all the ones with all California in them.’ No one knew what was in them.”

Creating a product with so much complexity that teams of MBAs are necessary to decipher its contents surely is a recipe for confusion. And on the ugly side of things, perhaps that was the intention. Regardless, in an age of social media where a company’s reputation can be destroyed in five minutes or less, this avenue will not ensure long term success.

However, a key question is whether customers really want to peer inside the black box. After all, investment banks had very little difficulty offloading these impenetrable structured products. Plenty of hedge, pension and even sovereign wealth funds lined up to buy these complicated products—and most with no questions asked.

In the analytics market, there’s an adage that business users really don’t care how a particular solution works, just so long as it meets their needs. And while this may be true in some instances, there’s also ample opportunity to enlighten consumers (or in this case application users) as to the “value” received through peeling back the curtain on how a product or service is designed and delivered.

What say you? Do your customers really want transparency? Do they really need to know what’s in the black box?

Reputation Management Not Needed… Until It’s Needed

Poet Robert Burns is widely credited with the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” Relating this phrase in a business context, it stands to reason no matter how much a company orchestrates activities and executes its battle plans—high-impact mistakes happen. However, in an age of over-optimization, and marketing and communications cost-cutting, “soft stuff” such as brand management, press relations, crisis communications and the like are often shelved or discarded in favor of “just-in-time” strategies. Indeed, reputation management isn’t needed … until it’s needed.

In an article from “The Observer,” John Naughton wonders in amazement at how society ever managed without the Internet. Naughton ponders a world without Google, Skype, instant messaging, and online bank accounts. And while the Internet has created boom for most of us, the rise of social media hasn’t been sweet ambrosia for all companies. In fact, with social media and Internet technologies, now company decisions and actions are mostly public, including those of front-line employees. Now, actions that happened last week, last night, or 10 minutes ago can be broadcast across the globe in seconds, creating very dangerous challenges for company branding and reputation efforts.

In the Financial Times article “Perils of a Tarnished Brand,” authors Morgen Witzel and Ravi Mattu notice that even the most scripted and orchestrated product launches can go haywire. And even when “best-intented” marketing plans are well-executed, companies can be exposed to the ramifications of their daily operational and strategic decisions (e.g., Google in China and BP). “What affects reputations, in turn affects brands,” the authors point out.

Every employee is a brand ambassador, and brand management is no longer simply the purview of marketing managers. Even the best branding intentions can go awry when actions don’t back up corporate speak, say Witzel and Mattu.

Of larger concern however, is marketing cost-cutting trends in the name of efficiency that potentially leave brands and reputations exposed.

Robert Mabro, Honorary President of Oxford’s Institute for Energy, describes this problem in a letter to the Financial Times. He writes, “(Companies) no longer want to employ specialists in soft matters, such as political issues and the like. When an accident occurs, they find themselves hopelessly unprepared. This of course (ends up) destroying shareholder value!” Moreover, economist John Kay sums up the problem quite succinctly, “Yesterday’s cost-savings are so often today’s corporate crisis.”

One potential solution is for companies to invest more in “softer matters” like brand, reputation, crisis and risk management. Undoubtedly, some of these considerations are tough to justify in an age of narrow return on investment marketing calculations such as cost per lead.

However, Internet and social media technologies that transmit events, news and crisis accounts—at the speed of light—aren’t going away. To succeed in such an environment, companies must invest in the softer functions mentioned above even when “payback” doesn’t appear imminent.

It’s difficult to forecast all types of crises that could occur. A much better plan is preparedness. Is your company up for the challenge?

Related: Financial Times “It Pays to Expect the Unexpected

Marketing “The Shack”

The New York Times says The Shack has been a “surprise best seller.” Published in over 30 languages around the world, The Shack now has over 7 million copies in print and ranked first on the New York Times best seller list for 70 weeks. Some might argue the success of The Shack derives from effective use of traditional and social media marketing efforts. However with most book titles struggling to sell 1,000 copies, might there be something more to the success of The Shack than just good marketing technique?

Written by William Paul Young, The Shack was intended as simply a story for Young’s children and a few family friends. After reading the book, friends encouraged Young to send his novel to publishing companies. However, after rejection by more than 15 publishing companies, Young decided his book probably wasn’t ready for a wider audience. That is, until his friends banded together to form their own publishing company for The Shack.

In an attempt to not spoil the plot, The New York Times writes that The Shack is a “slim paperback novel … about a grieving father who meets God in the form of a jolly African-American woman.” And while the content of the book have made for lively debate on talk shows, religious forums and book clubs, Mr. Young states that The Shack was simply meant as a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.”

With a mere $15,000 for an initial publishing run and a “starter” $300 marketing budget, The Shack became an instant phenomenon as buyers passed the book to friends, and others purchased cases through Young’s website.

And while controversy may have helped create awareness of The Shack, one would be remiss not to appreciate marketing efforts for the best seller.

In addition to use of traditional media to spur sales such as book signings, speaking engagements and website development, publisher Windblown Media also made extensive use of social media.

For example, a specific and bold call to action asked readers to visit The Shack website and share their own personal experiences after reading the book. In addition to an author blog, website visitors could join a Flickr group to share pictures of “beauty,” sign up for email updates, become a fan on Facebook and follow author tweets.

Also of significance, the marketing campaign accessed terrific word of mouth techniques, as the author encouraged readers to share the book with friends, blog about The Shack, buy books for women’s shelters and prisons, and even write reviews for local papers, magazines and websites.

The results? While some authors clamor for even 10 reviews of their book on Amazon.com, The Shack racked up over 4,000! A cursory review of Amazon’s listing shows that the book definitely struck nerves, sparked controversy, and deeply touched readers.

While Paul Young and Windblown Media certainly employed traditional and effective marketing techniques to maximum effect, selling seven million books is no small potatoes. Indeed, The Shack reached a tipping point then quickly accelerated to become an international sensation.

The question remains, why? Is success of The Shack due to marketing, or is there something more?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Simple Minded Effects of Social Media

dunceNeuroscientists have shown in study after study, that multi-tasking isn’t helping us be more productive, but in fact, is making us dumber. Are social media tools, with their promise of instant connectivity, notification, and collaboration adding fuel to the fire?

There is a lot of excitement about staying up-to-date and making personal connections with new media tools and applications (think: Facebook, Twitter etc). However, in our attempt to multi-task and keep up to speed on everything we deem relevant, there’s a potential dark side—the dumbing down of our brains.

The Atlantic, features an article titled, “The Autumn of the Multi-Taskers”. In the article, author Walter Kirn, discusses the stress we place on our minds and bodies when we attempt too much multi-tasking with social media tools, Blackberry’s, IM and more.

For example, Kirn notes that through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists have discovered:

“Multi-tasking messes with our brains in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning.”

We like to pride ourselves on the ability to keep up with it all. We ask ourselves, “Why can’t I be on Outlook, have my IM application open, pick up the phone, read a business magazine, and have Linked In and Facebook running all at the same time?”

We’re taught that multi-tasking is the wave of the future. Do more with less. Keep up on everyone and everything. We tell ourselves we can do it all.

Neuroscientists, however, would disagree.

Kirn’s article mentions a study where two groups were asked to sort index cards. One trial group sorted in silence, the other had the same task but also was required to listen for specific tones from a grouping of sounds. At the end of the experiment, both groups sorted the cards properly, but the multi-tasking group couldn’t remember what “exactly” they were sorting.

As social media technologies (i.e. RSS, social networking and web applications, micro-blogging etc), become more prevalent and adoption rates climb, it seems we’re staying more connected with our communities and world, but forgetting half the stuff (perhaps purposefully) pushed to us via these technologies.

Our brains are out-tasked and overloaded—and yet we often look for more opportunities to cram additional information into our heads.

Sometimes, this pursuit of an “always-on” world translates into ill effects for our bodies. The article continues;

“Certain studies find that multi-tasking boosts the level of stress related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction—prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term they cause (our brain) to atrophy.”

Despite the provocative title of this post, it is not my intention to indict social media technologies, or the use of any other technology such as cellular phone, PDA, instant messaging and the like. The real issue of concern is lost focus and effectiveness when we use too many of these technologies at the same time.

I believe the best course of action is a careful balance of the use of these value adding technologies with our innate ability to capture, process and store information.

We’re not a machine, but I wonder sometimes if we think we are.

Behavioral Targeting – Where’s the Fine Line?

privacyBehavioral targeting has caught the attention of the US congressional leaders, as privacy advocates grow concerned with the tremendous amount of web data collected by internet businesses such as ISPs and search engines. Consumers, lawyers, congressional leaders, and businesses are now opining regarding necessary disclosures and the appropriateness of targeting offers/advertising based on web visits and/or queries.

When it comes to behavioral targeting (using clickstream data), where is the fine line of benefit vs. “big brother”?  read original column