In praise of fake profiles

If you are in sales or marketing and above 25 years of age, you are probably wrong.  The assumptions you base your decisions on are severely limited.  We often thank our kids for ideas, for keeping us “in touch”, but it is much much more complicated a matter.  And extremely important.   I have hundreds of fake profiles.   Not sure if “fake” is the correct term.  I pretend to be someone I am not as a form of market research.  In fact it is often the first thing I do when presented with a new project.

It starts with a fake Google account.  This is vital.  Search results are personalized.  You will never get it all perfect, but if you at least persuade it that you live wherever you are researching and then make sure you do Google searches logged in from this fake Google profile, the world you are seeing will be a little more like your target.  Sign up for whatever products and services you are looking for from this signed in Chrome browser.    You have to try and live the part.

With Facebook things are even more dangerous.  That person in marketing you think is “up to speed with all this new stuff”, well, just isn’t.   If I have a really successful Instagram account, or a very active personal Facebook profile I only see what that particular profile’s take on the world is.   Some days I might whiz through multiple profiles to check up on them, just housekeeping.  Hard to describe just how different it feels to be in each newsfeed.  Some are simply based in different locations, with friends from a particular island or city.  Age differences are even more stunning.  The same political event which fills your friends’ timelines when you are 50, doesn’t even appear when you are 16.

It isn’t fashionable anymore, but I always make sure my fake people have a website, blog or other public trove of information on whatever topic I am researching.   This gives me unique insights into what people are looking for.   It is the “honeypot” approach.  In content marketing it is easier to just start testing ideas like this.  And when the first organic google searches land my way, it is like Christmas day!  Somebody wrote what they wanted to know in Google and came to me, fake me, this particular person.  Why?  How?  What cyberspace hole did I fill with what I just did?

If anything, building a fake profile is a humbling experience.  Because you realize just how complex a web social beings like humans create.  We earn trust.  Slowly.   A “follow” by a 13 year old is a very, very, very different action to a “follow” by a 60 year old.  He then posts what he just had for breakfast without thinking about it, while the senior citizen is carefully crafting a comment as if he is writing to the Economist.

Marketing people are often fooled by their own brand.  In the case of social media they are also sidetracked by their personal profiles and habits.  These are extremely dynamic, immature new mediums, still jostling for position, changing architecture and interfaces.   There is no agreed way to assess them, no specific assigned meaning to what we all do with them.  So get off your high horse and mingle with the natives.

The fallacy of collective brainpower

I was 12 or 13 years old when I came across “The crowd”.  It was in Greek and must have belonged to one of my many intellectual cousins.  The subtitle reads “a study of the popular mind” and I couldn’t put it down.  We were guests at my aunt’s house and I read it all before we left.   No matter it was written in the late 19th century; this was fresh and relevant!   While other kids listened to Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, I thought of Gustave LeBon’s amazingly relevant book.  Had never seen it again until recently when I got a copy in English.   And I juxtaposed it with “the Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki written more than a hundred years later and full of examples about Wikipedia and crowdsourcing and how 100 bricklayers can make a better decision than a consultant that gets paid 20,000 per hour.

But Gustave was right.  I grew up checking his conclusions against my reality.  I could see it at my school.  When enough kids get together, they turn into animals.   I could see it across the street in the early 80’s, as Andreas Papandreou, that master of deception, spoke with simple slogans while stealing billions.  When you get enough people together, they lose their capacity for critical thinking, they “go down several rungs in terms of civilization” as he says.  There is no sense of personal responsibility.  Simple slogans, repeated again and again.  Music, images, emotion.  There is no wisdom in this sort of crowd.

I love what companies like Google are doing with our collective data.     I gladly give them access to almost everything I think and do in exchange for their amazing tools.  They make my life much much better.  Yet it is clear that this is not the product of evolution in our civilisation, nor the inevitable course in technology developing.  It is a fortunate respite from a kind dictator.   All these great ideas about the collective wisdom we could develop with technology depend on a kind central hub allowing them to work.  Or, as Surowiecki puts it, we need independence of opinion, decentralization and diversity before we even get to the matter of aggregation.

Our current tech boom is to a large extent an acceptance of failure.   Companies that establish massive followings define the terms, give away stuff and up the ante in terms of infrastructure.    You reward them by buying their stock.  Or by making small companies whose sole aim is to be bought out by the giants.  In the words of LeBon ” every civilisation is the outcome of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very rarely renewed. (…) At the present day the great fundamental ideas which were the mainstay of our fathers are tottering more and more. They have lost all solidity, and at the same time the institutions resting upon them are severely shaken.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

English uber alles: the language digital divide

Google assistant is fantastic.  Unless you don’t speak English.  In which case it is almost useless.  The whole “Artificial Intelligence” vogue is rather misleading.  Because when I speak to Google Allo I am still using all my experience in computing.  It works great for me because I think like a computer.  I break down my questions into chunks the way I think the computer wants to hear it.  I add qualifiers, words to help the machine understand with more accuracy.  I use terms that are more likely to work.  When we say “natural language” hey, there are classifications.  I use “natural language more likely to be understood by Google”.  It drives others crazy.  They blame my perfect accent.  “But I said the same thing!  Why doesn’t it work for me?”  

 

Here’s the problem.  Google and pretty much everyone else in Silicon Valley, they are all only thinking in English.  Your Amazon Echo is designed for native English speakers.  (Pun intended.)  All your gadgets are.  Worse still, the intelligence is designed around people thinking  in English.  All the structure, the concepts, the way it is set up.  It is rather entertaining how some people get caught up with the fact that slang and tech words are conquering the world.  That is the tip of the iceberg.

 

Silicon Valley is moving ahead of the rest of the planet with leaps and bounds.  Light years ahead.  We don’t have local information.  We can’t use amazon like you do.   We can’t pay for stuff or call a self driving car.  Amazon will not be able to deliver to the trunk of my car either.  The United States are a test bed for new tech and the gap with everyone else will grow exponentially.  And only in 2030, when computers are smarter than humans, maybe, just maybe, those computers may decide to develop all these wonderful tools for the rest of the earthlings.    And even then it will take a lot of work.  Because English is the language that provides the structure and concepts.  More likely that you will have all learnt to think like Google by then. 

 

2030 is still material for science fiction.  Today, now, it is clear that we all have to move to the Valley or fall behind.  We have neither the data with which to develop such advanced tools, nor the number crunching power.   The entire planet sends their thoughts to Google every day  Out position, habits and preferences.  It is no conspiracy theory, it is simple mathematics.  Not impossible to catch up, just really really hard.

Apple’s (real) product recalls and Brad Pitt’s (alleged) whores

If you Google “apple product recall” you get less than a page of results.  That is peculiar, isn’t it?  Try searching for “recall history” or anything like that and you more or less get the Google equivalent of “what you are looking for does not exist in this galaxy”.  So then being Greek, I use the terms  “ανάκληση προϊόντων Apple” and get 32 thousand results.  Obviously the propaganda masters at Apple don’t bother with Greece.  Much like Apple support doesn’t bother with Greece and other “minor” markets.  They just rely on the well documented pro Apple journalist bias.  If I want a more serious and organised list of Apple product recalls, I can go for the United States to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  That gives me many many more Apple product recalls.  And that is when you realise it is not just that Apple users are fanatics.  The company puts a lot of PR effort in making information disappear.    As it lobbies Washington to fight Samsung with legal fines and other restrictions.

PR and lobbying are of course well established form of corporate action.  Will Apple get fined for the whole Irish tax debacle?  Of course they won’t.  Hold up a bit with all the emotionally appealing “think different” adverts of us all flying about in the perfect future, white clothes, white background, white devices and white hoverboards.    Earlier this year Apple recalled  iPhones, iPads, iPods and Mac computers sold from 2003 to 2015.  And you think Samsung is the problem?  They admitted to 12 “incidents” which means that there were probably hundreds.  It is rather entertaining to watch liberal America up in arms against the “irrationality” of Donald Trump.  He lies in your face, changes views, claims the internet as an information source and generally does pretty much whatever he wants with absolutely no attention paid to facts or logic.  Yet “70% of the most active iPhone states vote Democrat“.  So you are accepting irrationality from your phone’s manufacturer, but think it is not OK for a President.

Who is more likely to have had an affair?  Brad Pitt or Stephen Hawking?  A politician or a doctor?  You will make a guesstimate about any of these questions based on your available information.  Do you read gossip magazines often?  Do you work in a hospital and hear rumours of infidelity often?  Apple makes product recall information disappear because it knows you won’t bother to search or think about it as long as I did today.  If I ask you about Brad Pitt again, but this time it is via chat on your cell phone, you will answer even more succinctly if you don’t like typing there.  Especially if you are using the iPhone keyboard which for some ridiculous reason is different from other keyboards on the planet.  As humans we are always looking for shortcuts.

It is the same reason homeopathy has lasted so well despite being complete rubbish with absolutely no results on any level.  (No, not even placebo.)  No matter how much evidence you pile in front of someone they respond “well, one time my son had a terrible rash and it just wouldn’t go…but homeopathy saved him”.   One time, one highly subjective personal experience trumps everything else.  And you can’t outTrump Trump.  Stupidity is unbeatable and we are all terrible judges.  You don’t know if the new iPhone is any good like you don’t know if you are more likely to get hit by lightning, a car or a falling piano this year.  In fact I suggest you are more likely to guess whether Brad Pitt does drugs with Russian prostitutes than to objectively compare an iPhone with a Samsung phone.

It is a bit like a husband-wife argument about who does most around the house.  Each of us focuses on their own contribution.  What it costs each of us in terms of energy.    Apple computer users have put up with the absolutely ludicrous application navigation wheel for years.  When pushed they will claim it is “the best”.  Like iPhone users claimed they didn’t need copy-paste until they got it.  Or two buttons on a mouse until Steve Jobs presented the magic mouse.  They “burned Pentiums to the ground” one month and the next were “using the incredible power of Pentium”.

So leave Brad Pitt alone.   And check those product recall lists before you start talking about Apple.

 

R.I.P. people that get tired of tech

Spent a good hour tidying cables today.  Three boxes full of them.  You can do a fairly good review of what came and went in the past four decades just by explaining the hows, whys and whats of these cables.  How we used to load software from audio cassettes.  Peculiar items needed to get early modems to work.  Dozens of cables from things that had caught on, so the cable was in all sorts of gadgets, and peculiar cables from technologies that failed.  It is easy to understand all those people that simply announce they have had “enough”.

I don’t even try to keep up anymore” announces a friend.  Yet straight after that he wants me to help set up something on his smartphone.  It makes no sense.  Sure, at times, gadget mania gets out of hand.  And we have all failed in predictions or made bad buying decisions.  But tech is life.  Since some ape picked up a branch and whacked another ape, we always look for better ways of doing things.  Faster.  More fun.  Think different and all that.  At worse because we get bored of the old stuff.

Why on earth do you do that to yourself?”  Another friend wondering where I find the patience to try and hack my kids’ latest game, or set up something peculiar on my home network.  Tinkering is a way of life.  Looking for better ways to live.  Tweaking and adapting.  People complain about how technology is distancing us from nature but we are simply adapting.  Charles Darwin would be proud of my cable collection.

Data comparisons show just how far ahead the U.S. is in tech

It started with a friend’s interesting project.  https://gotelonica.wordpress.com sets forth to draw comparisons between two European cities.  “Everyday stories, vivid images, mutual interests and hopeful efforts”… will have to be good enough though because finding decent comparative data is pretty complicated!

If you search the internet for “city comparison” or anything like that, you are most likely to find a US site comparing US cities.  Mobility in the United States is a fact of life.  And great websites cater to all sorts of ways to discover if your new job offer is as good as it sounds.  Or if you should buy a house there or anything else you are interested in discovering.   Similar efforts within Europe are almost non existent.   UN Habitat data doesn’t include Sweden’s second largest city.  Interesting online articles with catchy titles such as “these are the world’s dirtiest/most dangerous/best cities” rarely include both Thessaloniki and Goteborg.

In fact an American website offered the best weather and crime comparison.   Thessaloniki has a lower crime index and higher safety index.  Which doesn’t say much unless they analyse exactly how they get, process and quantify the data.  Being Greek I know for a fact that the stats coming out of that particular civil service are far from perfect.

You may eventually find some meaningful ways to compare the cities, if you try hard enough.  Gotelonica is an excellent idea because statistics are almost meaningless on their own in such a complex environment.  European cities cannot be set side by side like American ones.  We have no real federal or state system in place.  The European Union is meant to help us work in different places but in fact there is not that much mobility.  And the lack of data is a pretty convincing evidence of this.

We are decades behind America and it shows.   Much like my objections to Greek Police statistics above, almost any matter (other than the weather) concerning European cities is bound to become political.  Different measurements, different resources allocated to statistics, different infrastructures which make the numbers rather drab tools to paint a true picture.  It makes it even harder to build any sort of technological platforms or apps.  So we just sit around while Google and Facebook speed along by getting users to volunteer information, live with their tools and then use machine learning to offer better judgements than any European tool ever could.  Google traffic data is the best pan European resource for how fast you will get from A to B.  While we argue about how and why our GPS alternative never got off the ground, Maps just keeps getting better.

So next time you start talking about European tech entrepreneurs, take a moment to consider how hard it is to get decent databases to work with.  Or to attract other Europeans to your city to work for you.   Or even to calculate ahead of time the chances of either of these two happening.

Tech beyond the law; virtual reality TV for Banana republics

It is funny to watch regulators try to catch up with Facebook and Google.  These days it is about how they filter news results.  Which sort of shows how little anyone understands the tech involved.  Of course Facebook and Google’s algorithms are biased!  By definition any system which regulates a flow cannot be objective and fair.  There is no 50-50 rule concerning ideas.    Even if there was, it is impossible to check up on them.   The results are personalized.  The sauce is secret.

The TV situation is similar.  Only old folk watch TV.  Kids YouTube everything.  There is no “digital battle”, no “interactive frontier”, none of those flashy titles panned out for the old style media organizations that used to make up the titles in the first place.  We are officially in Banana Republic.  No rules.  No time to make complex rules about the ethics, business or law concerning all of it.  Moore’s law may be outdated for processing power, but the tech industry was never just about that.

Case in point:  virtual reality.  In the old days, you used to expect a company to “get it right”, or a consortium of companies to agree on a standard.  Now Google shells out three dozen variations of virtual reality in a year.  From cardboard, to Spotlight stories, to ten different ways to use your smartphone, collaborations with Lenovo or Samsung, Google will slice and dice, present and represent solutions until something comes out of it all.  Each approach may be a completely different in terms of tech, marketing, distribution, production or something you haven’t even heard of yet.  A 12 year old will coin a term for it though.    Ah, wait, a 12 yr old already did that.  I read it in my news feed…

Some of us never tire trying to make sense of it.  Most just wait for the dust to settle.

But by then it is way too late.

FBI vs Apple = 6-1

  1. If there was someone on the planet that didn’t know that the usual way FBI and Apple solve these things is in secret, we all know it now.  Both parties involved admitted that usually when the FBI wants the contents of a phone, Apple has always played along and told nobody about it.
  2. We all found out about Apple’s sneaky secret backdoors.  Updates they can install on just one specific phone and other things which only a mind as perverse as Steve Jobs could think of.
  3. At best Tim Cook seemed “adequate”.  For most of us he was just blatantly hypocritical in pretending to stand up for free speech and privacy.  This is the right hand man of Steve Jobs.  They both did so much nasty stuff against consumers’ interests for so many years; any serious analyst can only laugh to hear him wax lyrical now.  iPhones secretly sent location, private data and well,  pretty much everything in the past.  It probably still does, just in more complex ways.  They never told consumers any of it.
  4. Similar to “freedom fries” and the small media war against France in the past, this media frenzy will leave Apple with scars.  True patriots will avoid iPhones to some degree.  After their tax dodging tricks, Chinese workers killing themselves and Donald Trump having a go at Apple, it is starting to pile up.
  5. After all this, magically, a way to hack the iPhone was discovered.  So the FBI doesn’t need a backdoor.  They can use the same trick for any iPhone.  Heck, we are all pretty sure they can hack the latest models too.  Well done Apple, you just made sure the entire planet knows just how unsafe your products are.
  6. I am not the only one not to buy the story about an “outside contractor helping the FBI”.   Apple gave in.  They helped the FBI and came up with this vague story to cover up.  They knew that if they left it long enough, many outside contractors and hackers would find publish a way around on the internet.  Every hackathon has Apple products falling first.  This is no conspiracy theory.  Apple products’ security is rubbish.

There is only group of people which think that Apple won the case.  Apple fan boys.  But then again they always think Apple has won.  So the only interesting question is “why make all this fuss for nothing?”  I would look more at the stock market for answers than the technology involved.

Google is evil. But not like you imagine it is.

“Ah, yes, you’re the guy that has a thing against Google.”

It wasn’t the best of introductions but I knew what he was on about. I do have “a thing” with Google.  I am jealous as hell!  Because a select few people in Google are literally the closest a homo sapiens has ever come to being an all knowing God.

This is not some conspiracy theory.  Some time ago Google started hiding search results.  Out of on thousand people coming to a website via Google search, almost nine hundred are now a blank slate.  Google doesn’t tell us which keyword sent them here.  “Unknown search terms” is their way of admitting they are evil.

Worse still, the kind of keywords not appearing in results is far from random.  Google has used all their deep learning algorithm prowess to skilfully select categories so you can’t game or reverse engineer it.  Even in languages other than English, their technology is awesome.  90 per cent of the planet is using a search engine which then sends them to results based on a completely secret method.  And then it tells us nothing about where and how it did it.

So what?  Well, for starters, Google can hide or promote any idea, product, brand or other entity.  There are extreme examples, whereby a government or rich person pays them to do it.  Relegating a search result to page two of search results is usually good enough, though I have seen cases where the unwanted result disappears completely after on phone call.  Completely.  Like it never existed.

But that isn’t the biggest issue.  The real question nobody is asking is “how does Google sell all this knowledge?”  If you want to know what teenagers in your region will be buying tomorrow, Google can tell you.  Yes, it can sell you the information.  The corellations between search results and real life transactions and trends are pure gold.  Google knows if your next export idea is good or not.  Google knows what will sell and what will fail.  Much like they did with influenza, Google knows better than anyone at any time in human history, what is going to happen tomorrow.

All large organizations have more or less secret divisions.  When Microsoft decided to target governments all around the world, they didn’t call the division “blackmail and coerce department”.  It was lobbying.   Unfortunately Google works in much shadier ways.   Kings of industry have personal and secret relationships with Google.  Not their “head of sales” or “head of Research and Development”.  It is outside the office where this sort of information is exchanged.  Like insider information for the stock market only much much more powerful.

Google not only knows which government will win the elections, Google can greatly influence the result.  Google doesn’t even care, they can sell advertising and information to everyone on all sides involved.  Their rising levels of secrecy and the pittance of data they do allow us access to proves Google is more powerful to do evil than any other organisation in the history of mankind.

The Asian Toad and Google research for business

My friend James is probably the smartest person I know.  Whether he is teaching himself music in order to do the soundtrack to an amazing documentary of his, building innovative mammal free zones in New Zealand, riding a motorbike or in Madagascar fighting the Asian toad.

The what?  When a modern human comes across something unknown, we Google it.  Just like that.  Which means that billions (3.2 billion) of searches a day globally can tell us a lot.  People in the UK search for “toad” more than other countries, but of course there are toad in books, children’s series, music band and all sorts of other things.   Maybe there are opportunities in those for some sort of co-promotion.  The English are followed by Ausies, Americans, Canadians, NZ and …Nigeria?  Following Google searches is a bit like the dictionary game.  I just spent five minutes learning about “The Grasshopper and the Toad”, a short story by a Nigerian, as well as the use of the word “toad” in Nigerian politics.  Which is exactly the sort of peripheral knowledge you need as a business when researching your topic.

For example searches for “toad” have seasonality.  Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be because of some amphibian habit.  For example in the UK, October seems to be the main month for “toad in the hole”, a popular local dish, comfort food for many.  By contrast in the America, searches for “toad” peak every year at May and Arkansas is the state leading in interest.  If you are planning a campaign for the Asian toad, maybe do it in the winter when people so you don’t compete with all the people asking “what is the difference between a toad and a frog?”    In Australia searches for toads are in the Northern territory, don’t waste any ad money elsewhere.

Of course Google “normalises” the data.  Which means they try and mess it up enough so you can’t reverse engineer it, or use it to compete.  Still, with time, even without numbers, you can see that there are more searches for a “horned frog” than an “asian toad”.  You can follow that path too and look for promotional opportunities if you want to.

I picked the example of the Asian Toad on purpose.  If you are using a business problem you are often too close to the topic to explore.  For example searches for “toad” correlate in seasonality in the U.S. with searches for “vinyl siding”, “house paints”, “insects” and “utility trailer”.  Each of these terms merits some online detective work.  Working around the limitations of data provided by Google is actually inspiring.  Searches for “frog” correlate mostly with “garden clogs” in America but while checking this out I discovered “save the frogs”, a poetry competition in Australia which made quite a digital dent in terms of stats.

Searches for “toad” in Australia correlate with the term “religious”.  The search to figure out why this occurs won’t fit in a blog post.  But you see the point:  playing around with Google search data brings new ideas to your project.  It changes priorities by giving new angles.  Something you consider secondary might be a huge business opportunity in a specific segment.    New ideas are born, old ones improved.  We are all essentially trying to build a model of how things work.  Use Google’s model to tweak yours.

It is a big and complex world.  Don’t let your assumptions narrow things down too quickly.  Oh, and check out http://jamesreardon.org/ – tell people about the Asian toad and let’s all do something about it.