In this day and age

Its not clear to me why young people, who weren’t around for many previous days or ages, would latch onto this (rather old fashioned) saying, but it has started cropping up all over their writing.

The weirdest part of this is that there has never, in the recorded history of the universe, ever been a sentence that started with “in this day and age”, that wasn’t either a bland truism (i.e., “people are busy”), or that hasn’t conveyed a total obliviousness to everything that has happened previously (i.e., “in this day and age, communication is more important than ever” – you know what killed Romeo and Juliet? Malign fate misdirecting a message. They might not have been able to live tweet their bowel movements, but staying alive does seem like it might be at least a little bit important too).

In unrelated news, does anyone know if there is a minimum age limit on becoming a grumpy old man?

Ethics smethics

Facebook and OkCupid both got some bad press a few months back for doing experiments on their users. Members of the regular public and social scientists were incensed, alike.

To the public, experiments on emotions conjures images of men in white lab coats holding people’s eyelids open with forceps, and to social scientists this sounded cavalier in the extreme, compared to the well controlled and regulated process that we go through when we do research with the public. But for all that, what they did really wasn’t bad. It was probably even a good thing.

What Facebook did was this: You don’t see every status update that your friends post, because for most people there would be too many. Facebook has a mysterious algorithm that picks out a set for you to see. They tweaked that algorithm for a whole chunk of users so that it very slightly tweaked the chance of seeing updates depending on whether they contained a pre-selected list of positive and negative emotional words. See here for a legalistic take on whether this complied with research rules (it probably did), and here for a more philosophical take.

OkCupid, for their part did all kinds of things, including hiding pictures for a while, and very occasionally fibbing to people about which other users their data suggested they would want to date. See here for their rather entertaining blog post that describes a lot of these in detail.


Experimenting with our emotions and lying to us, it sounds terrible, right?

Clockwork Orange

But as sinister as it says to say “conducting experiments on our emotions”, you could relabel their exact same activity as “product testing”, and it would have drawn shrugs from people rather than anger. And in some very real sense, that is what it very much what they were doing.

They weren’t dragging random people off the street and forcing them to experience strange and disturbing stimuli, they weren’t electrocuting us, or embedding subliminal images in our cat macros. They are both online platforms that are used in long and drawn out ways with people precisely because of the emotional effects that their products have on us. We use them to reminisce with old friends, joke with current ones, and share political rants with people who are maybe starting to reconsider being our friends. We go on them to find romance and love, and… let’s just say, other associated activities.

Facebook and OkCupid change the emotions of their users, and that is why we use them. If they didn’t, then we would stop. They are in the business of delivering streams of stimuli to us, that have an impact on our emotional state. So do films, TV shows, recipe books, and airplane flights.

All of those companies constantly look at the way they deliver their services to try to make them better – well, the good ones do. And better, often means to change them in ways that affect our emotions. The only difference between an “experiment”, and “mucking about with it” here, is that experiments do it systematically instead of haphazardly. That’s generally a good thing, because it makes them more effective at it.

But was what these two companies did really just product testing, and did they have a duty to warn people before they participated?

In OkCupid’s case it clearly was. Their purpose in fibbing to people about how good a match their algorithm said they had with a partner was to see whether their algorithm worked. If people were just as happy dating those who were supposed to be terrible matches, as they were the ones who were supposed to be good matches, then what would suggest that their algorithm itself was worthless. They were clearly making sure their product worked.

The FaceBook case is less clear. Did it help them to bring a better service to their customers if they found out that there was a contagion effect of negative emotions? Perhaps a little bit, although one might argue that they were leveraging the kinds of changes that they already make anyway to their algorithm to find out more about topics of only tangential interest. If people consume FaceBook in order to feel certain emotions, then it would be of commercial interest for FaceBook to find out what produced those emotions in people, just the same as it would be of interest to makers of a horror movie to know if a planned movie would create fear in people.

If it were just for scientific interest, though, or even just the idle private curiosity of the owner, then that is more of a grey area. We would be upset if we thoughts a business were using its position of trust to find out uncomfortable personal information about us (i.e., if Google were reading the mail I send through it). On the other hand, it seems less objectionable that they draw from my interactions with them general lessons about humanity in general.  For instance, nobody got that upset when a porn website released reports showing that usage changes in cities depending whether the local sports team has just won or lost. The research FaceBook reported may or may not have helped improve their product, but it was fairly clearly non-personal learnings that were at least trying to learn something for the general benefit of humanity (whether or not they succeeded).


The remaining question, though, is whether you have to tell people first, before doing these sorts of tests. Generally it’s better if you do. As a principle, you want to be as transparent as possible about what you are doing. Of course, with tests of these sorts you can’t tell people exactly what you are looking for, right before you look, because that, of itself, would influence people in ways that mess up what you are trying to measure. People would be looking at their feeds thinking “why are they showing me this? How do they think that will make me feel? Am I supposed to be happy about that? I suppose I could be happy about it”, instead of reacting naturally. Telling people in much vaguer terms that experiments might happen would be generally good, though also generally less transparent, and so less useful to the individual users.

Perhaps the best way to handle it, though, might be to provide people a generalized opt in, of the kind that we are already familiar with on software that we run from our own devices. We are used to being asked to tick a box saying something like “let (whoever) upload anonymous usage statistics to our server, in order to improve our service”. Why not add another which says something like “We are constantly making small changes to our service in order to try to get it right. It is ok to share anonymous response patterns to these with scientists, to help them learn about human behaviour.”

Something like that might strike a balance between letting people opt in, and not bombarding them with dozens of pages of informed consent legaleze at any kind of a regular interval. The goal should be transparency without overload.


When clever words can’t save you

Background for those not up to speed on American politics:

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has been making waves not just as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, but also because he got caught playing a bit too much hardball. People from his office appear to have ordered a few lanes on America’s busiest bridge to be redirected away from a local bedroom community, throttling off it’s population’s commute to New York, and unleashing several days of gridlock so bad that it even seems to have caused the local emergency services trouble. His motives for this remain a bit murky, but seem to be payback for some kind of scheme or political machination.


The marketing angle:

An investigation is now unfolding as to what exactly happened, and whether his denials of direct personal knowledge will pan out, but the political attacks and defences have already started. This is an area where politics is really just a specialised version of marketing, and follows a lot of the same principles.

The main line of apologia for him (other than “it wasn’t me”), is that… Well, take it away David Brooks:

[Christie comes across as] a little bit of a bully… [but] it could be that people want a bully to go to Washington. If they’re going to vote for Christie, they don’t want a charmer. They want a big bully. And this will not hurt him, I think.

I think some politicians would be hurt by this kind of scandal. He will not be hurt, because his image, as a big, tough, bully, that is what you are hiring him for if you are going to elect him president. And so this is consistent with that image, I think.

It’s the old “take your weakness, and make it into a strength”! Sure your medicine tastes awful, but that’s how you can tell it works! Or in this case, ok, Christie may be a bully, but that just means he’s a tough guy, and voters like that!

The problem with this kind of repositioning is if your new position is going to stick in consumers’ minds for more than a few minutes, it can’t just rely on clever semantic flips, but has to fit with the core of what they know about the product / candidate. This spin fails that test. Sure it might be a good thing for a candidate to be seen as strong and ruthless, but only if they are ruthless in promoting the voters’ interests. But Christie allegedly did the opposite of that here. His closing the bridge ruthlessly hurt voters, and was done for Christie’s own profit. Use your strength on my behalf and I cheer. Use your strength against me, and that makes you a bully and an enemy. And why would I vote for an enemy?

That is why I think this defence falls flat, and why it is taking Christie’s poll numbers down with it.

My Tindr prediction? Vindicated. It’s about removing the barriers, stupid.

As I predicted, the dating application Tindr is really taking off. A UCL expert comes up with a lot of psychosocietal reasons as to why, but my explanation is simpler and (IMHO) better.

It’s the same reason almost everyone owns a car: It takes something people REALLY want to do (i.e., dating; getting places), and reduces the biggest barriers that get in their way (i.e., fear of rejection after publicly declaring an interest; weather, time, and effort). That’s a magic recipe right there.

How we buy perfume: The (illustrated) wisdom of Boots

Here are of adjacent shelves of perfumes / colognes at Boots. Hidden in plain sight: The key to how people buy them.

Can you spot it?

perfume pop - SMALL perfume regular - SMALL

Free hint:
On the left there is: “The Key” by Justin Bieber, “Justin Bieber’s girlfriend”,”Our Moment” by One Direction, “Nude” and “Reb’l Fleur” by Rhianna, “Eden”, and “Amor Amor: Forbidden Kiss” (all for about £20-30).

The one on the right launches alphabetically off with DKNY and Diesel (about £40-50).

So one section is aimed at teens and tweens, the other is aimed at grown ups. But what’s the big difference between how they are SOLD?

(answer below the spoiler break) Continue reading

Gross National Happiness: not gross, actually a good idea

The BBC radio had a program a few weeks ago that touched on the idea of the government measuring not just Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but also Gross Domestic Happiness (GNH). One of their main commenters on this took the stance that it was a terrible idea, because:

The last thing we need is the government telling me how to feel. What if I don’t want to be happy today.

(Or words to that effect).

This is either bad analysis, a bad attempt at comedy, or both.

It has bits of a valid point shimmering around on its surface: Any fully lived life will eventually run a full range of emotions, from giggly, to grieving, to anguished, to profound. Also, trying to micro manage away negative emotions is not only a bad idea, but not one likely to work all well either – and that’s even more true if you ever have to deal with full-on mental illness, as illustrated by this cartoon:

If physical diseases were treated like mental illness

If physical diseases were treated like mental illness

But look even just a little bit deeper, and this inability to dictate our own emotions is exactly the reason why national happiness is a good measuring rod for governments. Nobody can tell us to be happy, but they can, perhaps, create conditions which promote people feeling a sense of satisfaction with one’s life, and how it is going. They can encourage situations which, on average, more often lead to feeling joyful, hopeful, and energised, and less often leave us feeling grumpy, pessimistic, and anxious.

There is a lot of research to suggest that this type of mental well-being has relatively little to do with how much money gets spent (which is all GDP measures), but a lot to do with with a genuine sense of meaning in our activities, having emotional connections with those around us, and a sense of control over our world.

A government that tracks its own success by looking at the GDP may (or may not) find a benefit in policies that uproot communities, or ones that put people out of meaningful careers. It might even see catastrophes like oil spills as good things, because spending money on expensive cleanups automatically raises your GDP. On the other hand, a government that tracks its own progress through GHP, would likely see all of these things as costly.

At the end of the day it’s a truism of big organizations that what they deliver, tends to be what they measure – managers get antsy when they see the jagged lines on their pretty little graphs heading downwards, and people see rewards and promotions coming down the pipeline when those same lines are on the up and up. I’d like to see the serious argument that what we DON’T ultimately want from our government is to lay the foundations for a happy, healthy, and contented population.

The uber problem of letting economists set your prices.

There’s this service called Uber that’s been getting pretty popular in parts of the States, and has seen a bit controversial lately. It’s an app that connects people who want priceyish cab rides on demand, with people who drive said cabs – though not the regulated city kind – and all through the instant magic of cell phone technology. Crucially, Uber takes it upon itself to set the prices, and therein lies the rub: those prices are set by economist types, and not by marketer types. So they do things that make sense to economists, like raising the price when its algorithm detects more demand – like, say, in a snow storm. Lo, people got upset and protested when this happened, leaving the economists scratching their pointy little heads.

To an economist this is just supply and demand working like they are supposed to. If more people want cabs at once, then you put the price up, and some people will decide to travel another way (or not at all), while the people who REALLY need to get somewhere will still pony up, and the extra premium will persuade an extra few cabbies to get off their couches and dice the ice. If airlines can charge more at Christmas without people complaining, then why all the fuss about doing the exact same thing with cabs in the snow?

But marketers have to get intimate with how they actually think, not just how a computer would expect them to think. And if there is one thing that people need, it is a sense of control over their lives. We can cope with matinee shows being cheaper in the middle of the day, because it is a predictable element of our leisure lives. When we look for holiday flights, we might be annoyed that it is more expensive at Christmas, but we can plan around it. But when we are stuck in a snow storm, we find our normal options are limited, and so we get worried and frustrated. If the options that we fall back on work, then we feel good that we pulled one of. But when those options suddenly spike in price, just when we need them most, then we start to feel constrained and threatened. And then we feel angry and righteous, because what kind of depraved jerk milks anguish for profit? And those are the types of emotions that lead to angry letters, or worse.

But shh, don’t tell the economists. It’s cute watching them try to come up with different categories of goods that relate to a psychology idea they saw in a TED talk 🙂