As a Matter of Fact: A New AI Tool for Real-Time Fact-Checking of News Using Voice Analysis

Image from Pixabay.com

When I first saw an article entitled Fact-Checking Live News In Just a Few Second, by Laine Higgins in the November 24-25, 2018 print edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required online), I though the pagination might be in error. The upper left corner showed the number to be “B4”. I think it would have been more accurate to have number the page “B4 and After” because of the coverage of a remarkable new program being developed called Voyc.

At a time of such heightened passions in domestic US and international news, with endless charges and counter-charges of “fake news” and assertions of “real news”, this technology can assess the audio of live news media broadcasts to determine the veracity of statements made within seconds of being spoken.

Someone please boot up John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth as he passionately protested the need for truth in the world when it was first released on his classic Imagine album in 1971.¹ This still sounds as timely and relevant today as it did 47 years ago, particularly in this new article that, well, sings the praises of this new fact-checking app.

I suggest naming a new category for these programs and services to be called “fact-check tech”. I think it’s kinds catchy.

Let’s focus the specifics of this remarkable report. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety if you have full WSJ.com access. Below I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own question-checked questions.

Downstreaming

Image from Pixabay.com

The current process of “fact-checking live news” has been slow. Quite often, by the time a human fact-checker has researched and affirmed a disputed claim, subsequently misleading information based upon it has been distributed and “consumed”.

Voyc has the potential to expedite all this. It is being developed by Sparks Grove, the innovation and experience department of a consultancy called North Highland. Part of the development process involved interviewing a large number of “print and broadcast journalists” from the US, UK and Ireland about how to minimize and push back against misinformation as it affects the news.

The software is built upon artificial intelligence technology. It is capable of identifying a “questionable statement” in as quickly as two seconds. The system transcribes live audio and then runs it through a “database of fact” compiled from “verified government courses” and “accredited fact-checking organizations”. In the process, it can:

  • highlight statements that conflict as highlighted by its vetting process
  • send an alert to a news producer identifying the conflict, or
  • contact someone else who can make further inquiries about the assertion in question

This system was conceived by Jack Stenson, Spark Grove’s innovation lead. He said that within the news media, in an attempt to shorten the connection of “people to information”, Voyc is an effort to connect them “to what might be the most accurate truth”. Voyc’s designers were very cautious to avoid dispositively labeling any misleading statements it finds as being neither “true” nor “false”. Mr. Stenson does not want a result that “shuts down the conversation”, but rather, intends for the system to assist in stimulating “debates”.

Currently, there are other similar initiatives to develop similar technologies. These include,

Voyc is distinguished from them insofar as it fact-checks news audio in nearly real-time whereas the others do their checks against existing published sources.

Image from Pixabay.com

Upstreaming

Mr. Stenson foresees applications of Voyc by news producers to motivate “presenters” to explore their story topics with follow-up analyses in the forms of :

  • one-on-one interviews
  • panel discussions
  • debates

This software in still in its prototype stage and there is no target date for its introduction into television production facilities. Its developers are working to improving its accuracy when recording and “transcribing idiosyncratic speech patterns”. These include dialects, as well as “ums” and “ahs” ² when people speak.

According to Lucas Graves, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, because of the “nuanced nature” involved in fact-checking (as Voyc is attempting), this process involves both identifying and contextualizing a  statement in dispute. This is the critical factor in “verifying claims made on live news”. As broadcasters do not want to appear “partisan” or otherwise making a contemporaneous challenge without all of the facts readily at hand, the real utility of a fact-checking a system will be to  challenge a claim in very close proximity to its being spoken and broadcasted.

Looking back in time to dramatize the exciting potential of this forward-looking technology, let’s recall what Edith Anne (played by Lily Tomlin) on Saturday Night Live always said in concluding her appearances when she exclaimed “and that’s the truth“.

“Polygraph”, image by Rodger Bridges

My Questions

  • What additional features and functionalities should Voyc’s developers consider adding or modifying? What might future releases and upgrades look like?
  • Would Voyc be a viable add-on to currently popular voice enabled assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant?
  • What data and personal privacy and ethical considerations should Voyc’s designers and programmers take into consideration in their work?
  • What other market sectors might benefit from fact-check tech such as applying it during expert testimony, education training or government hearings?
  • Could Voyc be licensed to other developers on a commercial or open source basis?
  • Can and should Voyc be tweaked to be more industry-specific, knowledge domain-specific or cultural-specific?

 


1.  This was also the opening theme song of the radio show called Idiot’s Delight, hosted for many years by Vin Scelsa who, for nearly five decades, on various commercial, satellite and public stations in New York was a leading figure in rock, progressive and freeform radio.

2.  These are known as speech disfluencies.

Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)”

“Advertising in Times Square”, image by Dirk Knight

Every so often, an ad campaign comes along that is strikingly brilliant for its originality, execution, persuasiveness, longevity, humor and pathos. During the mid-1980’s, one of these bright shining examples was the television ads for Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers. They consisted of two fictional characters: Frank Bartles, who owned a winery and did all of the talking, and Ed Jaymes, a farmer who never spoke a word but whose deadpan looks were priceless. They traveled across the US to different locations in pursuit of sales, trying to somehow adapt their approaches to reflect the local surroundings. Bartles was very sincere but often a bit naive in his pitches along the way, best exemplified in this ad and another one when they visited New York.

These commercials succeeded beyond all expectations in simultaneously establishing brand awareness, boosting sales and being laugh-out-loud hilarious because Bartles’s and Jaymes’s were such charming, aw-shucks amateurs. In actuality, these ads were deftly conceived and staged by some smart and savvy creatives from the Hal Riney & Partners agency. For further lasting effect, they always had Bartles express his appreciation to the viewers at the end of each spot with his memorable trademark tagline of “Thanks for your support”. These 30-second video gems are as entertaining today as they were thirty years ago.

But those halcyon days of advertising are long gone. The industry’s primary media back then was limited to print, television and radio. Creativity was its  cornerstone and the words “data analytics” must have sounded like something actuaries did in a darkened room while contemplating the infinite. (Who knows, maybe it still does to some degree.)

Fast forwarding to 2018, advertising is an utterly different and hyper-competitive sector whose work product is largely splayed across countless mobile and stationary screens on Planet Earth. Expertly chronicling and precisely assaying the transformative changes happening to this sector is an informative and engaging new book entitled Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) [Penguin Press, 2018], by the renowned business author Ken Auletta. Just as a leading ad agency in its day cleverly and convincingly took TV viewers on an endearing cultural tour of the US as we followed the many ad-ventures of Bartles & Jaymes, so too, this book takes its readers on a far-ranging and immersive tour of the current participants, trends, challenges and technologies affecting the ad industry.

A Frenemy of My Frenemy is My Frenemy

Image from Pixabay

This highly specialized world is under assault from a confluence of competitive, online, economic, social and mathematical forces. Many people who work in it are deeply and rightfully concerned about its future and the tenure of their places in it. Auletta comprehensively reports on and assesses these profound changes from deep within the operations of several key constituencies (the “frenemies”, conflating “friend” and “enemy”). At first this might seem a bit too much of “inside baseball” (although the ad pitch remains alive and well), but he quickly and efficiently establishes who’s who and what’s what in today’s morphing ad markets, making this book valuable and accessible to readers both within and outside of this field.  It can also be viewed as a multi-dimensional case study of an industry right now being, in the truest sense of the word, disrupted.¹ There is likewise much to learned and considered here by other businesses being buffeted by similar winds.

Frenemies, as thoroughly explored throughout this book, are both  business competitors and partners at the same time. They are former and current allies in commerce who concurrently cooperate and compete. Today they are actively infiltrating each other’s markets. The full matrix of frenemies and their threats and relationships to each other includes the interests and perspectives of ad agencies and their clients, social media networks, fierce competition from streamers and original content producers like Netflix², traditional media in transition to digital platforms, consulting companies and, yes, consumers.

Auletta travels several parallel tracks in his reporting. First, he examines the past, present on onrushing future with respect to revenue streams, profits, client bases served, artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation, and the frenemies’ very fluid alliances. Second, he skillfully deploys the investigative journalistic strategy of “following the money” as it ebbs and flows in many directions among the key players. Third, he illuminates the industry’s evolution from Don Draper’s traditional “Mad Men” to 2018’s “math men” who are the data wranglers, analysts and strategists driven by ever more thin-sliced troves of consumer data the agencies and their corporate clients are using to achieve greater accuracy and efficiency in selling their goods and services.

A deep and wide roster of C-level executives from these various groups were interviewed for the book. Chief among them are two ad industry legends who serve as the x and y axes upon which Auletta has plotted a portion of his reporting. One is Martin Sorrell, who was the founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company.³ The other is Michael Kassan, the founder and CEO of MediaLink, a multifaceted firm that connects, negotiates and advises on behalf of a multitude of various parties, often competitors in critical matters affecting the ad business. Both of these individuals have significantly shaped modern advertising over many decades and are currently propagating some of the changes spotlighted in the book in trying to keep it vital, relevant and profitable.

Online Privacy v. Online Primacy

“Tug of War”, image by Pixabay

The established tradition of creativity being the primary driver of advertising creation and campaigns has given way to algorithm-driven data analytics. All of the frenemies and a myriad of other sites in many other parsecs of the websphere vacuum up vast amounts of data on users, their online usage patterns, and even go so far as to try to infer their behavioral attributes. This is often combined with additional personal information from third-party sources and data brokers. Armed with all of this data and ever more sophisticated means for sifting and intuiting it, including AI4, the frenemies are devising their campaigns to far more precisely target potential consumers and their cohorts with finely grained customized ads.

The high point of this book is Auletta’s nuanced coverage of the ongoing controversy involving the tension between frenemies using data analytics to increase click-through rates and, hopefully, sales versus respecting the data privacy of people as they traverse the Web. In response to this voracious data collection, millions of users have resisted this intrusiveness by adding free browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus to circumvent online tracking and ad distribution.5 This struggle has produced a slippery slope between the commercial interests of the frenemies and consumers’ natural distaste for advertising, as well as their resentment at having their data co-opted, appropriated and misused without their knowledge or consent. Recently, public and governmental concerns were dramatically displayed in the harsh light of the scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Furthermore, Google and Facebook dominate the vast majority of online advertising traffic, revenues and, most importantly, the vast quantum of user information which ad agencies believe would be particularly helpful to them in profiling and reaching consumers. Nonetheless, they maintain it is highly proprietary to them alone and much of it has not been shared. Frenemies much?

Additional troubling trends for the ad industry are likewise given a thorough 3-D treatment. Auletta returns to the axiom several times that audiences do not want to be interrupted with ads (particularly on their mobile devices). Look no further than the likes of premium and the major streaming services who offer all of their content uninterrupted in its entirety. The growing ranks of content creators they engage know this and prefer it because they can concentrate on their presentations without commercial breaks slicing and dicing their narrative continuity. The still profitable revenue streams flowing from this are based upon the strengths of the subscription model.

Indeed, in certain cases advertising is being simultaneously disrupted and innovated. Some of the main pillars of the media like The New York Times are now expanding their in-house advertising staff and service offerings. They can offer a diversified array of ads and analyses directly to their advertisers. Likewise, engineering-driven operations like Google and Facebook can deploy their talent benches to better target consumers for their advertisers by extracting and applying insights from their massive databases. Why should their clients continue go to the agencies when their ads can be composed and tracked for them directly?

Adapt or Go Home

“Out with the Old, In with the New”, image by Mark

The author presents a balanced although not entirely sanguine view of the ad industry’s changes to maintain its composure and clients in the midst of this storm. The frenemy camps must be willing to make needed and often difficult adjustments to accommodate emerging technological and strategic survival methods. He examines the results of two contemporary approaches to avoiding adblocking apps and more fully engaging very specific audiences. One is called “native advertising“, which involves advertisers producing commercial content and paying for its placement online or in print to promote their own products. Generally, these are formatted and integrated to appear as though they are integrated with a site’s or publication’s regular editorial content but contain a notice that it is, in fact “Advertising”.

However, Auletta believes that the second adaptive mechanism, the online subscription model, will not be much more sustainable beyond its current successes. Consumers are already spending money on their favorite paywalled sites.  But it would seem logical that users might not be thus willing to pay for Facebook and others that have always been free. As well, cable’s cord-cutters are continuing to exhibit steady growing in their numbers and their migrations towards streaming services such as Amazon Prime.6

Among the media giants, CBS seems to be getting their adaptive strategies right from continuing to grow multiple revenue streams. They now have the legal rights and financial resources to produce and sell original programming. They have also recently launched original web programming such as Star Trek: Discovery on a commercial-free subscription basis on CBS All Access. This can readily be seen as a challenge to Netflix despite the fact that CBS also providing content to Netflix. Will other networks emulate this lucrative and eyeball attracting model?

As Auletta also concludes, for now at least, consumers as frenemies, appear to be the beneficiaries of all this tumult. They have many device agnostic platforms, pricing options and a surfeit of content from which to choose. They can also meaningfully reduce, although not entirely eliminate, ads following them all over the web and those pesky stealth tracking systems. Whether they collectively can maintain their advantage is subject to sudden change in this environment.

Because of the timing of the book’s completion and publication, the author and publisher should consider including in any subsequent edition the follow-up impacts of Sorrell’s departure from WPP and his new venture (S4 Capital), the effects of the May 2018 implementation of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the progress of any industry or government regulation following the raft of recent massive data breaches and misuses.

Notwithstanding that, however, “Frenemies” fully delivers on all of its book jacket’s promises and premises. It is a clear and convincing case of truth in, well, advertising.

So, how would Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes 2.0 perceive their promotional travels throughout today’s world? Would their folksy personas play well enough on YouTube to support a dedicated channel for them? Would their stops along the way be Instagram-able events? What would be their reactions when asked to Google something or download a podcast?

Alternatively, could they possibly have been proto-social media influencers who just showed up decades too soon? Nah, not really. Even in today’s digital everything world, Frank and Ed 1.0 still abide. Frank may have also unknowingly planted a potential meme among today’s frenemies with his persistent proclamations of “Thanks for your support”: The 2018 upgrade might well be “Thanks for your support and all of your data”.

 


For a very enlightening interview with Ken Auletta, check out the June 26, 2018 podcast entitled Game Change: How the Ad Business Got Disrupted, from The Midday Show on WNYC (the local NPR affiliate in New York).


September 4, 2018 Update: Today’s edition of The New York Times contains an highly enlightening article directly on point with many of the key themes of Frenemies entitled Amazon Sets Its Sights on the $88 Billion Online Ad Market, by Julie Creswell. The report details Amazon’s significant move into online advertising supported by its massive economic, data analytics, scaling and strategic resources. It comprehensively analyzes the current status and future prospects of the company’s move into direct competition with Google and Facebook in this immense parsec of e-commerce. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this if you have an opportunity.


1.   The classic work on the causes and effect of market disruptions, the disruptors and those left behind is The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

2.    Netflix Topples HBO in Emmy Nominations, but ‘Game of Thrones’ Still Rules, July 13, 2018, New York Times, by The Associated Press. However, see also Netflix Drops Dud on Wall St. As Subscriber Growth Flops, July 16, 2018, New York Times, by Reuters.

3.   Sorrell is reported in the book as saying he would not leave anytime soon from running WPP. However, following the book’s publication, he was asked to step down in April 2018 following allegations of inappropriate conduct. See Martin Sorrell Resigns as Chief of WPP Advertising Agency, New York Times, by Matt Stevens and Liz Alderman, April 14, 2018. Nonetheless, Sorrell has quickly returned to the industry as reported in Martin Sorrell Beats WPP in Bidding War for Dutch Marketing Firm, New York Times, by Sapna Maheshwari, July 10, 2018.

4.  For a very timely example, see The Ad Agency Giant Omnicom Has Created a New AI Tool That is Poised to Completely Change How Ads Get Made, BusinessInsider.com, by Lauren Johnson,  July 12, 2018.

5.   Two other similar anti-tracking browser extensions in wide usage include, among others Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

6.   See also  Cord-Cutting Keeps Churning: U.S. Pay-TV Cancelers to Hit 33 Million in 2018 (Study), Variety.com, by Todd Spangler, July 24, 2018.

Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile

Ducks at Parramatta, Image by Stilherrian

Throughout grades 1 through 6 at Public School 79 in Queens, New York, the teachers had one universal command they relied upon to try to quickly gather and organize the students in each class during various activities. They would announce “Single file, everyone”, and expect us all to form a straight line with one student after the other all pointed in the same direction. They would usually deploy this to move us in an orderly fashion to and from the lunchroom, schoolyard, gym and auditorium. Not that this always worked as several requests were usually required to get us all to quiet down and line up.

Just as it was used back then as a means to bring order to a room full of energetic grade-schoolers,  those three magic words can now be re-contextualized and re-purposed for today’s digital everything world when applied to a new means of bringing more control and safety to our personal data. This emerging mechanism is called the universal digital profile (UDP). It involves the creation of a dedicated file to compile and port an individual user’s personal data, content and usage preferences from one online service to another.

This is being done in an effort to provide enhanced protection to consumers and their digital data at a critical time when there have been so many online security breaches of major systems that were supposedly safe. More importantly, these devastating hacks during the past several years have resulted in the massive betrayals of users’ trust that need to be restored.

Clearly and concisely setting the stage for the development of UDPs was an informative article on TechCrunch.com entitled The Birth of the Universal Digital Profile, by Rand Hindi, posted on May 22, 2018. I suggest reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own questions about these, well, pro-files.

Image from Pixabay

The Need Arises

It is axiomatic today that there is more concern over online privacy among Europeans than other populations elsewhere. This is due, in part, to the frequency and depth of the above mentioned deliberate data thefts. These incidents and other policy considerations led to the May 25, 2018 enactment and implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the EU.

The US is presently catching up in its own citizens’ levels of rising privacy concerns following the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal.¹

Among its many requirements, the GDPR ensures that all individuals have the right to personal data portability, whereby the users of any online services can request from these sites that their personal data can be “transferred to another provider, without hindrance”. This must be done in a file format the receiving provider requires. For example, if a user is changing from one social network to another, all of his or her personal data is to be transferred to the new social network in a workable file format.

The exact definition of “personal profile” is still open to question. The net effect of this provision is that one’s “online identity will soon be transferable” to numerous other providers. As such transfer requests increase, corporate owners of such providers will likely “want to minimize” their means of compliance. The establishment of standardized data formats and application programming interfaces (APIs) enabling this process would be a means to accomplish this.²

Aurora Borealis, Image by Beverly

A Potential Solution

It will soon become evident to consumers that their digital profiles can become durable, reusable and, hence, universal for other online destinations. They will view their digital profiles “as a shared resource” for similar situations. For instance, if a user has uploaded his or her profile to a site for verification, in turn, he or she should be able to re-use such a “verified profile elsewhere”.³  

This would be similar to the Facebook Connect’s functionality but with one key distinction: Facebook would retain no discretion at all over where the digital profile goes and who can access it following its transfer. That control would remain entirely with the profile’s owner.

As the UDP enters the “mainstream” usage, it may well give rise to “an entire new digital economy”. This might include new services such as “personal data clouds to personal identity aggregators or data monetization platforms”. In effect, increased interoperability between and among sites and services for UDPs might enable these potential business opportunities to take root and then scale up.

Digital profiles, especially now for Europeans, is one of the critical “impacts of the GDPR” on their online lives and freedom. Perhaps its objectives will spread to other nations.

My Questions

  • Can the UDP’s usage be expanded elsewhere without the need for enacting GDPR-like regulation? That is, for economic, public relations and technological reasons, might online services support UDPs on their own initiatives rather than waiting for more governments to impose such requirements?
  • What additional data points and functional capabilities would enhance the usefulness, propagation and extensibility of UDPs?
  • What other business and entrepreneurial opportunities might emerge from the potential web-wide spread of a GDPR and/or UDP-based model?
  • Are there any other Public School 79 graduates out there reading this?

On a very cold night in New York on December 20, 2017, I had an opportunity to attend a fascinating presentation  by Dr. Irene Ng before the Data Scientists group from Meetup.com about an inventive alternative for dispensing one’s personal digital data called the Hub of All Things (HAT). [Clickable also @hubofallthings.] In its simplest terms, this involves the provision of a form of virtual container (the “HAT” situated on a “micro-server”), storing an individual’s personal data. This system enables the user to have much more control over whom, and to what degree, they choose to allow access to their data by any online services, vendors or sites. For the details on the origin, approach and technology of the HAT, I highly recommend a click-through to a very enlightening new article on Medium.com entitled What is the HAT?, by Jonathan Holtby, posted yesterday on June 6, 2018.


1.  This week’s news bring yet another potential scandal for Facebook following reports that they shared extensive amounts of personal user data with mobile device vendors, including Huawei, a Chinese company that has been reported to have ties with China’s government and military. Here is some of the lead coverage so far from this week’s editions of The News York Times:

2.  See also these five Subway Fold posts involving the use of APIs in other systems.

3.  See Blockchain To The Rescue Creating A ‘New Future’ For Digital Identities, by Roger Aitlen, posted on Forbes.com on January 7, 2018, for a report on some of the concepts of, and participants in, this type of technology.

Mary Meeker’s 2018 Massive Internet Trends Presentation

“Blue Marble – 2002”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Yesterday, on May 30, 2018, at the 2018 Code Conference being held this week in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Mary Meeker, a world-renowned Internet expert and partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, presented her seventeenth annual in-depth and highly analytical presentation on current Internet trends. It is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment that is highly respected throughout the global technology industry and economy. The video of her speech is available here on Recode.com.

Her 2018 Internet Trends presentation file is divided into a series of twelve main sections covering, among many other things: Internet user, usage and devices growth rates; online payment systems; content creation; voice interfaces’ significant potential;  user experiences; Amazon’s and Alibaba’s far-reaching effects; data collection, regulation and privacy concerns; tech company trends and investment analyses; e-commerce sectors, consumers experiences and emerging trends;  social media’s breadth, revenue streams and influences; the grown and returns of online advertising; changes in consumer spending patterns and online pricing; key transportation, healthcare and demographic patterns;  disruptions in how, where and whether we work; increasingly sophisticated data gathering, analytics and optimization; AI trends, capabilities and market drivers; lifelong learning for the workforce; many robust online markets in China for, among many, online retail, mobile media and entertainment services; and a macro analysis of the US economy and online marketplaces.

That is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg in this 294-slide deck.

Ms. Meeker’s assessments and predictions here form an extraordinarily comprehensive and insightful piece of work. There is much here for anyone and everyone to learn and consider in the current and trending states nearly anything and everything online. Moreover, there are likely many potential opportunities for new and established businesses, as well as other institutions, within this file.

I very highly recommend that you set aside some time to thoroughly read through and fully immerse your thoughts in Ms. Meeker’s entire presentation. You will be richly rewarded with knowledge and insight that can potentially yield a world of informative, strategic and practical dividends.


September 15, 2018 Update: Mary Meeker has left Kleiner Perkins to start her own investment firm. The details of this are reported in an article in the New York Times entitled Mary Meeker, ‘Queen of the Internet,’ Is Leaving Kleiner Perkins to Start a New Fund, by Erin Griffith, posted on September 14, 2018. I wish her the great success for her new venture. I also hope that she will still have enough time that she can continue to publish her brilliant annual reports on Internet trends.

Summary of An Interview on NPR with Michael Krieger, Co-founder of Instagram

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

One of Instagram‘s two co-founders, Michael Krieger, was interviewed on Saturday, March 26, 2016 on The New Yorker Radio Hour on WNYC, the NPR station in New York. In just 17 minutes, he and the interviewer, Nicholas Thompson, who is the editor of newyorker.com, covered a remarkable amount of valuable territory about the origin, operations and philosophy of Instagram.

Here is the link to the podcast entitled How Instagram Took Over the World. I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety. There is much to learned from the very insightful Mr. Krieger about the constantly changing world of startups. My admiration and gratitude to both him and Mr. Thompson for such a lively and engaging presentation.

Here is a brief summary of the subjects covered in the order they were discussed:

  • Instagram originally began as an app called “Burbn”.  It was not being used much at the time, but its photo-posting feature immediately drew the most interest of its initial users. The knowledge gained from the experience with Burbn became the foundation upon which Instagram was later built.¹
  • The co-founders’ key concerns all along have been ease-of-use in getting photos uploaded as quickly as possible and making them look good with the available filters and features.
  • When Instagram first launched, it very quickly gained an international audience. It generated early excitement because there were no language barriers in following other users. One of the initial and inspiring experiences of early users was following and supporting the rescue efforts after the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
  • At first, the co-founders were completely focused upon building the app’s infrastructure.
  • The media initially perceived the app as “something for hipsters”. In fact, a wide diversity of users was genuinely connecting with each other.
  • The co-founders needed to become well versed in copyright matters, as the users, not Instagram, own their photos. This included the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
  • Facebook purchased Instagram for approximately $1 billion in 2012. ² While FB’s philosophy is generally to get new projects implemented quickly online, Instagram prefers to take more time with their new upgrades and features to make certain they are done right.
  • Instagram has always been a “cohesive experience for users”.
  • Instagram has “changed the world” insofar as people “have a desire to tell stories”, and the app and others like it are “immediate and visceral”. Essentially, it enables users to “bring others into the moment”.
  • The ease-of-use of the app in getting photos uploaded quickly also permits users to “get back into your life” rather than taking too much time with the technology. In effect, taking more time to directly view and experience what a user has photographed after the photos have been easily uploaded and the phone put aside.
  • Both of Instagram’s founders, Michael Krieger and Kevin Systrom, have always gotten along well during the 6-year history of their company. Their respective skills in business and technology have always complemented each other.
  •  The founders have always maintained two guiding principles in their work:
    • Do the simple things first.
    • In terms of craft and design, do fewer things better.
  • The biggest challenge for startups today is getting noticed as marketing and distribution have become more difficult.

 


1.  For the full details on this story, see an article published in The Atlantic entitled Instagram Was First Called ‘Burbn’, June 2014, by Megan Garber.

2The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, as just one representative news media source among, appeared in an article published on April 10, 2012, entitled Insta-Rich: $1 Billion for Instagram, by Shayndi Raice and Spencer E. Ante.

Establishing a Persuasive Digital Footprint for Competing in Today’s Job Market

"Footprints in the Sand", Image by Susanne Nilsson

“Footprints in the Sand”, Image by Susanne Nilsson

When you go to visit someone for either personal or business reasons, your host will, depending on the weather, politely ask and try to make sure that you do not track anything in from the outside. Yet in the case of a job search, this is exactly want you want to do but in the entirely virtual sense by focusing the attention of prospective employers upon your tracks across the web. Hence, your online digital footprint informs them that you fully understand how to create meaningful content and a genuine presence, and your facility with web technology.

I first became aware of this over twenty years ago. A friend told me a story about something that he did quite spontaneously during a job interview. This incident and its outcome were strikingly clever back then and its lesson still rings true today.

He had gone for an interview at an Internet startup. Despite his impeccable credentials and accomplishments, he sensed that he was getting nowhere with the interviewer. At the end of their discussion, he thought he had nothing to lose and offered to show the interviewer his own “fan web page” for The Rolling Stones. The interviewer was stunned that he even knew how to create a web page, something that unheard of at that time by anyone interviewing for this type of position. The interviewer immediately called in some of his colleagues to see this.

To borrow a line from Mick and Keith, you can’t always get what you want, but … my friend was offered the job on the spot. He had creatively and completely distinguished himself from all of the other highly qualified candidates by demonstrating that he understood and could apply the latest technology at the core of the company’s business. This was the first instance I was ever aware of where someone had successfully created and introduced his own unique online digital footprint into a job search. What was a novelty way back then has become nearly a necessity in many fields in today’s highly competitive job market.

We first visited this topic in the March 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Does Being on Law Review or Effective Blogging and Networking Provide Law Students with Better Employment Prospects?.

The latest report on this trend was an insightful and instructive post in the February 2, 2016 edition of Knowledge@Wharton entitled Job Hunting? Why You Need a Strong Online Footprint (no author is credited). I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate, and posed some of my own questions on making job seekers more of a, well, shoe-in during their searches.

Digital Footprints and Reputations in Relevant Online Communities

The conventional wisdom for today’s typical job searcher is to have a well-crafted resume and cover letter, and to have nothing questionable appear when a prospective employer Googles you. This has evolved further to the point where “establishing a strong and compelling online presence” is often required to land a first interview.  Employers are looking for candidates who have developed a respectable online presence, particularly in their relevant “professional community”.

As discussed by some of the leading experts interviewed for this report:

  • Monica McGrath, formerly the Vice Dean of Education at Wharton, is currently at work on “renewing her consulting” business. She has been surprised along the way by the number of inquiries by potential clients concerning whether she has “built a presence on blogs”. Specifically, they have been interested in determining whether, beyond merely a LinkedIn profile, whether she has developed a unique and professional “voice” as an expert.
  • Samantha Wallace, a recruiter at Korn Ferry Futurestep, believes that if a candidate’s digital footprint is not evident in an online network of importance to a client, the candidate might be removed from consideration. Such exclusion might occur when it significantly matters that a candidate has established a digital presence relevant to the job opportunity.
  • Peter Capelli, the Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, find this a “remarkable shift” from prior times when executives were told to avoid the distractions of activities away from their jobs. While the same employer might still discourage this, they are nonetheless now expecting it in new candidates.

Supporting Data and Privacy Concerns

Conversely, ignoring or neglecting your online footprint could now be considered “taking a career risk”. According to a 2015 CareerBuilder-Harris Social Media Recruitment Survey of 2,000 US hiring managers:

  • More than one-third of prospective employers are disinclined to grant an interview for a candidate for whom no online data can be found.
  • Greater than 50% use social media to research candidates.
  • 56% checked for a relevant digital footprint.
  • 37% researched “what others were” posting about job seekers.
  • One-third of hiring managers found information online that resulted in extending a job offer.

Furthermore, some candidates are being asked for their user credentials for their social media accounts because employers believe this can lead them to “a deeper layer of comments” and other data. Privacy advocates are understandably concerned about this. As of 2015, nine states have passed legislation preventing such requests in order to “get or keep a job”.

This fundamental change in the recruiting process has forces employees and their prospective hires alike to examine their roles. Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard believes that issues of privacy concern “society in general”, not limited only to employers requesting access to someone’s Facebook account. Rather, companies like Google are aware of “almost everything about you”, and the breadth of anyone’s digital trail online is tremendous. She thinks that the “people analytics movement” attempts to gather and intuit the vast stores of information about individuals, thus presenting a privacy issue here that has yet to be addressed in the job market.

Tending to Your Own Digital Footprint

The popular news site Buzzfeed recently posted an opening for a Social Media Strategist. The online application asked for candidates’ resume and links to social media accounts or their blogs. (Click on the preceding link and this can be seen under “To Apply”.) Thus, all of the applicants’ digital footprints are essential to the job because, in turn “developing a digital footprint is the job”.

But should the same be true for other positions and businesses?

According to Jon Bische, the CEO of the recruiting platform firm  Entelo, there is some room here depending on the circumstances and nature of the job, but in many fields it is “reasonable to expect some digital presence”. For example, in searching for an engineer or designer, there are now professional networks that have become a “community of record” for a field, and other sites where their professional coding and designs can be assessed. He believes that doing so “gets close to someone’s abilities”.

We are likely still in the early stages of determining how to distinguish oneself online as an expert in their field. Ms. Wallace thinks defining this is still “ambiguous” since it is the individual himself or herself who is creating their own digital footprint and thus they will intentionally “find the connections to promote themselves” as experts.

Mr. Bischke offered the following suggestions for creating a viable digital footprint and control your personal brand including:

  • Google yourself to make certain the top links “are professional and up to date”. Take steps to make any corrections to insure their accuracy.
  • Establish profiles on sites and among networks within your field.
  • Make sure that your information is “presented consistently” across these online venues.

“Generational factors” also influence the nature and breadth of someone’s digital footprint. This is particularly so for Millennials, the global demographic group including people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are growing significantly in the population and work force, and will have digital footprints that present “a different sense of self than their elders”.

My Questions

  • Depending upon the particular profession, how will employers now and in the future, assign relative weighting in evaluating:
    • Candidate A who went to a top-level university and distinguished himself academically but who only has a small online footprint in comparison to
    • Candidate B who attended a more mid-level university but she has strategically built a very robust online presence and respectable reputation across peer sites and forums?
    • What are the possible offsets and equivalents between these two types of hypothetical applicants?
  • Might consideration of these factors also potentially create some unanticipated form(s) of employment discrimination?
  • What else can be done to enhance the persuasiveness and pervasiveness of a candidate’s digital footprint? What about these strategies:
    • Producing a web metrics summary about the numbers of visitors and volumes of hits on specific content?
    • Applying principles of content strategy and SEO ranking to boost traffic numbers?
    • Engaging a professional to do implement these strategies or might that be gaming the system a too much?
  • Will situations arise where employers who are impressed by someone’s digital footprint still try to recruit this person even though he or she is not currently looking for another job? (There was a very similar story in an August 24, 2015 post on TheHustle.com entitled Google Has a Secret Interview Process… And It Landed Me a Job, by Max Rosett, where the company recruited the author based on the subjects and contexts of his searches.)

Summary of the Media and Tech Preview 2016 Discussion Panel Held at Frankfurt Kurnit in NYC on December 2, 2015

"dtv svttest", Image by Karl Baron

“dtv svttest”, Image by Karl Baron

GPS everywhere notwithstanding, there are still maps on the walls in most buildings that have a red circle somewhere on them accompanied by the words “You are here”. This is to reassure and reorient visitors by giving them some navigational bearings. Thus you can locate where you are at the moment and then find your way forward.

I had the pleasure of attending an expert panel discussion last week, all of whose participants did an outstanding job of analogously mapping where the media and technology are at the end of 2015 and where their trends are heading going into the New Year. It was entitled Digital Breakfast: Media and Tech Preview 2016, was held at the law firm of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in midtown Manhattan. It was organized and presented by Gotham Media, a New York based firm engaged in “Digital Strategy, Marketing and Events” as per their website.

This hour and a half presentation was a top-flight and highly enlightening event from start to finish. My gratitude and admiration for everyone involved in making this happen. Bravo! to all of you.

The panelists’ enthusiasm and perspectives fully engaged and transported the entire audience. I believe that everyone there appreciated and learned much from all of them. The participants included:

The following is a summary based on my notes.

Part 1:  Assessments of Key Media Trends and Events in 2015

The event began on an unintentionally entertaining note when one of the speakers, Jesse Redniss, accidentally slipped out his chair. Someone in the audience called out “Do you need a lawyer?”, and considering the location of the conference, the room erupted into laughter.¹

Once the ensuing hilarity subsided, Mr. Goldblatt began by asking the panel for their media highlights for 2015.

  • Ms. Bond said it was the rise of streaming TV, citing Netflix and Amazon, among other industry leaders. For her, this is a time of interesting competition as consumers have increasing control over what they view. She also believes that this is a “fascinating time” for projects and investments in this market sector. Nonetheless, she does not think that cable will disappear.
  • Mr. Kurnit said that Verizon’s purchase of AOL was one of the critical events of 2015, as Verizon “wants to be 360” and this type of move might portend the future of TV. The second key development was the emergence of self-driving cars, which he expects to see implemented within the next 5 to 15 years.
  • Mr. Redniss concurred on Verizon’s acquisition of AOL. He sees other activity such as the combination of Comcast and Universal as indicative of an ongoing “massive media play” versus Google and Facebook. He also mentioned the significance of Nielsen’s Total Audience Measure service.²
  • Mr. Sreenivasan stated that social media is challenging, as indicated by the recent appearance of “Facebook fatigue” affecting its massive user base. Nonetheless, he said “the empire strikes back” as evidenced in their strong financial performance and the recent launch of Chan Zuckerberg LLC to eventually distribute the couple’s $45B fortune to charity. He also sees that current market looking “like 2006 again” insofar as podcasts, email and blogs making it easy to create and distribute content.

Part 2: Today’s Golden Age of TV

Mr. Goldblatt asked the panel for their POVs on what he termed the current “Golden Age of TV” because of the increasing diversity of new platforms, expanding number of content providers and the abundance of original programming. He started off by asking them for their market assessments.

  • Ms. Bond said that the definition of “television” is now “any video content on any screen”. As a ubiquitous example she cited content on mobile platforms. She also noted proliferation of payment methods as driving this market.
  • Mr. Kurnit said that the industry would remain a bit of a “mess” for the next three or four years because of the tremendous volume of original programming, businesses that operate as content aggregators, and pricing differentials. Sometime thereafter, these markets will “rationalize”. Nonetheless, the quality of today’s content is “terrific”, pointing to examples by such media companies as the programs on AMC and HBO‘s Game of Thrones. He also said that an “unbundled model” of content offerings would enable consumers to watch anywhere.
  • Mr. Redniss believes that “mobile transforms TV” insofar as smartphones have become the “new remote control” providing both access to content and “disoverability” of new offerings. He predicted that content would become “monetized across all screens”.
  • Mr. Sreenivasan mentioned the growing popularity of binge-watching as being an important phenomenon. He believes that the “zeitgeist changes daily” and that other changes are being “led by the audience”.

The panel moved to group discussion mode concerning:

  • Consumer Content Options: Ms. Bond asked how will the audience pay for either bundled or unbundled programming options. She believes that having this choice will provide consumers with “more control and options”. Mr. Redniss then asked how many apps or services will consumers be willing to pay for? He predicted that “everyone will have their own channel”. Mr. Kurnit added that he thought there are currently too many options and that “skinny bundles” of programming will be aggregated. Mr. Sreenivasan pointed towards the “Amazon model” where much content is now available but it is also available elsewhere and then Netflix’s offering of 30 original shows. He also wanted to know “Who will watch all of this good TV?”
  • New Content Creation and Aggregation: Mr. Goldblatt asked the panelists whether a media company can be both a content aggregator and a content creator. Mr. Kurnit said yes and Mr. Redniss immediately followed by citing the long-tail effect (statistical distributions in business analytics where there are higher numbers of data points away from the initial top or central parts of the distribution)³. Therefore, online content providers were not bound by the same rules as the TV networks. Still, he could foresee some of Amazon’s and Netflix’s original content ending up being broadcast on them. He also gave the example of Amazon’s House of Cards original programming as being indicative of the “changing market for more specific audiences”. Ultimately, he believes that meeting such audiences’ needs was part of “playing the long game” in this marketplace. 
  • Binge-Watching: Mr. Kurnit followed up by predicting that binge-watching and the “binge-watching bucket” will go away. Mr. Redniss agreed with him and, moreover, talked about the “need for human interaction” to build up audiences. This now takes the form of “superfans” discussing each episode in online venues. For example, he pointed to the current massive marketing campaign build upon finding out the fate of Jon Snow on Games of Thrones.
  • Cord-Cutting: Mr. Sreenivasan believes that we will still have cable in the future. Ms. Bond said that service offerings like Apple TV will become more prevalent. Mr. Kunit said he currently has 21 cable boxes. Mr. Redniss identified himself as more of a cord-shaver who, through the addition of Netflix and Hulu, has reduced his monthly cable bill.

Part 3: Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)

Moving on to two of the hottest media topics of the day, virtual reality and augmented reality, the panelist gave their views.

  • Mr. Sreenivasan expressed his optimism about the prospects of VR and AR, citing the pending market launches of the Oculus Rift headset and Facebook 360 immersive videos. The emergence of these technologies is creating a “new set of contexts”. He also spoke proudly of the Metropolitan Museum Media Lab using Oculus for an implementation called Diving Into Pollack (see the 10th project down on this page), that enables users to “walk into a Jackson Pollack painting”.
  • Mr. Kurnit raised the possibility of using Oculus to view Jurassic Park. In terms of movie production and immersion, he said “This changes everything”.
  • Mr. Redniss said that professional sports were a whole new growth area for VR and AR, where you will need “goggles, not a screen”. Mr. Kurnit followed up mentioning a startup that is placing 33 cameras at Major League Baseball stadiums in order to provide 360 degree video coverage of games. (Although he did not mention the company by name, my own Googling indicates that he was probably referring to the “FreeD” system developed by Replay Technologies.)
  • Ms. Bond posed the question “What does this do for storytelling?”4

(See also these 12 Subway Fold posts) for extensive coverage of VR and AR technologies and applications.)

Part 4: Ad-Blocking Software

Mr. Goldblatt next asked the panels for their thoughts about the impacts and economics of ad-blocking software.

  • Mr. Redniss said that ad-blocking apps will affect how advertisers get their online audience’s attention. He thinks a workable alternative is to use technology to “stitch their ads into content” more effectively.
  • Mr. Sreenivasan believes that “ads must get better” in order to engage their audience rather than have viewers looking for means to avoid them. He noted another alternative used on the show Fargo where network programming does not permit them to use fast-forward to avoid ads.
  • Mr. Kurnit expects that ads will be blocked based on the popularity and extensibility of ad-blocking apps. Thus, he also believes that ads need to improve but he is not confident of the ad industry’s ability to do so. Furthermore, when advertisers are more highly motivated because of cost and audience size, they produce far more creative work for events like the NFL Super Bowl.

Someone from the audience asked the panel how ads will become integrated into VR and AR environments. Mr. Redniss said this will happen in cases where this technology can reproduce “real world experiences” for consumers. An example of this is the Cruise Ship Virtual Tours available on Carnival Cruise’s website.

(See also this August 13, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Report Finds Ad Blockers are Quickly Spreading and Costing $Billions in Lost Revenue.)

Part 5: Expectations for Media and Technology in 2016

  • Mr. Sreenivasan thinks that geolocation technology will continue to find new applications in “real-life experiences”. He gave as an example the use of web beacons by the Metropolitan Museum.
  • Ms. Bond foresees more “one-to-one” and “one-to-few” messaging capabilities, branded emjois, and a further examination of the “role of the marketer” in today’s media.
  • Mr. Kurnit believes that drones will continue their momentum into the mainstream. He sees the sky filling up with them as they are “productive tools” for a variety of commercial applications.
  • Mr. Redniss expressed another long-term prospect of “advertisers picking up broadband costs for consumers”. This might take the form of ads being streamed to smart phones during NFL games. In the shorter term, he can foresee Facebook becoming a significant simulcaster of professional sporting events.

 


1.  This immediately reminded of a similar incident years ago when I was attending a presentation at the local bar association on the topic of litigating cases involving brain injuries. The first speaker was a neurologist who opened by telling the audience all about his brand new laptop and how it was the latest state-of-the-art-model. Unfortunately, he could not get it to boot up no matter what he tried. Someone from the back of audience then yelled out “Hey doc, it’s not brain surgery”. The place went into an uproar.

2.  See also these other four Subway Fold posts mentioning other services by Nielsen.

3.  For a fascinating and highly original book on this phenomenon, I very highly recommend reading
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2005), by Chris Anderson. It was also mentioned in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.

4.  See also the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?