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The creepy friends you weren’t sure you had

These are your friends you didn’t really know you had. They listen very well. They’re keenly aware of your interests and where you’ve been. They know where you work and they know where you live. What you tell them and what you do, they really never forget. Well, unless you tell them to. And what they don’t know, they don’t simply leave alone. No, they make an informed guess.

These friends are the devices and services you use every day. And depending on your privacy settings, what they know about you is both fascinating and creepy.

If the product is free, you’re probably the product.

Search engines, social media sites and streaming services all collect more information than we think. Not only does Netflix know our show preferences, it knows what scene or episode caused us to pause, rewind, or abandon a series completely. Unlike traditional television rating systems, the sample size is every user and the dataset is complete. Analytics has become an intrinsic part of its strategic programming decisions.

When Netflix ventured into original content, it was confident its $100 million investment in House of Cards would pay off. While TV networks and movie studios have long used focus groups before green-lighting pilots or projects, Netflix had the data of 33 million subscribers to review. What it told them was that the original British House of Cards, director David Fincher, and actor Kevin Spacey were incredibly popular with its users. As someone who has devoured many hours of House of Cards, I’d like to thank the fine people at Netflix for their informed gambit.

Most people are comfortable having their viewing habits studied by Netflix, if it means Netflix returns with more addictive original programming and user-specific recommendations. The user’s reward is access to an ever-growing library of binge-worthy hits. However, some of these same users are more inclined to change their privacy settings on some larger platforms that also use data to improve the user-experience. For example, Gmail analyzes your email and serves you ads accordingly, while Facebook turns on your microphone to listen to the music or TV show you are watching while you compose a status update. How well do these tech giants know you? Who does Google think you are? Based on your search and YouTube history, the company estimates your age, gender and interests. Your work-related search history may skew the results, but Google can guess that I’m a male between the age of 25 and 34 (it doesn’t know my interests as my privacy settings were too restrictive).

While Google may not be able to predict the future yet, the location-based tracking information that fuels Google Maps’ traffic congestion feature also knows what bars plied us on a Saturday night, what greasy diner remedied us Sunday morning and every stop and mode of transportation in between. Try it yourself – depending on your privacy settings and Android phone use, you can track years of daily movement and see where Google thinks you live and work.

These techniques have advanced to the point where your name, location and behaviour, compared against government census data, can signal your age, gender and race. For example, social listening software can infer that an American Twitter user named Britney who follows Taylor Swift is likely to be a female under thirty, while a Canadian user named Todd who follows the Financial Post is an older male.

Facebook has gone one step further, leveraging data on your beliefs, friends, language, organizations and taste in music for its ‘Multicultural Affinity Targeting’. While currently only available in the United States, it provides advertisers the ability to run campaigns that specifically target users who fall under four demographic categories: African American, Asian American, Hispanic and non-multicultural (a delicate way of saying white). While using a diverse selection of talent to reflect your targeted audience is arguably noble and savvy, how marketers use this feature poses major ethical challenges.

When marketing the the movie Straight Outta Compton, advertisers used wildly different trailers for white and black users. The version for white audiences sensationalized the gang elements of the film, showcasing police chases and guns. In contrast, the trailer for black audiences played up the biographical, racial discrimination and protest elements. The notion that advertisers use stereotypes is not new, but the advent of ‘smart’ racial targeting will certainly be studied by businesses and sociologists alike.

On a smaller scale, the advanced data capturing methods will continue to trickle down for popular use. A band may decide to rejig their tour schedule based on the listener data provided to them from Spotify or a local restaurant may use its Wi-Fi to track and promote menu items to its customers. Together, these practices will continue to evolve as far as technology and public sensitivity allows, with smart marketers able to find the right nuances to tap into user attitudes and desires.

Analytics will always be limited by what has already happened – they can’t predict the future. Events of course matter, as do the innovators, like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney, who produce what we didn’t even know we wanted. But, the use of Big Data gets us closer and may prevent big investment losses and ensure that the services we use and the products and media we consume are tailored to our behaviours better than a marketer’s gut feeling. There is a trade-off in receiving tailored products, but the allure of cheap or free services will help gloss over consumer doubts about privacy or security risks.

Ultimately, the tracking and profiling of our online behaviour may create two classes of users: those who believe in the practice’s benevolence and the convenience of more attentive, efficient products and services; and those concerned about the Big Brother aspect, and their loss of privacy and autonomy. Looking at the analytics of it all, marketers may well decide to create more personalized privacy settings and applications to suit our individual tastes – but that behaviour will certainly be tracked too.

The Budget

It’s the first time we’ve really seen the media be critical of this government. There’s always dissenting paragraphs in articles, but now we’re seeing headlines and full articles about broken promises.

It’s federal budget week! Ottawa was abuzz with the release of the Trudeau government’s first budget, so this episode of Political Traction focuses exclusively on items from the federal budget.

First World Problems

Every now and then, our favourite sites go down. Completely off the grid. And when they do, we lose it. We hop on Slack and ask our colleagues if they’re experiencing it too. Just to confirm, for sure, that Facebook is down, we might even step outside our office to check that’s it not just us, that we’re not losing our minds. Of course, by today’s standards, we’re not losing our minds. It’s completely natural for us to have a casual freak out when the Internet breaks. For better or for worse, we’re hooked. And why not? There’s literally a world of information, distraction, and entertainment available to us at a swipe of a finger or a click of a button. It’s empowering to know that whenever we need an answer to something—anything— we can whip out our smartphone and find it, pretty much instantly. We do it so much and at such high frequencies that the moment the Internet is down for a minute, we’re completely thrown for a loop. We panic. We get frustrated. We seek confirmation. And if it progresses beyond 5 minutes, we look at our screens with a blank stare, waiting – waiting for it to come back on so we can get our daily fix of our friends’ photos, see how our stocks are performing, and read the latest celebrity gossip rags. The Internet puts us in control; when we don’t have it, we’re at a loss.

It’s a luxury, and it’s one we take for granted. In too many countries, however, this feeling of being out of control or disconnected from the rest of the world is a regular occurrence. I’m not talking about remote places with bad connectivity (I’ll save that for another day). I’m talking about geographically accessible countries where governments use every tool at their disposal to throttle access to the Internet. I was recently reminded of this reality when I participated in the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Digital Public Square (DPS), which brings together leading digital experts to help address sociopolitical crises around the world. DPS tackles these challenges because, increasingly, people turn to digital platforms to express opposition or support for their government and policies, engage in online discussions about their country’s future, and self-organize around sociopolitical challenges.

This week, we highlight one of these stories on the Political Traction podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I highly recommend it. My colleague Allie McHugh walks us through the fledging citizen movement in Lebanon that is using digital technology to call for change because of a problem most of us in Canada consider routine : garbage collection. It’s a fascinating story, and one that showcases how powerful the Internet can be. These activists are using it to rally people around a common cause, and mobilizing these people to take real-world action. This is a major crisis for Lebanon, and activists are using digital platforms in smart ways to reach people and circumvent repression through mobile apps that let people communicate, even when the government tries to limit connectivity and shut down the Internet. Unfortunately, the ability to self-organize, even if it’s under difficult circumstances like in Lebanon, isn’t an option in too many places.

In countries like Iran, North Korea, and Russia, people face significant barriers to civic engagement, both in the public and digital space. The simple right to express one’s own opinions, exchange ideas, and talk openly about the future of the country is denied. No venues exist to facilitate these conversations. Repressive regimes recognize the inherent capacity the Internet has to empower people. So, these regimes do what all brutal regimes before them have done: they actively monitor, filter, and block content to deny people the ability to share dissenting opinions and debate issues. Their targets—their citizens—are unable to create spaces for expression or institutions and policies that represent their interests. They deny them any semblance of control over the national dialogue, and replace it with repression, censorship, and exclusion.

The Digital Public Square is helping open up this dialogue back up. This crackpot unit (and I use this term affectionately—these guys do amazing work) is building new platforms to create safe digital spaces for people in repressed countries to freely exchange ideas, participate in open political discussion, and engage fellow citizens.

Those who know me well know I’m partial to the work DPS does. I helped initiate this project when I worked for Foreign Minister Baird.. In partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs, we established platforms and tools that reached 4.5 million unique people inside Iran. On the heels of this success, we announced the government would provide an additional $9 million for the DPS project. It was a no-brainer — few initiatives use the power of digital technology in a way that brings people together to provide an outlet to express dissent against repressive regimes.

Because so much of our free time is spent exploring the Internet, we tend to forget how much of an impact it can have. We use it for fun – so sometimes we forgot the importance of its function. Today, only about 40% of the world has an internet connection. Furthermore, almost 75% of Internet users are from the top 20 countries, the other 25% is spread out over 178 countries that represent less than 1% of the global total. Plus, for many of those with Internet, that connection comes with a number of conditions.

Most of us take the Internet for granted the same way we take garbage college for granted: we assume it’s a standard part of the basic infrastructure we are awarded in our society. Although I worked on the initiative in the first place, revisiting DPS humbled me all over again. It was a reminder that my Internet worries extend, at most, to a few hours without email. A lot of our online expression is wrapped up in Facebook statuses, tweets, and…a (perhaps slightly preachy) blog post. But I don’t know how else to say it — a lot of people don’t have this tool at their disposal, so it isn’t a missed email or not being able to Google a fact that puts them at a loss; it’s a much more frustrating fact. There is literally a world of information, distraction, and entertainment available, but only a small portion of us actually have it at the swipe of a finger or a click of a button. For us, limited connectivity is often a break from being constantly in contact. For others, it’s a break of a much different kind, that extends well beyond an instant message or five minute YouTube video and right into their governing infrastructure and an entirely different perspective on what’s ‘standard.”

You Stink!

This week we have a special episode of Political Traction. Parliament is on a break week, so we are going beyond Parliament Hill and taking you to Lebanon.

This week, we’re talking about garbage — literal garbage, and literally mountains of it. For months now, garbage has been piling up in Lebanon. The rivers in the country are lined by actual walls of garbage that are four, five, six feet tall. There is so much garbage that this is beyond just a waste collection problem, or a municipal problem, or a political problem. There is so much garbage that is is now also an environmental and public health problem.

Desperately seeking…yourself: the Internet and Identity

We still talk about the Internet like it’s new. We talk about ‘breaking the Internet’ with a viral trend, about not understanding the Internet, about being confused, baffled, and floored by new things on the Internet. We anthropomorphize it — ‘the Internet’s favourite thing,’ ‘the Internet loves [insert topic].’This is partly because the Internet is always new — there are always new elements to the Internet and even the way we go about getting to the Internet is constantly changing. From creaky old Netscape Navigator, to Internet Explorer, to Firefox, Safari, and Chrome, — the Internet is defined by its variability and unwillingness to grow up.

But, the Internet isn’t new. Although academia has been using the World Wide Web since the 1980s, 1995 is the generally agreed-upon date for the inception of the global communications and Google-deep-dive repository of information that we know today. It’s 21-years-old. It’s a junior in college. It can drink anywhere in the world. It’s no longer in its infancy, but like anyone in their early twenties, the process to get to this age and the ongoing maturation of its systems and users, has gone — and will continue to go — through some growing pains.

As a global communications tool, how the Internet functions dictates content and form, and also reflects its users and people who contribute to that content. The vast majority of people who are contributing in organic ways are the ones who went through their growing pains right along with the burgeoning World Wide Web, and you can tell. At the moment, a lot of Internet culture has given way to nostalgia: lists of the 30 toys you forgot, how to tell if you’re a 90s kid, and much of that nostalgia is for old Internet platforms themselves. For example, the Wayback Machine is a catalogue of old sites that no longer (actively) exist on the Internet. Through the Wayback machine, however, you can visit your favourite defunct site and experience a wave of nostalgia that only visiting someone’s old GeoCities page can bring.

This is pretty understandable, seeing as there is a certain age demographic that experienced their first crushes and demonstrations of public affection through screen names created from maudlin lyrics; who first got up the courage to speak to that object of affection via instant messenger, whether ICQ (which, fun fact, is Internet parlance for ‘I Seek You’), AOL, or MSN; who expressed their overwrought feelings in LiveJournal posts; and who portrayed their essential teen selves through their favourite bands on MySpace pages. In short, they created themselves online through a variety of mediums — a ~*~**username**~*~here, a favourite quote and winky-face there. Liking a certain page aligns you with a particular celebrity or cause, and #tbt (throwback Thursday) and #flashbackfriday are more current examples of such identity building and nostalgia, as people who use these hashtags tend to post childhood or family photos.

For those not of the millennial age, most of online identity discovery took a more anxious form. Fretting over credit card fraud, online security issues, revealing your full name — while these all seem outdated, they were once very real concerns, when users across the world connected via their creaky dial-up, only to be kicked offline moments later by an incoming fax of their baby cousin’s drawing, sent by their aunt from ‘up north.’ There was a real anxiety about exposing yourself online to strangers, lest they snatch away critical details of your life. Usernames, depending on your age, were created as much to protect identity from the shadowy depths of the net as they were to project it. But once one member of a group folded and started using their full and real name in things like email and eBay, the rest followed. For those over a certain age, a large part of becoming comfortable on the Internet was seeing people who were ‘just like you’ do the same thing.

In short, people have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time figuring out who they are on the Internet, developing their personalities, their communications style and form, and telling everyone — whether directly or indirectly — all of the things they do and do not like. And yet, we still have a tendency to ignore much of it as throwaway bits of fluff, and pretend that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or even OkCupid and Tinder, represent nothing more than superficial forays into online culture that are divorced from anything of consequence.

Things of consequence, like, for example, the fact that for better or worse, people are more responsive to content in which they see themselves reflected back.

In 2009, OKCupid conducted a study — and then refreshed that study with new data in 2014 — that found race affects who messages back on the popular dating site. The study demonstrated society’s racial biases and a tendency for most groups to match with members of their own race, or to discriminate against certain races. Similarly, in an informal, but extensive, experiment, one journalist found that that people on Tinder tend to swipe right (match with someone) if they are in the same socioeconomic bracket, or seem to belong to a desirable class — something that people are incredibly good at predicting — or projecting — from only a few photos and some biographical information. Another breakdown of online dating from FiveThirtyEight found that users on eHarmony were clearly searching for someone like themselves. There was an obvious pattern between similar traits and whom people chose to message on the site.

Numerous studies worry about the superficiality and possible corrosion of human interaction from such dating sites (the studies on whether or not that is true are still very mixed), they provide a wealth of information into people’s online actions, translated into real-life action. There are few other sources that so clearly represent someone’s identity that can draw as direct a line between online behavior and real-life decisions as these dating tools. With each passing year that the Internet ages, the need to separate our ‘online’ personalities from our ‘actual’ personalities gets whittled down a little more as these behaviours flow freely between our internet worlds and our actual worlds. Purchases are made online, activism starts online and moves to the outside world, people meet potential partners by curating a profile page that represents themselves. Identity building online is real — from your childhood Neopets to your Facebook profile, to your Tinder bio — and whether good or bad, the fact that we are seeking out similar faces and people is a reality.

While studies suggesting we are all a little more biased or prejudiced than we would like to believe can be horribly depressing, there are also positives to seeking yourself. Unquestionably, the Internet has become a tool for minorities and others who have felt marginalized by mainstream society to connect online. The removal of geographic barriers mean that people can meet and talk about their common interests and shared life experiences regardless of location. Expanding common experiences across regions, such as knowing that kids everywhere are using Vine or following a certain band, can create bonds. Take Bronies or comic book fans — Internet back channels have existed as long as the Internet has existed, from the first informal chat rooms to your own particular Twitter circle. People actually have Twitter friends now that they met online, and sometimes, meet IRL (In Real Life).

This plays out in public affairs in various ways. Whether you’re fighting for or against an issue, a large part of the battle is connecting with people or making it feel like this issue means something to them, personally.

One of the dangers comes in assuming you know your audience without doing any of the work to actually understand them. You might think it’s Jenny from rural wherever, with three kids and a minivan that you’re after — it’s not always. It could actually be downtown Michelle, lawyer and urbanite, who cares about your cause. Or Bob or Richard; Braedon or Noah; Ashley or Ava. As the aforementioned Tinder experiment lays out, with things like online dating, we base our likes or dislikes on a number of signs, and what we’re really doing with public affairs campaigns is trying to decipher those signs.

Semiotics is the study of signs, and when looking for resonating messages, you’re essentially trying to figure out a series of symbols, guides, hieroglyphs, that all say that your message in particular is meant for a given individual. Kind of like dating. The trouble is, not all signs mean the same things to the same people. The text that one group might find inspiring, another finds off-putting. Markers of class can vary widely from culture to culture. It’s not always straightforward as to what you’re communicating and to whom. Moreover, it’s not always easy to tell what, specifically, is making your message resonate or not. It could be the phrase you’re using. It could be the typeface. It could be the photo — or it could be a small part of the photo. A picture with a lake in the background could be comforting and cottage-y to some, and ominous and bleak to another. Making assumptions about what types of things certain types of people like is not only exclusionary, it’s limiting for your messaging.

Much like users’ online exploration via MSN and through MySpace, discovering the ins and outs and likes and dislikes of your audience is work. You don’t just land on the perfect set of Good Charlotte lyrics that expresses your inner you, you have to try a few out first. You don’t just select a perfect Facebook profile picture that speaks to all of your interests and many-faceted personalities forever. Responsiveness is usually emotional and automatic, but how we see ourselves and what we’re looking for often changes or shifts subtly. While remaining consistent, people are often looking for new and more interesting ways to express or define themselves. And if people are looking for themselves online, that means what they are looking for is subtly changing and shifting too.

So the Internet constantly seems new, partly because of all of this fluctuating identity-building and as a giant communications tool, the World Wide Web has become the de facto area to do it. The Internet will continue to experience growing pains as we all continue to muddle around with our own biases and preferences and constantly update what and who we are in our own heads. Clearly, as the studies indicate, none of us are perfect, and so neither is our online behaviour. More and more it is a reflection of offline personalities. Identity is also partly manufactured, and sometimes people don’t know something about themselves until they see it coming from someone else, someone they aspire to be. It is individual, but also influenced by the surrounding content. So it would follow that successful messaging needs to do the same and follow these paths of self-discovery.

Hitting the right messaging mark with the right people online takes investigation and it needs to be updated, and updated as frequently as people’s own need to cultivate their online selves. Small changes to public affairs messaging can make a big difference to what you are saying to your audienceナthe kind of big difference as say, a new ~*~smiley face~*~ here or winky face there.