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Zucker time or time to take in Berners-Leesy?

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This blog first appeared on the Small Data Forum podcast website, heralding October 2018’s Episode 22.

The latest episode of the Small Data Forum podcast sees the founding trio of Neville, Thomas, and me striding confidently into our early 20s. Who knew that the fledgling born at an event in Covent Garden’s fashionable London in May 2016 – pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Cambridge Analytica farce – would endure to its twenty-second episode.

We start our latest offering with a look at Facebook’s latest, topical woes: a technical vulnerability leading to a breach of security for at least 50m European users last week. And probably 40m more. Thanks to a favourite topic of the SDF Podcast, Facebook were required to report the breach to the EU within 72 hours under new GDPR rules. Playing by the book, Facebook did so, contacting the Irish Data Protection Commission. This latest breach could cost the increasingly toothless F- in FANG as much $1.63bn, according to Wall Street Journal reporting. Facebook’s share price and market capitalisation dove by almost 3% on news of the breach, though that’s a share price that’s increased eight fold in the last six years, from $20 to more than $160. The peak was $217.50 late last July.

Neville believes that Facebook responded appropriately – within the spirit and letter of GDPR, as well as putting the technical vulnerability right very swiftly. But Zuckerberg’s lack of contrition – let alone apology – irritated me. At the time, and on the podcast. Just how much reputational capital has Facebook banked to survive these constant slip-ups and snafus? From exaggerating possible audiences in 2016, misleading advertisers in 2017 on frequency and duration of video ad views, via Cambridge Analytica and now this. To mangle Oscar Wilde, “to lose public confidence once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it twice looks like carelessness”. Three, four, and more times? More like recklessness and wanton abandon, and all on the same watch.

This brings to mind the struggles Dove had in its annus horribilis in 2017. Having invested so much time, energy, and resource in the Campaign for Real Beauty, last year the anti-beauty-industry beauty brand ran (obviously!) a Facebook ad campaign which showed a black woman turning white only months after two other missteps, one on body form and bottle shapes, the other on breast-feeding. Is Dove holding on? Will Facebook.

The trouble, we conclude, is that users aren’t turning away from Facebook, and therefore nor are advertisers. Even in the wake of such brilliant and biting satire as John Oliver’s recent critique of Facebook’s corporate “apology” ads. Well worth the five-mzinute detour here, though headphones are advised (NSFW, NSFH).

Ever the ethics boy, Thomas then turns his attention to the over-hasty departure of Instgram’s two founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. The two jumped from the Facebook mothership recently, reportedly saying in their departure statement on The Next Web:

“We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs.”

Something that evidently was possible at command-and-control Facebook.

We conclude – in rather more moderate language than John Oliver, but not less passion – that observers of Facebook always need to look at the business through the lenses of technology, reputation, users, and commerce. By understanding user behaviour in more and more forensic detail, Facebook can serve up more and more relevant target consumers to advertisers and charge increasing premiums for super-targeted impressions.

The Small Data Forum doesn’t tend to descend into sloughs of despond, but the next zag from Neville was welcome, when he considered Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s unveiling his new startup Inrupt. The firm – the platform – aims to decentralise the worldwide web, allowing individuals to sidestep corporations and governments and those who’ve come to take ownership of his baby, the worldwide web. (As we’d expect of Neville, he drew a nice – a perfect – distinction between the internet [which TB-L didn’t invent and create] and the www [which he did]).

Sir Tim’s initiative aims “to turbocharge a broader movement afoot, among developers around the world, to decentralize the web and take back power from the forces that have profited from centralizing it”, as reported in Fast CompanyVC-backed, it aims to “take back control” of the web. An unfortunate slogan, perhaps, as that was the recitative of Vote Leave. A revolution? Free access for all? A boon for the developer community? Hmmm.

For Thomas, it brought back memories of the Cluetrain Manifesto – now already getting on for 20 years old – a bit of a pipedream which may well, ultimately, change very little. For me, it sounded like Mary Shelley – or Dr Frankenstein – horrified at the (commercial, advertising-driven) monster (s)he’d created. Or like the playwright Tom Stoppard who complained to legendary Guardiantheatre critic Michael Billington that he never intended his play to have the impact reflected in Billington’s review. Billington fired back: “The artist does the work; the critic has the inspiration”.

That doesn’t stop any of us respecting TB-L’s initiative, applauding his intent. What it does reflect is our scepticism that his intent of building “a Netscape for today’s internet”. Influential and wealthy though Netscape’s founder Marc Andreeson may be, his net worth is $1bn is chicken feed next to Bezos’ $164bn, Gates’ $98bn, Zuckerberg’s $61bn, Brin and Page’s $54bn apiece. It was Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google “wot won it”. Not Netscape.

Neville doesn’t agree – needless to say! – and a lively back-and-forth ensues.

Thomas ponders a Zenith Media report predicting that we may be entering the age of voice-driven search. With half of all UK and US households expected to have smart speakers by the end of the year, Zenith believes that the big growth areas will be digital video (currently working, and growing) and voice. My  current and recent experience of the creative and media agency world suggests the future of voice may be overhyped. Moving buying from laptop to tablet to mobile took a while, but the shift was one of scale not one of modality. For me, the psychological leap is yet to be made for consumers to truly trust Alexa or Google Home to do your shopping for you. This bit of satire from the Saturday Night Liveteam may explain why, with this bogus “launch” of the Amazon Echo Silver.

The arrival last week of the EU’s new eiDAS regulation promises to “enable cross-border recognition of the electronic ID and allowing citizens and business to share their identity data when necessary”. Neville leads the charge in welcoming this progressive piece of legislation, with obvious caveats around data protection, security, and privacy. But the implications are potentially huge – for cross-border ID recognition, financial transactions, opening and operating bank accounts, enrolling in overseas universities, proof of age, GDPR compliance … the list grows and grows. The EU predicts $11bn savings from eiDAS.

My reaction? Lucky other 28 EU members, while we have to put up with “control being taken back”, led by a floppy-haired buffoon lumbering through wheat fields. Poor old UK.

But I end the pod on an upbeat, giving a lightning-fast review of the Gapminder Foundation’s new brilliant book, FactfulnessHans “Joy of Stats” Rosling was cruelly snatched from the world last year by pancreatic cancer, but his Gapminder cofounders – his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna – edited and wrangled the book they’d been writing into a book so inspiring and good and important that … Bill Gates chose to give a copy to every student graduating from US universities this year. That’s like giving everyone a textbook of the MOOC for www.callingbullshit.org. Well done, Bill.

Blimey! I don’t think I’ve EVER written a blog mentioning Bill Gates twice and positively. These are strange days indeed. Happy listening, podcats.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.