Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Information Fiduciaries

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 5!

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked a lot about my take on the Facebook news and I’ve struggled to add much to the conversation. I’m not shocked (this story has been around since 2015 in almost exactly its current form, a fact I don’t think nearly enough people understand), we shouldn’t be calling it a breach or a leak (that’s not what happened), and I think it has a lot more to do with the new European data regulations called GDPR than most are mentioning. Outside of that I’m mostly left pondering questions/thought experiments like what is the minimum amount of targeting Facebook would have to hold on to in order to maintain 80% of its ad revenue (aka minimum viable targeting) and did they actually end up in this mess in an effort to directly make more money (the FB wants more data to sell to advertisers argument) or in an effort to drive engagement (which, of course, helps make more money). Not sure that second one matters, but it’s interesting to me nonetheless.

Anyway, mostly I’m left looking for opinions that go beyond the recitation of facts.

On Sunday morning I was reading the Times opinion section and ran into an idea that felt new. Here it is from Jonathan Zittrain’s op-ed “Mark Zuckerberg Can Still Fix This Mess”:

On the policy front, we should look to how the law treats professionals with specialized skills who get to know clients’ troubles and secrets intimately. For example, doctors and lawyers draw lots of sensitive information from, and wield a lot of power over, their patients and clients. There’s not only an ethical trust relationship there but also a legal one: that of a “fiduciary,” which at its core means that the professionals are obliged to place their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

The legal scholar Jack Balkin has convincingly argued that companies like Facebook and Twitter are in a similar relationship of knowledge about, and power over, their users — and thus should be considered “information fiduciaries.”

Information fiduciary is one of the first things I’ve read in all the morass of Facebook think-pieces that felt both new and useful. The basic idea is that Facebook (and other similar platforms) have a special relationship with users that resembles the kind of fiduciary responsibilities doctors and lawyers have with our data (critically, Balkin makes a distinction between the responsibility for data and advice, the latter of which Facebook obviously doesn’t have).

In his much longer and surprisingly readable paper on the idea he lays out an argument for why we should take the concept seriously. The paper starts by replaying a question Zittrain posed in 2014 New Statesman article after Facebook ran a get out the vote experiment that drove impressive numbers:

Now consider a hypothetical, hotly contested future election. Suppose that Mark Zuckerberg personally favors whichever candidate you don’t like. He arranges for a voting prompt to appear within the newsfeeds of tens of millions of active Facebook users—but unlike in the 2010 experiment, the group that will not receive the message is not chosen at random. Rather, Zuckerberg makes use of the fact that Facebook “likes” can predict political views and party affiliation, even beyond the many users who proudly advertise those affiliations directly. With that knowledge, our hypothetical Zuck chooses not to spice the feeds of users unsympathetic to his views. Such machinations then flip the outcome of our hypothetical election. Should the law constrain this kind of behavior?

Balkin argues that we don’t really have any way to stop Facebook from doing that legally. The First Amendment gives them the right to political speech. We could hope that they wouldn’t do it because of the backlash it would likely create (and it’s true that it would probably be enough to prevent them), but do we feel good relying on the market in this case?

After going through a bunch of options for dealing with the situation, Balkin lands on the fiduciary concept. “Generally speaking, a fiduciary is one who has special obligations of loyalty and trustworthiness toward another person,” he writes. “The fiduciary must take care to act in the interests of the other person, who is sometimes called the principal, the beneficiary, or the client. The client puts their trust or confidence in the fiduciary, and the fiduciary has a duty not to betray that trust or confidence.”

In a more recent blog post Balkin argues that Facebook has effectively confirmed the idea with his response to Cambridge Analytica when Zuckerberg said, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

But how would it all work? Well, Zittrain and Balkin tackled that too. In a 2016 Atlantic article, they present a theoretical framework for application in a similar way to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which, while it has its flaws, is a solution that seems to generally work for the various parties involved. Here’s their proposal for a Digital Millennium Privacy Act (DMPA):

The DMPA would provide a predictable level of federal immunity for those companies willing to subscribe to the duties of an information fiduciary and accept a corresponding process to disclose and redress privacy and security violations. As with the DMCA, those companies unwilling to take the leap would be left no worse off than they are today—subject to the tender mercies of state and local governments. But those who accept the deal would gain the consistency and calculability of a single set of nationwide rules. Even without the public giving up on any hard-fought privacy rights recognized by a single state, a company could find that becoming an information fiduciary could be far less burdensome than having to respond to multiple and conflicting state and local obligations.

This feels like a real idea that has value for all parties involved and a legitimate framework for implementation. I don’t know that it will ever come to pass, but I’m excited to continue paying attention to the conversations around it.

April 9, 2018 // This post is about: , , ,

Brand Management: Past, Present, and Future

Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a two part series around a talk I gave at our client summit on the history of brand management and the need to create a new system of record for marketing. Part one opens:

Late last week James wrote a post called Moving from Installation to Deployment, where he laid out a framework for thinking how technology moves throughout history and where our modern age fits into the puzzle. As part of his post he introduced some ideas from an economist named Carlota Perez, who argues that each technological revolution (of which we’re in our fifth) follows a similar pattern of installation, where we essentially lay out the new technology in the form of infrastructure, followed by deployment, where we finally get a chance to build upon that infrastructure and realize its value.

Whereas part two dives into the implications and a framework for building this new system of record for marketing:

To approach the problem of scaling marketing at the rate of technology to address the increasing complexity, we have to take a page out of the P&G brand management playbook, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble. It points out how “P&G recognized that building brands is not exclusively or even primarily a marketing activity. Rather it is a systems problem.” This is fundamental. When you’re dealing with a huge amount of change and complexity as tempting as it is to answer the question with a one off solution, the systemic path is always more powerful. This is where we have to start in solving the challenge of rethinking marketing for this new age.

Check out both parts.

February 13, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Is it or isn’t it?

Differing opinions (sort of) from the New York Times over whether technology is or isn’t what the science-fiction writers imagined. From a November article titled “In Defense of Technology”:

Physical loneliness can still exist, of course, but you’re never friendless online. Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun. Technology is not doing what the sci-fi writers warned it might — it is not turning us into digits or blank consumers, into people who hate community. Instead, there is evidence that the improvements are making us more democratic, more aware of the planet, more interested in the experience of people who aren’t us, more connected to the mysteries of privacy and surveillance. It’s also pressing us to question what it means to have life so easy, when billions do not. I lived through the age of complacency, before information arrived and the outside world liquified its borders. And now it seems as if the real split in the world will not only be between the fed and the unfed, the healthy and the unhealthy, but between those with smartphones and those without.

And now, in response to the Sony hack, Frank Bruni writes, “The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.” He continues:

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

But the New York Times doesn’t stop agreeing with itself there (by the way, this is totally fine, I have no problem with the contradictions and actually appreciate them). From “As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up”:

Yet there is deep uncertainty about how the pattern will play out now, as two trends are interacting. Artificial intelligence has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement. … At the same time, the American work force has gained skills at a slower rate than in the past — and at a slower rate than in many other countries. Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 are among the most skilled in the world, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Younger Americans are closer to average among the residents of rich countries, and below average by some measures.

My opinion falls into the protopian camp: Things are definitely getting better, but new complexities are bound to emerge as things change. It’s not going to be simple and there are lots of questions we should be asking ourselves about how technology is changing us and the world, but it’s much healthier to start from a place of positivity and recognition that much of the change is good change.

December 23, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Unanticipated Effects

I really like this story of the unanticipated effects of the printing press from Steven Johnson:

Once people started to read, and once books were in circulation, very quickly the population of Europe realized that they were farsighted. This is interestingly a problem that hadn’t occurred to people before because they didn’t have any opportunity to look at tiny letter forms on a page, or anything else that required being able to use your vision at that micro scale. All of a sudden there is a surge in demand for spectacles. Europe is awash in people who were tinkering with lenses, and because of their experimentation, they start to say, “Hey, wait. If we took these two lenses and put them together, we could make a telescope. And if we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a microscope.” Almost immediately there is this extraordinary scientific revolution in terms of understanding and identifying the cell, and identifying the moons of Jupiter and all these different things that Galileo does. So the Gutenberg press ended up having this very strange effect on science that wasn’t about the content of the books being published.

As I’ve established here, I’m a big McLuhan fan, and this is pretty good evidence that the effect of the medium is often much more important than the specific message. 

December 22, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

Thinking About Strategy (Part 1): What is Strategy?

At the beginning of December I gave a talk at Google’s Firestarters event that built on some of the ideas I wrote up in my post about strategy as algorithm. Rather than posting the whole deck, which at some point I will do, I thought I would try to share the slides in groups of a few at a time and tell the story over a number of posts. This is a bit of an experiment and mostly because I’m trying to get all the posts I can out of the deck, so thanks for bearing with me.

What is strategy? Anyone who works in and around brand has run into something called strategy, but seldom do we step back and actually ask ourselves what it is and what it means. A few weeks ago I posted this definition from Lawrence Freedman’s book Strategy: A History (via Martin Weigel):

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Despite that, most of what we talk about when we’re discussing strategy is actually a small set of tools that were all developed before 1970:

  • Market Segmentation (1920): “General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan managed GM’s car models through loosely monitored “divisions,” which operated as separate companies with Sloan’s oversight, laying the groundwork for today’s corporation.”
  • Customer Funnel (1959): “The progression through the four primary steps in a sale, i.e., attention, interest, desire and action, may be compared to that of a substance moving through a funnel.”
  • Scenario Planning (1967): “The practice involves envisioning multiple future events and developing plans for responding to them. Shell first experimented with scenario planning in 1967, helping it navigate the oil shock of the 1970s.”

Ultimately a strategy is an approach for solving a problem. In the case of marketing, a strategy is generally the formula a brand develops to identify the best mix of activities and messages to communicate the positioning of the product or company with the goal of driving growth (either in sales, price, or purchase occasion). Strategy, then, is not the activities, but rather the framework a brand uses for choosing (and not choosing) those activities. (We will come back to this point later.)

For strategy to live in the world it must be paired with execution. The problem with strategy is that it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Strategy without execution is just words on a slide. For our purposes, then, when we talk about strategy we are talking about two things: The approach to solving the business problems and the coordination of resources to execute on that approach.

In the next installment I’ll dive into execution, how it’s changing, and why that matters a lot for strategy. Stay tuned.

December 18, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Tech plus Culture

Interesting point of distinction between Google and Facebook’s approach to the world in this long feature of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s approach to wiring the world. Specifically in reference to Facebook and Google buying drone companies as a possible approach to getting internet to rural areas:

Google also has a drone program—in April it bought one of Ascenta’s competitors, Titan Aerospace—but what’s notable about its approach so far is that it has been almost purely technological and unilateral: we want people to have the Internet, so we’re going to beam it at them from a balloon. Whereas Facebook’s solution is a blended one. It has technological pieces but also a business piece (making money for the cell-phone companies) and a sociocultural one (luring people online with carefully curated content). The app is just one part of a human ecosystem where every-body is incentivized to keep it going and spread it around. “Certainly, one big difference is that we tend to look at the culture around things,” Zuckerberg says. “That’s just a core part of building any social project.” The subtext being, all projects are social.

This is a pretty interesting point of difference between how the two companies view the world. Google sees every problem as a pure technical issue whereas Facebook sees it as part cultural and part technical. I’m not totally sure I buy it (it seems unfair to call Android a purely technical solution), but it’s an interesting lens to look through when examining two of the world’s most important tech companies.

December 9, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

The Knowledge, Cabbies, and Nostalgia

While I’m definitely not a techno-utopian, I’m also not a big fan of nostalgia. Nostalgia, it turns out, doesn’t work all that well: Over time our brain acts like a game of telephone, memories become memories of memories, and we tend to gloss over the details that surround occasions for the big moments. This idea obviously extends to technology and progress, where often the world pushes back on new ideas because the old way had a certain glamour to it. Ultimately, we all can decide how we want to operate, and fear of change is a person’s right, but great progress doesn’t come without disrupting “comfortable” norms (this is true in technology, politics, and culture — see: email, the Civil Rights Act, and gay marriage to name a few).

One of the areas we’re seeing this fight over nostalgia is with Uber and London cabbies. The famous London black cabs protested en masse over the summer and have voiced strong opposition to the service that democratizes the ability to pick up passengers and drop them off at their destination. (Quick side note: Uber has taken lots of heat lately for their behavior. My points here are about the service and the idea, not a defense of the company itself.) London cab-drivers are famous for their incredible knowledge of one of the most complicated cities on earth. Unlike New York where all you need to get a taxi medallion is a million dollars, in London you need to pass a seemingly impossible test that asks you to memorize “all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.” (That’s from the official London taxi guidebook.)

Of course, if I were to describe Google Maps that way you wouldn’t be particularly surprised. Technology is great at holding a database of locations. In fact, that’s probably just about the most simple thing Google Maps does, after all it’s just a lat-long point and a name (ideally connected to a website for more information like open and close times, menu, etc.). The challenge for Google (and the cab-drivers) is in the routes: Getting from point a to point b isn’t all that hard a problem for either, but getting there in the “best way” is nearly impossible. That, ultimately, is what the London taxi drivers study and what the Google engineers constantly refine (buying Waze is quite clearly a push in that direction as “best” could easily be defined as least traffic). It’s also one of the places where you could argue humans can still outperform machines (for a lot of the same reasons people are still better than machines at certain parts of chess).

Anyway, I’m writing all this because for all my issues with nostalgia, I really enjoyed the New York Times piece on “The Knowledge,” the test every licensed black cab driver in London must take. Here’s a little snippet:

It is tempting to interpret the Knowledge as a uniquely British institution: an expression of the national passion for order and competence, and a democratization of what P. G. Wodehouse winkingly called the feudal spirit, putting an army of hyperefficient Jeeveses on the road, ready to be flagged down by any passing Bertie Wooster. But the Knowledge is less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape. To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are. Every London journey, even the most banal, holds the threat of taking an epic turn: The guy headed to the corner newsagent makes a left where he should have gone right, blunders into an unfamiliar road, and suddenly he is Odysseus adrift on the Acheron. The problem is one of both enormity and density. From the time that London first began to spread beyond the walls surrounding the Roman city, it kept sprawling outward, absorbing villages, enlarging the spider-web snarl of little roads, multiplying the maze. Take a look sometime at a London street map. What a mess: It is a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster.

The article argues, and I agree, there’s a benefit to this vast knowledge and if you need to get somewhere complicated in London very quickly, it’s hard to beat hopping into a black cab. However, the technology is catching, and will continue to do so, and that’s fine too.

December 3, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Responsive Systems

Really good New Yorker story from James Surowiecki on the “performance revolution” and how it’s gone from sports to the rest of the world. I particularly liked the way he connected sports to business:

A key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same time. Look at what happened in American manufacturing, a transformation that also has its origins in the nineteen-seventies. At the time, big American companies were in woeful shape. In the decades after the Second World War, they had faced almost no foreign competition, and typically had only a few domestic rivals. That made them enormously profitable but complacent about quality and productivity. The result was that, by the early nineteen-seventies, American productivity growth was stalling, while American products were often defect-ridden and unreliable. One study, in 1969, found that a third of the people who bought a new American car judged it to be in unsatisfactory condition when it was delivered.

Reminded me a bit of a great piece I read a few weeks ago on the “responsive enterprise” and how software changes this conversation around performance and improvement. A little snippet from that:

Software promotes agility by dramatically speeding up the feedback loop between output and input. In the past, companies could measure their performance every quarter, making it difficult to adjust quickly to changes in the environment. In contrast, Facebook ships new versions of its product multiple times a day, with enhancements and fixes determined by realtime feedback from actual use of the Web site. Companies such as Amazon and Booking.com continuously perform A/B testing or multi-armed bandit experiments on users to optimize purchase rates on their Web sites.

November 21, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,