The Social Network

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Facebook’s business model is not about connecting people and promoting a social network. The social media behemoth’s core business relies on a straightforward tenet, selling advertisements.

For most of the 20th and early 21st century, advertisers leveraged the mass proliferation of the television to identify and sell products. Top-rated television shows, movie premieres, sports events and even breaking news attracted huge eyeballs and thus provided a perfect grazing ground to pick and showcase adverts to the public.

The Internet began changing that dynamic in small and measured movements. Technological limitations and costs prevented the Internet from becoming as pervasive as the humble television. However, this changed in the early 21st century, and nations all over the globe began gaining cheaper access to the worldwide web.

Then, came the smartphone which revolutionised access to the Internet and enabled people to stay connected on an almost 24/7 basis. This shift in consumer behaviour was not unnoticed by the advertising bigwigs. Realising the awesome power of a hyper-connected populous, they shifted their sights to the Internet with a commitment not seen before.

However, the massive reach of the Internet created unique issues that were not present in the television and radio era. With the nearly infinite amount of content available, targeting the right adverts to the right audience was like shooting an arrow in a dark room while being blindfolded. Barring a few prominent online destinations, there were increasingly fewer options to get the most bang for their advertising buck.

Facebook and its ilk changed that dynamic in a manner that few could have imagined. In the guise of a social platform that enabled people to stay connected with their friends, Facebook was able to increase its reach in an exponential manner reaching one billion active users in under a decade. The network effects of the growth compounded, resulting in even more people signing up on the social media site. Today, Facebook has over 2.4 billion active users or above 30% of the total human population on its website.

However, the impact of Facebook was not limited to merely the number of users on its platform. When signing up, users provided seemingly benign data to Facebook, which turned out to be more valuable than they could have possibly imagined. Combined with its machine learning algorithms, Facebook could perfect the science and art of segmenting the general population in a manner that allowed advertising parties to cherry-pick and target their adverts in a way that was not possible even in the television era. Not only could advertisers specify gender and age demographics when picking target audiences, with the aid of the data that Facebook was collecting, but advertisers could also even pick the race, religion, ethnicity, political inclination and sexual orientation of their target audiences.

The same data that enabled advertisers to get the maximum ROI on their advertising investments would also become fuel for a much more insidious fire in 2016. The data abuse by the firm Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent use by Russian bad actors would influence one of the most significant political events in recent history. An NYT article highlights the “deny, delay and deflect” attitude that the CEO and COO chose to adopt when made aware of the rigging of the system by the bad actors. This behaviour speaks to the institutional and structural failure of Facebook as an organisation to address a potentially hazardous political situation in the interest of their core business of ensuring people continued using their platform.

Its recent acquisitions of the popular messaging app, WhatsApp and the photo-based social media app, Instagram have further grown Facebook’s user base. In any other industry, such acquisitions would have triggered anti-trust conversations and the fear of a monopoly creation. However, given the current definition of anti-trust which is identified as harmful to the consumer on a price front, Facebook is not liable for anti-trust practices as there is no “dollar cost” to the consumer. Ask any economist, and they will give a multitude of reasons how monopolies erode economic welfare. While there may not be an immediate apparent monetary value associated with the social media monopoly that Facebook is creating, the user data monopoly it has created for itself with these acquisitions is undeniable. Users who may have chosen to abandon Facebook in light of the Cambridge Analytica issue find themselves trapped in an eco-system that refuses to let them leave without a social penalty of missing out their “connections”.

The social and moral impact of Facebook is equally controversial. Facebook does not view itself as a traditional media/publishing organisation since they do not publish the content and hence do not see themselves having to moderate it. Facebook believes it does not have editorial obligations. This distinction protects them from legal and regulatory actions that would have befallen a traditional media or publishing organisation and allows the rampant posting inflammatory content by Facebook users. Combined with the network effects and expanse of Facebook, this freedom to post un-corroborated content and enable the post to remain on the site has also led to the frequent spread of misinformation. While most of such misinformation posts end innocently, some of these pieces of fake news have triggered violent attacks and, in a few instances, even genocidal events.

In light of the misinformation issue and the severe public blowback, Facebook established teams of fact-checkers to moderate content posted by users. However, fact-checkers will not remove or delete content but will instead demote it newsfeed rankings. This model essentially means that misinformation and sometimes questionable content will continue to linger.

Interestingly, the emotional toll that this moderation job takes on the people doing it is the subject of another piece in the US-based technology and culture website, The Verge. The article is an interview with the people who are allured to the role of content moderation under false pretences and then are subjected to what amounts to inhuman working conditions while viewing several disturbing and horrifying content in order to ensure the moderation of the Facebook platform.

Conversely, existing regulations for publications cannot be extended to social media companies such as Facebook without due consideration and amendments. If anything, authorities and governments need to understand what new laws and regulations must be drafted in light of Facebook’s business model, the nature of an ever-connected population and the abilities bestowed by a platform of Facebook’s size.

Facebook and the internet economy are a significant shift in the history of human civilisation. Adapting existing means of governance to such a radical change in the status quo would result in negligible impact.

Consider the impact of the modern automobile in the early 19th century. The introduction of a radically new means of transport was not apparent at first. Considered as a motorised version of the erstwhile horse carriages, the automobile was afforded similar treatment. However, soon it became evident that this invention called for revisiting a multitude of aspects. Efficient usage of the car called for constructing particular roads. Towns and cities required special planning to accommodate such ways. A new licensing system was put in place to ensure only qualified personnel could handle the automobile.

To ensure human casualties were avoided, unique signalling systems were required, and separate pedestrian walkways were needed. Further technological and process advancements meant greater access to the automobile across the masses, thus compounding the considerations and concerns around the presence of automobiles of all sizes and shapes. The speed capabilities of the motors led to crash testing procedures by the manufacturers, introduction to safety features such as airbags and seatbelts alongside legislation that enforced the use of these measures.

The automobile industry was possibly hesitant to introduce barriers and more checks and balances to their processes and products. However, the regulatory and legislative authorities fuelled by the need for public safety and welfare ensured that the auto industry implemented these measures and followed the letter of the law to operate and exist.

Facebook and similar services are very much like the modern automobile. In isolation, their presence does not call for caution or concern. However, as we begin using them and their presence becomes increasingly common, additional considerations are required. Change for change’s sake is worse than no change at all. The recent changes at Facebook seem more like lip service and an exercise in PR management. New systems of governance and safety are the call of the hour. There is a need for a fundamental shift in the way these technology giants are governed and held accountable. Imposing fines and setting up committees and teams to clean up after the mess has already been made is not a sustainable model for the greater good of society. The change required will not an easy one, nor will it be the kind that needs to be implemented once to notice the difference.

Given the scale, scope and impact of Facebook and similar technology platforms, the change will need to be systemic, ongoing and fundamental. Perhaps it is time even to ask the most fundamental question of all; Should Facebook even exist?

All About Eve

The Book of Genesis of The Bible, states that the first man and woman created by God, were Adam & Eve. Blessed were these immortal creations and they led a happy and free life in the garden of Eden. Their only restriction, never to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the couple succumbed to temptation.

The temptation came first to Eve, the woman, who managed to persuade her male companion. For their sin, the two were banished from the Heavens and cursed with hard labor and pain. Some believe, that the punishment for this Original Sin should be borne by all of Eve’s daughters and her daughter’s daughters and so on. Meaning, the woman is to be given no importance and should be subjected to all kinds of hardships.

Ask any woman and you’re bound to get a long list of the various physical traumas they endure throughout their mortal lives. But the sons of Adam, i.e. the men decided that was not enough punishment for the women folk. So it came to be that the woman in almost every civilization was to be given no post of any importance and be subjected to humiliation and inferiority complex time and again. Thus began the mental trauma that every daughter of Eve has been enduring since times immemorial.

Some of you may argue that this is all in the past. After all, today’s woman walks shoulder to shoulder with her fellow man, excels in almost every profession, industry, endeavor as much as any man and has thus come a long way since the days of the Bible. Are you certain?

Take something as trivial as arranged marriages in the Indian society. Although now a crime, the groom’s family still insists on some form of ‘dowry’ from the bride to be and her family. Why? Well after all, the groom is a man, the bread-winner, the king of the castle. This despite the fact that the bride in question is as educated, well-read and probably has the same salary as the groom in question. But still, her gender has already decided her importance in her in-laws house-hold.

India and many other nations in this part of the hemisphere consider the birth of a girl-child a liability. To the extent that until recently female infanticide was an epidemic and governments were forced to take drastic actions to curb this practice. And if you’re thinking this is a belief in rural parts, you’d be surprised! Most urban families staunchly believe that a male child is a must to carry on the family name.

For the longest time, the Catholic churches shunned the very idea of a woman priest. The same is true for the temples, mosques, synagogues of other religions. Although today women priests are becoming more common. But even with all the progress and acceptance I doubt I’ll ever see a female pope in my lifetime.

Even the entertainment industry is no exception to this practice. Compare the price tags of male and female actors and a stark difference is obvious. The same is true for the life of either gender of actors. You won’t find too many forty something female actors romancing young hunks, but the opposite is almost always common! As recent as last week, when the Oscars were announced, in the 82 year history of the Academy awards, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman director to win the coveted award!

Closer home, a battle is raging to pass a bill that would guarantee the reservation of seats in the Parliament and State legislatures for women. Opponents of this have valid justifications but the fact remain that of the 539 seats in the Lok Sabha, a paltry 44 are occupied by the fairer sex. Obviously somewhere we aren’t taking the steps to ensure equal opportunity.

So what is that I wish to say. Well in a nutshell, women are still treated a second-class citizens in our society. Whether or not that is correct and should anything be done is a choice I leave to you, the reader.
But just remember this the next time you try to snub a woman – the individual who carried you nine months in her womb, gave birth to you, fed you, let her personal life take a back-seat and treated you as if you were the most important person in the world, was a woman. Would you like it if she was treated as a nobody? Answer this truthfully and you’ll have made your choice!

Wishing all the Eves around the world, a Happy Woman’s Day!

Why I Like Bal Thackeray

Let me begin by clarifying something. I dislike the Shiv Sena and it’s illegitimate spawn, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Wait let me correct that, I do not like the agenda and beliefs that these political outfits and their like stand for and promote.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are not from India, you are no stranger to their brand of politics. Their stand on employment and welfare of the “Sons of The Soil” has caused much disharmony in the state. Off-late their agenda has taken a very brutal and ugly face in the form of public violence and blatant disregard for the laws of the land.

I guess by now you’re probably confused about the title of this post. Well allow me to explain. The aging supremo of the SS (hmmm… why does that sound familiar?) attacked Sachin Tendulkar for saying that “Mumbai belonged to all Indians”. In an editorial in the Sena mouthpiece, Saamna, Thackeray, warned Sachin to “keep off the political pitch” for his own well-being. Or else, he would have “run out” from Marathi minds.

In a country, where Cricket is a religion and Sachin its God, attacking the legend himself, is an open invitation for criticism. Political parties, intellectuals and civic society leaders have expressed extreme disgust towards the editorial by the 82-year old Sena chief. Some have even deemed the literary piece worthy of the dust-bin.

Thackeray’s editorial has in a sense united Indians against his kind. His comments enraged the millions (dare I say hundreds of millions) of fans of Maharshtra’s, scratch that, India’s beloved son. This rage, ironically is turning out to be a strong catalyst for many to realize the truth about Thackeray and his kind.

Trust me, the men behind these political parties are merely capitalizing on the sentiment of the average Marathi Manoos. Given the opportunity, these Sainiks would gladly sell their “beliefs” to the highest bidder.

I sincerely hope fans of “The Little Master” and others as well, will see these men for what they truly are and ensure that they NEVER get in a position to wield power.

So, in conclusion, I must thank Bal Thackeray for his vociferous attack on Sachin Tendulkar. It has resulted in enough political backlash and public criticism to silence him for quite some time.

Blame It On Rio!

Even as the citizens of Rio celebrate the IOC’s decision to host the 2016 Olympics in their city, closer home, in Delhi, the powers that be are struggling to meet the deadlines for the 2010 Common Wealth Games. With a day less than a whole year (that’s 364 days in case you were wondering!), many of the planned projects are way behind schedule. 

The tensions are apparent as government officials are touring the project sites personally to get the true status at the ground level. Interruptions are present at all levels of preparations. Work on the new stadia, increasing the city’s hotel accommodations, connecting the various venues, housing proper medical infrastructure are some of the prime concerns which are yet to be finalized or in some cases even established. 

The work underway in the national capital will result in a more urbanized and infrastructure sound metropolis. With 47 fly-overs, additional AC buses, new routes for the metro and mush more, Delhi is all set for a major make-over for the mega sporting event, which will sustain long after the games end. But the flowery image is far from reality and is haunted by many constraints ranging from financial to the political.

The last major international event of any note that the city hosted were the Asiad Games in 1982. Clearly the large void in between has been a cause for the “Kumbhakarana” approach for this event. It’s time the officials and authorities got their act straight and started crossing some milestones instead of indulging in bureaucratic debates and blame games.

The clock is ticking and the world is watching. So, here’s hoping that the people that matter do what matters most!

The Statue of Poverty!

The world has been reeling under severe economic depression for the past few months. Our nation has also felt the gloom and experienced several financial setbacks. To make matters worse, the delayed monsoon has further complicated the plight of our agrarian economy. The state of Maharsahtra, the worst hit due to the irregular monsoons, apart from many other issues is also insanely cash strapped. So what is the solution for the drought hit Maratha-land? According to the state’s ingenious government, a Rs. 350 crore (3.5 billion).

The statue, an election promise by the congress-NCP alliance, way back in 2004, will be green-lit pretty soon as the state has already sanctioned the funding for the same and only awaits a nod from the environmental lobby. The reason for undertaking this project? A tribute to the greatest Maratha, who shaped the destiny of this state. Having studied about this Maratha legend in school, I am well aware of his valor, brilliance and sacrifice. There is no doubt that his contribution commands greater respect than many others and so rightly deserves some form of momument dedicated in his memory. However, a gigantic statue in the middle of the sea is not what I would deem appropriate.

At a time when agriculture is taking a severe beating due to seasonal and geo-political reasons, this project seems frivolous. The previous year, the nation was shocked to learn about the suicides of hundreds of debt-ridden farmers from our state. Perhaps the funding allotted to this “prestigious” project could find its way into the houses of the families of these sons of the soil. The money could be used to pay-off the financial institutions and give the other agri-men a fresh start.

There is a parallel argument being made by proponents of the statue that the cost of the statue is a fraction of the cost which was borne for the recent MSRDC mega-project, the Bandra-Wroli Sea-Link. Although they hold some merit in their line of thought, comparing the sea-link to the statue is akin to comparing apples and oranges! the sea-link, albeit without the high toll, is a great addition to the heavily clogged asphalt arteries of the metropolis.

One could argue that the proposed 371 ft. monument (the statue of Liberty in New York towers at a mere 305 ft.!) could serve as a major tourist destination and rake in some serious phoren and desi moolah. Hmmm…somehow, I don’t see a tourist from Denver, Colorado (or for that matter from Vikhroli, Mumbai) travelling all the way to Mumbai, struggling through the city’s ill- maintained roads, making his way through a crowded Virar local, walking amidst piles of open garbage, dealing with incourteous authorities to come and take a fleeting glance at a statue.

Now I’m no economist, but as an employed bloke, I know simple household budgeting and money management 101 clearly states that when you are broke, you don’t squander on lavish purchases. Considering the cost that would be borne for a monument of this magnitude and the alternate outlets for the money, the state government should seriously rethink their “patriotic” decision.