Diverse Perspectives and Advertising

In the short half-life of scandals and outrage these days, I know it already seems like forever ago, but I wanted to take a minute to reflect on the “Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad” debacle of 2017. In the ad, reality star/model Jenner “throws off the chains of the modeling industry,” joining a Black Lives Matter protest, and ultimately bringing “everyone together by … handing a cop a Pepsi.”

You can see, perhaps, the problem.

There is plenty to analyze in terms of what is wrong with the ad, but, as someone with a background in marketing, I find myself more interested in a related question: how did the ad get made?

Interestingly, Pepsi used an in-house firm to design the ad – a move which many in agency life fingered as the culprit. If only Pepsi had had an outside perspective, an external agency with a beat on the broader culture, such an ad would never have been made. While there’s no way to know if that may have been a mitigating factor, ad agencies have made their fair share of gaffes, too.

But whether the ad was created by an in-house firm or an outside ad agency, it would have needed to go through numerous iterations and revisions. Numerous people must have looked at the ad concept, script, and footage. And none of them seemingly walked away questioning whether the ad could face backlash.

Now, I don’t know the demographics of the marketers who made this ad, but I’d bet good money that the majority of them were white.

And while that may be an implicit assumption which goes hand in hand with the very notion that this ad was created, it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on this.

When company’s make blunders like this, we shouldn’t just mock them and wonder how they got so out of touch. We more or less know, sociologically speaking, exactly how they got out of touch.

When everyone reviewing an ad is more or less the same, we shouldn’t be surprised when they turn out tone-deaf material.

The outrage here shouldn’t just be about one ad or about one company; we should all be outraged that we live in such a deeply segregated society that in a whole room full of people it is hardly surprising that not one black voice was heard.


Whoa, “Woah”

The interjection “whoa” – defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: a command to a horse to stop or stand still” or “a general interjection expressing surprise, delight, etc.” has been in use since the early 19th century.

Consider, for example, the use of the word as an intransitive verb in an 1838 issue of New Sporting Magazine: “He..climbed up the fence, ‘whoaing’ and crying to his horse to ‘stand still’.”

There is some evidence that the word has existed since long before that. One etymological dictionary, for example, dates the word to the 1620s; defining it as “a cry to call attention from a distance, a variant of who.”

But in the age of the internet, a funny thing has started happening:

Whoa. W. H. O. A. has more and more frequently come to be spelled as ‘woah’, as if the ‘h’ is precariously trying to escape from the whole messy situation.

In 2013, Slate wrote a whole piece on the gaining popularity of the wrong / new spelling: “All things considered, it’s been a banner year for “whoa,” no matter how you prefer to spell it,” they write.

And, as Mashable points out, the ACLU and Merriam-Webster dictionary recently sorted the whole thing on Twitter:

“We don’t include [woah] as a variant,” Merriam-Webster wrote in response to a query from the ACLU, “but we’re pretty sure you still have the right to say it.”

That is, after all, what it means for English to be a living language.


Evaluating Communication Channels

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the communication channels people leverage to stay in touch with each other. A particularly engaging series of articles begins with panic about the results of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS): As McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears write, the modal respondent reports having no confident with whom they “discuss important matters.” That is down from a modal response of 3 in 1985.

Perhaps the most amusing response comes from Claude Fischer, who seems to think technical or human error is the most likely culprit of the precipitous drop – a claim he validates convincingly by showing that the 2004 GSS is poorly aligned with other relevant data.

But a broader line of inquiry is raised by these findings: just what does it mean to “discuss important matters” and how has our collective understanding of that question changed?

McPherson et al argue that the decrease in confidants could in fact be an artifact of modern life:    if people interpret “discuss” as requiring face-to-face interaction, and they have replaced such modes with phone or internet communication, they may find themselves no “discussing,” per se.

There is some reason to doubt this interpretation – most notably the work of Baym, Zhang, and Lin which finds that among college students in 2004, “the internet was used nearly as often as the telephone, however, face-to-face communication was far more frequent.”

Communication, however, has changed dramatically even since 2004. A senior in college then, I was a relatively late adopter and had only had my own cell phone – a flip phone, of course – for 2 years. I had a big, clunky desktop computer and I chatted with my classmate over AIM. I wasn’t on Facebook – it wasn’t yet really a thing – and I personally didn’t use MySpace or LiveJournal. Those sites didn’t seem to be as much about keeping in touch as about broadcasting yourself. I was 19 years old and I barely knew who my self was.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if most of my conversations were face-to-face. While my phone and the internet provided some shortcuts and enhancements – face to face was the only way to really have a conversation.

Now I Snapchat my nieces every morning.

Personally, I would interpret the phrase “discuss” more broadly; I discuss important matter with people over the internet all the time. But what’s more interesting in this discussion is the arguably old-fashioned reticence to let go of face-to-face as being the only meaningful mode of communication.

But that, I think, undersells the richness of communication that is possible today – and it under appreciate’s people’s ability to leverage those communication channels.

It is easy, I suppose, to roll one’s eyes and claim that kids these days don’t know what it really means to have a conversation – but I think that is too much an oversimplification; and doesn’t give nearly enough credit to young people who want to communication, who are able to communicate, and who are fully capable of leveraging new channels and technology to discuss important matters in ways that were simply not possible before.


Reputation Mechanisms and the Civics Economy

In my Network Economics class, we’ve been talking about the “sharing economy” (or, arguably, the “so-called sharing economy”). Companies like Uber, AirBnB, even Ebay and the 3rd party seller mechanism of Amazon. While these companies arguably open the door for regulation loopholes and worker exploitation, in their purest, ideal, form, they allow “average people” to benefit from their unused resources: people can make some extra money driving strangers, hosting strangers, or selling miscellaneous items to strangers. In return, other average people can get rides, places to stay, or miscellaneous items.

Personally, I have a lot of questions and skepticism around the “sharing economy,” but that debate isn’t the point of my post today.

One of the core ideas that supports the sharing economy is a reputation system. The sharing economy wouldn’t work without it. It takes trust to get into a stranger’s car, stay in a stranger’s house, or send money to a stranger – and that trust is generated by a reputation system.

These markets are able facilitate exchange between strangers because participants in the system have a reputation – and upholding that reputation is worth more then the temporary gain of ripping someone off.

To be clear, reputation systems aren’t anything new – you trust a bank because it’s FDIC insured, you trust a hotel because it has a certain star-rating, and you trust a company because it, too, has a reputation to maintain in the broader market.

But what’s interesting about the modern reputation systems is that they tend to me much more individual. It is not institutions or brands earning your trust, but real, individual people.

In theory, a service like AirBnB doesn’t even have to be about monetary exchange – with a solid reputation system in place, people could use it as a place to earn and spend hosting credits, or to otherwise barter for a cheap place to stay.

Fundamentally, a reputation system is a way to quickly establish trust between people who wouldn’t otherwise have the personal history required for a trusting relationship.

Regardless of how you feel about the impacts of the sharing economy, I find this particular mechanism fascinating. And, as I am so often inclined to do, that interest immediate makes me wonder: what would this look like in a civic system?

That question could go in a lot of different directions, it it’s interesting to think about how such a system might play out:

A reputation system for good deliberators; where people who listen and provide rational arguments are rated highly while trolls are pushed to the margins.

A reputation system for urban developers; where developers who genuinely listen to community input are rated highlight and those just looking for profit are down rated.

A reputation system for every day, neighborly interactions: don’t know your neighbors but need to borrow a cup of sugar? Find out who in your neighborhood doesn’t mind being asked. …Do people still borrow a cup of sugar from their neighbors? I imagine not because people don’t know their neighbors and don’t know who to ask.

I can imagine other sorts of reputation systems which spill into the sharing economy as it exists today: a reputation system for finding a place to crash or getting a ride from the airport. These systems have the dangerous potential to turn into little more than corporate scheming to evade regulation – but taking primarily as a reputation system with a civic mission, it seems like such organization could have beneficial potential.


Big Tent Social Justice

I’ve been trained to think like a marketer, and I tend, at times, to think of social justice efforts through this lens too.

That is, if you’re trying to bring about behavior change among a large portion of the population, what communication strategies and tactics do you use to bring about this change? This way of thinking is somewhat distasteful given the manipulative reputation of marketing as a profession, but I find it useful nonetheless.

From this perspective, the strategy of a social justice movement would be to appeal to the largest possible number of people – to welcome everyone under a “big tent” vision of the cause. If this is your goal, then the strategy becomes relatively straightforward: create messages with broad appeal, take actions which generate sympathy, in all things go for the broadest reach and broadest appeal possible.

This is all very reasonable from a marketing perspective.

However, there’s a problem with this approach: the bigger your tent, the more diluted your vision. The more you try to please a broad group of people, the more you will have to relax your core stance.

This balance applies to any issue, not just social justice. Robert Heinlein used to argue that it was impossible to make a decision if more than 3 people are involved. Any time you have a large number of people in one place, the number of things they can really, deeply agree to will be minimal.

If you’re a marketer trying to maximize your profits, find the right balance takes skill but is relatively straightforward: appeal to the largest number of people possible while also creating a coherent brand identity. There’s a trade-off between the two, but no real sacrifice either way.

The calculation is more complex when it comes to social justice: just how much are you willing to let go?

This is an important question with a non-trivial answer: appeal to many people and you increase your chances of accomplishing something – but you also make it more likely that what you accomplish will be a toothless, meaningless shadow of your original goal.

There are varied opinions on which side of this spectrum it’s better to be on, and there’s no easy answer. When doing nothing is disastrous, is it better to accomplish something ineffective or to accomplish nothing at all?

Perhaps doing something is better than doing nothing; or perhaps an empty victory only serves to alleviate the sense that something needs to be done – making it virtually impossible for any real change to occur.

I don’t have an answer to this question – certainly not a generalizable one which could be applied to any issue at any time. But I do think that both arguments are reasonable – that we must appreciate the efforts of all who strive towards social justice and to value their input and perspective – even when we disagree.


Language and Democracy

One of the most intriguing sessions as last week’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference was on “democratic reading and writing,” a topic inspired by Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration.

I’ve only just begun reading Allen’s book, but I am struck by the core of her argument.

“The achievement of political equality requires, among other things,” she writes, “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”

This seems like something of a bold statement. Not that language is explicitly not required, but  there are so many great barriers to political equality, it is easy, perhaps, to dismiss language as the least of our problems.

But words do have power.

In How To Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin argues that words can, in the fullest sense, be actions. The performative act of an utterance goes beyond the physical action of speaking; something is actually accomplished by the words themselves.

“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons,” Austin argues, “and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…”

Not all utterances are performative acts, but some words do have this power. Words may bind one into an agreement, or may have a real impact on the listener.

The American Declaration of Independence, which Allen close reads in her book, is one example of the power and action of words. It “brings to light the incandescent magic of human politics: the fact that it is possible for people, with ideas, conversations, and decision-making committees – both formal and informal – to weave together an agreement that can define our common life.”

The process of reading and writing democratically is messy, frustrating, and hard. But from it, Allen argues, emerges a greater whole, something better and stronger than would have existed otherwise. “The source of sturdiness is solidarity,” she writes.

The Declaration, Allen finds, “is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all….I believe the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why they art of democratic writing is necessary.”

In short, as Allen argues: this country was built on talk.



I have a strong and general dislike for portmanteaus – words which have “two meanings packed up into one word,” as Humpty-Dumpty tells Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

I mention this definition because it was the first use of “portmanteau” for this purpose. An origin which is particularly amusing when you consider that our egg-shaped friend was clearly bloviating and most likely invented all the definitions he elects to confer on poor Alice.

But I digress.

At the time of Carroll’s writing, a portmanteau was most commonly known in English as a suitcase which opened into two equal sections. Thus a single word such as “slithy” is a portmanteau – in Dumpty’s reckoning – between the two component words “lithe” and “slimy.”

The word comes from the French porte-manteau, from porter, to carry, and manteau, cloak.

To be clear, I don’t have a distain for all portmanteaus. A word like ‘smog’ – smoke/fog – for example, seems to be appropriate name for something we wouldn’t otherwise have a word for. It is neither smoke nor fog, but we experience it as some novel combination of the two.

Other words, such as ‘sitcom’ – situational comedy – or ‘motel’ – motor hotel – seem like reasonable abbreviations for phrases which would otherwise be antiquated and somewhat nonsensical. Fine. I will accept these into my lexicon.

But a broader persual of English portmanteaus reveals a long list of cutesy words which are not nearly as amusing as I imagine their originators think they are. Please. Just stop it.

I suppose that this is the natural course for a living language, though. People will create portmanteaus which will be trendy for a time before most fade from use altogether. The useful ones will last.

Interestingly, portmanteaus are common in languages around the world. In French, this is described through the back-translation mot-valise (‘word-suitcase’) which subsequently became Kofferwort in German. I’m not aware of a specific Japanese term for this, but its linguistically common to combine and contract words.

While I’m in no position to comment on the worthiness of portmanteaus in those languages, the broad existence of this trend in human language seems to indicate that there is something to be said for the practice of smooshing words together and seeing what comes out.

But mostly, they just annoy me.

Because usually, we don’t need a term for whatever the portmanteau intends to convey. And if we don’t need some cutesy, made-up name for some thing that may or may not even need to exist, let us, please, just stick with the real words we already have.


Argument Mining

In 1987, computer scientist Robin Cohen outlined a theory of argument structure which laid the groundwork for modern argument mining tasks. Taking argument to a process in which a speaker intentionally tries to convince a hearer, her approach focused on understanding the structure arguments can take.

This structure is generally tree-like: the speakers primary claim is the root, and supporting arguments appear as branches. Secondary arguments may further expand the tree, as the speaker makes claims to reinforce a supporting argument. That is, a simple argument can take the form A and B, therefore C, or could take the form A therefore B therefore C.

In this way a complex argument can be modeled a tree with all the various supporting and secondary arguments point back up to the core argument root.

The problem that Cohen noted, which has continued to be a challenge in more recent argument mining techniques, is that core premises often go unsaid.

Take, for example, the simple argument structure of “P therefore Q.” In many contexts, a speaker will state P and Q, but leave out the primary claim: P therefore Q. As human interpreters, filling this gap is often a trivial task. Consider the simple argument:

Joey is dangerous.
Joey is a shark.

It is left the reader to infer that Joey is dangerous because he is a shark…and that all sharks are dangerous. (This, of course, could be debated…)

While there are no doubt instances where this lack of clarity causes confusion for a human reader, in general, this is a challenge which is easy for people with their broad array of contextual knowledge – and terribly difficult for machines.

Joel Katzav and Chris Reed formalize this missing argument (enthymeme) challenge. Defining an argument as “a representation of a fact as conveying some other fact,” a complete argument then has three elements: a conveying fact, the appropriate relation of conveyance, and the conveyed fact.

In parsing content, then, an algorithm could work to define a sentence or otherwise defined element as either a “non-argument” or as one of the argument types above. This makes the computer’s job a little easier: it only has to recognizes pieces of an argument and can flag which arguments are incomplete.

Furthermore, syntactic clues often give both humans and machines some insight into the structure of an implied argument: because X, therefore Y. Annotated debate texts can then help machines learn the relevant syntactic clues, allowing them to better parse arguments.

This is still somewhat unsatisfying, though, as annotating texts is difficult, expensive…and may still be inaccurate. In one study of online-debate, Rob Abbott et al employed 5-7 annotators per post and still found not-insignificant disagreement on some measures. Most notably, it seems, people are not much better at recognizing sarcasm than people.

Furthermore, arguments are not always…formal.

In legal texts or a public debate, it might be reasonable to assume that a given speaker makes the best possible argument as clearly as possible for a general human audience. This assumption can not be extended to many online forums or other domains, such as student essays. Colloquially, syntactic clues may be missing…or may even be miss used.

Latest work in argument mining has focused on over coming these challenges.

A 2015 paper by Ivan Habernal and Iryna Gurevich, for example, aimed to build an argument mining system that could work across domains, on unlabeled data. An earlier paper by Christian Stab and Iryna Gurevich focused on trying to parse (often poorly-formated) student essays.

By projecting argument elements into a vector space – or argument space – researchers can use unsupervised techniques to cluster arguments and identify argument centroids, which represent “prototypical arguments” not actually observed in the text.

There’s still more work to do, but these recent approaches have been reasonably successful and show a lot of promise.


Politics in an Ideal World

Not long ago, a friend asked me why anyone would want to engage in politics for politics’ sake. We worry about such things because we have to, but wouldn’t it be better, in some theoretical, ideal world, if we didn’t have to?

Imagine, for a moment, a perfect world; a society so flawless that it was always just and fair without any need for engagement from its citizens. In such a world, people would have no need for the frustrating practice of politics – they would be free, instead, to devote their time to more productive endeavors.

Now, such a thought experiment immediately raises all sorts of practical concerns; but let’s for a moment put those aside and assume that such an ideal society is both attainable and sustainable. In such a world, what would the role of citizens be?

In thinking about this question, it seemed natural to turn to John Dewey, philosopher, educator, and unwavering proponent of what he called the Great Community . Dewey’s 1927 book, The Public and It’s Problems defended democracy and responded directly to the skeptical critique of Walter Lippmann.

You’ll note here a subtle shift in language – is the thought experiment one of politics or one of democracy? Much lies, I suppose, in the definitions of these terms, but I’ll borrow here from Dewey in detangling them:

We have had occasion to refer in passing to the distinction between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government. The two are, of course, connected. The idea remains barren and empty save as it is incarnated in human relationships. Yet in discussion they must be distinguished. The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. 

To be clear, Dewey had little loyalty to the specific mechanisms of political democracy:

There is no sanctity in universal suffrage, frequent elections, majority rule, congressional and cabinet government. These things are devices evolved in the direction in which the current was moving, each wave of which involved at the time of its impulsion a minimum of departure from antecedent custom and law. The devices served a purpose; but the purpose was rather that of meeting existing needs which had become too intense to be ignored, than that of forwarding the democratic idea. 

So, if ‘politics’ is simply the act of engaging in a narrow system of political democracy whose mechanisms randomly sedimented over time, it’s unclear that Dewey would have much zeal for the idea of politics as an essential element of human life.

However, ‘politics’ can also be interpreted through the wider lens of democracy as a social idea; a concept to which Dewey was deeply committed.

For Dewey, democracy wasn’t a set of systems or an inventory of regulations; it was a way of life:

Regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself.

In this sense, ‘politics’ is the very element which transforms the “physical and organic” stuff of “associated life” into the moral entity of community. The work of politics is the work of building the Great Community:

We are born organic beings associated with others, but we are not born members of a community. The young have to be brought within the traditions, outlook and interests which characterize a community by means of education…Everything which is distinctively human is learned…To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its believes, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers onto human resources and values.

Importantly, Dewey argues that the two senses of politics cannot exist separately; without the broader understanding of social democracy, the mechanisms of political democracy reduce to nonsense: Fraternity, liberty and equality isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions.

It is only through the engagement of the people in this deeper politics, in democracy as a way of life, that we can ever achieve the mechanisms of political democracy we strive for.

If, some how, the ideal world described above were possible – if justice rained from the sky with no effort from below; such a society would still be lacking in the moral concept of democracy writ large.

Dewey was under no illusion that transforming the mechanisms of political democracy would be an easy undertaking – but it was a transformation he believed could only occur through the political work of the Great Community:

The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not a despotic master. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consumption when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.




The Ethics of Personalization

Near the beginning of the week, someone asked me about the ethics and effect of algorithms which filter your content for you; “helpfully” prioritizing those items which fit into your existing world view.

I was reminded of that question yesterday when I had an interesting and somewhat similar conversation with computer scientist Vagelis Papalexakis, whose work explores the way different people’s brains respond to various stimuli. Papalexakis discussed the possible implications for improving education: a classroom where teachers could tailor their lessons to the particular neural responses of their students.

While I can see the potential good in such technology, being somewhat cautious of the ills of human nature, I asked Papalexakis about the ethical implications – with access to student neural readings, what would stop ‘big brother’ from punishing children whose minds tend to wander?

While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent such abuse, Papalexakis rightly pointed to this as a broader ethical question – the ethics of personalization.

Filtering algorithms, for example, could easily be misused as tools for efficiently delivering propaganda. There is a value in having this personalization available, but there is also a risk.

What I find particularly interesting about the challenge of filtering is that it is not at all clear that there is a neutral solution to the problem.

In 2012, an estimated 2.5 billion gigabytes of data were generated every day – far more than we would expect ourselves to be able to handle. The reality is that some type of filtering is necessary – so the question becomes one of what type of filtering we think is best.

Imagine for a moment, the “things you wouldn’t enjoy…” filter. That is, rather than having an algorithm that tracks what you like and presents you with similar content, it tracks what you like an intentionally presents you with divergent views.

In theory, I would love to have this. It is a problem that we each tend to fall into our own little filter bubble, with little exposure to opposing views.

But, how would such a tool play out in practice? First, no algorithm can remove the need for human agency – I might be presented with opposing articles, but I would need to actually click on them.

This presents a real challenge for content providers who – even putting aside profit motive – need to serve their customers. If people don’t like the content that is being filtered for them, they will leave for a different service.

Furthermore, research indicates that even when interacting with conflicting information, people are likely to interpret the results with a bias that favors their initial view and even double down on their initial opinion.

So it’s not clear at all that changing a filtering algorithm in such a way is sufficient to relieve polarization and bias.

That’s not to say either, that we should just let filtering algorithms off the hook. They by no means a full solution to the challenges of information bias, but they do play a critical role in shaping the information atmosphere around us.

Markus Prior, for example, has show that when it comes to factual matters, a less-personalized media environment increases people’s political knowledge. On the other hand, he has also found that “there is no firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan.” So again, the personalization of the media environment is only part of the solution.

What does all this have to do with using brain scans to tailor information to recipients?

Well, I guess, we need to find ways to get all these moving pieces to work together. Personalization is good. It has real benefits and helps each focus on the signal in a sea of noise. But we should also be weary of too much personalization – a little noise and inefficiency should be intentionally built into the system. And, of course, we have to remember that we are our own agents in this work as well – systems of personalization can shape the broader context, but they cannot determine how we each choose to act.