There's an old saying in media that if you're getting something for free, then you are the product. When you listen to commercial radio, the advertisers are the customers, and you're the product that the station sells to their customers. But if you're the company selling those eyeballs or ears, it's best to convince the humans attached to them that you care deeply about them and have their best interests at heart. So I'm wondering exactly how Facebook thinks it could persuade its billion users that this is anything less than horrifying:
Facebook Inc. is testing technology that would greatly expand the scope of data that it collects about its users, the head of the company’s analytics group said Tuesday.
The social network may start collecting data on minute user interactions with its content, such as how long a user's cursor hovers over a certain part of its website, or whether a user's newsfeed is visible at a given moment on the screen of his or her mobile phone, Facebook analytics chief Ken Rudin said Tuesday during an interview.
I guess this isn't too surprising, since Facebook is legendarily disdainful of its users' privacy. But wow. Tracking your cursor movements? That is a whole new level of creepy. And what are the users getting in return for allowing their real-time movements to be monitored in this way? Absolutely nothing, it appears. Facebook is getting information that allows it to sell more ads and make more money. But you? Nada.
I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle, and while I'm only about halfway through (and things are obviously about to take a turn for the sinister), I had a different reaction to one important part of the book than Lee Konstantinou did. Lee talks about Eggers seeming uncertain and unsure about what the problem with The Circle (a kind of mashup of Facebook and Google, with some Twitter and PayPal thrown in) is and what it represents, but the ambiguity strikes me as intentional and even compelling, despite the fact that Eggers' satire isn't exactly subtle. When The Circle's personnel make presentations about new products they're planning (for instance, cheap, lollipop-shaped cameras that will become ubiquitous and record every moment of existence on Earth), they're almost persuasive in their enthusiasm that this will be a wonderful thing for humanity, even as what they're proposing is also horrifying.
Maybe my opinion about this will change once I finish the book, but it seems to me that Eggers is trying to capture the fact that it's no accident that these companies are so successful. For instance, Gmail really is a great email system. So yeah, it reads your emails and pushes advertising at you based on the content. But you can ignore that, right? And people love what Facebook offers them. It seems to me that most of the time when one of these behemoths rolled out a service people rejected, it wasn't because it was too invasive but because the benefits weren't attractive enough.
So you'd think people won't want Facebook wants to track their cursor movements unless they're getting something in return. But I'm sure the company will come up with something to tell them. Just wait until they debut the software that uses your computer's camera to track your eye movements and monitor your heart rate.
Seventy-five years ago today, the CBS radio network aired Orson Welles' radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Welles took Wells' book and transformed it into a series of radio news reports, duplicating in form and presentation what people would hear if Martians were actually invading Earth. As you probably know, mass panic ensued, with millions of Americans running screaming through the streets, having heart attacks, and generally believing that the world was coming to an end.
It's a great story; the only problem is, it didn't actually happen that way. Not that there weren't some people who flipped out, because there were a few. All indications were that those who believed it was real were socially isolated and highly suggestible for one reason or another. But there was no mass panic, nobody firing their guns at passing clouds, nobody committing suicide rather than be scooped up by the alien invaders. So why has this tale persisted?
John Boehner just read his latest poll numbers. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
What place does John Boehner hold in the American psyche? That's a question that, according to the National Journal, Democrats are going to test out in next fall's congressional election, when they try to tie every Republican in a competitive race to the honey-hued Speaker of the House. Will it work?
As a follow-up to this post, I want to talk about the thing that spawns some of these phony Obamacare victim stories: the letters that insurers are sending to people in the individual market. People all over the country are getting these letters, which say "We're cancelling your current policy because of the new health care law. Here's another policy you can get for much more money." Reporters are doing stories about these people and their terrifying letters without bothering to check what other insurance options are available to them.
There's something fishy going on here, not just from the reporters, but from the insurance companies. It's time somebody did a detailed investigation of these letters to find out just what they're telling their customers. Because they could have told them, "As a result of the new health care law, your plan, StrawberryCare, has now been changed to include more benefits. The premium is going up, just as your premium has gone up every year since forever." But instead, they're just eliminating those plans entirely and offering people new plans. If the woman I discussed from that NBC story is any indication, what the insurance company is offering is something much more expensive, even though they might have something cheaper available. They may be taking the opportunity to try to shunt people into higher-priced plans. It's as though you get a letter from your car dealer saying, "That 2010 Toyota Corolla you're leasing has been recalled. We can supply you with a Toyota Avalon for twice the price." They're not telling you that you can also get a 2013 Toyota Corolla for something like what you're paying now.
I'm not sure that's what's happening, and it may be happening only with some insurers but not others. But with hundreds of thousands of these letters going out and frightening people into thinking they have no choice but to sign up for a much more expensive plan, it's definitely something someone should look into. Like, say, giant news organizations with lots of money and resources.
In the last couple of decades, a particular technique of news story construction has become so common that I'm sure you barely notice it as something distinctive. It's the use of a device sometimes referred to as the "exemplar," in which a policy issue is explained through the profile of one individual, whose tale usually begins and ends the story. It's ubiquitous on television news, but print reporters do it all the time as well.
As the Affordable Care Act approaches full implementation, we're seeing a lot of exemplar stories, and I've been noticing one particular type: the story of the person who seems to be getting screwed. If it were true that most Americans were indeed being made worse off by the law, that would be a good thing; we'd learn their stories and get a sense of the human cost of the law. The trouble is that in the real world, there are many more people being helped by the law than hurt by it, and even those who claim to be hurt by it aren't really being hurt at all.
To see how misleading some of these exemplar stories can be, let's take this piece from last night's NBC Nightly News, which uses an exemplar named Deborah Caballaro (sorry if I've misspelled her name), a self-employed realtor from Los Angeles who buys insurance on the individual market: