the frequency a kenny chung blog

February 4th, 2018
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Black Mirror Nosedive
A screenshot from the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”

The brilliant television series Black Mirror is described as “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy” by its creator Charlie Brooker. Yesterday, with a handful of new announcements from Apple, the privacy Doomsday Clock just ticked a few minutes closer to midnight.

Hyperbolic? Maybe. But between the new Face ID technology of the iPhone X and the biometric measurement of the latest Apple Watch, users are going to be voluntarily conceding a lot of personal data, and quite passively so. In theory, both are very dangerous things to normalize; but with Apple’s smartphone and watch market share, it may very well become practice sooner rather than later.

So what’s the big deal? We take selfies every day, and Face ID is just a 3D selfie, right?


Today’s Selfie is Tomorrow’s Biometric Profile

That was a quote from a piece of art hanging in the window of the New Museum in New York City that I chanced upon back in March 2016:

Today's Selfie is Tomorrow's Biometric Profile

Selfies may seem harmless now, but they are the proverbial foot in the door for lower and lower expectations of privacy. Fifteen years ago, nobody took selfies. If you did, it was as a joke and very few people (if any) would ever see it because you had to develop the film and they were embarrassing. Nowadays, we have high quality cameras within arm’s reach at all times, making it normal to take a photo of yourself. Face ID was just one minute past the introduction of the front-facing camera. The more photos of ourselves we publish on the internet for corporations and institutions to consume, the more we expose ourselves.

Or as famed media/communications theorist Marshall McLuhan put it:

“Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

Speaking of biometrics, remember how Apple said their latest Watch would be able to detect whether or not your vitals are normal at any given moment? Hand that information over to the proper authorities, and you’ve got yourself a real-time lie detector. Sure, polygraphs are notoriously ineffective and usually not admissible in court (regardless of what TV shows and movies have you believe). The law is constantly playing catch-up with technology, and Apple just made it easier to facilitate government overreach.

You can’t find the boundaries until someone oversteps them

Let’s take a look at Apple’s contemporary, Facebook. Facebook has been honing its facial recognition technology for years now.

So has the FBI.

The difference is that Facebook’s tech reportedly operates at a staggering 98% accuracy, which is far better than the FBI’s because the government database mostly consists of mugshot-style photos and security camera footage. In contrast, Facebook stores billions of first-party-verified photos of its users from multiple angles, backed by a learning program that can continually refine itself with every single upload.

What’s one minute further than Facebook’s database and algorithms? How about a camera phone that is capable of performing an infrared scan of your face and its unique contours? One with a 1 in a million chance of being fooled. One whose camera you use to unlock your phone dozens of times each day, 365 days a year. That’s a hell of a lot of information.

Given a few months and billions of data points, Apple may end up with the most advanced facial recognition software in the world. Apple touts their “neural network” as a benefit, but it should be interpreted as a warning sign.

Not to mention this other potential security flaw that made its way around Twitter concurrently with the Apple Event:

What’s stopping Apple from going full Black Mirror?

Right now, the only thing stopping Apple from becoming a willing surveillance arm of the government is Apple itself. Giving credit where credit’s due, Apple did once refuse FBI orders to unlock the phones of the San Bernardino domestic terrorists back in 2015. And they also denied a request from the DOJ to wiretap iMessage/Facetime, while in the same breath confirming that they had the capability to read and listen to our conversations (so… thanks, I guess?).

To quell our fears at Tuesday’s Event, Apple did say that the personally identifiable data will only be available locally on your devices.


Google offices
Photo credit

The internet has been abuzz the past week over a 10-page anti-diversity “manifesto” written by recently terminated Google employee James Damore. On the surface, the uproar seems reasonable, but I’m going to argue that it’s for the wrong reasons.

I’ve ruminated on whether or not to address this topic, because it’s clear that the writer’s firing has resulted in a chilling effect (within and without Google). I’ve considered the consequences of having current or future employers reading these thoughts, but at the end of the day, this is a mass comm blog and I believe this is a media issue. That said, of course everything I write here reflects my own personal opinions. I cannot emphasize that enough.

Here’s my main gripe with the coverage around this story – the media carelessly ran away with it, throwing nuance and context to the wind, all so it would fit more neatly in a black and white narrative.

How many people reading these stories are aware of the source of the manifesto? I would assert that it’s the minority. That’s because click-hungry journalists would have you believe that the former Googler unsolicitedly sent this 10 page document to his entire team/company. And that’s simply not true. The reality is he posted it on a private internal Google Group meant to discuss “controversial” ideas openly, and invited feedback/criticism. The author included footnotes and embedded links to abstracts to support his points. You can read it in full context here: Journalists copied/pasted portions in plain-text, stripping it of its context, making the content seem more unsubstantiated (to their credit, Vice was one of the few to post the entire memo unedited).

The overuse of the term “manifesto” is also inherently problematic. Unless you’re following UK politics, it’s a term most commonly associated with communists or serial killers/mass murderers. As of today, we’re coming up on 1,000 individual articles that refer to it as a “manifesto” within their headlines (and that’s not counting those that only do so in the body copy):

Google News results for James Damore Manifesto
Google News screenshot, accessed Aug 11, 2017

I want to make it clear that I am not tacitly endorsing the creation of such a document or the ideas therein (in fact, there are many logical fallacies and conclusions to which the jump was a bit too far). It’s also been years since my last sociology and evolutionary biology courses, so I won’t fact-check the citations either. I’m not saying that tech doesn’t have gender inequality and harassment issues (Uber has provided us with more than enough examples). But I am making the point that if someone posts a working version of a dissenting opinion that others disagree with on a safe space meant to discuss such ideas, then the most logical next step would be to debate the validity of those statements and provide evidence to the contrary. Present compelling counter-arguments such that the author can revise his thesis (and maybe ultimately change his way of thinking). Instead, what Googlers did was violate their non-disclosure agreements to share the document publicly, much to the detriment of the author and to Google as a company.

This is extremely bad timing for Google.

It would be ill-advised to ignore the larger Google context. At the moment, the Department of Labor is investigating Google for a purported gender pay gap. The 3,300 word manifesto ends with a criticism of Google’s internal biases with regard to hiring. Other commentators have posited that Google fired Damore because if they hadn’t, their inaction could be used against them in future discrimination lawsuits. It may seem farfetched, but the logic holds water – an employee writes about Google’s biases; Google takes no action, which could be construed as an implicit acknowledgement of said biases.

The media echo-chamber of pitchforks certainly forced Google’s hand to take immediately action. What would’ve otherwise been a confidential and internal matter became a national one.

I’m not an HR specialist, and neither are you (probably).

What’s most important is what happened behind closed doors when Damore was fired. Was it solely the manifesto that led to his firing? Or was there a pattern of violating anti-discrimination laws? He was a senior engineer after all, and presumably had influence on who was hired. The thing is we don’t know, so it’s difficult to say whether or not his firing was justified, based on what’s been presented in the media. In either case, it seems like he might pursue legal action against Google.

But let’s also get one important thing out of the way:

This is not a free speech issue.

Far too often, people conflate “freedom of speech” with a guaranteed right to say anything in all situations. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech means that the government cannot censor citizens, within specific confines (e.g. you cannot endanger others in exercising your speech).

Where the lines blend is when Google states companywide that their goal is to foster “a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.” The next sentence in the announcement goes on to say that any opinions need to fit within their Code of Conduct.

But here’s the rub – in the manifesto (a part that many journalists don’t include in their stories), the author includes a caveat that you cannot judge individuals based on generalized gender trait differences. This point is made several times in varying language. Nowhere does the author say that women are inferior employees (a talking point parroted by many pundits). I will note that there is one bullet where he mentions Google’s hiring practices with regard to “diversity” hires lowers the bar, but it’s in conjunction with a private internal link so it’s not possible to determine how that point was substantiated (and if it’s focused on gender, ethnicity, or both). To paraphrase, his thesis is that due to societal influences, men generally seek more leadership roles and the way these roles are positioned is not as appealing to a plurality of women. I’m not going to argue for or against the merit of these statements (or their logic), but they’re definitely valid topics for debate. Except they weren’t debated, which is the key problem.

A leaked survey of 282 Googlers showed that only 30% thought the document shouldn’t have been created:

On diversity hiring.

Quotas are a touchy subject. One of my previous employers sought to reach gender ratios, seemingly irrespective of supply and demand and the overall pool of candidates. I didn’t agree with that approach then, and I still don’t think it’s fruitful now.

The system I do believe in is actively including more diversity candidates in the consideration set, which would mathematically increase your quantity of diversity hires without artificially increasing the rate (given similar levels of proficiency and qualifications).

The topic of quotas also touches upon a separate issue that’s been in the news lately – Asian Americans taking issue against affirmative action. I won’t comment on the validity of that argument either as it would be a much longer essay, but it’s safe to say that a lot of people are against quota systems that exist for the optics of diversity. It seems we may be reaching an inflection point on the practice, for better or for worse.

Back to public shaming.

I’ve written about social media outrage before. Jon Ronson (author of the 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) likens social media to the new town square, where you can pin scarlet letters on people and ruin their lives. The book also ironically includes a chapter about using SEO for reputation management within Google results.

I believe this whole manifesto situation is just the latest on the long list of examples where the public has crucified an individual, egged on by the media.

And that’s why I chose a purposefully sensationalistic title on this blog post. It seems that in an attention-deficit, hair-triggered, social media-empowered world we find ourselves in, the most offensive thing is to have a nuanced opinion. If I’ve pissed off both sides of the debate, then I’ll happily accept that badge with pride.

Note: The majority of this post was written before Google CEO Sundar Pichai was meant to host a town hall discussing diversity within the company. The meeting was cancelled due to online threats.

If 2015 was any indication, people still care about movies. Total domestic gross was $11.1 billion. The top three movies were all record-breaking sequels (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron). And despite declining viewership, the 88th Academy Awards still drew over 34 million sets of eyeballs.

Movies vs. Netflix

Although the effect on the movie industry hasn’t been as radical as it was for TV, new modes of entertainment delivery (e.g. Netflix) are changing the ways that consumers view media and its role in everyday life.

Consider the following chart that shows the average movie gross vs. Netflix subscriptions:

Average movie gross vs. Netflix Subscriptions

Source: Misix

It’s a loose correlation at best, but what’s clear is that fewer people are paying for movie tickets. Of course, that chart doesn’t include the phenomenon that was Star Wars, but the yearly trendline still stands. With advanced technology, the home can very well be a pleasant movie-going experience (or I suppose, more accurately, a movie-staying one).

With the always-on, instant gratification prospect of streaming, it only makes sense that the studios are always playing catchup. It’s a fine balancing act between determining how soon to release movies on home media. Of course, streaming services are also delayed in getting the latest releases, but the difference in waiting an extra week with the benefit of not having to go out to a big box store to pick up the latest movie sure is enticing. And with the benefit of a gigantic back catalog of TV shows and movies, consumers can easily keep themselves entertained in the interim.

Theater to DVD wait times

A chart showing decreasing time between theater releases to DVD releases from this reddit thread 3 years ago.

Mapping Oscar Search Trends to Consumption Habits

The Academy Awards, however, present us with a unique opportunity to identify how users are searching for movies in real time. It stands to reason that the award-winners will garner the highest levels of interest, with the general public wanting to watch said movies.

The first step, then, is to figure out what qualifiers or search terms people usually append to movie titles. Based on this set of keywords associated with 2016 Oscar winners, we can chart the data thusly:

Movie Consumption Methods by Search Volume

With the exception of “DVD”, the distribution of searches greatly skews toward illegal (or potentially illegal) viewing methods.

Using Google Trends, we can see that the hourly trends generally show that around the point of impact (Oscar winners being announced), there is a significant spike in searches in all of these types of searches. However, as time goes on, the searches that stay on top are typically explicitly illicit (e.g. Torrent) or vaguely so (e.g. Download).


Best Picture
Best Original Screenplay

The Revenant

Best Director
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Best Cinematography


Best Actress

The Danish Girl

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Bridge of Spies

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Inside Out

Best Animated Feature Film

The Big Short

Best Adapted Screenplay

Ex Machina

Best Visual Effects

Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Film Editing
Best Costume Design
Best Production Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

What does this mean for media distributors?

The obvious takeaway is that during awards ceremonies, movie studios or streaming services should bid on movie names + modifiers (budget permitting) since that may very well be the highest traffic and sales opportunity for home media (this likely also applies to music awards shows). The studios/services should customize their messaging to match the event, and also optimize all aspects of their organic presence as well. Ranking well for all on-brand “download” and “DVD” terms is a no-brainer, as well as for shopping, video and image engines.

On the surface, it might make sense to add “torrent” as a negatives in paid campaigns, but if people aren’t looking to pay, then they won’t click on your ad anyway. And you run the possibility of being able to capture clicks if there are no viable illegal viewing options available. For example, if you’re a service like Amazon Prime that does several-day rentals, then tout the benefits of the low cost and the convenience. Give people a reason to pay a few dollars for an authentic copy, because any friction is going to drive users to the simplest option, which is typically the most illegal.

Steve Buscemi Fellow Kids joke on 30 Rock

If you watch 30 Rock religiously, then you’re probably aware of the origins of the “fellow kids” meme that’s been making its rounds on the internet for a few years now. It’s a screengrab from an episode where guest star Steve Buscemi plays a private detective who at some point infiltrated a high school by pretending to be a student:

That joke has taken a life of its own, with reddit at the forefront of proliferating references to it. The term “fellow kids” was adopted as a pejorative shorthand for brands and advertisers trying to relate to millennials using slang or memes (often to cringeworthy results). As of this writing, the subreddit /r/FellowKids has over 62,000 subscribers, this author inclusive.

A few notable examples:

Mountain Dew saying Bae on Twitter

Microsoft handing out shibe doge meme fliers at their Windows 10 Conference

WhatABurger Tweeting dank memes

Sources: reddit, @BrandsSayingBae

Should Your Brand Be Using “Dank Memes”?

The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “maybe, but only in very rare circumstances”. By definition, memes take a life of their own, and a brand trying to align with that messaging is essentially giving up some creative control. The term “dank memes” is itself a reference to marijuana culture.

When social media “gurus” post memes that they don’t fully understand, not only does it open the brand up for ridicule, but it can also negatively affect brand messaging. And because you can write a textbook and debate for days on the genesis and true meaning of specific memes (KnowYourMeme has created an entire website on trying to crowdsource explanations for them), it’s often safer to just stay away from using memes on brand channels.

One of the most egregious examples of a brand misusing memes is Truth (the anti-smoking coalition). Their latest ad campaigns are chock full of popular memes. Here’s one of their current commercials:

Let’s only briefly touch on the fact that the “it’s a trap” meme is a reference to trolling straight men with photos of women who are later revealed to be transgender. This reinterpretation of the now-famous line from Return of the Jedi originated on 4chan (naturally). It would have literally taken 30 seconds of research for Truth’s creatives to figure out that it was probably not the best tagline to base a campaign around. The rest of the commercial misuses several memes and shoehorns them into their anti-smoking messaging.

Can memes ever be used properly?

Yes, but it’s a minefield. Here are a few pointers for getting it right:

  1. Understand the memes
    There’s no quicker way to show the world you’re out of touch than by misappropriating Internet culture. A simple search on Know Your Meme or Urban Dictionary should be the first stop for anyone trying to leverage memes or youth slang.
  2. Don’t force it
    I cannot stress this enough. If it doesn’t fit your brand to be using sophomoric memes, then don’t use them! Does it make sense for Mike Huckabee to be using a meme related to gangsta rap to reach potential voters? Absolutely not.
  3. Don’t try to create memes
    I cannot tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where people’s ideas of a successful social media or creative campaign is “to go viral”. Going viral is a result of a good campaign, not the goal. You can’t control it, and you definitely shouldn’t start your own meme. You’ll seem like you’re trying too hard and there will be backlash from the /r/HailCorporate crowd. Don’t do what Lunchables attempted:

    Lunchables trying to create their own meme

  4. You can’t change the meaning of memes, so don’t try
    Trying to co-opt a meme is at best guaranteed to fail, and at worst, it’ll create a backlash. Especially when you try to co-opt an organic meme like Bagel Bites tried to.
  5. Use the right message for the right channel
    This is more of a general marketing tip, but it still applies when we’re talking about memes. The things you can get away with on Facebook are different from what you can do in a magazine ad, or a TV commercial. If something’s worth sharing, put it on a network that facilitates sharing. Don’t do this:

    Target says holla in an email

  6. Be timely.
    Like most trends on the internet, memes have a relatively short shelf life. That means you should stop referencing Gangnam Style no matter how funny you still think it is. This also makes it dangerous to create costly television spots that reference memes if you don’t plan on refreshing your creative. Here’s a great example of the GOP trying to use an old meme and being called out by the Democratic Party:

    GOP and Democratic Party on using memes on Twitter

Brands Doing It Right

Some brands get it right. Old Spice created some of the most viral commercials of the last decade. WWE consistently becomes the top trending hashtag during their live events. I saw this cat commercial as a pre-roll on YouTube once and didn’t skip it. Count that as a success.

More recently, Domino’s created a campaign where you could order a pizza through various devices, including via emoji. On paper, it sounds like a decent stunt but also potentially FellowKids territory if not done right. Domino’s understood that millennials are fluent in irony and the tongue-in-cheek tone they took in their commercials was spot on:

Outside Of Your Control

Internet, grant me the serenity to accept the memes I cannot change, the courage to use the memes I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes you simply can’t predict what will go viral. The internet is both a fickle and crushing machine.

Dos Equiis created a great mascot and tagline with the most interesting man in the world and years later, are now reaping the rewards for its memeworthiness.

There’s an incredibly strange and cult-like subreddit called /r/Kelloggs devoted to their cereal brands to the point where users honestly don’t know if it’s a joke or not.

And most recently, “Netflix and Chill” has become one of the most commonplace memes, especially among Black Twitter (a subject for a different blog post). It refers to young people (typically men) inviting other people over to watch Netflix and “chill” as the pretext for engaging in sexual activity. The phrase proliferated on social media and has become one of the best things to happen for Netflix’s brand recognition. All this without Netflix lifting a finger.

Lastly, when in doubt…

…err on the side of not looking stupid. This is probably a good life lesson in general, but if you don’t understand a social media phenomenon and aren’t willing to pay someone who does, then just forego it altogether. Having your target audience perceive your brand as stupid is not a place you want to be.

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