kenny chung : the frequency

the frequency a kenny chung blog

Pride Balloons in NYC for Pride Month 2018
A NYC storefront decked out with rainbow balloons for Pride Month
(taken by Instagram user lovekinsdesigns)

Pride Month 2018 has now come and gone, and I think it’s safe to say that public support for the LGBTQIA+ community is at an all-time high. But being the skeptic that I am, I’ve begun to view the mainstreaming of this movement through a more cynical perspective. In order to better understand where this feeling stems from, please bear with me as I recount two anecdotes:

1) The Prideful Gym Bro
A few weeks ago, I forgot to charge my workout headphones and as a result, was forced to listen to top 40 music blared over the gym speakers along with the ambient conversations of fellow sports club patrons. It was the week before the Manhattan Pride parade, and I overheard a “bro” telling his workout partner that he was planning on going to the parade because his friends (a straight couple) were allies, and invited him last year with the promise of a lot of single straight women that he could hit on.

2) Hateful Accusations
My group of friends and I were at a backyard bar in Gowanus on the same day as the Brooklyn Pride parade. We were having normal conversation over cigars within earshot of a presumably gay twosome (one man and one woman) who had just left the parade. Halfway into our stay, the bartender came to the yard and informed us there was a complaint against us for using homophobic slurs. We had said no such things, and figured the two individuals were upset that the wind was carrying some smoke into their general direction, so they made up an accusation to the bartender. They ended up leaving and we had several follow-up conversations with the bartender, where she wrote off the incident as an inconsequential misunderstanding, albeit likely purposeful. I’d been wearing my pride rainbow watch band all month (see below), which lent much-needed credence to our side of the story. But I couldn’t help but think about how easily we could’ve been labeled bigots otherwise.

Baudrillard’s Simulation

On reflection, these incidents brought to mind a YouTube video about the hidden brilliance of the Comedy Central show Nathan For You (stick with me on this one). In the video essay, user Full Fat Videos explains that one of the most unique storytelling aspects of Nathan Fielder’s reality show is that the people being “pranked” never find out (until the show is aired); to them, the simulation is effectively the same as if it were real, citing French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s idea of simulation (this ELI5 reddit thread explains it in simple terms). The unwitting participants are subject to carefully fabricated scenarios meant to simulate real life (albeit, in a highly exaggerated manner), and as long as the facade is maintained, it makes no practical difference to their experience vs. if the scenarios were genuine (or to any observers not in on the joke).

So why am I writing about all this on a marketing/advertising blog?

Bear with me again.

Walking around Manhattan last month, I saw many businesses and companies temporarily adopting rainbow palettes. This includes places where I’ve worked – my past two ad agencies are very progressive (which is par for the course for most New York companies with a heavy makeup of creative liberal millennials), and have participated in initiatives supporting the community. Some genuine, some seemingly for virtue signaling purposes.

All of these instances are symbols, as described by Baudrillard. The rainbow flags and integration of associated colors are shorthand for corporate support of the movement, but their exaggeration and constant exposure through mass media may have morphed their original meaning(s).

Similar to the Nathan For You example, what if companies are feigning pride simply because they feel they’re supposed to? If people never find out that the brands are being disingenuous, does it make a difference to observers?

If 1,000 gym bros only attend the parade for ulterior motives (unbeknownst to other participants), does it matter if their presence at the event ends up bolstering attendance and makes it appear that more people support the cause?

On the other hand, if all symbols eventually extend beyond their original meanings, then I could very well have been wearing my pride watch band not because I support the LGBTQIA+ community, but because they’re the colors du jour (for the record, this is not the case). Or even worse, through the eyes of the complainers, I wear the colors so I cannot be accused of hateful speech (also not the case). I think both perspectives are ridiculous, but plausible if everything’s truly a simulation divorced from their original meanings.

Does any of this matter?

Do the ends justify the means, or are the ends in of themselves the only thing that matters? If PR teams feel pressured into launching pride adjacent campaigns and their efforts spread awareness and evangelism, would it matter if they aren’t congruent with actual company values? Over time, doesn’t leveraging the symbolism of LGBTQIA+ turn a company into a de facto ally in the eyes of the public? As a corollary, if a company is effusively pro-LGBTQIA+ but doesn’t do any tangible CSR initiatives to that end, is it truly an ally or an ally in name only?

Taking this a step further – if politicians and policy makers change their minds on issues to reflect evolving public opinion, does it matter why they changed their stance?

For instance, when President Obama was first campaigning in 2008, he very publicly stated that he believed marriage was between a man and woman. Over time, he softened that stance to be more inclusive, and it was under his tenure (and Supreme Court appointments) that same-sex marriage was declared a constitutional right.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Obama in 2015 still believed gay marriage shouldn’t have been allowed. If he were publicly pressured into adopting a stance to the contrary, which led to a ruling that benefited the gay community, would it matter why he “flip-flopped”?

It’s hard to say, and I certainly do not have a definitive answer.

But in general, I think it would benefit everyone to be more critical of brands using pride month (or any other social movement) as a marketing tool, lest we all get lost in the simulation. Take a look at what tangible things those brands are doing to benefit the community, and suss out shallow lip service.

And before I wrap up, here’s a wonderful image that succinctly sums up my cynicism:

A post shared by Yarzus (@jickityjarz) on

February 4th, 2018
according to

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?

Well…

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.

Appl

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: https://diversitymemo.com/. 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).

Spotlight

Best Picture
Best Original Screenplay

The Revenant

Best Director
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Best Cinematography

Room

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.

Creative Commons License
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.