I know that there are lots of you out there who worry about the trails you're leaving all over the internet, and are concerned that, thanks to Big Data and The Cloud and the NSA, pretty soon advertisers will be beaming perfectly targeted predictive ads straight into your head and you'll become a consumer culture zombie, mindlessly buying things you never needed and definitely didn't want.
I myself, however, do not fear such an eventuality. And here's why:
This is an ad that I have now been served 3 times in the past 24 hours when I went to watch a video on YouTube.
Digital video advertising is the Big New Growth Thing in online advertising. One of the more recent related trend subsets on YouTube has been for content providers to run their own videos as ads. It's a good strategy, because if you're not paying close attention, you can be fooled into thinking that the 'ad' is actually part of the video you're trying to access. It seems to work particularly well for musical artists, because listening to 30-60 seconds of a song (before you realize it's an ad and click the 'skip ad' button) can actually give you an opportunity to like a song you probably wouldn't otherwise have heard.
But this Xiaochu video isn't undiscovered music - it's a weird mashup which seems to reference K-pop, Pikachu and even that old strange favourite, Magibon. I found it incomprehensible (and I probably know more about K-pop fandom and Magibon than you do), and not just because of the language barrier.
I expected the comments section to be filled with 'WTF?s', but no - it's got plenty of likes and lots of positive comments. So it's hitting the mark with some kind of target audience. The thing is, I'm so far outside the target audience, I'm practically in another solar system - so why did YouTube serve me the ad?
Well, it could be because I have a strange YouTube viewing history; it could be because Google thinks I'm a 24-year-old shopaholic who lives in Ottawa (that's what they came back with when I checked my Google stats a couple of years ago); it could be that whoever wrote the ad tech algorithms that apply to this particular situation had a hangover that day.
But the bottom line is this: As long as I'm getting served ads like this on a regular basis, I know that Big Data really has no clue who I am or what I'm interested in. And until they do, I'm not panicking about whether advertisers (or the government) knows too much about me.
A random song + thoughtful art direction + barely suppressed hilarity = a video I'm usually guaranteed to love. Apparently these are two guys from ad agency TBWA/Helsinki (my guess is they're a creative team, with guy on the left as art director and guy on the right as copywriter), and they are having the kind of after-hours fun that makes people want to work in ad agencies.
Camera quality and general skill level has increased a lot in the past few years, but in the early days of YouTube I used to love Back Dorm Boys (aka 'Two Chinese Boys') for the same reason:
Did you really mean to associate your brand with racism?
Back in 1990, when I was a junior columnist at the university newspaper, a fierce debate arose: The local tanning salon wanted to advertise in the paper, and their ad included a picture of a model-thin woman in a bikini. Today, the debate might be about whether it was ethical to promote a potentially cancer-causing product to young people; twenty years ago, it was all about whether it was ethical to contribute to the objectification of women by accepting ads featuring scantily-clad bikini babes.
(Are kids these days still this idealistic about this kind of thing? I wonder.)
Ultimately, of course, the argument turns on freedom of speech: There's a fine line between refusing to publish content or advertising that is generally accepted to be offensive or inflammatory and stifling freedom of speech by quashing all dissenting or differing opinions. If you refuse an ad for a tanning salon because you think that photos of women in bikinis send the wrong message to young women, must you also refuse ads from bathing suit manufacturers which feature women modeling the bathing suits? What, exactly, does a women have to wear in an ad in order to make it acceptable for your publication? Will you apply the same standards to men? Who gets to decide?
You see the problems here.
User-generated content is hard to control
I got thinking about this a couple of days ago when I fell down one of those YouTube rabbit holes and found myself watching a video by a guy called Ramzpaul (NSFW), who calls himself a 'nationalist' or sometimes 'white nationalist'.
Ramzpaul is smarter than most of the other white pride types on YouTube: He positions himself as a 'satirist', doesn't spew hate speech indiscriminately, and has closed down the comments on most of his 481 videos - so it takes a few minutes to figure out that he is in fact a racist who's quite popular on Stormfront discussion boards (not gonna link to that one - I'll let you look it up yourself), where they like the fact that his pro-white message is subtle enough to reach his fellow nationalists without us non-racists getting upset. The core message of the video entitled "Support Marriage Equality", for example, is that people who think it's okay for people to marry same-sex partners must also think that it's okay to marry (and have sex with) animals - but because he's given the video a 'liberal-friendly' title and gone with a 'satirical' theme, he comes across as 'just a guy with some opinions'.
In fact, he's done it so well that YouTube has made him a partner and is running ads on his videos:
(I'm not going to link to any of Ramzpaul's videos here, for obvious reasons. Screenshots will have to do.)
In the past 24 hours, I've seen ads for Katy Perry, Jugnoo, Canada Works 2025 and, as in the screenshot above, for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation either on Ramzpaul's page or running before his videos. I don't know Katy Perry personally, of course, but I'm pretty sure neither she nor any of the other brands I've seen associated with Ramzpaul's channel would be all that happy about it.
Though I will say there is some sweet irony in the fact that there's an ad promoting Toronto's Gay Pride week preceding the "Support Marriage Equality" video:
Ramzpaul may be more subtle and less vitriolic than some of really hardcore racist garbage on YouTube, but he's still promoting a fairly offensive worldview, and I tend to think that it's the more subtle stuff that does the most damage, because it seems so reasonable at first: "Oh, I'm just being satirical! Oh, it's just my opinion - it's not hate speech!"
Where do you draw the line?
YouTube does a fairly good job of removing - or at least sidelining - users who are obviously racist, violent, copyrighted, etc. But with 48 hours' worth of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it can be hard for them to keep up. And anyway, where do they draw the line? I think most people would find Ramzpaul's worldview offensive, but if he's hiding behind humour, not actively promoting violence, and staying carefully away from incendiary language - we're back to the bikini question: Where do you draw the line between 'hate speech' and 'freedom of speech', and how do you make that decision?
This guy has 650k video views. But hardly anyone has seen this video.
You don't have to watch more than 15 seconds of this video to know it's horrible:
The sound and video quality is terrible, the subject matter is boring, the guy is a bad speaker...and yet somehow he's had more than 650k views in less than 2 weeks.
But he says he's a 'social media expert', so maybe he's got this worldwide following or a book or a website or something, and you just didn't know about him yet, right? Wrong. He doesn't even appear to have a website - there isn't one listed on his YouTube profile, and my very best Googling has failed to turn up anything about this guy. I can't even find him on Twitter, though to be fair there seem to be about 150 'Daniel Cohens' there, and some don't have pictures or profiles.
What he's got is some kind of hackery that YouTube hasn't figured out yet, and here's how I know: When you click the 'insights' button on the YouTube page for this video (it's the little bar graph box to the right of the view count), it says:
99.9% of the views happened on the first day the video was posted
All of them came from a mobile device
The demographics were exclusively 'male, 35-44 years old'
All of this points to some kind of technical trickery that allowed him to artificially inflate his views. I do know that videos which are genuinely popular - like this Shaytards video - show a much more varied view source, demographics and timeline.
(NOTE:As I write this, I see that Daniel Cohen has now turned off the ability to see the insights on his videos. But almost all of his other 37 videos have fewer than 100 views, which tells me that he hasn't got any kind of 'following' or loyal audience.)
Big numbers doesn't mean anyone is actually paying attention
As far as I'm concerned, the minute someone tells you they're a social media 'expert', 'guru', 'ninja' or 'visionary' because they've got big numbers, you should run the other way, for 2 reasons:
Anyone who really knows anything about social media knows that the landscape is changing every minute, so being a 'guru' is next to impossible
Getting a whole lot of followers, friends, views or 'pins' isn't the point of social media. It's what you do with those followers, friends, views and pins.
Daniel Cohen may have 650k 'views' of his video, but if they've all been generated by his army of minions in a room in Bulgaria, no real people are actually seeing the thing. He's not selling anything, he's not driving traffic to a website which is selling anything, he's not increasing his influence or opportunities for paid speaking engagements or media coverage - which means he can't sell anything for you, either.