A Tale of Two Smartphone Apps: Love and Ethics in the Time of the Travel Ban

It was the best of times, it was the Trumpiest of times.

I don’t write as often as I want to these days, and more often than not it’s for the same reason. In recent months, I find when I go to sit down and write one of these, then I read some awful news that just happened and decide that not only do I not feel like writing anymore, but wonder who would want to read any of my nonsense given what is going on elsewhere. The last time this happened was at the end of January, and President Trump had just signed his first executive order on immigration, the “Muslim Travel Ban”, which immediately barred even legal US residents from certain Muslim countries from re-entering the US. Slowly, stories started trickling in about people who left the country for a vacation and suddenly lost their whole lives. It was shocking not only in these personal stories, but also that a US president could have done this, and obviously not thought through the effects of his actions at all. Another reason I don’t write a lot anymore is that since all anyone talks about anymore is Donald Trump or Brexit, it follows that most of the things I’m thinking about are these two things, and there is already far too much stuff online already about them. So this isn’t about either of these things, it’s just set in this new world, against this madness that we all now reside in.

You were all alive at the time, and remember how the protests against the Travel Ban were organised very quickly, especially in major US airports. The largest protest was perhaps at New York’s JFK Airport, where thousands of people showed up to demonstrate against the ban. Out of solidarity, New York taxi drivers joined the strike, making it impossible to get a traditional taxi to or from the airport. People still needed to travel to and from the airport however, so the obvious replacement was Uber, which had been taking customers away from the traditional yellow New York cabs for years anyway. Uber, in situations like this with higher than usual demand, are famous for “surge pricing”, which entails charging higher than usual fares for car rides as a way to encourage Uber drivers to show up in places and at times where it wouldn’t normally be worth their while under normal circumstances. The company has caused controversy several times for seemingly profiting from terror attacks such as the Boston Marathon Bombing by, through means of surge pricing, charging customers high fares to flee danger.

In this case at the airport, there was high demand for Uber rides, but the company decided not to apply surge pricing in the area between the airport and the city. From their perspective, they were trying to help out with legitimate transport needs without attempting to profit from a bad situation. From the point of view of everyone else, they were not only crossing picket lines and attempting to break a strike, but through low prices were actively encouraging people to use the service, and thereby profiting from the Travel Ban. A Twitter campaign began, urging people to delete their Uber accounts. Apparently 200,000 people deleted their accounts over that weekend, a level high enough to force Uber to change the way they handled the process of deleting accounts.

The success of this campaign and the tarnishing of the Uber brand wasn’t very surprising: those on the left have severe difficulty in choosing their battles to fight, and Uber faces such grassroots opposition from taxi driver associations around the world so that any criticism about the company will be spread as widely as possible through networks that were designed for just this purpose. What did pique my interest that day was the news that the other main “sharing economy” company, AirBnB, was also receiving attention. The founder of AirBnB had announced that his company would aid in giving emergency housing to those affected by the ban. It was a very nice and welcome gesture, but it does needs a bit of context.

The Context

In simpler times (about a year ago), the type of thing that would light up the internet for a few days would be something like a “study” of the travails of a black person trying to get a booking on AirBnB in comparison to the ease of a white person. In a series of these, it became apparent that it was extremely difficult to get a place to stay on AirBnB unless you were white, and preferably straight. The conclusion that everyone drew from this was that AirBnB was racist, and possibly homophobic. The people at AirBnB took great offence to this, and vowed to solve perceived discrimination on their site. The culmination of this was that from November 1 2016, anyone logging into the site had to read and agree to a new user agreement, forbidding discrimination on both sides. If you want to rent out an apartment on AirBnB, you have to agree to rent it to anyone regardless of colour, sexual orientation or religion. Similarly, those seeking accommodation were encouraged to rent from all available properties, rather than just those offered by their preferred race or creed.

Ever since I received the email from AirBnB at the end of October 2016 about this proposed new user agreement, I have been planning to write something about it. Look, its intentions are obviously noble, and I would like to live in a world without discrimination, but to think it can be solved by a user agreement is one of the most arrogant things I have ever heard of. I might write about this again soon, as it is the topic of my PhD dissertation and it demands further exploration than the quite right-wing explanation I will give here for expediency, but the arrogance shown by AirBnB here is not that they think they can solve discrimination, it is that they see discrimination as a decision.

Deciding to Disciminate

To the AirBnB people in their start-up community, where they are connecting people through their app and website, rather than taking jobs away from people in the hospitality industry through the exploitation of legislative gaps in taxation and insurance, good people wake up in the morning and decide to treat everyone equally. Bad people wake up and decide that they don’t like certain groups. If only these bad people would stop doing this, then there would be no discrimination, and everyone would be equal.

In reality, discrimination is not like this: most discrimination is subconscious and ultimately involuntary. There is no one on this earth who can say they are not racist, sexist or homophobic, because they really don’t know, and in truth they themselves are probably not the ones who should be the judge of it. I like to think of myself as accepting of everyone, yet at times, and often very suddenly, I am shocked at how I behave in certain situations with people who are a different race, religion or sexuality than myself. I can check it, but often I only realise my behavior afterwards. The reason discrimination is so persistent is not due to choice; it is far, far deeper than that. I would even go so far as to say that it is a very depressing part of what makes us human.

This is not a popular view of discrimination however, and many would have us believe that it is something we can solve by simply being good people. AirBnB say that if you want to use their service, then you have to stop hating black people. That’s fair enough, but what if you don’t hate black people, and receive many requests on AirBnB, and suddenly you receive an email from the company telling you that through analysis of your rejections against acceptances, you reject black people a lot more than anyone else. You didn’t know it, but you’re a racist. And now you’re banned from AirBnB.

I’m not saying that we should all stop worrying about discrimination or that it will solve itself, just that its stigmitisation as something awful is not necessarily always correct. Gender quotas on management boards and parliamentary elections do not exist to enhance equality today, but to normalise gender equality and thus limit this subconscious discrimination in the future. Exposing and defining various forms of discrimination is helpful. Naming and shaming individuals who are perceived to discriminate is not. My grievance with AirBnB is that they expected all their discriminatory users to be aware of their discriminatory behaviour. It’s quite a high horse to ride on. While they have shown through their user agreement roll-out that they are attempting to tackle discrimination on their platform, there is no doubt in my mind that it will have no effect whatsoever, and new “studies” exposing AirBnB discrimination are inevitable.

Back to Reality

What’s this got to do with AirBnB’s actions during the Travel Ban, and with the announcement of housing refugees and US citizens affected by the order? It’s hard to be cynical about something like this, as they are in a position to help people out, and hopefully they have helped a lot of people throughout this period. However, if you have been following the company’s issues over the past year, it is also hard to avoid the fact that they are using the Muslim Travel Ban as a marketing stunt. The week after the travel ban, the company aired an ad during the Superbowl emphasising their inclusiveness policy, and just this week sent out an email to all their users about how inclusive they are. Again, their actions in helping real life victims are pure, but are their intentions any different from the criticism of Uber that prompted such vitriol? At the time of the #deleteuber campaign, the main message was that people would not tolerate businesses trying to profit from Trump’s policies, yet I would argue that AirBnB have done just this.

The moral quandary here is that AirBnB is doing good things, yet it is using a political situation to reposition its brand to a place that is comfortable with the values of its founders. When data inevitably comes back in a few months that its user agreement pledge had no effect, AirBnB can now point to their actions during the Travel Ban as a means to deflect criticism, and they are proving this by keeping everyone very aware that they are doing through massive advertising campaigns and reminder emails. All that could be said of Uber’s intentions were that they were questionable; the intentions of AirBnB much less so. If you’re going to punish companies for attempting to profit from the eccentricities of President Trump, consistency is necessary; the actions of Uber cannot be criticised while the actions of AirBnB go unnoticed. That, and at some stage we will all have to admit to ourselves that we discriminate, perhaps even every day.


The Social Deconstruction of Physical Space (and Pokémon)

There is nothing interesting about the Pokémon in Pokémon Go. What is interesting in Pokémon Go is it’s potential to constantly, and randomly, apply new meaning to established physical space.


I’m too old for Pokémon. In fact, I’m so old that I was too old for Pokémon back when it first got popular in the late 1990’s. It was the first genuine cultural phenomenon aimed at young people that I just could not relate to, as I was just slightly above the recommended age group. So I can name exactly one Pokémon: the yellow one called Pikachu. Nevertheless, a few days ago I found myself staring at my phone while walking down a leafy, residential street in Hamburg. This in itself is nothing unusual, except that my phone was directing me towards a certain location nearby where it thought a rare Pokémon might be hiding. I got close enough, and the image of the monster appeared on my screen. I just had to go a few metres of physical space more to be able to engage with it on my phones screen, and ultimately attempt to capture it for my collection. I looked up from my phone and realised that the location of my target was in the middle of a designated children’s playground. It was a sunny Sunday, so there were children running, laughing and playing all over the place. In order to ‘catch’ this Pokémon that I had been stalking for about five minutes, I would have to walk into the middle of all of the children, and stand there with my phone while I battled it into submission. After careful consideration, I put my phone away and walked home.

As I said, I don’t know anything about Pokémon, so it is not out of youthful nostalgia that I had downloaded Pokémon Go, it was merely out of curiosity. I am a childless mid-30s know-it-all that likes to pretend to be aware of all current and future popular culture phenomana as a desperate attempt to cling to my youth, so trying out this current Pokémon Go trend is practically part of my job description. The game isn’t great, and I haven’t played it in a few days now, and can’t see myself playing it much apart from when I am stuck waiting around somewhere with nothing to do. While I don’t like the game too much, I do however find the technology very interesting, as I have been following the development of augmented reality (AR) for several years. The use of AR in Pokémon Go is extremely clever, even fascinating. I say it’s fascinating because, like my experience above in the playground, Pokémon Go has the power to constantly apply new meaning to an established physical space. And this could be very, very interesting.


Social Constructs

Many of the basic concepts we hold dear in this world we can broadly define as social constructs. Family, government, law, the economy, the country you live in: none of these things actually exist, they are simply modes of complex cooperation that have evolved over time in human history as things that work quite well. It’s generally a good idea for a man and a woman to raise children together, it’s generally a good idea that we have a set of rules that we all stick to so that we don’t all kill each other, and it is generally a good idea to have a few people in charge of everyone to make big decisions. There are lots of different ways to socially construct a society, but this is the one we have, and it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

While these vague concepts are usually what we use to explain social constructs, what is interesting also is to explore the social construction of physical space, as you will find that it defines our world just as much as government and the economy. To badly misquote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important moments in history was when someone put a fence around a piece of land and said “this is mine”. People believed that person, and soon got to fencing in their own land, and now we live in a world that is absolutely defined by property rights. Respect for property rights is one of the essential founding blocks in the reliability of a nation-state (also a social construct of physical space, but that’s for another day). If the people within a country do not have faith that they can own their own property, then chaos will reign in that country. If you have ever seen the TV show Deadwood, that show is fundamentally about the absence, and possible but not guaranteed appearance, of the enforcement of property rights, and as a result society is brutal. An essential function of government, in the form of the police and judiciary, is to enforce property rights. So we have several social constructs whose job it is to enforce a fundamental social construct, the right to call a piece of land “yours”.

It’s not “yours”, of course, but you have a piece of paper from the government saying that it is “yours”, and everyone wants a piece of paper just like that, so it is in everyone’s interest if we all just play along in this grand game of pretend that we call civilised society. So yes, for the sake of civil order, everyone’s piece of paper gives him/her the right to do with whatever he/she wants with it, be it building a house, starting a business or leaving it completely empty. And by doing this, meaning is applied to this land that society has agreed is owned by the person who bought it and holds the deed issued by the government. If it’s a family home, the meaning is that it is the place where the Mulligans hang out, and this meaning is tempered by what we know of the Mulligans and how likely they are to appreciate outsiders coming on to their property, If they are friendly, and if they are likely to shoot trespassers. If it is a business, meaning is bestowed based on what the business is. If you open a bar, then people will feel comfortable coming in unannounced to sit drinking beer for hours. This is unacceptable in most buildings on earth, but because of the meaning given to that particular physical space by the owners of the socially constructed deed, we are comfortable that this behaviour is acceptable. No one even asks when they enter a bar whether it’s ok to sit down and drink a lot, they just do it.

Pokémon & Social Constructs

So getting back to last Sunday at the children’s playground in Hamburg, the reason I did not enter the playground was because of the meaning I had applied (through its social construction) to that particular space. It would have been inappropriate (and quite odd) for a lone man in his mid-30s to enter that space at that time. The interesting thing about this is that for a few seconds, while still involved in the Pokémon Go game, my interpretation of that physical space was completely different to everyone else around me. Through the game, I had applied new meaning to this space: it wasn’t a playground owned by the government to allow children a space to play, it was a free place in the world where a rare Pokémon happened to be.

If you look at the media attention that Pokémon Go is getting, you will see that this is the issue that crops up more than any other: the confrontation between different meanings and social constructs assigned to certain physical spaces. The most famous of these is the highly publicised story about the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC complaining about a lack of respect for victims of the Holocaust shown by those playing the game on the premises. I apologise for any offence, but to commit to my point I have to go there: the Holocaust Memorial is a building that is assigned meaning by those who own it. There is no real connection between that physical space and the Holocaust, its designation as a memorial was a conscious choice by the legal owners of the property, as after all it is located in Washington DC, far from any site associated with the Holocaust during World War II. The space’s official meaning is obviously more noble and powerful, but it is still a complete social construct, and the meaning Pokémon Go assigns the space in the form of a certain breed of Japanese pocket monster is no less objectively valid.

In a similar, although not as moralistic, way, a lot of stories about the game echo this clash between the officially socially constructed meaning of a physical space and the meaning ascribed from the Pokémon Go app. You see stories about homeowners becoming annoyed that people are hanging around outside their property in search of a fixed ‘pokestop’, you see photos posted on library doors telling people that they need a library card to come in and hunt Pokémon, and you read angry tweets about clueless old men attacking millenials for coming too far into their local dive bar to catch that elusive Meowth (alright, I know two Pokémon names). This isn’t where Meowth is, they could say, this is the place where I’m allowed sit and drink all day.


So this is where all the public interest in Pokémon Go is coming from: the clash between socially constructed reality, and augmented reality. The big question would be whether the game gets big enough so that its own designated meaning to a physical space actually begins to supersede the socially constructed official meaning of that space.  This is possible, as it has happened many times before in the form of religious sites such as Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Mecca and Jerusalem. Completely exogenous events occurred in all of these places that ultimately ended up with a new meaning being applied to the physical space they inhabit. What is the difference between people flocking to a site where someone saw the Virgin Mary, and people flocking to the site where someone saw the rarest Pokémon? Objectively, there is no difference, but social constructs like tradition and religion may think they have priority in the matter.

What will be really interesting is when more augmented reality games appear, and each physical space gets assigned a number of different meanings to different people. To some people, that statue down the road covered in pigeon shit is a former mayor who lowered unemployment. To others, his statue is a haunting ground for an evolved Pikachu. For others, it was the place of death for a favourite character in an augmented reality mystery game they played. For many, however, it is and always will be the place that a hologram of Kim Kardashian appears and demands to take a selfie with them. That pigeon-shit drenched statue could just become the new Jerusalem, with several different factions struggling to have their meaning dominate the appreciation of that physical space.

Thus we have the social deconstruction of physical space, and it is obviously offensive to those that are of the opinion that they not only own a physical space, but also uniquely own the right to apply meaning to that physical space. This was always a fallacy, and it has taken a long time to challenge this perception. Pokémon Go just disrupted property rights.

“This isn’t where Meowth is,

they could say,

this is the place where I’m allowed sit and drink all day.”

Ancient Irish Haiku

Is Everything Actually Awesome?

The Gist: Through smartphones, we get some very sophisticated and powerful technology in the palm of our hands, often for free. But when was the last time you were actually impressed with any of this stuff?

As many of you know, I recently switched German-speaking cities. While I had been living in Vienna, Austria for over five years, in the past few weeks I have moved up north to Hamburg, Germany. If you don’t know your European geography too well, it’s a distance of not much less than 1000km. To put it in beer terms, I have swapped märzen for pilsner. While I am far too old to be moving so far north, it is hard not to get a bit excited about exploring a new city, particularly when I have experience living in a similar-sized German-speaking city already. So in my first weeks here, whenever I had free time, I grabbed a Hamburg StadtRad (CityBike) and just cycled around the streets, trying to get accustomed to the surroundings and the connections between districts. Often, I would be blissfully cycling around an area I’ve never been before, listening to music through my headphones, not having a clue where I was going. But then, every now and again, the music would stop momentarily, and was replaced by a woman telling me that up ahead I should turn left.

I had, of course, programmed my way home into Google Maps, pressed the big blue ‘directions’ button, placed my phone in my pocket, and trusted Google to do the rest. No map attached to my handlebars to give some context to what the woman was going to tell me, no checking street names and districts, just blind faith in the power of information technology. The first time I tried it, I have to say I didn’t trust it completely, and every few minutes would pull out my phone to see wherever this woman was taking me. After a while I realised she knew what she was doing, and started to trust her. Eventually, I forgot I was even using the service, and got caught up in whatever playlist I was listening to at the time, all the time looking around at the new neighbourhood I was passing through. Only when she briefly interrupted the playlist every few minutes would I remember that I was in fact delegating a lot of the work in this exploration endeavour to modern technology. It was so unobtrusive that I found it hard not to say ‘ok, thanks!’ whenever she gave me directions. It felt like I had someone watching me from above, and just giving me information I needed when I needed it, and nothing else. It felt like a videogame.


I’m writing this because I realised during that first journey with in-ear navigation that it was the first time I had been truly impressed with modern technology in a very long time. I found this interesting, because the bike I was riding wasn’t mine. It was a shared CityBike that I found and rented through an app on my phone. Also, the music I was listening to wasn’t actually on my phone, but streamed from the cloud using a service I can use to access it anywhere with an internet connection. I wasn’t too gobsmacked when I started using either of those services a few years ago, it was more of a : “but of course!” feeling when I first discovered both CityBikes and Google Play Music. It’s the same when any new hyped app is released: for example, Uber is useful, but it really doesn’t inspire much awe. That’s despite the fact that all of these apps and services I mention are only possible because of mass amounts of data aggregation, near-perfect flow models, continuously updated search-match models, and all of this happens before anything even reaches the ridiculously user-friendly interface that you use to interact with all of this information on your smartphone. All of this is amazing, and I would argue that all of these services improve the everyday life of anyone who uses them. The problem is that they improve the everyday life of everyone who uses them so incrementally, that we barely even notice it anymore.

There is unquestionably a sense of entitlement when it comes to new apps. When browsing the app store and I see an app that tells me when new episodes of my favourite TV shows are available to download, all I think is that someone should have thought of that years ago, and that it definitely is not worth €1.50 for the full version. Yet still I install the free version, and have my TV future mapped out months ahead without having to even think about googling when the next season of Peaky Blinders starts: It’s already in my Google calendar. This app made my life a little bit better, yet from the moment I discovered it, all I had to say was that it was an obvious innovation, and not worth the price of a Slovakian beer for the privilege of using it forever.

This sense of entitlement, I think, is borne out of just how subtly and how incrementally that information and communication technology has infiltrated our lives over the past decade. Most of us were first acclimatised to the power of information technology through a simple tool such as Facebook. Facebook is a social network, it doesn’t connect people with information, it connects people with other people, and specifically with people they know. It was originally a place where friends could connect and chat and share stupid stuff on the internet. No one was very impressed with the technological innovation of Facebook because it provided an intrinsically personal service: connections with friends. We focus more on our Facebook friends than we do on the actual service Facebook provides. Internet folk seem to get offended when they realise that Facebook actually exists. Everything Facebook (the organisation) does, be it renaming our walls or changing “being a fan of something” to “liking something”, we see as an intrusion into our online hangout world with our friends, rather than the platform itself aiming to improve (or possibly extract revenue). We don’t really see it as advanced technology, we see it as interesting stuff our friends might think we would like. Anything that reminds us otherwise, we react badly to.

Despite all this, through Facebook we became accustomed to things being connected with other things. We learned not to make our posts visible to friends of friends, since this could amount to tens of thousands of people. Through this, words like viral and exponential began to be understood by the general public, and the interconnections in our world, and the power of the internet to aggregate and connect almost anything, became mainstream knowledge, internalised by anyone who has used the internet in the past decade. We aren’t awe-inspired by new apps like Uber simply because all they do is connect people with other people, and we have been using services like this for years. And yet, when you take a step back and look at what it does, even Uber is amazing technology, something you wouldn’t believe if you saw it in a 90’s sci-fi movie. It’s something that could have been in The Fifth Element, yet to us it is just a taxi competitor.

My Google-guided bike rides in Hamburg have given me a renewed appreciation for the technology we all take for granted in our lives these days. I (and not many other people) have not had a good word to say about Facebook for many years. Yet it was this time of year ten years ago, early spring 2006, that I first joined Facebook, and I can honestly say that it has improved my life a lot more than I could ever really give it credit for. I have moved around a lot in the past ten years: Hamburg is my sixth country in the time period. I have met people in all the countries and places I have been, and the only reason I have been able to remain in contact with them is through Facebook. Friendships that could have just been chance one-off meetings have developed into lifelong friendships, simply due to connecting on Facebook. My best friends are scattered throughout the world, and our main method of communication is through Facebook, even if it’s just a like or a comment every now and again between meet-ups. These friendships would have withered and died in an age before Facebook, and for this I have to give Facebook some retroactive credit for being one of the greatest innovations of our time. Like my Google-guided bike rides, its power is its lack of intrusiveness, just letting you get on with whatever you need right now. It is a ridiculously powerful tool, and if used correctly, over many years, the incremental benefits add up.. Even though anyone could have thought of the idea…..

The Commodification of Outrage

Commodification: the transformation of goods, services or ideas into objects of trade.


Last week, the internet was very upset with Roosh. Roosh is an author, motivational speaker and media personality who comments through the lens of an ideology that he calls neomasculinity. Neomasculinity is an ideology that brings together idiots, misogynists, and nerds who happened to have read “The Game” by Neill Strauss, and found their life’s calling inside its meagre page count. Roosh has been around for a while, and has written several books for his target market, as well as providing paid instruction courses on how to pick up women for those without his obvious skills, and pops up on TV every now and again whenever a panel show wants a provocative guest to rile up the audience and other guests.

Roosh felt however that he could do more, and decided to take his following one step further, and organise real-world meetings of his supporters, in dozens of cities all over the world, at the same time: all to occur on Saturday February 6th 2016. This physical manifestation of misogyny was too much for one internet to take, and in the days and weeks leading up to the main event, Roosh was not a popular man, as mainstream media took on the story, fuelled by a narrative that he was ‘pro-rape’. As impassioned Facebook statuses, likes and shares began to pile up, as well as sincere retweets and think-piece gifs pointing towards a unanimous public consensus that Roosh was indeed a very bad man, a few days before the intended meet-up, he cancelled the worldwide event, saying that he feared for the safety of those who intended to attend. A victory was declared for progressive-thinking internet folks.

To make a decent living by preaching an ideology such as neomasculinity, I would imagine that Roosh is quite a smart man, yet it is hard to see anyone who follows his nonsense as anything but a complete idiot. No one had any idea how many people would turn up to his meet-ups, but I think we all would admit that it probably wouldn’t be a lot. Opponents in every city he planned an event in, from Ireland to Australia, all expected the man himself to show up at their local event, preaching vitriol about how the rape of a woman in the comfort of your own home was no rape at all. The Immigration Minister of Australia pledged to deny Roosh an entry visa into the country, and Roosh replied with a photo of himself with a wad of cash saying he would sneak in through the unguarded North-West Coast. Australia was outraged. The entire world was outraged, and the entire world was not quiet about it. When Roosh cancelled the worldwide event, he was eventually tracked down by a tabloid reporter, living in the basement of his mother’s house in Maryland, USA. It turned out that while the world was outraged at his very existence, Roosh was busy selling ad-space on his personal website. The man set the world on fire while lounging around in his underwear, and was getting paid for it.


What Is A Two-Sided Market?

Everyone reading this sentence knows what a two-sided market is, you just maybe don’t know that it has this name. A one-sided market is when you walk into a shop and buy something. There is one customer, and one seller (or provider, if a service). A product is exchanged from buyer to seller for money, and then the transaction is over. A two-sided market is more complex: it involves the interaction between one seller and two different types of customers. In this case, the ‘seller’ acts as a platform (or intermediary) between the two types of customers, as one type of consumer attempts to extract value from the other side of the market (the other customer). It sounds complicated, but you know when you are watching television and a commercial break comes on? The product advertised (Side 1) paid the TV station (the Platform) for the privilege of gaining the undivided attention of you (Side 2). There are two sides to the market, and the traditional ‘product’ merely facilitates interaction between these two sides that would struggle to efficiently encounter each other without that platform. If one side of the market values the other significantly more than vice-versa, then often only the more desperate side will pay for using the platform, while the other side will use the platform for free.

This, of course, is why Facebook is free, and will always be free. It’s why all Google products are free, and will always be free. It’s why basically everything on the internet is free: you are on one side of the market, and the product/app/social network makes its money by selling you to the other side of the market, the advertisers. Most news sites operate like this, unless they are behind a paywall and require a paid subscription, meaning the site will get less views and thus is not attractive to advertisers that want their ad to be seen by as many people as possible. Paid subscription news sites therefore focus on extracting revenue from a different side of the market from the free-to-view news sites, but what is to be gained from taking money from readers, rather than advertisers? A free-to-view site is in the business of selling eyeballs (page views) to advertisers, while a subscription site is in the business of convincing readers into a long-term relationship based on quality content and possibly a compatible ideological viewpoint. We all know which one of the two is easier to do.

Two-Sided Markets & Clickbait

The above paragraph or two would be the best explanation I can give for the existence of ‘clickbait’: a headline of a news story shared on social media that was created solely to tempt you into clicking it. Think “He Asked For a Divorce, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”, or “9 Things College Never Prepared You for”. These kind of titles exist in order for you to click on them, and hence count as a page view for the site you have now entered, and this provides advertising revenue for that site. These things are meant to be a mild distraction, and no one really expects to be blown away by what is discovered on the other side of the click. This poses a problem for these clickbait websites, as ad revenue analytics have evolved significantly over the years, and simple page views are just not enough to charge advertisers big money: what’s required is that each page view corresponds to another click on that same website, and the holy grail: for users to share the content on their personal Facebook/Twitter accounts, meaning that successful clickbait will take on a life of its own, snowballing into thousands of unique page views.

The issue here is that fluffy clickbait stories such as every Buzzfeed post ever have gotten old very fast, and while we will share one now and again, we all know deep inside that all of our Facebook friends are silently judging us as ‘the type of idiot who shares cute cat pictures or Game of Thrones personality quizzes online’. No one wants to be that person. So in order to get you to share something online to all your friends, the content you share must be something interesting, or at least say something important about your character, or (and this is the goldmine) provoke an emotional reaction.

Remember Roosh? Roosh provoked an emotional reaction: everybody hated Roosh, and everybody shared something explaining Roosh’s diabolical acts, and how he/she felt about it. Roosh was at home selling ads the entire time he was suffering the scorn of the world: Roosh understood two-sided markets, and he knew he could charge whatever he wanted for advertising space on his website that would achieve unimaginable traffic during the whole ordeal. A page view that hated him generated exactly the same amount of money as a page view that agreed with him. Everything anyone read about him, anywhere, would provoke a google search that would lead to Roosh’s own website, or his YouTube channel, and each one of those searches put money into Roosh’s pocket. Roosh is the platform, the advertisers who pay him are one side of the market, and the outraged page viewers are the other side. He brought everyone together, and made money from it.

It’s pretty depressing, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here.  The thing is, Roosh probably didn’t even plan all this, he just took advantage of the situation. This is because all those articles written about him and his plans were written solely to lure enraged clickers to ad-funded websites, and then for this content to be shared on social networks along with a sentence or two condemning the morality of the man in question. Roosh became a big issue because websites knew his views would enrage people online, and so article after article was published, in the hope of enticing traffic based on revealing whatever depraved sentence Roosh had uttered in the past. This content would cause outrage in people who viewed it, but this content had nothing to do with Roosh, nothing to do with rape, and nothing to do with anything at all except drawing eyeballs to advertisement on an external website.

The Commodification of Outrage

Did you ever wonder why the death of Cecil the lion was such a big deal? Why you probably know what the Westboro Baptist Church is, despite it consisting only of one family and perhaps 30 members? Why all of a sudden there are calls for race quotas at the Oscars because there are no non-White acting nominees? Why Donald Trump is always in your timeline, yet you don’t know anyone who would vote for him? Why some websites will actually complain that Harrison Ford was paid so much more than Daisy Ridley for appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? I am not saying there are not real, important issues involved here, but my argument is that the reason for a website writing about any of these issues is more about inducing a click by causing anger to the viewer, rather than any genuine concern for the issues that are very superficially discussed on the other side. The goal of an ad-supported, content driven website is thus to pick up on whatever is currently pissing people off, or whatever could possibly piss people off, and throwing it out there to see how it does. If it attracts attention, more will be written about it, and ad-driven websites will recognise the power of the issue, and reap their rewards through advertising revenue.

People like Roosh don’t matter, they just personify a certain type of outrage that we all feel from time to time, and this outrage was successfully focussed and directed at him for a certain amount of time, and many made money from this. They didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, they just knew how to benefit from it. They successfully acted as a platform that brought together two sides of a market, the outraged and the advertisers. The platform extracted money from the advertisers due to the increased interest and page views caused by the outrage, and this is part of their business model. The interesting point is that in the order to extract money from one side of the market (the advertisers), the platform was forced to produce exploitative content that extracted emotion from the other side (the customer). Clickbait has evolved, it is not fluffy photos of animals anymore, it is content that is meant to offend, outrage and then be retweeted afterwards with a few words indicating your moral standpoint. There are a few old memes that tell us “if you’re easily offended, then get off the internet”. This could not be more wrong: isolating easily offended groups is the future of the internet, at least outside of paid subscription sites.

White Collar Problems

It may seem hard to believe, with the refugee crisis that has rightfully taken the spotlight over the past weeks, but this time last month, the internet was aflame over the alleged mistreatment of a few thousand highly-paid white collar workers and their allegedly terrible working conditions. It says a lot about the internet age that our focus can turn so easily towards caring for the plight of 200,000 Syrian refugees lucky enough to make it to mainland Europe, after we had spent the previous fortnight badmouthing Amazon, in reference to the New York Times article detailing the hardships that it forces on its long-suffering white collar staff, each of whom earn more than $100,000 per year and leave (either voluntarily or not) with vested stock options in one of the world’s most profitable companies.

Posturing aside, the Amazon article did strike a nerve with the well-educated, upwardly-mobile white collar workers among us who spend most of our time online commenting on such things. While we may see countless documentaries about the mistreatment of workers in Chinese factories, there is still the sense of ‘the other’ about these sweatshop conditions, as we in Europe or the US can never really imagine having to encounter such situations. To us, those are problems far away, problems that only exist because developing countries have much more flexible attitudes to labour laws and remuneration, and we can justify them by thinking that after a while these countries will catch up with the rest of us and go on to successfully regulate their labour markets.

The Amazon article on the other hand, is directly relatable to basically its entire intended readership, as anyone who has been to university, or works for a big corporation, can feasibly imagine him/herself in the same position as these Amazon employees. Empathy is an emotion that can only be felt through imagining ourselves in a similar position to another, and this is why a story about future millionaires working 14 hours a day, seven days a week in Seattle could generate more internet outrage than any story about Indonesian children chained to a desk stitching Nike symbols into Manchester United shirts ever could. It may seem extremely hypocritical, given the working conditions in most of the world, yet the Amazon article did speak to a lot of people, and it is worth exploring exactly why the western, white collar sect of the internet got so upset. In my view that I am about to elaborate, it is because it took all of our views on what a workplace could and should be, and absolutely demolished the fantasy in all our heads about how we expect to spend a large portion of our waking life until retirement.

In the modern world, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that the current system of labour is extremely new. Two hundred years ago, the only enterprises that employed more than a handful of people were the extraction industries: mining companies that worked men, women and children to their deaths, and replaced this physical labour with more expendable people when the time came. With the evolution of the Industrial Revolution came the factories where hundreds of workers were worked in conditions similar to what we read about in articles about sweatshops in Asia. Workers were seen as expendable, something immediately replaceable by someone who could do the job just as well as the person who half killed himself doing the job before. This was the labour system that inspired Marx and Engels to mythologise the act of labour as something intrinsically human, and something to cherish, rather than something to be simply extracted from a worker by a brutal capitalist. This philosophy inspired the formation of Trade Unions, and this in many countries gave workers power on a similar standing to their employers. Yet still, any concession to these unions was begrudged by employers, as they were simply bending to pressure rather than respecting the opinion and individual labour of the workers they employed.

The most significant event in the recognition of the value of experienced labour came in 1914, where Henry Ford introduced a standard wage in his Detroit factories of $5 per day, a rate significantly above any competing factories in the area. Ford did this not because of pressure from unions, but because he thought it was a wise business decision to hire workers that were well-fed, and therefore strong enough to concentrate on the monotonous tasks of his assembly lines. An added bonus of the higher wage was that Ford Motors would attract many applications for any open position, and therefore the company would theoretically attract the best, the most qualified, and the most ambitious of all workers in the area. This is the beginning of the idea of “human capital”, where people are hired for more than simply what their body can do for an employer. Fast forward the process a few decades, and we see that companies realise employees become better at their roles after a few years, that they respond well to more responsibility, and that they can be motivated appropriately by the prospect of higher pay, promotion, and even time off work. Within the space of about 100 years, major corporations went from seeing their workers as expendable robots to the modern system, where employees and employers often enter long-term relationships for decades of mutually beneficial service.

While the idea of working for a company for 20 years or more may have disappeared over the past generation, the idea of the workplace as a pleasant extension of family and leisure life has only increased. Most western companies will have an explicit policy on work-life balance, and all will be very concerned about any possible unhappiness in the lives of an individual employee: either in his/her work life or his/her private life. A lot of this concern is driven by regulation, yet a lot more is driven by a decades-old theory that a happy worker is a productive worker. Employers don’t just want you to be well-fed anymore: they want you to be happy. Added to this is the office pornography that is constantly circulated online about the workplace of tech companies such as Pixar, Apple and Facebook. If you work hard enough, you will be fit to work in an office that resembles an adult version of a children’s playroom. This is what, for the past decade, has been sold to us as the future of the workplace. Work is not an office, it is simply a better-equipped version of your living room where you can do what you love, with people who are just like you.

The Amazon article completely threw this idea out the window. The article showed one of the biggest and most successful consumer-based companies in the world actively and purposefully constructing a cruel dog-eat-dog work environment that seemingly equated to the white collar version of a sweatshop. The employees detailed in the article were all paid well, yet there was a depressing industrial revolution-esque feel to the description of the Amazonian workplace. The value of individual labour seemed to have been depreciated to its value of a century before. The work-life balance was non-existent: for all the education you (and your family) had struggled to accumulate, you have the workplace standing of any industrial revolution factory worker, competing for quotas with your neighbour. The workplace of the 21st Century was not supposed to be like this, yet this was Amazon, an absolute behemoth of a company, and the model they have in place is sure to inspire many corporations to install similar workplace environments.

This disruption of workplace expectations was one of the reasons why the Amazon article ruffled feathers, but it wasn’t the main reason. The article is a long read, yet all through, a common message emerges from Amazon that is unsettling to many white collar workers to the very core: they only want you for a year or two. It seems like they just want to use their employees for a certain time, then discard each of them in return for fresh meat. In reality, it is a completely different interpretation of the theory, and extraction of labour. Amazon hires only the most qualified, and driven, of employees, then through its gladiatorial working environment sets each of them on fire. Each of these employees, in an attempt to quench the flames, works as hard as possible before being completely consumed by their situation. They are then discarded a year or two later, with stock options. You can’t feel too bad for these people, as they will not be short of job offers after such an experience. It sounds horrible working there, yet it is a model that has led to the company evolving from a simple online bookstore to products such as Kindle, TV shows such as Transparent, and even the launch of their own movie studio. Fear, and internal competition brought us all of those things. The scary thing is not that Amazon employees are treated badly, but that Amazon actually highly respects the individual labour of each employee. They simply have developed a work environment to extract it a lot faster than would be possible in a company that respects a work-life balance, and what many of us expect from a company that respects the talents and happiness of its employees. The fear that many of us felt while reading the Amazon article is that this is the future of the workplace, that it is not a terrible way to structure such a workplace, and ultimately that it probably is the most efficient form of labour extraction, and probably exploitation.

Algorithm & Blues

No one was really shocked when in the summer of 2013, The Guardian and the Washington Post with the help of Edward Snowden exposed the extent of US government spying on internet users all around the world. The story was less a big shock and more of a global ‘but of course!’ moment. We all had our suspicions, but the Snowden episode meant that we could all talk about these activities openly without seeming like a conspiracy theorist, and much more importantly, it meant that world leaders couldn’t treat journalists asking questions about these activities like conspiracy theorists. It was an important event because at a May 2013 press conference, Barack Obama could dismiss questions about government spying with a wave and a sneer, yet two months later, and forever more, he had to answer, and explain.

I wasn’t really bothered at all by the revelations, to be honest. I could understand why some people were outraged at the confirmation of the hypothetical persistent violation of their privacy, yet to me this was just a part of the modern internet world. In order to live here, you have to give something away. Most things we use online everyday are free, yet companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google are all worth billions. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that in a situation like this, you (the user) are the product that these companies produce. They gather as many users as possible together on their platform, and then charge companies vast sums of money to advertise to us. It’s a simple two-sided market, as used by newspapers, terrestrial TV Stations and credit card companies.

The ‘theft’ of personal information, by Google or the government or both, is a constant theme in mainstream media. It gets the blood boiling, as we can all think immediately of our own online presence, and how comfortable we would be with others looking over it without our permission. How dare they use the text from that status I just wrote to recommend an ad to me, how dare they spy on my WhatsApp messages, how dare they publish my Facebook photo online. All of these are common complaints in the world we now live in, but these statements and concerns all miss the point. The end of privacy shall not be a result of stolen personal data, it’s going to be a result of the seemingly harmless, impersonal data that some people, many of whom are completely unknown to us, freely give away. Continue reading