QUANTech #20: Facebook, China and Instagram

by QICT_master


Digital information technology is increasingly becoming entrenched into the fabric of our society, and it will not be long before we all permanently connect via the Internet. As the extensive digitisation of society is set to radically change practically all aspects of our lives, QUANTech (#QTech) aims at helping you stay in the know about the rapidly changing landscape of both organisations and society alike in the digital age.

#QTech is brought to you by Denys Malengreau (@D_MLG), digital advisor to QUANT.

Reading time: 7-8 minutes

Here comes the 20th edition of QUANTech already, the occasion to clarify the framework of the format which is to be evolutionary. As I have been used to it, QUANTech is split in three parts: the emphasis on 2-3 key stories of the week, a flash list of the news that caught my attention and the focus on a weekly story contextualised in the digital economy.

These three parts will now be named as such: « IN THE SPOTLIGHT », « IN SHORT » and « IN CONTEXT ».

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Facebook, China and Instagram

In this week’s news, Facebook has once again made the headlines with the filing of a new patent which, although Facebook says it has no intention of ever implementing it, shows obvious interest from the social networks giant. The patent consists in hiding secret inaudible (to the human ear) messages in TV ads. Once played, such messages turns on a smartphone’s microphone to retrieve an « ambient audio fingerprint » that is sent to Facebook. The objective is to better understand the reaction of a Facebook user being exposed to a TV ad in order to better tailor ads on the platform.

Although Facebook invokes this patent to protect its users from competitors who could file it for malicious uses, you can hardly believe —knowing Facebook’s track record— that this is the only reason.

The backlash surrounding the supposed activation of a smartphone microphone to capture keywords in order to optimise advertising is not new. And the recent scandal revealed with Spanish football league app caught spying on fans to catch pirate broadcasts is only one example among many suspicions on which the media Vice came to bring a conviction in one of his articles early June.

Two stories about digital China also got me thinking this week.

We have learned about a plan to boost tourism in China’s tropical island of Hainan known as China’s Hawaii. Local authorities aim at making the island a « digital enclave » in which visitors will have access to popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These are banned elsewhere in the country.

This initiative is a perfect illustration of the current tension or dilemma facing China: the will to lead in the digital economy, inherently dematerialised and de facto global (to become) on one hand, and the desire to maintain firm control of its population with strong domestic protectionism, which implies censorship of Western digital services. This open-close duality is likely to pose a serious challenge to China in the coming years.

Fortune also published an interesting article about the current race for AI domination between the US and China. The article provides a useful distinction between AI discovery and implementation with an American lead on discovery and a Chinese lead on implementation. Interestingly, the author also opposes China’s national plan for AI domination to the fact that challenges posed by AI are global in the first place.

Also noticeable this week: Instagram reaches one billion monthly active users on the plaftorm which unsurprisingly translates the growing importance of visual communication online. As part of the announcement, Instagram launched Instagram TV (IGTV), a new long-form vertical video format that will compete with Snapchat and YouTube.

IN SHORT (reading time)

 Mozilla is testing Firefox Monitor, a new security tool. (3-4m)
 Facebook introduces subscription groups for admins. (3-4m)
 Facebook increases its efforts to fight fake news. (4-5m)
 Facebook moves into print with UK quarterly magazine. (5-6m)

IN CONTEXT: attention economy

We have learned this week that Facebook is working on a « Your Time on Facebook » feature which aims at helping users spend less time on… Facebook. The initiative follows those of Google, Apple and Instagram respectively in response to a growing concern about the impact of the so-called attention economy. The Center for Humane Technology collective being at the forefront to raise questions about the issue.

Critics point to the fact that social platforms are deliberately thought to be addictive by design. Although current initiatives taken by digital behemoths are laudable, they only address the consequences while omitting the real cause that leads in (large) part to social media addiction: the business model of these platforms which consists in capturing a maximum of attention span for advertising purposes. The more time a user spends on the service, the more data the latter generates. The better Facebook knows about users, the better their targeting criteria are and the more advertisers will pay to leverage them. In 2017, about 98 percent of Facebook’s global revenue was generated from advertising.

Although the business model of online platforms is the real cause to deal with in response to user addiction, there are nonetheless two parties to empower: platforms that, as the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee suggests, must show more creativity to find an alternative to such an economic model, and users themselves, who must understand what it really means to use the product or service of a private company for free. « If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product » as the saying goes. This user empowerment must be fostered by strengthened digital literacy in order, among other things, to improve public understanding of the mechanisms put in place to bring about the addictive effects observed around social networks use. If addiction results partly from the business model of online platforms, it could also certainly be explained by the undeniable benefits that such services bring. It is the business model of online platforms itself that prevents them from implementing the best solutions possible.

In the meantime, as long as there will be no real debate about the responsibility of both parties involved to seek solutions that make sense in the longer term, this new Facebook initiative to help its users spend less time on the platform will only remain a schizophrenic good deed as it truly is antinomic to the economic interests inherent to the platform’s business model.

Talk soon!

Denys Malengreau