First resort

A recent survey of online shoppers shows Amazon gaining share as the starting destination of choice.

Many point to the importance of being the default option on a popular operating system. For example, Apple's podcasting and mapping apps have massive market share despite not being seen as the best options in their categories because they are defaults on iOS.

But just as important are people's mental shortcuts. When I was at Amazon, we obsessed over being the "site of first resort." When it comes to search, Google is the site of first resort. When it comes to ordering a ride share, Uber is the service of first resort.

For us at Amazon, being the site of first resort for an online shopping trip was an obsession. This is why it was so critical to expand out from books to other product lines quickly. We didn't want to cement ourselves in shoppers' minds as the site of first resort for buying books but nothing else.

It's also why both Google and eBay were seen as existential threats. Both offered the potential of offering much larger selections of products than us and potentially stealing that coveted mental bookmark spot in the user's mind. If more often than not, a shopper couldn't find a product on Amazon but instead could find it on eBay or Google, slowly they'd habituate themselves to beginning their search on those services.

Of course, earning the mantle of online shopping default relies on more than selection. I don't know if Amazon offers more SKU's in its catalog than eBay and Google today, but it offers a superior customer experience end to end. Google and eBay don't handle fulfillment themselves, and post order customer service is dicey if something goes wrong. Amazon is the gold standard there, and that's part of what shoppers have come to rely on when they start their online shopping there.

A few years back I was in a wedding party, and I had to purchase a specific shirt to match the other groomsmen. I could only find it at Barney's, and the local outlet didn't offer it in my size so I ordered it from their website. The package was stolen from our apartment lobby, so I wrote Barney's customer service asking for a replacement shipment. They refused and asked me to take it up with UPS or FedEx, or whoever the shipper was. If it were Amazon, they'd have a replacement package out to me overnight on the spot, no questions asked. Needless to say, I'll never order from Barneys again, but it's amazing to think that Amazon's customer service is superior to that of even luxury retailers.

In hindsight, thinking Google might surpass us in shopping seems farfetched, but there was a time eBay had surpassed Amazon in market cap and was growing their sales and inventory in a way that inspired envy in Seattle. It turns out there was more of a ceiling on the potential of auctions as a shopping format than fixed price shopping, but in the moment, it was hard to see where that shoulder on the S-curve would be.

Efficient aggregation of repugnance

The cycle of outrage on the internet seems to have a well-defined pattern by now, so if you're on your game, you have a contrarian piece which is the backlash to the backlash prepped and ready to go as soon as the outrage descends, and if you're really advanced you have the backlash to the backlash to the backlash volley in your quiver. It's an advanced play. Or you can float above it all with a meta piece about the workings of the internet outrage cycle, which I guess this post is some variant of.

In his great new book Who Gets What and Why, about market design, economist Alvin Roth defines repugnant transactions as ones that some people want to engage in that others object to even if they aren't directly harmed. For example, it's forbidden in most countries to buy and sell kidneys. If you spread a wide enough net across the world, you'll find all types of cultural practices that are repugnant in some societies, legal in others. In America it's illegal to eat horse meat; it's a delicacy in Europe. In medieval times the idea of lending money and charging interest was forbidden; today it still is in a few places, but it's a bedrock of the banking system most everywhere else.

The shooting of Cecil the Lion was a flash fire on social media this week. And of course, suddenly everyone was outraged at the hunting of lions, leading inexorably to the backlash wondering why we aren't more outraged at the shooting of unarmed black teens, or 5 endangered elephants. Why aren't we more outraged at ourselves for eating chicken?

It is too exhausting for most people to live in a state of moral outrage all the time, and so it largely simmers below the boiling point of our consciousness. Every so often, though, some event occurs that comes in a weaponized package, in the perfect form to capitalize on the viral amplification powers of the internet. For example, the murder of a lion so beloved that he is, despite being an apex predator, referred to by the adorable name of Cecil.

And so a practice that many people probably objected to but rarely thought of—trophy big game hunting—suddenly swells up like a tsunami and exceeds our collective dam of ignorance. The internet is more efficient at transmitting information than any human invention ever, but not all information travels equally efficiently. I had never heard of Cecil the Lion a week ago. Now he's up there with the MGM lion and Simba as the most famous lions in the world. His face showed up in every one of my social feeds again and again, his title a perfectly compact hashtag: #CecilTheLion.

More and more, we'll see these flash floods of outrage, because the internet is the most efficient aggregator of repugnance in history. Formerly disparate, even mild pockets of repugnance can carry disproportionate magnitude on social media if formatted optimally to fit into the entry slot of the internet's megaphone. It's one reason something can lie dormant for years, like Bill Cosby's sexual crimes, and then suddenly become the nexus of national outrage. As one victim Tamara Green said:

In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media.
 

It goes both ways. Lobbying is one area where this dynamic can take on a destructive power. A narrow interest can aggregate its strong feelings into targeted, weaponized money that can overwhelm the mild objections of the majority. And so we have corn subsidies and other oddities locked into place. It's not great for most of us, but most of us don't care as much as the small but vocal corn lobby.

But for many other issues which have long wished to ignite the public imagination and support, there is no better time. Buzzfeed was one of the first media companies to recognize that some types of news, packaged a certain way, attain exponential organic distribution given the way most people discover news through social media.

Alan Moore predicted this all in his great graphic novel Watchmen. Those of you who've read it will recognize this as an early predecessor of Cecil the Lion:

“Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind”

Matthew Crawford has written a new book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. In an interview with the Guardian, he discussed the heightened competition for what I've often called the only finite resource in tech, user attention.

“I realised how pervasive this has become, these little appropriations of attention,” he says. “Figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the centre of contemporary capitalism. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. It makes it impossible to think or rehearse a remembered conversation, and you can’t chat with a stranger because we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time.”
 
He points out that the only quiet, distraction-free place in the airport is the business-class lounge, where all you hear is “the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china”. Silence has become a luxury good. “The people in there value their silence very highly. If you’re in that lounge you can use the time to think creative, playful thoughts; you could come up with some brilliant marketing scheme that you would then use to determine the character of the peon section. You can think of it as a transfer of wealth. Attention is a resource, convertible into actual money. ”
 
...
 
“We increasingly encounter the world through these representations that are addressed to us, often with manipulative intent: video games, pornography, gambling apps on your phone,” he says. “These experiences are so exquisitely attuned to our appetites that they can swamp your ordinary way of being in the world. Just as food engineers have figured out how to make food hyper-palatable by manipulating fat, salt and sugar, similarly the media has become expert at making irresistible mental stimuli.” Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind, in other words, with results that could be just as hazardous for our health.
 

I've certainly felt, in recent times, like some sort of information addict, with my smartphone playing the part of drug dealer sitting over my shoulder, offering a free and never ending supply of, well, whatever I want. It would seem to follow that the returns to self-control have increased as well, and Crawford notes that “the rich can hire “professional naggers” – tutors for their children, personal trainers – in effect outsourcing their own self-control.”

In Renaissance times, obesity was a signal of wealth and thus seen as attractive. In an age of cheap and plentiful calories, a signal of wealth is being fit, which may indicate good genetics and self-discipline but may also mean you can afford a personal trainer and home chef.

In tech we're constantly chasing the holy grail of personalization and more precise targeting of content, advertising, services, etc. Crawford sees the glass half full in this scenario, a rise of self-obsession that transfers power and wealth to companies.

It is tempting to see the advent of this crisis as technological, but for Crawford it’s more that the technology has created the perfect vehicles for our self-obsession. Individual choice has been fetishised to the point where we have thrown away many of the structures – family, church, community – that helped us to make good decisions, and handed more and more power to corporations.
 

I can cite many examples of how the internet has improved the world; I'm hardly a technology alarmist. Still, I find it more necessary these days to hone my self-control and find ways to cocoon my mind in quiet from time to time.

I was in Taiwan for 6 days last week, and I bought a 300MB data package from AT&T for the week [the AT&T Passport, as they call these all-in-one international bundles, is one of the few customer-friendly things they've added travelers; no more trying to cobble together a suitable international bundle yourself across text, data, voice]. While there, I'd get in the habit of turning on cellular data for short sips at moments when I really needed it—to get directions to my next destination via Google Maps, look up restaurants, coordinate meetups with friends, post a photo to Instagram—and the rationing kept me off the phone most of the day. Most my phone's apps, besides the camera, aren't all that enticing without network access. The enforced data hibernation felt like meditation.

My last morning in Taiwan, I had a taxi driver take me out to Jiufen, a small coastal town, supposedly an inspiration for many of the settings in Miyazaki's wonderful Spirited Away. Cutting through the center of town was one of what they call an “old street,” a sort of pedestrian alley lined with shops and decorated in a deliberate retro style. Many towns in Taipei have one as they are honey traps for tourists.

Because my flight back to the U.S. was that afternoon, I arrived at the Jiufen Old Street really early, before any tourists had appeared. I strolled down the winding alley while shop owners were just beginning to open doors and prepare for the tourist hordes to come. Some proprietors were rolling out dough to make taro balls, the popular local delicacy, while others were grilling meat or heating up tofu stew. It was very quiet, and many times I turned a corner to find myself the only person in that segment of the street. I was almost out of data allotment on my phone so I kept it off as I ambled to and fro.

Near the end of the street, I stopped to purchase a bowl of taro balls in ice, and I ate from it as I walked the last segment of the street. Every tourist guidebook probably tells you to purchase the taro balls while there, and you know what? They're right. Those things are damn great.

No one was on that last segment of street except an old man carrying a large bag of rice over his shoulder up the steps to a house. In that moment, I felt a peace that comes from a clear mind  and a complete absence of any want. It was a serenity I hadn't felt in so long that I can distinctly remember the moment it washed over me, the sensation of my mind exhaling and going still. Had my phone been on and connected to the internet I'm not sure I could have achieved it.

I thought back to this moment when reading this lovely piece on The Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome:

Travel writers like me spend a lot of time contemplating why people venture abroad. Not just the obvious enticements — relaxation, winter sun, cheap pilsner — but the emotional, soul-stirring stuff: the sustenance of the new. The awe. It has, I think, become one of the main incentives of our travelling lives. As spirituality wanes experience is the new faith, and we are refugees from the mundane.
 
But behind this quest for the big, beautiful and baffling is a disconcerting sense that wonder in the age of the bucket-list is under attack. From technology, from information overload, from the anti-spiritual cynicism of the post-hippy world. In an era where a child has only to hold a five-inch screen in front of their face to gorge themselves on the apparent miracle of a one-inch Dora the Explorer hatching from a two-tone chocolate shell, awe has started to feel increasingly elusive.
 
It doesn’t take a bona fide philosopher to understand that this diminution of the human experience is an inevitable price of social progress. Awe, after all, used to be much easier to come by. Imagine you’re a Stone-age hunter witnessing a solar eclipse (not like last month’s anticlimactic, cloud-snuffed eclipse. A proper one.). Suddenly, the sun is extinguished. You don’t know it’s a temporary phenomenon, an orbital idiosyncrasy. So you tremble, piss your mammoth-skin pants, invent Gods! That’s a great big uppercut of awe.
 

At the end of Jiufen Old Street, I stopped to look out at houses perched along the side of the mountain which sloped down to the sea.

I heard them before I saw them, the first tour groups to catch up to me. Throngs of mainland Chinese and Japanese tour groups, mostly middle-aged to senior travelers, led by young guides holding flags and trying, with moderate success, to herd their flock. They jockeyed for position with each other, filling the alley two or three people wide. I fought my way back through them as best I could. That moment of peace was gone. Even in the real world, it's hard to stay away for long.

Conversation with Adam Curtis

Jon Ronson interviewed Adam Curtis over email. Good stuff.

On social networks as echo chambers (a common lament about the internet):

But I do really agree with you about Twitter domestically. Twitter – and other social media – passes lots of information around. But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in that particular network will like and approve of. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information.

So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get into the system. They tend to get squeezed out.

I think the thing that proves my point dramatically are the waves of shaming that wash through social media – the thing you have spotted and describe so well in your book. It's what happens when someone says something, or does something, that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system. The other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilising fragment and regain stability.

...

I have this perverse theory that, in about ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s. Like a John Carpenter film – where, among the ruins, there are fierce warrior gangs, all with their own complex codes and rules – and all shouting at each other. And everyone else will have fled to the suburbs of the internet, where you can move on and change the world. I think those suburbs are going to be the exciting, dynamic future of the internet. But to build them I think it will be necessary to leave the warrior trolls behind. And to move beyond the tech-utopianism that simply says that passing information around a network is a new form of democracy. That is naive, because it ignores the realities of power.

On the failings of modern journalism:

The thing that fascinates me about modern journalism is that people started turning away from it before the rise of the internet. Or, at least, in my experience that's what happened. Which has made me a bit distrustful of all that "blame the internet" rhetoric about the death of newspapers.

I think there was a much deeper reason. It's that journalists began to find the changes that were happening in the world very difficult to describe in ways that grabbed their readers' imagination.

It's intimately related to what has happened to politics, because journalism and politics are so inextricably linked. I describe in the film how, as politicians were faced with growing chaos and complexity from the 1980s onwards, they handed power to other institutions. Above all to finance, but also to computer and managerial systems.

But the politicians still wanted to change the world – and retain their status. So in response they reinvented other parts of the world they thought they could control into incredibly simplistic fables of good versus evil. I think Tony Blair is the clearest example of this – a man who handed power in domestic policy making over to focus groups, and then decided to go and invade Iraq.

And I think this process led journalism to face the same problem. They discovered that the new motors of power – finance and the technical systems that run it, algorithms that try and read the past to manage the future, managerial systems based on risk and "measured outcomes" – are not just obscure and boring. They are almost impossible to turn into gripping narratives. I mean, I find them a nightmare to make films about, because there is nothing visual, just people in modern offices doing keystrokes on computers.

Where I'm often most frustrated with modern journalism is in its coverage of areas it does not understand well, technology being one of them. I'm not saying you have to be a programmer to be a tech journalist or a filmmaker to be a movie critic, but not having domain knowledge limits the scope of your critique. One more layman's point of view isn't all that useful at the margins, and as with things like the last financial crisis, the lack of understanding from the financial press removed what we think of as one of the watchdogs of democracy, the fourth estate.

The one saving grace of the internet is that many technology domain experts can chime in. Still, for many reasons, most do not. They may be too busy, or they may bite their tongue for competitive or political reasons (technology is a heavily connected industry).

Given technology's growing political, economic, and cultural power, a vigilant and independent check is needed. A Gawker or Valleywag picks off just the most egregious and obvious of moral failings, but much of that is distraction from far more complex and significant issues.

Rage against the machine (that produces the rage)

Love this fantastic Scott Alexander post on why the way the internet is structured/connected today is so conducive to amplifying those issues which most divide us. In retrospect, it should be no surprise at all that 2014 was a peak year for outrage, and it's not clear how it gets better.

The University of Virginia rape case profiled in Rolling Stone has fallen apart. In doing so, it joins a long and distinguished line of highly-publicized rape cases that have fallen apart. Studies often show that only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false. Yet the rate for allegations that go ultra-viral in the media must be an order of magnitude higher than this. As the old saying goes, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

The enigma is complicated by the observation that it’s usually feminist activists who are most instrumental in taking these stories viral. It’s not some conspiracy of pro-rape journalists choosing the most dubious accusations in order to discredit public trust. It’s people specifically selecting these incidents as flagship cases for their campaign that rape victims need to be believed and trusted. So why are the most publicized cases so much more likely to be false than the almost-always-true average case?

I've been working my way through Geoffrey Miller's Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (a third of the way through, it's excellent thus far), and one of the things he emphasizes is that when we purchase goods as signals, the higher the cost of the signal the stronger the signal.

So how does this apply when it comes to signaling on moral dilemmas? The same, it turns out.

A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people’s face and they’ll admit it’s an outrage, just as they’ll admit factory farming is an outrage. But they’re not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day, you’re going to need something like that to draw people out of their shells.

On the other hand, the controversy over dubious rape allegations is exactly that – a controversy. People start screaming at each other about how they’re misogynist or misandrist or whatever, and Facebook feeds get filled up with hundreds of comments in all capital letters about how my ingroup is being persecuted by your ingroup. At each step, more and more people get triggered and upset. Some of those triggered people do emergency ego defense by reblogging articles about how the group that triggered them are terrible, triggering further people in a snowball effect that spreads the issue further with every iteration.

Why did the Michael Brown case explode on the internet and not one of the hundreds of other cases of police killing unarmed black people each year?

Alexander:

I propose that the Michael Brown case went viral – rather than the Eric Garner case or any of the hundreds of others – because of the PETA Principle. It was controversial. A bunch of people said it was an outrage. A bunch of other people said Brown totally started it, and the officer involved was a victim of a liberal media that was hungry to paint his desperate self-defense as racist, and so the people calling it an outrage were themselves an outrage. Everyone got a great opportunity to signal allegiance to their own political tribe and discuss how the opposing political tribe were vile racists / evil race-hustlers. There was a steady stream of potentially triggering articles to share on Facebook to provoke your friends and enemies to counter-share articles that would trigger you.

...

If campaigners against police brutality and racism were extremely responsible, and stuck to perfectly settled cases like Eric Garner, everybody would agree with them but nobody would talk about it.

If instead they bring up a very controversial case like Michael Brown, everybody will talk about it, but they will catalyze their own opposition and make people start supporting the police more just to spite them. More foot-shooting.

Horrifying, in some ways, because this model of signaling implies that the issues that divide us most will continue to get the most traction in communities we spend time on.

In some rare cases, like certain subreddits, a certain groupthink or narrowness/homogeneity of audience may permit some controversial content to remain a harmonious gathering rather than a lightning rod of verbal warfare.

However, more likely that divisive issues are the ones that go viral most quickly on the social networks we spend time on. Even the ways they are designed can tilt the “incentive gradient” towards combat.

Alexander points to Tumblr as one example.

Tumblr’s interface doesn’t allow you to comment on other people’s posts, per se. Instead, it lets you reblog them with your own commentary added. So if you want to tell someone they’re an idiot, your only option is to reblog their entire post to all your friends with the message “you are an idiot” below it.

Whoever invented this system either didn’t understand memetics, or understood memetics much too well.

What happens is – someone makes a statement which is controversial by Tumblr standards, like “Protect Doctor Who fans from kitten pic sharers at all costs.” A kitten pic sharer sees the statement, sees red, and reblogs it to her followers with a series of invectives against Doctor Who fans. Since kitten pic sharers cluster together in the social network, soon every kitten pic sharer has seen the insult against kitten pic sharer – as they all feel the need to add their defensive commentary to it, soon all of them are seeing it from ten different directions. The angry invectives get back to the Doctor Who fans, and now they feel deeply offended, so they reblog it among themselves with even more condemnations of the kitten pic sharers, who now not only did whatever inspired the enmity in the first place, but have inspired extra hostility because their hateful invectives are right there on the post for everyone to see.

I don't see this as much on Tumblr because the ones I follow don't tend to traffic in this type of stuff, but the design observation still holds.

I see it more often on Facebook. Someone signals their absolute affiliation with one side of a controversial issue. Since there is no dislike button, to disagree with that person someone has to post a reply, and thus begins the time-honored comment thread joust to exhaustion in which neither side changes the other's opinions but instead entrenches even more deeply in their fortress of opinion.

It happens on Twitter, too, but the situation there is often more dire because of character limits and the difficulty of following conversation on that platform. The discussion gets splintered across multiple tweets such that it's impossible for all but Twitter experts to piece the sequence of verbal argument back into one coherent thread, let alone understand each side's arguments.

Moloch – the abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives – will publicize whatever he feels like publicizing. And if they want viewers and ad money, the media will go along with him.

Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistably incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistably incentivized to help them.

Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.

Alexander's piece is a long one, but it's a must read. We live in the golden age of trolling.

Why the internet is all cats and lists

The Allen-Alchian theorem explains why places with high-quality produce (Allen and Alchian had in mind apples in Seattle, which is where apples come from in the US) nevertheless do not always get to consume that same high quality (they pointed to the market for apples in New York city, where no apples grow) because of the relative costs faced by consumers in each case (for New York consumers, a high-quality apple, once you account for transportation costs, was actually relatively cheaper than a low-quality apple compared to relative prices in Seattle). Hence the market sent the high-quality apples to New York.

You’re still with me? It’s all about relative costs. When you move something, or impose any fixed cost, the higher-quality item always wins, because it now has a lower relative cost compared to the lower-quality item.

The interesting idea is that this also applies in reverse – namely when we remove a fixed cost. The internet does this: it removes a cost of transport, and it does so equally for high quality and low quality content. Following the Allen-Alchian theorem, this should mean the opposite. Low-quality items are now relatively cheaper and high-quality items are now relatively more expensive. This idea was first explained by Tyler Cowen, but the upshot is that the internet is made of cats.
 

Intriguing. Combine the Allen-Alchian theorem with the death of homepages and the rise of social networks consisting of short bits of text like status updates and tweets and you can probably explain much of why the internet is made up of cats, lists, and linkbait/clickbait.

Of course, we're talking about the average. For those of you with taste, the internet has enabled access to some of the great works of high culture in ways my childhood self couldn't have imagined.

Make it harder to cross the street

It turns out some of the key FCC people working to determine the future of net neutrality used to work at Comcast. The same path is also traveled in reverse quite frequently.

But overall, the FCC is one of many agencies that have fallen victim to regulatory capture. Beyond campaign contributions and other more visible aspects of the influence trade in Washington, moneyed special interest groups control the regulatory process by placing their representatives into public office, while dangling lucrative salaries to those in office who are considering retirement. The incentives, with pay often rising to seven and eight figure salaries on K Street, are enough to give large corporations effective control over the rule-making process.

...

The revolving door, however, provides a clear and semi-legal way for businesses to directly give unlimited cash and gifts to officials who act in their favor. One of the most famous examples of this dynamic is the case of Meredith Attwell Baker, an FCC Commissioner who left her job right after voting in favor of the Comcast merger with NBC. Her next career move? She became a high-level lobbyist for Comcast, the company she had just blessed. Earlier this week, she announced her next gig, as president of CTIA, the primary wireless industry trade group. She’ll have her work cut out for her in lobbying her former colleagues. CTIA has already warned the FCC from taking up any new net neutrality regulations.
 

In a democracy, if you don't want the money of corporations completely taking over policy-making, you can't allow people leaving office to immediately cross the street to a corner office on K-Street with a huge salary, and you also shouldn't allow those public officials to go work for a company in an industry they were regulating before. It's much too simple a way to essentially offer a deferred bribe.

Obama to appear on Between Two Ferns

President Obama's appearance on Funny or Die's Between Two Ferns will post tomorrow morning at 7:30am.

Sure, Obama came of age in the dawn of the internet, but it still feels like he's leaned forward on social media more than the average President would have. I'll always think of him as our first intentionally viral President (Bush having been more “unintentionally” viral).