You Are Not in Control – #RIMC 2012 Highlights

The ninth annual RIMC (Reykjavik Internet Marketing Conference) took place March 9. The annual conference, which takes place in Iceland’s capital, is organized by Kristjan Mar Hauksson, SES speaker, SEMPO board director, and founder of Nordic eMarketing.

Here's a wrapup of some of the highlights from RIMC 2012.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson: President, Iceland.

The morning welcome was delivered by the President of Iceland. Without slides and in a very relaxed tone, the president talked us through his personal experiences of new media; in particular about how instrumental social media had been as a tool for the people of Iceland to organize and protest after the fall of the banks in 2008.

Prior to the Arab Spring, the people of Iceland had used Facebook and Twitter to petition the government to reject various referenda. President Ólafur had quickly tuned in to the power of social media, and the ability for him to use such platforms to speak directly to the Icelandic electorate and for the past 18 months has rejected traditional media and global news appearances (on broadcasters such as CNN, Fox, and Reuters), in favor of social media.

President Ólafur’s speech was quite emotive, certainly inspirational, and helped set the theme for the day, which was “You are Not in Control”. In this perspective the point was that technology has been a genuine and powerful tool for social change; facilitating democratic movement, greater and more personalized communication, plus mass organization and collaboration. It was clear that for President Ólafur that social media has helped to remove “control” from the hands of the few powerful leaders and media owners.

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The President of Iceland opens the conference (Image Credit: Jackie Hole)

Eli Pariser: The Filter Bubble

I was interested to see Pariser's keynote; having read the book "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You" a few months ago. The book and Pariser’s talk concerns personalized behavioral algorithms and the inherent dangers of content and behavioral clustering, in how this can lead to ring-fenced views of the world.

Pariser first began to see the most tangible effects of this personalization around the time of the last U.S. elections. Up to a certain point Pariser had seen content shared by people in his Facebook network that represented their own varying left and right-wing interests.

Over time the algorithms at play had learned through Parisers own re-shares, likes and interactions of his own political leanings; then suddenly and close to election time he was presented only with the content that matched his own political preferences. Thus being a completely one-sided view of content from his network. Thinking about this to its logical conclusions Pariser noted a number of concerns with this method of filtering content.

Pariser points to three main challenges to us as content consumers and for those platform owners creating and relying on personalized behavioral algorithms:

  1. Distortion: It's human nature for people to desire to be presented with views and opinions that reinforce and reflect our own. Most of us do not like to be challenged, or to have our beliefs questioned. It's emotionally rewarding for us to see ourselves reflected in the content served to us, but then where is the bigger more balanced picture? What is happening to our world when a huge amount of content is mediated or promoted by “Like” mechanisms? It is hard to click “Like” on a content headline about war in Darfur.
  2. Psychological Obesity: A concept best illustrated in research by Netflix, who discovered that some content would immediately pass through their queue (from first-stage consumer interaction with content, to view stage) and some content would sit around for months with many interaction signals but customers never committing. On analysis Netflix discovered that blockbusters, action movies and rom-coms would fly through the queues, whereas more earnest content, such as documentaries or foreign cinema would not shift in the same way. It is thought that more earnest, educational content may be something we feel we should enjoy, as the content- habits of an aspirational future self; however in truth we’re more likely to go for information junk food.
  3. A Matter of Control: Though content may be personalized using our behavioral signals, habits and interactions we know as search marketers that this isn't entirely for our benefit, but for the benefit of advertisers and marketers. The new gatekeepers are not the editors or media owners of the twentieth century, nor are “the people”, rather it is code. And code doesn't have a sense of civic ethics…

Conclusion

While the rest of the conference was excellent, it was this juxtaposition of two high-level perspectives from President Ólafur and Pariser that was most striking.

On one hand we have the senior politician realizing that social media is a tool to devolve control, democratizing decision-making and placing this with the electorate. On the other, Pariser talks about the role and responsibility of platform owners in using personalized behavioral algorithms which present a distorted view to the benefit of advertisers and marketers. It is this dichotomy that I find most interesting, but also encouraging in that does this not provide a case for the continued relevance and necessity for traditional media?

In addition perhaps this also provides a necessity for the continued use of multiple social communication tools. Twitter content is personalized; however, it is active personalization (in that we choose who we follow.)

While the true future-impact of personalized behavioral algorithms is yet to be seen, I’m certainly happy to be a part of this world at the outset. We’re in an exciting space and I’m expecting many more discussions around ethics, responsibility, and transparency to be much higher on the agenda as social and connected networks evolve with the social web.

It was an amazing trip on many levels; including the day tour we took around Iceland’s Golden Circle, which included waterfalls, hot springs, spouting geysers and breath-taking scenery, which I would strongly recommend should any of you get the chance to travel to Iceland.

For an overview of the whole day, including a video of Eli Pariser interviewed at RIMC 2012 and highlights from other talks at the conference, Peter Handley of theMediaFlow has written a a round-up.

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TheMediaFlow senior team at Gullfoss Waterfall (Image Credit: theMediaFlow)