The Big Mistake Mark Cuban Doesn’t Know He’s Making on Social Media

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment


Recently entrepreneur and noted Twitter user Mark Cuban discovered that companies are collecting data about activity of social media users, which was apparently a revelation to Inc Magazine and its readership.

In the hilarious fear-mongering advertorial, Cuban postulates that our digital histories will someday be used against us in court or for job interviews.

This is perhaps only a revelation to Cuban and Inc. The rest of the Internet-using public has been aware of this reality for more than a decade.

In fact, the well of data social media makes available to advertisers was one of the first concerns raised by observers of the then-nascent “social networking” phenomenon when it first appeared in the early 2000s. I did a quick search of databases to find early studies about this topic and to wit, this quote is from a 2005 report created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania:

“Most internet-using U.S. adults are aware that companies can follow their behavior online.” (Turow et al, 2005, p. 4)

That same study went on to reference the 2002 Tom Cruise blockbuster “Minority Report” (which Cuban also references in the Inc Magazine interview).

An even older Annenberg report (from 2003) detailed the pitch of the now-defunct Gator Corporation, which embedded tracking software on social networking software services like KaZaA (remember KaZaA?):

“Let’s say you sell baby food. We know which consumers are displaying behaviors relevant to the baby food category through their online behavior. Instead of targeting primarily by demographics, you can target consumers who are showing or have shown an interest in your category. … Gator offers several vehicles to display your ad or promotional message. You decide when and how your message is displayed to consumers exhibiting a behavior in your category.” (Turow et al, 2005, p. 6)

So it’s not a revelation that algorithmic data is mined and analyzed by marketers. What I do find revelatory is that Cuban thinks he has the power to do something about it.

There are two major problems with the claims made by Cuban about two upcoming apps, Cyber Dust (a ripoff of Snapchat with a 30-second window) and Xpire:

  1. They can’t possibly hide or delete a user’s social media activity from advertisers.
  2. What a person DOESN’T do on social media can be just as valuable to marketers as what conscious actions they take.

Allow me to explain.

First, one can’t truly delete one’s social media activity to remove it from the prying eyes of marketers using it to produce an algorithmic profile.

You can delete the post from your timeline, sure, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s “deleted.” As far back as 2010, for example, it has been public knowledge that Facebook caches a server-side copy of all of your content. In order to truly delete all of your posts and photos from the prying eyes of advertisers, you would need to hack into Facebook and remove it from the inside (which would be illegal).

Moreover, even if we discount the server-side caching that takes place on social media platforms, simply viewing a social media site like Facebook creates a trail of data that feeds the digital profiles sites like Facebook build for each of us. At the most basic level, Facebook tracks what you scroll past (counted as “impressions”), the time you spend on content, and what you search for.

Apps (like Snapchat or Cuban’s “Cyber Dust”) which purport to delete content within a certain time window are fatally-flawed in concept because of the many touchpoints they have to make as they go from one user to another. If you “snap” a compromising photo, that data can be accessed at many times between Person A and Person B – here are just a few:

  • From the data cached on Person A’s phone (tracked by mobile phone carriers).
  • Intercepted between the phone and whatever Internet connectivity point is used to send the message (be it wi-fi or cellular).
  • From the server used to pass the content through to the app’s (Snapchat’s) servers.
  • From the app’s (Snapchat’s) servers.
  • From the server receiving the content from the app’s (Snapchat’s) servers.
  • From the data cached on Person B’s phone (or by Person B if they decide to take a screen capture of the photo and publish it to the web, which has been the downfall of several Snapchat users recently).

Further, the above scenario assumes you don’t have one app integrated with another (which adds an additional layer of touchpoints upon which this data can reside).

Second, the actions you DON’T take can be just as valuable to marketers as the actions you DO take. This reality plays out in a couple of different ways:

Facebook Caches Unposted Data: In 2013, the public became aware that Facebook tracks and saves posts that users delete at the last minute without posting. Re-read that sentence. Facebook is caching the keystrokes you enter – even if you decide not to publish them.

That data, analyzed by a PhD student from Carnegie Mellon University and a Facebook researcher, was used to produce a report revealed at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Here’s one of the key findings:

“Our results indicate that 71% of users exhibited some level of last-minute self-censorship in the time period, and provide specific evidence supporting the theory that a user’s “perceived audience” lies at the heart of the issue: posts are censored more frequently than comments, with status updates and posts directed at groups censored most frequently of all sharing use cases investigated.” (Das and Kramer, 2013, p. 1)

“Escher Fish Theory”: I’m loathe to coin a term, but there isn’t really an existing shorthand (that I’m aware of) to describe the value of observing the gaps in our social graphs. For example, who we’re not connected to (interests we don’t have, posts we don’t like, updates we don’t comment on) can be a valuable insight now that we have the computing power to crunch those petabytes of data. The tessellations of M.C. Escher provides a good illustration of this concept (that recognizable patterns exist in between other patterns):

M. C. Escher Tessellation

The only way to stop social media platforms from gathering this data would be to try to clog the datastream with phony likes, shares and comments.

Cuban’s premise is flawed for another reason – namely the idea that out-of-context messages will be used to incriminate us. This is pointedly absurd because the same systems that cache all of this data track iterations of that data, which would provide exculpatory evidence in the event someone were to modify them to distort what we posted.

Even if we were to assume that Cuban’s apps worked as intended (they won’t) they could conceivably produce the opposite of their intended result. A social media user with a completely sanitized history could actually create suspicion. A benign and mundane history of digital activity draws less attention than a blank page.

Our privacy is certainly going through dramatic changes – and so are our notions of privacy. The reason social media platforms continue to grow in both the number of monthly active users and the volume of content those users create is that they provide a benefit that transcends the loss of privacy we’re experiencing. No one has a comprehensive solution of how to balance privacy and the utility derived from transparency, least of all Mark Cuban.


Das, S., & Kramer, A. (2013). Self-Censorship on Facebook. In Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved from

Turow, J. (2003). Americans & Online Privacy: The System is Broken. In Annenberg Public Policy Center. Retrieved from

Turow, J., Feldman, L., & Meltzer, K. (2005). Open to Exploitation: American Shoppers Online and Offline . In Annenberg Public Policy Center. Retrieved from

A Guide for White People: Should I Wear Blackface for Halloween?

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Without fail, photos emerge every Halloween of caucasian partygoers in blackface. To help mitigate the damage this moronic ritual causes both to cultural relations in the US and the personal reputations of the people who inexplicably think it’s a good idea, I’ve put together this handy decision tree to advise my fellow crackers on the prudent course of action for this year’s costuming.

Guide: Should I Dress in Blackface for Halloween?

Why the Race of the Public Relations Firm Representing Ferguson Matters

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferguson PR Crisis and Diversity

By now you’re likely aware of the conflict erupting in Ferguson, MO resulting from the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. The city has done an abysmal job responding to the situation overall (including from a public relations perspective), highlighted most recently by the hiring of an all-white public relations firm to handle the crushing national media response to the race-motivated crisis.

The perception problem created by the hiring of an all-white PR firm was further escalated when the firm failed to immediately respond to critics via social media after the announcement went public. In its defense, Common Ground has since partnered with a minority-owned firm (The Devin James Group) to complement its capabilities. We’re reminded again that a few hours is a lifetime in the age of social media.

Some have defended the decision, arguing that it’s racist to consider the racial makeup of the PR firm hired to assist with this crisis. They are wrong and here’s why:

It’s not the PR firm’s fault, but we should all care that the firm is all white because it’s another reminder (like the Ferguson crisis) that minorities continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership across the US.

The city has defended its hiring of Common Ground PR on the basis that the scope of the firm’s work is to assist the city’s internal PR staff in responding to the deluge of national media requests that have come in – not to rebuild the city’s relationship with the minority communities. That’s a fair point – but it further reveals the extent to which racism is systemically integrated into American life; the vast majority of the national media are white and can be served by an all-white PR firm.

The origins of this tragedy are at least in part due to the fact that the Ferguson police department is 92 percent white, policing a population that is 67 percent black. The PR firm should have known from the start that the racial composition of their employees was going to be an issue – because the PR industry as a whole is well aware of the diversity problems across the US (and within our own profession – nearly 70 percent of PR practitioners are white). A PR firm dropped into this situation should have first prepared to tout its experience with (and connections to) the African American community even if they weren’t necessarily relevant to the work performed. Moreover, it should be aware that because the PR industry has championed diversity as an issue – it is held to a higher standard when it comes to internalizing diversity.

Experience matters, which is why all of us list it on our resumes – and why PR firms list it (as Common Ground does) on their websites. Unfortunately I see nothing on the firm’s website that would hint at experience working with the African American community, nor relationships therein (not on their Crisis Communications page, nor in their Accolades page, nor their Partners/Memberships page, nor listed among the causes they support on the “Giving Back” page). They absolutely may have it – but the only indicator we’re left with to judge them on their expertise with diversity is the racial makeup of their employees.

Understanding your audiences is one of the most basic components of public relations. It’s well-known in public relations (but rarely discussed) that to work with minority audiences, you need to have minority representation within your organization – it’s an important indicator that you’ve internalized the importance of diversity. That sounds racist, but it’s not – it’s a response to the legacy of racism which excluded minorities from professional positions (which is why they’re still underrepresented today).

That legacy of exclusion is why there are separate professional groups and news outlets for minorities today. The dominant white culture excluded minority professionals and failed to cover news in minority communities – so they had to create their own.

Here’s a thought exercise: if you had to reach a majority white audience, would you feel that you could be best represented by an all-black PR firm? How about your C-Suite? – You’re lying if you say yes. Yet we expect the opposite to be true for Ferguson.

What’s “racist” is pretending that race doesn’t matter – it does.

Mother of Dragons. Breaker of Chains. Master of PR.

June 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Master of PR

[Warning: Spoilers. Obvi.]

One of the most dynamic and compelling characters in the “Game of Thrones” universe created by George R.R. Martin is Daenerys Targaryen. Born in exile after her father Aerys II was killed as Robert Baratheon assumed the throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (the mythical world in which GOT takes place), she

She may not carry a smartphone or an insulated Starbucks mug, but Dany has been teaching a master class in public relations over the past few seasons. Here’s what she’s reminded us so far:

Never Forget Who You Are

Throughout the series, Danaerys recalls the strength of her birthright as a Targaryen to forge on against adversity. She trusts her heritage when she sets herself and her stone dragon eggs ablaze, and is rewarded when she emerges unscathed (though covered in soot like a Looney Toons character after an explosion) with her three dragons freed from their shells.

Play to Your Strengths

One advantage frequently used by Daenerys is her underestimation by her adversaries. When securing the army of the Unsullied (slaves trained in combat from birth) in Astapor, she allows their master Kraznys mo Nakloz to assume she does not understand Valyrien (an ancient language of Westeros) because she is Dothraki. While she barters with him for the slave army, he hurls a number of insults at her in Low Valyrian knowing his slave translator will clean up what he has said in the Common Tongue for his prospective customer. In theatrical fashion, she later reveals that she has understood every insult he’s made and orders her dragon to burn him alive in front of all – reminding all of the peril of underestimation (and securing the respect of her new army of freed slaves).

Understand Your Stakeholders

The portrayal of Daenerys in Game of Thrones is one of a woman who spends a great deal of time getting to know the people around her on the show. Like most good leaders, she spends more time listening than she does talking. Her ability to learn and embrace the culture of the Dothraki is crucial to her rise to power. Unlike many who sit on thrones elsewhere in Westeros, she walks among her people without fear – inspiring loyalty and admiration.

Unlike the other rulers of Westeros, Dany takes an interest in her subjects – investing to learn their cultures, motivations, and needs. The latest season contained a scene in which she heard and responded to the grievances of her newly-conquered subjects and responded generously to their petitions.

When she fails, she takes each misstep as an opportunity to learn something never to repeat (like when her misplaced trust in “the Thirteen” in Qarth results in the death of her men at the hands of the warlocks of the city). She uses her wit and presence to win the support of the mercenary army “the Second Sons,” by impressing Daario Naharis who rejects his fellow sellswords’ demands to assassinate her and beheads them instead as an act of fealty to Daenerys.

Wield the Power of Imagery

It’s hard to top the visual of Daenerys Targaryen emerging from a bath of flames on a funeral pyre to become the “Mother of Dragons.” This sets the stage for a series of stunning visuals that mark Dany’s rise to power, from the incineration of the House of the Undying to the incineration of Kraznys mo Nakloz, owner of the army of the Unsullied (the Mother of Dragons does a lot of incinerating). Nakloz’s death is particularly instructive.

One of the best uses of imagery comes when Daenerys and her armies begin their seige of the city of Meereen. In a dramatic appeal to the slaves of the city to take up arms against their masters, Daenerys orders catapaults to fling the broken chains and yokes of the other slaves she has freed over the citys’ walls. As the slaves pick up the broken symbols of subjugation, both they and their dramatically-outnumbered masters realize perception is the only thing keeping them enslaved.

Women: Stand Strong in a Male-Dominated World

Dany is the lone female contender for the throne of Westeros, a world which mirrors the patriarchal bend of ours. Public Relations is unique among other professions in that it is populated largely by women (by some studies, a ratio as high as 75-85 percent). The respect she commands and influence she exerts reminds me of many of the women in the world of PR.

Forced into an arranged marriage with Khal Drogo (a warlord who commands 40,000 riders of a race called the Dothraki) to serve her brother Viserys’ desire to raise an army to reconquer the Iron Throne for House Targaryen, Dany wills herself to be respected as an equal by her new husband.  She endures abuse, rape, and both physical and psychological violence to overcome the subjugation of her cruel brother and the circumstances of her early life in exile. She asserts an equal status to her husband and eventually takes over the leadership of his tribe when he falls ill and dies.

In point of fact, the fantasy world created by Martin has been the subject of analysis by gender studies academics because it’s strong female characters (like Cersei Lannister, Catelyn and Arya Stark, Olenna and Magaery Tyrell, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, and Osha to name a few) buck the traditional depictions of the fantasy genre.

To Achieve Your Goals, Stick to a Strategy

Once the city of Meereen is conquered, availing Daenerys of its 93 ships, she wisely puts off her quest to retake the throne of Westeros by sailing to Kings Landing even though she now has the ships she’s so desperately needed throughout the past few seasons. The cities she has conquered have slipped back into disarray without her direct oversight, so she invests in her future empire by pausing to refortify her rule (an important gesture that demonstrates her loyalty to the subjects she has just freed).

The public relations analogy extends far and wide through the Game of Thrones series; the importance of communication and intellectual brinksmanship are felt more heavily in this fantasy series than in others which are content to coast on magic, mythical creatures and hewing swords. As a result, I’ve doubtless missed many other correlaries between GoT and the worlds of advertising, marketing and PR.

I’d love to hear what lessons or analogies you’ve picked up on in the series.

Valar morghulis.

Life in Public Relations – Corporate vs. Agency

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Corporate Public Relations Life vs. Agency Public Relations Life

Social Media Platforms by Monthly Active Users [Graphic]

April 5, 2014 Leave a comment

A few years ago, I put together a graphic illustrating the size of many of the top social media sites in comparison to one another. It’s about time I did a revision – so here is one for 2014 in case you happen to find it helpful.

Social Media Platforms by Monthly Active Users 2014

Social Media Platforms by Monthly Active Users 2014

Notes about the methodology:

  • This version illustrates Monthly Active Users (MAU) instead of Total Users. Total users has become a meaningless number as the use of social media has continued to rise, as many more people have occasion to create multiple accounts (particularly spammers). Moreover, social media is no longer trying desperately to convince the mainstream world that it is important; it’s got that locked down. Now it’s trying to convince the mainstream world that it is relevant and useful (primarily to drive commerce).
  • Several platforms (Flickr, Foursquare, Reddit, Tumblr, Vine, and WordPress) don’t readily publish statistics on their monthly active users. This is almost certainly because those numbers are lower than they would like them to be – so they try to cheat by using numbers like “views” or “posts published.” I thought it important to call out that they’re trying to buck the trend toward disclosure by noting them on the chart.
  • Wikipedia is in the unfortunate position of being a vital centerpiece of digital life, but having comparatively fewer monthly active users because of the passion and knowledge required to be a Wikipedian. Participating in Wikipedia requires coding knowledge, as well as objectivity – to keep entries as objective as possible, people with a connection to topics are discouraged from contributing to those entries.

Linkedin is Killing Products/Services Pages in Favor of Showcase Pages: What This Means for You

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Last week, employment-oriented social networking platform Linkedin announced that it was killing the “Products/Services” section of Company pages in favor for what is calling “Showcase Pages.” If you currently manage a company page you have until April 25, 2014 to make the switch.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What You Lose:

  • YouTube Embed: Products/Services pages permitted Company Page managers to embed a YouTube video on the page
  • Rotating Banners: You’ll no longer be able to rotate feature images calling out special offers or features at the top of the main products/services page
  • Bullet Points: This feature is not available in Showcase Pages – the only option for adding information about a product is to post updates (which tile down in chronological order)
  • Recommendations: The only third party endorsement on a Showcase Page is the followers, whereas Product/Services pages allowed customers to post reviews
  • Disclaimer: Product/Service pages allowed disclaimers at the bottom of pages
  • Special Promotions: Previously users had the option to include some brief text and a link to a special promotion related to the product
  • Contacts: Each product had the option to list Linkedin profiles for employees at an organization that could be contacted for more information

What You Gain:

  • A Giant Cover Image: Showcase pages have a cover image at the top that is considerably larger than the cover image for Company Pages: 974 x 330 pixels (max size 2MB). One note: you’ll want to be careful how you use this image (and perhaps add a gradient at the bottom) as the bottom third is taken up by overlayed content (the page title, a follow button, and an avatar image). This could be an implication that Linkedin intends to change the cover image size for Company Profiles as well.
  • Diversification: Users can now follow individual Showcase Pages without following the Company Page they are associated with. For umbrella brands, this will be helpful for reaching audiences that might be interested in an individual product line, but not interested in
  • Search Visibility: Showcase Pages now appear in Linkedin’s graph search, which is the biggest positive development about Showcase Pages:

Linkedin Showcase Pages Appear in Search


I can’t blame Linkedin for this change; I’m sure it was driven by a lack of traffic to the product/service pages – which tend to be stagnant once they’re created by an organization. Hopefully Showcase Pages will drive more traffic and spur companies to be more active about publishing timely information about themselves on Linkedin, because it’s truly a fantastic platform with a large and valuable audience.




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