Is thinking about monetization a waste of our best minds?

I just recently watched this talk by Jack Conte, musician, video artist, and cofounder of Patreon:

Jack dives into how rapidly the Internet has disrupted the business of selling reproducible works, such as recorded music, investigative reporting, etc. And how important — and exciting — it is build new ways for the people who create these works to be able to make a living doing so. Of course, Jack has some particular ways of doing that in mind — such as subscriptions and subscription-like patronage of artists, such as via Patreon.

But this also made me think about this much-repeated1 quote from Jeff Hammerbacher (formerly of Facebook, Cloudera, and now doing bioinformatics research):

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

I certainly agree that many other types of research can be very important and impactful, and often more so than working on data infrastructure, machine learning, market design, etc. for advertising. However, Jack Conte’s talk certainly helped make the case for me that monetization of “content” is something that has been disrupted already but needs some of the best minds to figure out new ways for creators of valuable works to make money.

Some of this might be coming up with new arrangements altogether. But it seems like this will continue to occur partially through advertising revenue. Jack highlights how little ad revenue he often saw — even as his videos were getting millions of views. And newspapers’ have been less able to monetize online attention through advertising than they had been able to in print.

Some of this may reflect that advertising dollars were just really poorly allocated before. But improving this situation will require a mix of work on advertising — certainly beyond just getting people to click on ads — such as providing credible measurement of the effects and ROI of advertising, improving targeting of advertising, and more.

Another side of this question is that advertising remains an important part of our culture and force for attitude and behavior change. Certainly looking back on 2016 right now, many people are interested in what effects political advertising had.

So maybe it isn’t so bad if at least some of our best minds are working on online advertising.

  1. So often repeated that Hammerbacher said to Charlie Rose, “That’s going to be on my tombstone, I think.” []

Interpreting discrete-choice models

Are individuals random-utility maximizers? Or do individuals have private knowledge of shocks to their utility?

“McFadden (1974) observed that the logit, probit, and similar discrete-choice models have two interpretations. The first interpretation is that of individual random utility. A decisionmaker draws a utility function at random to evaluate a choice situation. The distribution of choices then reflects the distribution of utility, which is the object of econometric investigation. The second interpretation is that of a population of decision makers. Each individual in the population has a deterministic utility function. The distribution of choices in the population reflects the population distribution of preferences. … One interpretation of this game theoretic approach is that the econometrician confronts a population of random-utility maximizers whose decisions are coupled. These models extend the notion of Nash equilibrium to random- utility choice. The other interpretation views an individual’s shock as known to the individual but not to others in the population (or to the econometrician). In this interpretation, the Brock-Durlauf model is a Bayes-Nash equilibrium of a game with independent types, where the type of individual i is the pair (x_i, e_i). Information is such that the first component of each player i’s type is common knowledge, while the second is known only to player i.” — Blume, Brock, Durlauf & Ioannides. 2011. Identification of Social Interactions. Handbook of Social Economics, Volume 1B.

Aardvark’s use of Wizard of Oz prototyping to design their social interfaces

The Wall Street Journal’s Venture Capital Dispatch reports on how Aardvark, the social question asking and answering service recently acquired by Google, used a Wizard of Oz prototype to learn about how their service concept would work without building all the tech before knowing if it was any good.

Aardvark employees would get the questions from beta test users and route them to users who were online and would have the answer to the question. This was done to test out the concept before the company spent the time and money to build it, said Damon Horowitz, co-founder of Aardvark, who spoke at Startup Lessons Learned, a conference in San Francisco on Friday.

“If people like this in super crappy form, then this is worth building, because they’ll like it even more,” Horowitz said of their initial idea.

At the same time it was testing a “fake” product powered by humans, the company started building the automated product to replace humans. While it used humans “behind the curtain,” it gained the benefit of learning from all the questions, including how to route the questions and the entire process with users.

This is a really good idea, as I’ve argued before on this blog and in a chapter for developers of mobile health interventions. What better way to (a) learn about how people will use and experience your service and (b) get training data for your machine learning system than to have humans-in-the-loop run the service?

My friend Chris Streeter wondered whether this was all done by Aardvark employees or whether workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk may have also been involved, especially in identifying the expertise of the early users of the service so that the employees could route the questions to the right place. I think this highlights how different parts of a service can draw on human and non-human intelligence in a variety of ways — via a micro-labor market, using skilled employees who will gain hands-on experience with customers, etc.

I also wonder what UIs the humans-in-the-loop used to accomplish this. It’d be great to get a peak. I’d expect that these were certainly rough around the edges, as was the Aardvark customer-facing UI.

Aardvark does a good job of being a quite sociable agent (e.g., when using it via instant messaging) that also gets out of the way of the human–human interaction between question askers and answers. I wonder how the language used by humans to coordinate and hand-off questions may have played into creating a positive para-social interaction with vark.

Not just predicting the present, but the future: Twitter and upcoming movies

Search queries have been used recently to “predict the present“, as Hal Varian has called it. Now some initial use of Twitter chatter to predict the future:

The chatter in Twitter can accurately predict the box-office revenues of upcoming movies weeks before they are released. In fact, Tweets can predict the performance of films better than market-based predictions, such as Hollywood Stock Exchange, which have been the best predictors to date. (Kevin Kelley)

Here is the paper by Asur and Huberman from HP Labs. Also see a similar use of online discussion forums.

But the obvious question from my previous post is, how much improvement do you get by adding more inputs to the model? That is, how does the combined Hollywood Stock Exchange and Twitter chatter model perform? The authors report adding the number of theaters the movie opens in to both models, but not combining them directly.

Reprioritizing human intelligence tasks for low latency and high throughput on Mechanical Turk

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a platform and market for human intelligence tasks (HITs) that are submitted by requesters and completed by workers (or “turkers”).  Each HIT is associated with a payment, often a few cents. This post covers some basics of Mechanical Turk and shows its lack of designed-in support for dynamic reprioritization is problematic for some uses. I also mention some other factors that influence latency and throughput.

With mTurk one can create a HIT that asks someone to rate some search results for a query, evaluate the credibility of a Wikipedia article, draw a sheep facing left, enter names for a provided color, annotate a photo of a person with pose information, or create a storyboard illustrating a new product idea. So Mechanical Turk can be used in many ways for basic research, building a training set for machine learning, or actually enabling a (perhaps prototype) service in use through a kind of Wizard-of-Oz approach. Additionally, I’ve used mTurk to code images captured by participants in a lab experiment (more on this in another post or article).

When creating HITs, a requester can specify a QuestionForm (QF) (e.g., via command line tools or an SDK) that is then presented to the worker by Amazon. This can include images, free text answers, multiple choice, etc. Additionally one can embed Flash or Java objects in it. But the easiest way of creating HITs is to use a QF and not create a Java or Flash application of one’s own. This is especially true for HITs that are handled well by the basic question form. The other option is to create an ExternalQuestion (EQ), which is hosted on one’s own server and is displayed in an iFrame. This provides greater freedom but requires additional development and it is you that must host the page (though you can do so through Amazon’s S3). QF HITs (without embeds) also offer a familiar interface to workers (though it is possible to create a more efficient, custom interface by, e.g., making all the targets larger). So when possible, it is often preferable to use a QF rather than an EQ.

For some of the uses of mTurk for powering a service, it can be important to minimize latency for specific HITs1, including prioritizing particular new HITs over previously created HITs. For example, after some HIT has not been completed for a specific period after creation, it may still be important to complete it, but when it is completed may become less important. This can happen easily if the value of a HIT being completed has a sharp drop off after some time.

This should be done while maintaining high throughput; that is, you don’t want to reduce the rate at which your HITs are completed. When there are more HITs of the same type, workers can check a box to immediately start the next HIT of the same type when they submit the current one (see screenshot). Workers will often complete many HITs of the same type in a row. So throughput can drop substantially if any workers run out of HITs of the same type at any point: they may switch to another HIT type, or if they do your HITs once more appear, then there will be a delay. As we’ll see, these two requirements don’t seem to be well met by the platform — or at least certain uses of it.

Mechanical Turk does not provide a mechanism for prioritizing HITs of the same type, so without deleting all but particular high-priority HITs of that type, there is not a way to ensure that some particular HIT gets done before the rest. And deleting the other HITs would hurt throughput and increase latency for any new high-priority HITs added in the near future (since workers won’t simply start these once they finish their previous HITs).

EQ HITs allow one to avoid this problem. Unlike with QF HITs (without Flash and Java embeds), one does not have to specify the full content of the HIT in advance. When a worker accepts an EQ HIT, you can dynamically serve up the HIT you want to depending on changing priorities. But this means that you can’t take advantage of, e.g., the simplicity of creating and managing data from QF HITs. So though there are ways of coping, adding dynamic reprioritization to Mechanical Turk would be a boon for time-sensitive uses.

There are, of course, other factors that influence latency and throughput on mTurk when (EQ) HITs are reprioritized. Here are a few:

  • HIT and sub-tasks duration. How long does it take for workers to complete a HIT, which may be composed of multiple sub-tasks? A worker cannot be assigned a new HIT until they complete (or reject) the previous one. This can be somewhat avoided by creating longer HITs that are subdivided into dynamically selected sub-tasks. This can be done with an EQ HIT or an embedded Flash or Java application in a QF HIT. But the sub-task duration is always a limiting factor, unless one is willing to force abortion of the current sub-task, replacing it will still in progress (with an EQ, Flash, or Java).
  • Available workers. How many workers are logged into mTurk and completing task? How many are currently switching HIT types? This can vary with the time of day.
  • Appeal of your HITs. How much do workers like your HITs — are they fun? How much do you pay for how much you ask? How many of their completed assignments do you approve?
  • Reliability. How accurate or precise must your results be? How many workers do you need to complete a HIT before you have reliable results? Do other workers need to complete meta-HITs before the data can be used?
  1. I use the term HIT somewhat loosely in this article. There are at least three uses that each differ in their identity conditions. (1) There are HITs considered as human intelligence tasks, and thus divided as we divide tasks; this means that a HIT in another sense can be composed of multiple HITs in this sense (tasks or sub-tasks). (2) There are HITs in Amazon’s technical sense of the term: a HIT is something that has the same HIT ID and therefore has the same specification. In QF HITs without embeds, this means all instances (assignments) of a HIT are the same in content; but in EQ HIT this is not necessarily true, since the content can be determined when assigned. (3) Finally, there is what Amazon calls assignments, specific instances of a HITs that are only completed once. []