Theses Doctoral

The Social Network Mixtape: Essays on the Economics of the Digital World

Aridor, Guy

This dissertation studies economic issues in the digital economy with a specific focus on the economic aspects of how firms acquire and use consumer data.

Chapter 1 empirically studies the drivers of digital attention in the space of social media applications. In order to do so I conduct an experiment where I comprehensively monitor how participants spend their time on digital services and use parental control software to shut off access to either their Instagram or YouTube. I characterize how participants substitute their time during and after the restrictions. I provide an interpretation of the substitution during the restriction period that allows me to conclude that relevant market definitions may be broader than those currently considered by regulatory authorities, but that the substantial diversion towards non-digital activities indicates significant market power from the perspective of consumers for Instagram and YouTube. I then use the results on substitution after the restriction period to motivate a discrete choice model of time usage with inertia and, using the estimates from this model, conduct merger assessments between social media applications. I find that the inertia channel is important for justifying blocking mergers, which I use to argue that currently debated policies aimed at curbing digital addiction are important not only just in their own right but also from an antitrust perspective and, in particular, as a potential policy tool for promoting competition in these markets. More broadly, my paper highlights the utility of product unavailability experiments for demand and merger analysis of digital goods. I thank Maayan Malter for working together with me on collecting the data for this paper.

Chapter 2 then studies the next step in consumer data collection process – the extent to which a firm can collect a consumer’s data depends on privacy preferences and the set of available privacy tools. This chapter studies the impact of the General Data Protection Regulation on the ability of a data-intensive intermediary to collect and use consumer data. We find that the opt-in requirement of GDPR resulted in 12.5% drop in the intermediary-observed consumers, but the remaining consumers are trackable for a longer period of time. These findings are consistent with privacy-conscious consumers substituting away from less efficient privacy protection (e.g, cookie deletion) to explicit opt out—a process that would make opt-in consumers more predictable. Consistent with this hypothesis, the average value of the remaining consumers to advertisers has increased, offsetting some of the losses from consumer opt-outs. This chapter is jointly authored with Yeon-Koo Che and Tobias Salz.

Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 make up the third portion of the dissertation that studies one of the most prominent uses of consumer data in the digital economy – recommendation systems. This chapter is a combination of several papers studying the economic impact of these systems. The first paper is a joint paper with Duarte Gonçalves which studies a model of strategic interaction between producers and a monopolist platform that employs a recommendation system. We characterize the consumer welfare implications of the platform’s entry into the production market. The platform’s entry induces the platform to bias recommendations to steer consumers towards its own goods, which leads to equilibrium investment adjustments by the producers and lower consumer welfare. Further, we find that a policy separating recommendation and production is not always welfare improving. Our results highlight the ability of integrated recommender systems to foreclose competition on online platforms.

The second paper turns towards understanding how such systems impact consumer choices and is joint with Duarte Gonçalves and Shan Sikdar. In this paper we study a model of user decision-making in the context of recommender systems via numerical simulation. Our model provides an explanation for the findings of Nguyen et. al (2014), where, in environments where recommender systems are typically deployed, users consume increasingly similar items over time even without recommendation. We find that recommendation alleviates these natural filter-bubble effects, but that it also leads to an increase in homogeneity across users, resulting in a trade-off between homogenizing across-user consumption and diversifying within-user consumption. Finally, we discuss how our model highlights the importance of collecting data on user beliefs and their evolution over time both to design better recommendations and to further understand their impact.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Che, Yeon-Koo
Salz, Tobias
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2022