I’m at the ID2020 (@ID2020) Summit in New York. The theme is “Rising to the Good ID Challenge.” My notes here are accumulating at the bottom, not the top. Okay, here goes…

At that last link it says, “The ID2020 Alliance is setting the course of digital ID through a multi-stakeholder partnership, ensuring digital ID is responsibly implemented and widely accessible.”

I find myself wondering if individuals are among the stakeholders. Also this:

There is also a manifesto. It says, among other things, “The ability to prove one’s identity is a fundamental and universal human right.” and “We live in a digital era. Individuals need a trusted, verifiable way to prove who they are, both in the physical world and online.”

That’s good. I’d also want more than one way, which may be the implication here.

The first speaker is from Caribou Digital. What follows is from her talk.

“1. It’s about the user, not just the use case.”

Hmm… I believe identity needs to be about independent human beings, not just “users” of systems.

“2. Intermediaries are still critical.”

The focus here is on family and institutional intermediaries, especially in the less developed world. Which is fine; but people should not need intermediaries in all cases. If you tell someone your name, or give them a business card no intermediary is involved. That same convention should be available online.

“3. It’s not just about an ‘ID.’ It’s not even about an identity system. It’s about an identification ecosystem.”

This is fine, but identification is about what systems do, not about what individuals do or have; and by itself tends to exclude self-sovereign identity. Self-sovereign is how identity works in the physical world. Here we are nameless (literally, anonymous) to most others, and reveal information about who we are (business cards, student ID, drivers license) on an as-needed basis that obeys Kim Cameron’s Laws of Identity, notably “minimum disclosure for a constrained use,” “justifiable parties” and “personal control and consent.”

4. “A human-centered, inclusive, respectful vision for the next stage of identification in a digital age.”

We need human-driven. Explained long ago here and here.

That’s over and the first panel is on now. Most of it is inaudible where I sit. The topic now is self-sovereign and decentralized. The audience seems to be pushing that. @MatthewDavie just said something sensible, I think, but don’t have a quote.


And this. Read the thread that follows. There are disagreements and explanations.

Here’s the ID2020 search on Twitter.

Background, at least on where I’m coming from: https://www.google.com/search?q=”doc+searls”+identity.

For the interested, @identitywoman, @windley and I (@dsearls) put on the Internet Identity Workshop, October 1-3 at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. This one will be our 29th. (The first was in 2005 and there are two per year.) It’s an unconference: no keynotes or panels, just breakouts on topics attendees choose and lead. It’s the most consequential conference I know.

@MatthewDavie: “If we do this, and it doesn’t work with the current power players, we’re going to end up with a second-class system.” I suspect this makes sense, but I’m not sure what “this” is.

“Sovereign ownership of data” just came up from the audience. I think it’s possible for individuals to act in a self-sovereign way in sharing identity data, but not that this data is exclusively own-able. Some thoughts on that from Elizabeth Renieris (@HackyLawyER). Mine agree.

The second panel is on now. It’s mostly inauduble.

Now Dakota Gruener (@DakotaGruener), Executive Director of ID2020 is speaking. She’s telling a moving story about a homeless neighbor, Colin, who is denied services for lack of official ID(s).

New panel: Decentralization in National ID Programs.

Kim Cameron is on the panel now: “I spent thirty years building the world’s identity systems.” There were gasps. I yelled “It’s true.” He continued: “I’m now trying to rile up the world’s populations…”

John Jordan just made a point about how logins are a screwed up way to do things online and don’t map to what we know well and do in the everyday world. (I think that’s close. The sound system is dim at this end of the room.)

Kim just sourced my wife (who is here and now deeper than I am in this identity stuff), adding that “people know something is wrong” when they mention shoes somewhere and then see ads for shoes online. “We have technology. We have consciousness. We have will. So let’s do something.”

John: “What we want is to be in control of our relationships. Those are ours. Those are decentralized… People are decentralized.”

Kim: “What it means is recognizing that identity is who we are. It begins with us. .. only we know the aggregate of these attributes. In daily life we reveal some of those attributes, but never the aggregate. We need a system that begins with the indi and recognizes that they are in control, and choose what they reveal separately. We don’t want aggregates of ourselves to be everywhere. We need systems that recognize that, and are based on control by the individual, consent of the individual.”

“We do need assertions from people other than ourselves. The government can provide useful claims about a person. So can a university, or a bank. I can say somebody is a great guy. The identity fabric is all these claims.” Not quite verbatim, but close.

John: “Personal data should never be presented in a non-cryptographic way.” Something like that.

Kim on the GDPR: “We have it because the population demanded it… what will happen is this vision of people in control of their identity, and the Internet becoming reliable and trustworthy and probabilistic (meaning you’re being guessed at) rather than fully useful. Let’s give people their own wallets, let them run their own lives, make up their own minds… the world of legislation will grow, and it will do that around the will of people. … they need an identity system based on individuals rather than institutions overstepping their bounds… and we will see conflicts around this, with both good and bad government interventions.”

John: “I’d like to see legislation that forbids companies from holding personal information they don’t have to.” (Not verbatim, but maybe close. Again, hard to hear.)

Kim: “The current identity systems of the world are collapsing… you will have major institutions switching over to these decentralized identity systems, not from altruism, but from liability.”

Elizabeth heard and tweeted about one of the thing that was inaudible to me at this end of the room: “Thank you @LudaBujoreanu for addressing the deep disconnect between the reality on the ground of those without ID and the privileged POV from which many of these #digitalid systems are built @ID2020’s #id2020summit cc @WomeninID

Next panel: “Cities Driving Innovation in Good ID.”

Scott David from the audience just talked about “Turning troubles into problems,” and the challenge of doing that for individuals in an identity context.”

This reminds me of what Gideon Litchfield said about the difference between debates and conflicts, and I expanded on a bit here. Our point was that there are some issues that become locked in conflict with no real debate between sides. Scott’s distinction is toward a way out. Interesting. I’d like to know more.

Ken Banks tweets, “It’s an increasingly crowded space… #digitalidentity #ID2020″:

He adds, “Already lots of talk of putting people first. Hopefully the #digitalidentity community will deliver, and not fall into the trap of saying one thing and doing another, a common issue with in the tech-for-development/#ICT4D sector. #ID2020 #GoodID

Two tweets…

@Gavi: “Government representatives, tech experts & civil society will gather at #UNGA74 today to discuss the potential of #DigitalID. Biometric ID data could help us better monitor which children need to be vaccinated and when. #ID2020



Now I can’t find the other one. It argued that there is a 2-3% error rate for biomentric.

For lunch David Carroll (@ProfCarroll) of The New School (@thenewschool) is talking. Title: A data quest: holding tech to account. He starred in The Great Hack, on Netflix.

He’s sourcing Democracy Disrupted, by the UK ICO. “the sortable, addressable… algorithmic democracy. “Couterveillance: advertisers get all the privacy. We get none.”

“Parable of the great hadk: data rights must externd to digital creditoship. Identity depends on it.”

200 million America has no access to data held about them, by, for istance, Acxiom.

“A simple bill of data rights. Creditorship, objection, control, knowledge.” (Here’s something that’s not it, but interesting enough for me to flag for later reading.)

Now a panel moderated by Raffi Kirkorian. Also Cameron Birge of Microsoft and the Emerson Collective, Karen Ottoni, Demora Compari, Matthew Yarger and Christine Leong. (Again the sound is weak at this end of the room. Not picking up much here.)

Okay, that’s it. I’ll say more after I pull some pix together and complete these public notes.



newspaperIn a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed, Bernie Sanders presents a plan to save journalism that begins,

WALTER CRONKITE ONCE SAID that “journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” He was absolutely right, which is why today’s assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump presents a crisis—and why we must take concrete action.

His prescriptive remedies run ten paragraphs long, and all involve heavy government intervention. Rob Williams (@RobWilliamsNY) of MediaPost provides a brief summary in Bernie Sanders Has Misguided Plan To Save Journalism:

Almost two weeks after walking back his criticism of The Washington Post, which he had suggested was a mouthpiece for owner Jeff Bezos, Sanders described a scheme that would re-order the news business with taxes, cross-subsidies and trust-busting…

Sanders also proposes new taxes on online targeted ads, and using the proceeds to fund nonprofit civic-minded media. It’s highly doubtful that a government-funded news provider will be a better watchdog of local officials than an independent publisher. Also, a tax-funded news source will compete with local publishers that already face enough threats.

Then Rob adds,

Sanders needs to recognize that the news business is subject to market forces too big to tame with more government regulation. Consumers have found other sources for news, including pay-TV and a superabundance of digital publishers.

Here’s a lightly edited copy of the comment I put up under Rob’s post:

Journalism as we knew it—scarce and authoritative media resources on print and air—has boundless competition now from, well, everybody.

Because digital.

Meaning we are digital now. (Proof: try living without your computer and smartphone.) As digital beings we float in a sea of “content,” very little of which is curated, and much of which is both fake and funded by the same systems (Google, Facebook and the four-dimensional shell game called adtech) that today rewards publishers for bringing tracked eyeballs to robots so those eyeballs can be speared with “relevant” and “interactive” ads.

The systems urging those eyeballs toward advertising spears are algorithmically biased to fan emotional fires, much of which reduces to enmity toward “the other,” dividing worlds of people into opposing camps (each an “other” for the “other”). Because, hey, it’s good for the ad business, which includes everyone it pays, including what’s left of mainstream and wannabe mainstream journalism.

Meanwhile, the surviving authoritative sources in that mainstream have themselves become fat with opinion while carving away reporters, editors, bureaus and beats. Brand advertising, for a century the most reliable and generous source of funding for good journalism (admittedly, along with some bad), is now mostly self-quarantined to major broadcast media, while the eyeball-spearing “behavioral” kind of advertising rules online, despite attempts by regulators (especially in Europe) to stamp it out. (Because it is in fact totally rude.)

Then there’s the problem of news surfeit, which trivializes everything with its abundance, no matter how essential and important a given story may be. It’s all just too freaking much. (More about that here.)

And finally there’s the problem of “the story”—journalism’s stock-in-trade. Not everything that matters fits the story format (character, problem, movement). Worse, we’re living in a time when the most effective political leaders are giant characters who traffic in generating problems that attract news coverage like a black hole attracts everything nearby that might give light. (More about that here.)

Against all those developments at once, there is hardly a damn thing lawmakers or regulators can do. Grandstanding such as Sanders does in this case only adds to the noise, which Google’s and Facebook’s giant robots are still happy to fund.

Good luck, folks.

So. How do we save journalism—if in fact we can? Three ideas:

  1. Start at the local level, because the physical world is where the Internet gets real. It’s hard to play the fake news game there, and that alone is a huge advantage (This is what my TED talk last year was about, by the way.)
  2. Whatever Dave Winer is working on. I don’t know anybody with as much high-power insight and invention, plus the ability to make stuff happen. (Heard of blogging and podcasting? You might not have if them weren’t for Dave. Some history herehere and here.)
  3. Align incentives between journalism, its funding sources and its readers, listeners and viewers. Surveillance-based adtech is massively misaligned with the moral core of journalism, the brand promises of advertisers and the privacy of every human being exposed to it. Bernie and too many others miss all that, largely because the big publishers have been chickenshit about admitting their role in adtech’s surveillance system—and reporting on it.
  4. Put the users of news in charge of their relationships with the producers of it. Which can be done. For example, we can get rid of those shitty adtech-protecting cookie notices on the front doors of websites with terms that readers can proffer and publishers can agree to, because those terms are a good deal for both. Here’s one.

I think we’ll start seeing the tide turn when when what’s left of responsible ad-funded online publishing cringes in shame at having participated in adtech’s inexcusable surveillance business—and reports on it thoroughly.

Credit where due: The New York Times has started, with its Privacy Project. An excellent report by Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) in that series contains this long-overdue line:”Among all the sites I visited, news sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had the most tracking resources.”

Hats off to Farhad for grabbing a third rail there. I’ve been urging this for a long time, and working especially on #4, through ProjectVRMCustomerCommons and the IEEE’s working group (P7012) on Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms. If you want to roll up your sleeves and help with this stuff, join one or more of those efforts.



black hole

Last night I watched The Great Hack a second time. It’s a fine documentary, maybe even a classic. (A classic in literature, I learned on this Radio Open Source podcast, is a work that “can only be re-read.” If that’s so, then perhaps a classic movie is one that can only be re-watched.*)

The movie’s message could hardly be more loud and clear: vast amounts of private information about each of us is gathered constantly in the digital world, and is being weaponized so our minds and lives can be hacked by others for commercial or political gain. Or both. The movie’s star, Professor David Carroll of the New School (@profcarroll), has been delivering that message for many years, as have many others, including myself.

But to what effect?

Sure, we have policy moves such as the GDPR, the main achievement of which (so far) has been to cause every website to put confusing and (in most cases) insincere cookie notices on their index pages, meant (again, in most cases) to coerce “consent” (which really isn’t) to exactly the unwanted tracking the regulation was meant to stop.

Those don’t count.

Ennui does. Apathy does.

On seeing The Great Hack that second time, I had exactly the same feeling my wife had on seeing it for her first: that the very act of explaining the problem also trivialized it. In other words, the movie worsened the very problem it solved. And it isn’t alone at this, because so has everything everybody has said, written or reported about it. Or so it sometimes seems. At least to me.

Okay, so: if I’m right about that, why might it be?

One reason is that there’s no story. See, every story requires three elements: character (or characters), problem (or problems), and movement toward resolution. (Find a more complete explanation here.) In this case, the third element—movement toward resolution—is absent. Worse, there’s almost no hope. “The Great Hack” concludes with a depressing summary that tends to leave one feeling deeply screwed, especially since the only victories in the movie are over the late Cambridge Analytica; and those victories were mostly within policy circles we know will either do nothing or give us new laws that protect yesterday from last Thursday… and then last another hundred years.

The bigger reason is that we are now in a media environment summarized by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Medium is the Massage: “every new medium works us over completely.” Our new medium is the Internet, which is a non-place absent of distance and gravity. The only institutions holding up there are ones clearly anchored in the physical world. Health care and law enforcement, for example. Others dealing in non-material goods, such as information and ideas, aren’t doing as well.

Journalism, for example. Worse, on the Internet it’s easy for everyone to traffic in thoughts and opinions, as well as in solid information. So now the world of thoughts and ideas, which preponderate on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are vast floods of everything from everybody. In the midst of all that, the news cycle, which used to be daily, now lasts about as long as a fart. Calling it all too much is a near-absolute understatement.

But David Carroll is right. Darkness is falling. I just wish all the light we keep trying to shed would do a better job of helping us all see that.


*For those who buy that notion, I commend The Rewatchables, a great podcast from The Ringer.

Whither Linux Journal?

[16 August 2019…] Had a reassuring call yesterday with Ted Kim, CEO of London Trust Media. He told me the company plans to keep the site up as an archive at the LinuxJournal.com domain, and that if any problems develop around that, he’ll let us know. I told him we appreciate it very much—and that’s where it stands. I’m leaving up the post below for historical purposes.

On August 5th, Linux Journal‘s staff and contractors got word from the magazine’s parent company, London Trust Media, that everyone was laid off and the business was closing. Here’s our official notice to the world on that.

I’ve been involved with Linux Journal since before it started publishing in 1994, and have been on its masthead since 1996. I’ve also been its editor-in-chief since January of last year, when it was rescued by London Trust Media after nearly going out of business the month before. I say this to make clear how much I care about Linux Journal‘s significance in the world, and how grateful I am to London Trust Media for saving the magazine from oblivion.

London Trust Media can do that one more time, by helping preserve the Linux Journal website, with its 25 years of archives, so all its links remain intact, and nothing gets 404’d. Many friends, subscribers and long-time readers of Linux Journal have stepped up with offers to help with that. The decision to make that possible, however, is not in my hands, or in the hands of anyone who worked at the magazine. It’s up to London Trust Media. The LinuxJournal.com domain is theirs.

I have had no contact with London Trust Media in recent months. But I do know at least this much:

  1. London Trust Media has never interfered with Linux Journal‘s editorial freedom. On the contrary, it quietly encouraged our pioneering work on behalf of personal privacy online. Among other things, LTM published the first draft of a Privacy Manifesto now iterating at ProjectVRM, and recently published on Medium.
  2. London Trust Media has always been on the side of freedom and openness, which is a big reason why they rescued Linux Journal in the first place.
  3. Since Linux Journal is no longer a functioning business, its entire value is in its archives and their accessibility to the world. To be clear, these archives are not mere “content.” They are a vast store of damned good writing, true influence, and important history that search engines should be able to find where it has always been.
  4. While Linux Journal is no longer listed as one of London Trust Media’s brands, the website is still up, and its archives are still intact.

While I have no hope that Linux Journal can be rescued again as a subscriber-based digital magazine, I do have hope that the LinuxJournal.com domain, its (Drupal-based) website and its archives will survive. I base that hope on believing that London Trust Media’s heart has always been in the right place, and that the company is biased toward doing the right thing.

But the thing is up to them. It’s their choice whether or not to support the countless subscribers and friends who have stepped forward with offers to help keep the website and its archives intact and persistent on the Web. It won’t be hard to do that. And it’s the right thing to do.

In 1995, shortly after she first encountered e-commerce, my wife assigned a cool project to the world by asking a simple question: Why can’t I take my shopping cart from site to site?

The operative word in that question is the first person possessive pronoun: my.

Look up personal online shopping cart and you’ll get nearly a billion results, but none are for a shopping cart of your own. They’re all for shopping carts in commercial websites. In other words, those carts are for sellers, not buyers. They may say “my shopping cart” (a search for that one yields 3.1 billion results), but what they mean is their shopping cart. They say “my” in the same coo-ing way an adult might talk to a baby. (Oh, is my diaper full?)

Shopping online has been stuck in this uncool place because it got modeled on client-server, which should have been called “slave-master” when it got named a few decades ago. Eight years ago here (in our September 2011 issue) I called client-server “calf-cow,” and illustrated it with this photo (which a reader correctly said was shot in France, because it was clear to him that these are French cows):


It began,

As entities on the Web, we have devolved. Client-server has become calf-cow. The client—that’s you—is the calf, and the Web site is the cow. What you get from the cow is milk and cookies. The milk is what you go to the site for. The cookies are what the site gives to you, mostly for its own business purposes, chief among which is tracking you like an animal. There are perhaps a billion or more server-cows now, each with its own “brand” (as marketers and cattle owners like to say).

This is not what the Net’s founders had in mind. Nor was it what Tim Berners-Lee meant for his World Wide Web of hypertext documents to become. But it’s what we’ve got, and it’s getting worse.

In February 2011, Eben Moglen gave a landmark speech to the Internet Society titled “Freedom in the Cloud”, in which he unpacked the problem. In the beginning, he said, the Internet was designed as “a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control, and assuming that every switch in the Net is an independent, free-standing entity whose volition is equivalent to the volition of the human beings who want to control it”. Alas, “it never worked out that way”. Specifically:

If you were an ordinary human, it was hard to perceive that the underlying architecture of the Net was meant to be peerage because the OS software with which you interacted very strongly instantiated the idea of the server and client architecture.

In fact, of course, if you think about it, it was even worse than that. The thing called “Windows” was a degenerate version of a thing called “X Windows”. It, too, thought about the world in a server-client architecture, but what we would now think of as backwards. The server was the thing at the human being’s end. That was the basic X Windows conception of the world. It served communications with human beings at the end points of the Net to processes located at arbitrary places near the center in the middle, or at the edge of the Net…

No need to put your X Windows hat back on. Think instead about how you would outfit your own shopping cart: one you might take from store to store.

For this it helps to think about how you already outfit your car, SUV or truck: a vehicle that is unambiguously yours, even if you only lease it. (By yours I mean you operate it, as an extension of you. When you drive it, you wear it like a carapace. In your mind, those are my wheels, my engine, my fenders.)

Since you’ll be driving this thing in the online world, there’s a lot more you can do with it than the one obvious thing, which is to keep a list of all the things you’ve put in shopping carts at multiple websites. Instead start with a wish list that might include everything you ought to be getting from e-commerce, but can’t because e-commerce remains stuck in the calf-cow model, so the whole thing is about cows getting scale across many calves. Your personal shopping cart should be a way for you to get scale across all of e-commerce. Depending on how much you want to kit up your cart, you should be able to—

  1. Keep up with prices for things you want that have changed, across multiple sites
  2. Intentcast to multiple stores your intention to buy something, and say under what conditions you’d be willing to buy it
  3. Subscribe and unsubscribe from mailings in one standard way that’s yours
  4. Keep up with “loyalty” programs at multiple sites, including coupons and discounts you might be interested in (while rejecting the vast majority of those that are uninteresting, now or forever)
  5. Keep records of what you’ve bought from particular retailers in the past, plus where and when you bought those things, including warranty information
  6. Let stores know what your privacy policies are, plus your terms and conditions for dealing with them, including rules for how your personal data might be used
  7. Have a simple and standard way to keep in touch with the makers and sellers of what you own—one that works for you and for those others, in both directions
  8. Have a way to change your contact information for any or all of them, in one move
  9. Mask or reveal what you wish to reveal about yourself and your identity, with anonymity as the default
  10. Pay in the fiat or crypto currency of your choice
  11. Use your own damn wallet, rather than using a Google, Apple or a Whatever wallet
  12. Everything else on the ProjectVRM punch list, where you’ll find links to work on many of the ideas above.

Yes, I know. All those things fly in the face of Business As Usual. They’ll be fought by incumbents, require standards or APIs that don’t yet exist, and so on. But so what. All those things also can be done technically. And, as Marc Andreessen told me (right here in Linux Journal, way back in 1998), “all the significant trends start with technologists.” So start one.

You also don’t need to start with a shopping cart. Anything on that list can stand alone or be clustered in some other… well, pick your metaphor: dashboard, cockpit, console, whatever. It might also help to know there is already development work in nearly all of those cases, and an abundance of other opportunities to revolutionize approaches to business online that have been stuck for a long time. To explain how long, here is the entire text of a one-slide presentation Phil Windley gave a few years ago:


1995: Invention of the Cookie

The End

Now is the time to break out of the cookie jar where business has been stuck for an inexcusably long time.

It’s time to start working for customers, and making them more than just “users” or “consumers.” Think Me2B and not just B2C. Make customertech and not just salestech, adtech and martech. Give every customer leverage:

By doing that, you will turn the whole marketplace into a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

For inspiration, think about what Linux did against every other operating system. Think about what the Internet did to every LAN, WAN, phone company and cable company in the world. Think about what the Web did to every publishing system.

Linux, the Net and the Web each had something radical in common: they extended the power of individual human beings before they utterly reformed every activity and enterprise that came to depend on them.

If you’re interested in any of those projects above, talk to me. Or just start working on it, and tell me about it so I can help the world know.

Go to the Alan Turing Institute. If it’s a first time for you, a popover will appear:

Among the many important things the Turing Institute is doing for us right now is highlighting with that notice exactly what’s wrong with the cookie system for remembering choices, and lack of them, for each of us using the Web.

As the notice points out, the site uses “necessary cookies,” “analytics cookies” (defaulted to On, in case you can’t tell from the design of that switch), and (below that) “social cookies.” Most importantly, it does not use cookies meant to track you for advertising purposes. They should brag on that one.

What these switches highlight is that the memory of your choices is theirs, not yours. The whole cookie system outsources your memory of cookie choices to the sites and services of the world. While the cookies themselves can be found somewhere deep in the innards of your computer, you have little or no knowledge of what they are or what they mean, and there are thousands of those in there already.

And yes, we do have browsers that protect us in various ways from unwelcome cookies, but they all do that differently, and none in standard ways that give us clear controls over how we deal with sites and how sites deal with us.

One way to start thinking about this is as a need for cookies go the other way:

I wrote about that last year at Linux Journal in a post by that title. A nice hack called Global Consent Manager does that.

Another way is to think (and work toward getting the sites and services of the world to agree to our terms, and to have standard ways of recording that, on our side rather than theirs. Work on that is proceeding at Customer Commons, the IEEE, various Kantara initiatives and the Me2B Alliance.

Then we will need a dashboard, a cockpit (or the metaphor of your choice) through which we can see and control what’s going on as we move about the Web. This will give us personal scale that we should have had on Day One (specifically, in 1995, when graphical browsers took off). This too should be standardized.

There can be no solution that starts on the sites’ side. None. That’s a fail that in effect gives us a different browser for every site we visit. We need solutions of our own. Personal ones. Global ones. Ones with personal scale. It’s the only way.

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: stories.

I was just 22 when I got my first gig as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around just three elements: character, conflict and movement toward resolution. You need all three.

So let’s look at them.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause. Anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worthy not just of attention, but of caring, meaning at least a small degree of emotional investment. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The conflict can be of any kind at all. It just needs to involve the character(s) in a problem, and a struggle (for the character or others) around that problem. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going. If not, the story is over. (For example, if you’re at a sports evbent, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories, and many characters in many conflicts around many problems, never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a lesson in how this can go very wrong, let’s take the example of the character now serving as President of the United States, and the conflicts he generates on purpose. I doubt any other character in history understands more deeply and instinctively how stories work, or is more practiced and successful at attracting journalistic attention by causing constant conflict, always toward his personal advantage, much of which is about enlarging his character to maximum size. There is true genius to how he does all this, especially in these early years of our new digital age, when the entire Internet is one big gossip mill. It is beyond amazing to watch him bend history, much like The Mule does in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (It was for this reason that, along with Scott Adams, I expected the dude to win in 2016.)

That he is cocaine for journalists and news organizations, however, is beside the point I’m making here,* which is that stories are inadequate ways to represent facts and truths, even if (as my favorite priest says) there are some truths so deep only stories can tell them.

Most truths we need to know aren’t deep, or even complicated. They just don’t fit the story format, and therefore resist becoming news—or interesting to journalists. That’s because stories are what journalism produces. This isn’t fatal flaw. But it is a failing, because there are some truths stories can’t tell. And most facts in the world don’t fit the story format.

For examples, let’s start with some facts that once mattered by now mostly don’t. The best evidence of these may be cemeteries. All a cemetery’s occupants  were, in life, characters. Each of their lives was a story, and within their lives were many more stories. But their problems are all over, and there is no motion toward a conclusion, since all their lives are done. In most cases their characters have been erased by time and the full disinterest of the living. This even goes for relatives of the deceased, all of whom will also be deceased eventually, if they aren’t already.

For example, among the hundreds of thousands buried in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery is my great-grandfather, Henry Roman Englert:

Henry R. Englert headstoneTo make him more real as a character, here is how he looked as a sharp young man:

His headstone says nothing about him, other than that he died at eighty-seven, seventy-six years ago. Being a journalist, however, and knowing a bit about  Henry, I tell some of his story in the captions under the dozens of photos I’ve put in this album: that he headed the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in New York, that he was what his daughter (my grandma) called a “good socialist,” that he had at least seven daughters and at least one son (Henry Jr., known as Harry, who died at age four) by two marriages, and that he outlived both of his wives at three of his kids by a long margin.

There are also questions within stories that have no answer, or even a way to get one, so the story just stops, even if the facts matter. For example, Henry’s plot is marked only by his headstone, with no markers for five others buried in the same plot, in just three graves, including both his wives and three of his children, all of whom predeceased him:

Henry Roman Englert, wives and kidsThe sad but true summary here is that none of these people matter much, if at all, today, even though they mattered in each others’ lives a great deal when they were all alive. The great-grandchildren of Henry and his wives are now all advanced in death’s queue, or have already arrived there. And the living ones, including me, are way too busy living stories of their own and long since past caring much, if at all, about any of the gone people here. And the same is pretty much true for all but the most recently planted dead at Woodlawn and every other cemetery.

For a very different example—one that undeniably, deeply, and fully matters—take the killing fields of Cambodia: the story about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge murdered what eventually became more than a million people. I first heard of this genocide from Hughes Rudd, who was anchoring the CBS Morning News one day in the late 1970s. Between other news stories (as I recall they were about the Superbowl and Patty Hearst), Rudd said there were now reports that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. But the story wasn’t a story. It was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. Dig: half a million dead, and no story. What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no apparent struggle, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The story finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Shamberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had a protagonist, a conflict, and movement toward resolution, all illustrating and illuminating important facts about the conflict, which was still going on at the time. Eventually it became a movie as well. For journalism, however, what also matters about this is that years went by, with hundreds of thousands more dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this wasn’t the first or last time that massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ fled elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died in Mao’s revolution in China? Without characters to care about, or a struggle to focus interest, without movement toward resolution, you mostly just have statistics. Sure, all that stuff will get studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Like it is right now.

You may notice that this post is itself a non-story. That’s one reason it has been incubating here for months. It still isn’t ready to be born now, and may not ever be. But I do feel a need to share my thinking on the topic, even though my thinking about it is likely to change. I am at least hoping that the journalistic feeding frenzy generated by the Mule of our time will lead to some fresh thinking about what journalism does best and worst, and especially about what, almost by design, it can’t or won’t.


*However, if you want good advice on how best to write stories about the guy, you can’t beat what @JayRosen_NYU tweets here. I suggest it also applies to the UK’s new prime minister.




[19 July 2019 update…] I just copied* this piece over from its old placement in Medium. I can no longer edit it there, and the images in it have disappeared. This is also the case for other stuff I’ve published on Medium, alas.

*I also copied over all the HTML cruft that Medium is full of. It’ll take more time than I have to extract that. Meanwhile, it seems to look okay.

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This is wrong:

Because I’m not blocking ads. I’m blocking tracking.

In fact I welcome ads—especially ones that sponsor The Washington Post and other fine publishers. I’ll also be glad to subscribe to the Post once it stops trying to track me off their site. Same goes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other papers I value and to which I no longer subscribe.

Right now Privacy Badger protects me from 20 and 35 potential trackers at those papers’ sites, in addition to the 19 it finds at the Post. Most of those trackers are for stalking readers like marked animals, so their eyeballs can be shot by “relevant,” “interest-based” and “interactive” ads they would never request if they had much choice about it—and in fact have already voted against with ad blocking, which by 2015 was already the biggest boycott in world history. As I point out in that link (and Don Marti did earlier in DCN), there was in that time frame a high correlation between interest in blocking ads and interest (surely by the ad industry) in retargeting, which is the most obvious evidence to people that they are being tracked. See here:

Tracking-based ads, generally called adtech, do not sponsor publications. They use publications as holding pens in which human cattle can be injected with uninvited and unwelcome tracking files (generally called cookies) so their tracked eyeballs can be shot, wherever they might show up, with ads aimed by whatever surveillance data has been gleaned from those eyeballs’ travels about the Net.

Real advertising—the kind that makes brands and sponsors publications—doesn’t track people. Instead it is addressed to whole populations. In doing so it sponsors the media it uses, and testifies to those media’s native worth. Tracking-based ads can’t and don’t do that.

That tracking-based ads pay, and are normative in the extreme, does not make right the Post‘s participation in the practice. Nor does it make correct the bad thinking (and reporting!) behind notices such as the one above.

Let’s also be clear about two myths spread by the “interactive” (aka “relevant” and “interest-based”) advertising business:

  1. That the best online advertising is also the most targeted—and “behavioral” as well, meaning informed by knowledge about an individual, typically gathered by tracking. This is not the kind of advertising that made Madison Avenue, that created nearly every brand you can name, and that has sponsored publishers and other media for the duration. Instead it is direct marketing, aka direct response marketing. Both of those labels are euphemistic re-brandings that the direct mail business gave itself after the world started calling it junk mail. Sure, much (or most) of the paid messages we see online are called advertising, and look like advertising; but as long as they want to get personal, they’re direct marketing.
  2. That tracking-based advertising (direct marketing by another name) is the business model of the “free” Internet. In fact the Internet at its base is as free as gravity and sunlight, and floats all business boats, whether based on advertising or not.

Getting the world to mistake direct marketing for real advertising is one of the great magic tricks of all time: a world record for misdirection in business. To help explain the difference, I wrote Separating Advertising’s Wheat From Chaff, the most quoted line from which is “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.” Alas, the same is true for the business offices of the Post and every other publisher that depends on tracking. They ceased selling their pages as spaces for sponsors and turned those spaces over to data vampires living off the blood of readers’ personal data.

There is a side for those publishers to take on this thing, and it’s not with the tracking-based advertising business. It is with their own moral backbone, and with the readers who still keep faith in it.

If any reporter (e.g.@CraigTimberg @izzadwoskin@nakashimae ‏and @TonyRomm) wants to talk to me about this, write me at doc at searls.com or DM me here on Twitter.* Thanks.

Bonus link (and metaphor)

*So far, silence. But hey: I know I’m asking journalists to grab a third rail here. And it’s one that needs to be grabbed. There might even be a Pulitzer for whoever grabs it. Because the story is that big, and it’s not being told, at least not by any of the big pubs. The New York TimesPrivacy Project has lots of great stuff, but none that grabs the third rail. The closest the Times has come is You’re not alone when you’re on Google, by Jennifer Senior (@JenSeniorNY). In it she says “your newspaper” (alas, not this one) is among the culprits. But it’s a step. We need more of those. (How about it, @cwarzel?)

[Later…] We actually have a great model for how the third rail might be grabbed, because The Wall Street Journal wrestled it mightily with the What They Know series, which ran from 2010 to 2012. For most of the years after that, the whole series, which was led by Julia Angwin and based on lots of great research, was available on the Web for everybody at http://wsj.com/wtk. But that’s a 404 now. If you want to see a directory of the earliest pieces, I list them in a July 2010 blog post titled The Data Bubble. That post begins,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

Alas, the tide did not turn. It kept coming in and getting deeper. And now we’re drowning under it.

Give podcasting full respect by making it a search heading.

Bing should do it too. Also DuckDuckGo. In fact all search engines should make podcasts a search heading. Simple as that.

If they make podcasts a search heading, they’ll make podcasting too big a category to fracture into a forest of silos.

This doesn’t mean Apple, Spotify and others can’t continue to offer subscriptions and other forms of aggregation. Or that ListenNotes will go out of business. (Though that’s a risk. Remember Technorati?)

Anyway, this idea just came to me. It’s a bit of a riff off a concern Dave Winer has had for some time. (Sample here.) What do the rest of ya’ll think?

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