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?

I thought the Rockets were great in last night’s game—and say that as a Warriors fan. (I even had season tickets back in the Run TMC era, when tickets were still affordable).

The Rockets’ problem was that the Warriors were greater, and it wasn’t just because SuperSteph showed up in the second half. Basketball is a team game, and the difference was the Warriors’ bench.

The Warriors have been getting shit for their bench all season; but the bench played great. They showed why the Warriors are in fact a great team, and not just the Splash Brothers + KD.

Look at the stats, not the highlight reel. The whole bench was +14 for the game. Two of the five players scoring in double-figures came off the bench. (Three of the five if you count Andre Iguodala, filling in for the injured KD.) The leading bench scorer was Kevon Looney. (Yes, that’s his name. And he’s actually good.) Shawn Livingston was terrific.

Here’s how to tell how good the Rockets really are: Nearly every other franchise in the league, other than the Warriors, would gladly trade their whole team for the Rockets. And maybe every team. Even Milwaukee. And hell, maybe even the Warriors.

I say that because the Rockets best strategy in the offseason is to wait for the Warriors to break up. The chance that both Klay and KD will stay is small, though it’s possible. Steph is still great, but he’s passing the top of his career arc. Draymond isn’t who he was two years ago. Iguodala and Livingston are ready to retire. If the Warriors partially disband this summer, the best team in the West will be the Rockets. Milwaukee will still be the best in the East, though Toronto and Philly will still be excellent, especially if Kawhi stays put. (Boston won’t suck, but needs at least a partial rebuild: something they can easily do.)

Anyway, there’s no shame in what happened to the Rockets this year. A truly great team lost to a slightly greater one that likely won’t stay that way.

Where does public radio rock—or even rule? And why?

To start answering those questions, I looked through Nielsen‘s radio station ratings, which are on the Radio Online site. I dug down through all the surveyed markets, from #1 (New York NY) through #269 (Las Cruces-Deming NM), and pulled out the top 31 markets for public radio (where the share was over 6.0 — all numbers are % of all listening within a geographic market):

  1. Santa Barbara CA (where KCLU is #1), 23.4
  2. Burlington VT (where WVPS is #1), 17.2
  3. Montpelier-Barre-Waterbury VT (where WVPS is #1), 17.0
  4. Ann Arbor, MI (where WUOM is #1 and WEMU is tied at #2), 15.1
  5. Cape Cod MA (where WCAI is #2), 14.6
  6. Asheville, NC (where WCQS is #2)m 13.4
  7. Portland OR (where KOPB is tied at #2), 12.6
  8. Denver-Boulder CO (where KCFR is #1), 12.3
  9. Austin TX (where KUT is #1), 11.3
  10. Eugene-Springfield (where KLCC is #2), 11.3
  11. Washington, DC (where WAMU is #2 and sometimes #1), 11.3
  12. San Francisco CA (where KQED has been #1 through the all the posted surveys), 11.0
  13. Seattle-Takoma WA (where KUOW has been #1 through the all the posted surveys), 10.9
  14. Raleigh-Durham NC (where WUNC is #4), 10.6
  15. Portland ME (where WMEA is #1), 10.5
  16. San Jose CA (where KQED is #3), 9.9
  17. Concord (Lakes Regions) NH (where WEVO is #1) 9.3
  18. Boston MA (where WBUR is #7), 8.9
  19. San Luis Obispo CA (where KCBX is #2), 8.9
  20. Columbia MO (where KBIA is #4), 8.6
  21. Tallahassee FL (where WFSU is #3), 8.6
  22. Washington DC (where WAMU is #2 and sometimes #1), 8.6
  23. Sarasota-Bradenton FL (where WUSF is #2 and WSMR is #3) 8.2
  24. Monterey CA (where KAZU was #2), 7.7
  25. Gainesville-Ocala FL (where WUFT is #4), 7.3
  26. New Haven CT (where WSHU is #6), 7.3
  27. Lafayette IN (where WBAA-AM is #1 and WBAA-FM is #3), 7.0
  28. Traverse City-Petoskey-Cadillac MI  (where WICA is #7), 6.7
  29. Hartford-New Britain CT (where WNPR is #9), 6.5
  30. Oxnard-Ventura CA (where KCLU is #4), 6.3
  31. Grand Junction CO (where KPRN is #5), 6.1

(Note: Totals above are of noncommercial stations with typical public radio formats: NPR-type news and programming, plus classical, jazz and alternative music. I didn’t include noncommercial religious stations†).

Of course I’m pleased to find my town, Santa Barbara, on top. Here’s how Nielsen breaks out station ratings within that 23.4 share number.

  1. KCLU-FM 7.8. This is KCLU’s 110-watt translator on 102.3, not the home station on 88.3 in Thousand Oaks, which barely gets into town. (Note that this signal is directional, meaning weaker in all directions other than straight into town. This number is remarkable for a translator. For more on that, see the map below.)
  2. KCLU-AM 2.6. This signal has the same audio as KCLU-FM, so the two together are 9.4, which makes KCLU #1, edging KTYD, the landmark local rock station, which gets a 9.2.
  3. KUSC 5.2. Though reported as KUSC, this is actually KDB/93.7, which carries the audio of KUSC from Los Angeles.
  4. KCRW 3.9. This is surely KDRW, which mostly identifies as KCRW, since most of the time KDRW carries the audio of KCRW, from Santa Monica/Los Angeles.
  5. KDRW 1.3. This is a case of one station reported two different ways. Together they total 5.2.
  6. KCBX 1.3. This is KSBX, a 50-watt repeater of KCBX from San Luis Obispo, which has no signal at all in town (being blocked by the 4000-foot Santa Ynez Mountain range).
  7. KPCC 1.3. This is the 10-watt translator of KPCC from Pasadena/Los Angeles. KPCC’s home signal doesn’t reach here.

So: why Santa Barbara? Here’s what I think:

  1. Demographics. Santa Barbara is an upscale university town with a bonus population of active older folks who are intellectually and culturally engaged. NPR, for example, tends to do well with that combination of crowds.
  2. Lots of signals. There is now a surfeit of public radio signals in Santa Barbara.The list above is unusually large for a town this size, and doesn’t include stations that serve the market but didn’t make the ratings, such as KPFK (Los Angeles most powerful FM station, which also has a local 10-watt translator) and UCSB’s college radio station, KZSB).
  3. Geographic isolation. Santa Barbara is far enough from big market signals to make them weak or absent. (Some do get in, and even show a bit in the ratings.) I think the same kind of thing can also be said for many of the other smaller markets where public radio does well.
  4. News coverage. There are three two steady sources of local news in Santa Barbara: local/regional TV (notably KEYT/3), local print (both online and off), and public radio—especially KCLU, which has won three Murrow Awards and six AP awards in the last two years. Of its news director, Lance Orozco, KCLU says, “Lance has won more than 200 journalism awards for KCLU, including more than 90 Golden Mikes, 20-plus regional Edward R. Murrow awards, a national Edward R. Murrow Award (an honor which came to David Letterman’s attention on “The Late Show.”), and a national Society Of Professional Journalists Award He has been AP’s small market reporter of the year in the western U.S. nine times.”
  5. Disasters. Santa Barbara has a long and almost steady record of wildfires, the largest of which was the Thomas Fire in December 2017, followed by massive debris flows during a storm in January 2018. Public Radio and other local media became indispensable during that time. I suspect it has stayed that way in a time when national news has become more partisan and less anchored to facts “on the ground,” as they say.

Montecito debris flow Montecito debris flow, January 2018. From KEYT/3.

I also think some other factors are in play here—factors with meaning that go far beyond Santa Barbara:

  1. Local and regional news lives on in public radio while it has been dying off on the commercial side. Old-fashioned “full service” local radio has been in retreat across the country. Stations categorized as “news” or “news/talk” in the ratings (and within the industry) are now mostly conduits for political talk. True full-time pure news stations thrive only in the largest markets, where the news operations can afford the reporters. Specifically those are New York (WCBS and WINS), Philadelphia (KYW), Washington (WTOP), Chicago (WBBM), Los Angeles (KNX) and San Francisco (KCBS). That’s it. (In fact one of L.A.’s two news stations, KFWB, dropped the format in 2014.)
  2. Public radio may be the only part of shared culture, other than sports, where the media center still holds. This too owes to being anchored in local culture, and reporting on local news, which by necessity tends to be less partisan than national news has become.
  3. Listener abandonment of over-the-air radio, especially for music. Music and talk listening has been shifting for years from over-the-air to streaming services, satellite radio and podcasts, leaving public radio with a higher percentage of listening to over-the-air broadcasts.
  4. Embrasure of streaming, satellite radio, podcasting, smart speakers and other new technologies. Public broadcasting has long been ahead of the technical curve, and in the last decade has done an excellent job of maximizing what can still be done with legacy over-the-air broadcasting (for example, buying up signals with low market value—as KCLU did with its AM in Santa Barbara—and planting translators and repeater stations all over the place), while also pioneering on the digital front. Noncommercial and religious broadcasters have both been highly resourceful and ahead of the curve on The Great Digital Shift.
  5. Turning localism into a big competitive advantage. Something that has long been a weakness of public radio, especially NPR—its fealty to stations, refusing to subordinate the network to those—is turning into an advantage, as local programming matters more and more. Even in the midst of The Great Digital Shift, we remain physical beings who live in the natural world, vote in local elections, drive in local traffic, care about local teams, deal with local emergencies, and depend on each other’s helping hands when and where it matters most. Public radio is especially compatible with all that. (Note: this was the subject of my TEDx talk in Santa Barbara last September.)
  6. Re-defining regionalities. What makes a region a region, or a market a market? I think public radio is playing a role in defining both, especially as commercially-supported news becomes more partisan and less well funded by advertising. Again, my case in point is KCLU, which started as a little Thousand Oaks/Ventura station, then became a South Coast station by adding two Santa Barbara signals. Now, by adding another full-size signal in Santa Maria (KCLM/89.7), plus a translator in San Luis Obispo, KCLU is almost as much a Central Coast station, at least in terms of geographic coverage. Still, I’m not sure that’s what they have in mind. They identify now as “NPR for the California Coast,” yet their vision is still “to inform, educate and promote dialogue among the citizens of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties on local, regional, national and global issues.” No mention of San Luis Obispo County; so I’m not sure how well that’s working yet.  KCBX, from San Luis Obispo, also didn’t become any less a Central Coast station when it added its South Coast signal in Santa Barbara. KCLU does talk up the Central Coast as much as it can, so maybe a shift is in the works. It’s worth nothing that Santa Barbara–Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo is a Nielsen Designated Market Area (or DMA). Ventura and Thousand Oaks are part of the Los Angeles DMA. These are determined by what local TV stations are most watched. So, while it’s an open question what defines local and regional identity, it’s clear to me that public radio is playing a serious role in that process.

I may add to those points as I take in reader feedback and think more on all of it. Meanwhile, I want to look a bit more closely to what has happened to public radio in Santa Barbara over the eighteen years since I arrived there. This is geeky stuff, so if you’re into that, keep reading…

When I moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, public radio was long on classical music and short on news and talk. The two classical stations were USC’s KQSC/88.7 with 12,000 watts and KDB/93.7 with 12,500 watts (that’s a lot), both on Gibraltar peak, overlooking town. KQSC was a repeater for KUSC in Los Angeles. On the talk (NPR, etc.) side, KCLU/88.3 had a 4-watt translator operating on 102.3 from Gibraltar Peak, overlooking town. It actually sounded pretty good if you were within sight of the transmitter, and may already have been a strong ratings contender. (I recall a Nielsen survey a few years ago that put it at #1 then.)

To put this little translator’s size in perspective, the biggest station in town is KRUZ/103.3 KVYB/103.3, grandfathered with 105,000 watts, radiating from Broadcast Peak, which is over 4000 feet high. Here’s a pair of maps that shows the difference:

KVYB vs. KCLU

KCLU’s home signal from Thousand Oaks was weak and distant. So was KCRU/88.1, the Oxnard repeater for Santa Monica-based KCRW/89.9. KCRW also had a 10-watt translator on 106.9 serving Goleta (the next town west of Santa Barbara). Pacifica’s L.A. based KPFK/90.7 had a 10-watt translator on 98.7. UCSB had KCSB/91.9, its own non-NPR college station, radiating with 620 watts from Broadcast Peak, also on the Goleta side of town. There was also a local non-political full-service commercial news/talk station at the time: KEYT/1250am (now KZER), featuring a good morning show hosted by John Palminteri.

Since then, all this happened:

  1. In 2002, KSBX/89.5 came on the air from Gibraltar Peak. It’s a 50-watt repeater for KCBX/90.1, the public radio voice of San Luis Obispo. On the same channel, KPBS from San Diego also pounds into town on warm days.
  2. In 2003, KEYT was sold, John Palminteri spread his reporting talents across lots of other stations (including KCLU) and local news/talk was gone until…
  3. In 2005, the Santa Barbara News-Press, owned by Wendy P. McCaw, got its own local AM station, now called KZSB/1290, which has been a local old-fashioned commercial ‘full service” news station ever since. The main personality there is “Baron” Ron Herron, who has been a local radio personality for many decades.
  4. In 2008, KCLU bought a local station on the AM band. That’s now KCLU-AM/1340. Though only 650 watts, it does cover the populated South Coast pretty well.
  5. In 2014, a bunch of things happened at once:
    1. Public radio, which had never been a native thing in Santa Barbara, suddenly got saturated (as Matt Welsh put it in The Independent). Specifically…
    2. KPCC/89.3 in Pasadena/Los Angeles came on with a 10-watt Gibraltar Peak translator on 89.9. It covers the town well.
    3. Santa Monica Community College, which owns KCRW, bought KQSC from USC, and made it KDRW, which has a local studio and does some local coverage, though most of the time it’s a repeater for KCRW. A big one, too.
    4. The University of Southern California bought KDB and moved KUSC’s classical program over there from what had been KQSC (and is now KDRW).
    5. KCLU replaced its non-directional 4-watt signal on 102.3 with a new directional one that maxes at 115 watts toward downtown, but radiates as little as 5 watts in other directions. This is the signal that produces the small signal footprint in the maps above. And kills in the ratings.
    6. Along the way, local journalism flourished online as well. The Independent, a weekly, has remained a strong local institution. Edhat (founded and led by the late and still much-missed Peter Sklar) was born and became an exemplary “placeblog.” Bill MacFadyen’s Noozhawk also became a local news institution. And the News-Press didn’t die.

    If I had more time, I’d put all that stuff in a graphic.

    †Explanations, qualifications and cautions

    Shares, Nielsen explains, are “quarter hour rating (AQH) share of persons, ages 12+, Monday through Sunday in the Metro Survey Area. A share is the percentage of those listening to radio in the MSA who are listening to a particular radio station. Average Quarter-Hour Persons (AQH Persons) is the average number of persons listening to a particular station for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period. [AQH Persons to a Station / AQH Persons to All Stations] x 100 = Share (%)”

    The latest rating period differs by market. In big markets, surveys are monthly. The most recent for those are February 2019. Some are quarterly, or twice annually (Spring and Fall). The most recent of those are Fall 2018 in some cases (e.g. Hudson Valley, measured quarterly, and Santa Barbara, measured Spring and Fall), and Winter 2019 in other cases (e.g. Louisville, measured quarterly).

    Noncommercial stations are not listed for all markets, and not every time in all of those where they are surveyed. For example, the listings for Santa Barbara noncommercial stations say “N/A” for the three survey periods prior to the latest one (Fall 2018), while the current listings for Monterey-Salinas (Winter 2019) list noncommercial stations as “N/A” while showing them in Fall 2018. So for Monterey-Salinas, I used the Fall 2018 listing. (The 7.7 there was just one station: KAZU, which was also #2 overall.)

    In all markets there is lots of listening to radio stations not listed in the surveys. For example, all the listed shares for New York stations totaled 88.4, while Tampa-St. Petersburg stations totaled only 24.1. That means 11.8 of New York and 75.9% of Tampa-St. Pete listening is to stations not listed in the ratings. I am sure in many markets noncommercial listening is part of that dark matter, but there’s no way to tell.

    In some cases, the only stations appearing in a survey are those of one or two owners. The Grand Junction survey lists only seven stations, five owned by Townsquare Media and two by Public Broadcasting of Colorado. The total of those is only 28.7. The Monroe Louisiana survey lists only six stations, all owned by Holladay Broadcasting. Those total 50.6, which means half of the listening in that market is to unlisted stations, and (presumably), ones not owned by Holladay Broadcasting.

    Some stations’ online streams do make survey listings in some markets. I don’t know whether Nielsen counts listeners physically located outside a market, or how Nielsen deals with smart speakers. I do know that Nielsen cares about streaming, though, because their home page says so.

    Okay, I’ve already said too much, and I have much more I could say. But this post has been sitting half-written in my browser since I started digging online one sleepless night in early March, so I’ll call it done enough and put it up.

The Cluetrain Manifesto went online for the world on March 26, 1999. “People of Earth,” it began. Nothing modest about it. 

Chris Locke and David Weinberger both had newsletters with real subscriber bases (Entropy Gradient Reversals and JOHO, respectively). I had a good-size list of email correspondents, and so did Rick Levine. So we put the word out, same day.

And it spread. Like: whoaTom Petzinger’s Cluetrain column The Wall Street Journal called the Manifesto “pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant,” which threw gas on the fire. Instantly my email traffic jumped from dozens to hundreds a day, where it has remained ever since.

Interesting fact: the only reason I know Tom said that is because it was mentioned in a 2000 interview for Linux Journal that was too long to run at the time and remained buried like a time capsule until 2014, when it was exhumed and turned into this seven-part Cluetrain fifteenth anniversary piece. If you want to know lotsa shit about Cluetrain, including more of the origin story than I just told, that’s where to look.

There’s also deeper stuff in it. An example:

Part 2: The Red Pill Story

Linux Journal: What is “Business as Usual” and what’s killing it?

Doc Searls: Business as Usual is the Dilbert cartoon where too much of the world continues to work.

Linux Journal: The PHBs we love to hate.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s what gives all of us pointy hair.

Linux Journal: Which is?

Doc Searls: There’s a blue pill answer and a red one. The blue pill answer is that companies are clueless and need to start getting the clues from markets. The red pill answer is much deeper and more fundamental. I like The Matrix analogy because the movie’s premise is that reality is a screen saver for something much worse. In Cluetrain we’re saying that what we think about business and markets is actually driven by something much more deep and sinister than the absence of “best practices” or other management disciplines that CEOs neglect to apply. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the Matrix in the movie is a metaphor for marketing. It’s the pleasing but false reality where we live only to serve as batteries for business as usual.

Linux Journal: And that’s the red pill answer?

Doc Searls: That’s part of the answer. The deeper part is about the programming. Business as Usual depends on all of us agreeing to understand business in terms that make us slaves. We’re not conscious of this programming because it’s unconscious. The Industrial Age hasn’t ended, because it lives in our heads. Worse, a repurposed version of it drives much of what we call “the new economy.” We’re still in blue pill territory when we talk about markets as distant, abstract things. At the bottom of the rabbit hole is what markets really are — what we really are. When we go there we see what we forgot when Industry came along and substituted abstractions for reality.

Linux Journal: What are you saying isn’t real?

Doc Searls: Most of what we call “markets” are pure abstractions. We see markets as targets for advertising messages, as creatures like bulls and bears, as battlefields and sports arenas where companies fight like gladiators for territoriesspaces and shares of categories and slices of pies. We give the “market” label to geographies like New York and China, and to demographics like “Men 25-54.” We also give it to characterizations like “upscale suburban Volvo drivers.” Each of these abstractions actually expresses a metaphor that does our thinking and talking for us.

Linux Journal: Give us an example.

Doc Searls: The word “content.” It used to be an catch-all noun for anything that occupied a package. Now we apply it to anything you can distribute over the Net. Why is that? What happened here? Why did “content” suddenly get so big? As a writer, I used to write stories. Back when I was in radio, we ran programs. Bands used to make records. Now all those things are “content,” and every artist is a “content provider.” Like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks. Where did that word come from? Why did we choose it instead of something else, like “goods?”

Linux Journal: So, why?

Doc Searls: Because we conceive business in terms of shipping, even though we’re hardly aware of it. In linguistic terms, our business vocabulary is induced by the conceptual metaphor business is shipping. This has been going on for the better part of two hundred years, and it didn’t stop when the Net showed up. Suddenly here was this fabulous new medium, this shiny new shipping system for everything you can name that ever went through an old medium, plus lots of new stuff. Let’s re-conceive everything as content and carry on with Business as Usual, but with a great new way to move stuff from A to Z, including B to B, B to C and all the rest of it. Just like we did with Television, we can load our content into a channel and address it for delivery to end users through medium that serves as a distribution system or a value chain.

Linux Journal: So when you say somebody “adds value,” you’re using a shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Absolutely.

Linux Journal: What’s so bad about that?

Doc Searls: Nothing, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far in a world built on relationships in which shipping stuff from X to X is more a technicality than a fundamental concept. In the industrial world, especially the commercial mass media part of that world, shipping was a very appropriate conceptual metaphor. It gave us a useful vocabulary for describing a world where a goods move great distances between a few producers and millions of consumers. The problem is, when you apply that metaphor in a networked world, with its networked markets, you make the mistake of treating in-your-face customers as distant consumers. They aren’t cattle. They fish-like gullets gulping down products that fall off the end of distribution’s conveyor belt. But we still conceive them that way, or we wouldn’t talk about “aggregating” and “capturing” them. We also wouldn’t talk about “moving content” through the Net as if it were just another medium, like TV, radio and newspapers.

Linux Journal: Is the Net really that different?

Doc Searls: It’s absolutely different because it’s infinitely more than a way to convey crap from producers to consumers. It’s the connected consciousness of the market itself. It makes markets smart by giving customers unprecedented powers, the most fundamental of which is each other — not just an immense choice among suppliers. Ir makes customers extraordinarily powerful, too. If they get pissed off, they can make life hell for the vendor by creating sites like Gapsucks.orgUntied.com, and Burnallgifs.org. One customer with a grudge can bring a hallowed brand to great embarrassment.

Linux Journal: So you’re saying there’s a limit to how far you can stretch the shipping metaphor, because shipping isn’t all that’s happening in the post-industrial world.

Doc Searls: Right.

Linux Journal: When does it end?

Doc Searls: When it fails. When it falls out of fashion. When it comes off as rude behavior, like belching in public or smoking in an elevator. The plain truth is that “content” insults the nature of what it labels. Expressions like “B2B” and ” B2C” — labels for “business-to-business” and “business-to-consumer” — insult the nature of business itself. Ask yourself, do you do business to people or with them? “B2B” might be a useful category, but it has a way of presupposing that all that happens in a B2B business is the moving of goods from B to B. The preposition “to” was chosen for us by the shipping metaphor, which conceives business as shipping, rather than as a relationship.

Linux Journal: But what about the fact that, from the vendor’s perspective, we really do ship a lot of stuff to a lot of customers who buy stuff from us on the Web?

Doc Searls: It’s a fact. But it’s not the only fact. Nor is it the defining fact. What we need to understand — in our bones — is that the Net is not just a few-to-many system. Sure, it supports shipping. Where would Amazon be without it? But shipping is not all that happens. Suddenly the first source and the final customer are one click apart. “Consumers” aren’t a zillion plankton any more. They have names, personal Web pages and email addresses. Supply and demand can talk to each other. They can engage, just like they did for ten thousand years in real markets. That’s why it’s now good business for savvy producers to talk with their markets at every level, and with real human voices, not the robotic “thank you for calling” voice from phone mail hell.

Linux Journal: In the book you make the point that the Industrial Age is only two hundred years old, while markets have been around for thousands of years — and that the Net brings us back into the kind of world we had when markets were tents gathered at crossroads. What’s relevant about those ancient markets today? Isn’t the modern world too radically different?

Doc Searls: It’s not radically different. Two things are relevant about ancient markets. First, they never went away. The real world is full of them. Every farmer’s market reminds us of them. Second, the Net multiplies the power of all their virtues. As a result, markets themselves are much more powerful and smart than ever before. Our business-is-shipping vocabulary forces us to describe a world that excludes or discounts countless new facts of market life. As producers we assume we retain the power to create and organize demand, just as we did a decade or more ago. That just isn’t the case — at least not by traditional means.

Linux Journal: We notice that you created quite a bit of demand for the Cluetrain book.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but we didn’t do it by mass media methods. We did it by hacker’s methods. We wrote something we thought was good and put it out for review. Lots of people agreed that it was good and word spread from there. One reason they agreed was because we spoke for the masses of people who don’t want to be treated like fish in a tank any more. Not for Business. Not for Marketing.

Linux Journal: It also isn’t just producers who are stuck in the shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Right. Exactly. As consumers we often still feel powerless in the face of producer insults — just like we did back when all we could do was call a “customer support” 800 number and plead our case to a minimum wage worker who was paid to get rid of us. We’re in a world now that’s very much like that ancient market, that mess of stalls and tents at crossroads in the third world. In markets like those, reputation is extremely important. If the weaver’s cloth falls apart in a few days, or if he’s too big a jerk to deal with, customers spread word in the market, and the effects follow quickly. It’s the same today on the Net.

Linux Journal: What else have we forgotten about ancient markets?

Doc Searls: Mostly their importance. As a social institution, the market was far more important than the church, the government, the military, you name it. For evidence, look at your own surname. There’s a good chance it labels an ancestor’s role in his market. Hunter, Potter, Shoemaker, Mason, Miller, Smith, Tanner, Mason, Cobbler, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer… those names were earned by craft. Those crafts’ contexts were in the marketplace. Mr. Baker baked bread. Mr. Tanner tanned hide, and probably sold leather goods that he made himself. Mrs. Weaver probably wove rugs or garments on a loom she and her family built themselves. Mr. Carpenter was in the furniture or the construction business. All those craftspeople knew their customers by name. The forces that make a market — supply and demand, vendors and customers, producers and consumers — were a handshake apart.

Linux Journal: And the Industrial Revolution put an end to all that.

Doc Searls: Yes. It turned farmers and bakers into die-makers and loom operators: interchangeable parts of corporate machines. As Chris Locke puts it, Industry invented the job. In the Cluetrain book, Rick Levine talks very movingly about craft, and what it really means. Today the word suggests an avocation: a hobby. But our ancestors made their livings with their crafts, and they sold what they made in real-world markets. Rick starts his chapter, “I’m a potter’s son.” And it shows. Rick grew up identifying himself, like his father, with his work, which is programming — even though he now runs a company. Programming is his pottery, his personal craft.

Linux Journal: You call the Industrial Revolution an “interruption.”

Doc Searls: Yes. Industry had few uses for our crafts, but lots of uses for our labor. The social and psychological disruption must have been huge. Many generations have passed since our ancestors left their farms and shops and went to work in factories, mines and offices. We’ve long forgotten the demeaning and dehumanizing changes that Industry caused to whole societies when it melted us down to fuel the labor pool.

The great irony of Cluetrain is that today—

—yet things are worse. You know that, of course, but to grok how fully bleak things have become, read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and/or Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Re-Engineering Humanity.

Yet I remain optimistic. Because Cluetrain was early by (it turns out) at least two decades. And mainstream media are starting to get the clues. I know that because last week I heard from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP and an HBO show. I normally hear from none of those (or maybe one, a time or two per year).

Something is in the water. It’s us, and the water is still the Internet.

Bonus link.

The answer is, we don’t know. Also, we may never know, because—

  • It’s too hard to measure (especially if you’re talking about the entire Net)
  • Too so much of the usage is in mobile devices that vary enormously
  • The browser makers are approaching ad blocking and tracking protection in different and new ways that change frequently, and the same goes for ad-blocking and tracking-protecting extensions and add-ons. One of them (Adblock Plus) is actually in the advertising business (which Wikipedia politely calls ad filtering)
  • Some of the most easily sourced measures are surveys, yet what people say and what they do are very different things
  • Some of the most widely cited findings are from sources with conflicted interests (for example, selling anti-ad-blocking services), or which aggregate multiple sources that aren’t revealed when cited
  • Actors good and bad in the ecosystem that ad blocking addresses also contribute to the fudge

But let’s explore a bit anyway, working with what we’ve got, flawed though much of it may be. If you’re a tl;dr kind of reader, jump down to the conclusions at the end.

Part 1: ClarityRay and Pagefair

Between 2012 and 2017, the most widely cited ad blocking reports were by ClarityRay and PageFair, in that order. There are no links to ClarityRay’s 2012 report, which I cited here in 2013. PageFair links to their 2015, 2016 (mobile) and 2017 reports are still live. The company also said last November that it was at work on another report. This was after PageFair was acquired by Blockthrough (“the leading adblock recovery program”). A PageFair blog post explains it.

I placed a lot of trust in PageFair’s work, mostly because I respected Dr. Johnny Ryan (@JohnnyRyan), who left PageFair for Brave in 2018. I also like what I know about Matthew Cortland, who was also at PageFair, and may still be. Far as I know, he hasn’t written anything about ad blocking research (but maybe I’ve missed it) since 2017.

Here are the main findings from PageFair’s 2017 report:

  • 615 million devices now use adblock
  • 11% of the global internet population is blocking ads on the web

Part 2: GlobalWebIndex

In January 2016, GlobalWebIndex said “37% of mobile users … say they’ve blocked ads on their mobile within the last month.” I put that together with Statista’s 2017 claim that there were then more than 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world, which suggested that 1.7 billion people were blocking ads by that time.

Now GlobalWebIndex‘s Global Ad-Blocking Behavior report says 47% of us are blocking ads now. It also says, “As a younger and more engaged audience, ad-blockers also are much more likely to be paying subscribers and consumers. Ad-free premium services are especially attractive.” Which is pretty close to Don Marti‘s long-standing claim that readers who protect their privacy are more valuable than readers who don’t.

To get a total ad blocking population from that 47%, one possible source to cite is Internet World Stats:

Note that Internet World Stats appears to be a product of the Miniwatts Marketing Group, whose website is currently a blank WordPress placeholder. But, to be modest about it, their number is lower than Statista’s from 2016: “In 2019 the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion.” So let’s run with the lower one, at least for now.

Okay, so if 47% of us are using ad blockers, and Internet World Stats says there were 4,312,982,270 Internet users by the end of last year (that’s mighty precise!), the combined numbers suggest that more than 2,027,101,667 people are now blocking ads worldwide. So, we might generalize, more than two billion people are blocking ads today. Hence the headline above.

Perspective: back in 2015, we were already calling ad blocking The biggest boycott in human history. And that was when the number was just “approaching 200 million.”

More interesting to me is GlobalWebIndex’s breakouts of listed reasons why the people surveyed blocked ads. Three in particular stand out:

  • Ads contain viruses or bugs, 38%
  • Ads might compromise my online privacy, 26%
  • Stop ads being personalized, 22%

The problem here, as I said in the list up top, is that these are measured behaviors. They are sympathies. But they’re still significant, because sympathies sell. That means there are markets here. Opportunities to align incentives.

Part 3: Ad Fraud Researcher

I rely a great deal on Dr. Augustine Fou (@acfou), aka Independent Ad Fraud Researcher, to think and work more deeply and knowingly than I’ve done so far here (or may ever do).

Looking at Part 2 above (in an earlier version of this post), he tweeted, “I dispute these findings. ASKING people if they used an ad blocker in the past month is COMPLETELY inaccurate and inconsistent with people who ACTUALLY USE ad blockers regularly.” Also, “Source: GlobalWebIndex Q3 2018 Base: 93,803 internet users aged 16-64, among which were 42,078 respondents who have used an ad-blocker in the past month”. Then, “Are you going to take numbers extrapolated from 42,078 respondents and extrapolate that to the entire world? that would NOT be OK.” And, “Desktop ad blocking in the U.S. measured directly on sites which humans visit is in the 8 – 19% range. Bots must also be scrubbed because bots do not block ads and will skew ad blocking rates lower, if not removed.”

On that last tweet he points to his own research, published this month.There is lots of data in there, all of it interesting and unbiased. Then he adds, “your point about this being the ‘biggest boycott in human history’ is still valid. But the numbers from that ad blocking study should not be used.”

Part 4: Comscore

Among the many helpful tweets in response to the first draft of this post was this one by Zubair Shafiq (@zubair_shafiq), Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, where he researches computer networks, security, and privacy. His tweet points to Ad Blockers: Global Prevalence and Impact, by Matthew Malloy, Mark McNamara, Aaron Cahn and Paul Barford, from 2016. Here is one chart among many in the report:

The jive in the Geo row is explained at that link. A degree in statistics will help.

Part 5: Statista

Statista seems serious, but Ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020 is behind a paywall. Still, they do expose this hunk of text: “The statistic presents data on ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020. It was found that 25.2 percent of U.S. internet users blocked ads on their connected devices in 2018. This figure is projected to grow to 27.5 percent in 2020.”

Provisional Conclusions

  1. The number is huge, but we don’t know how huge.
  2. Express doubt about any one large conclusion. Augustine Fou cautions me (and all of us) to look at where the data comes from, why it’s used, and how. In the case of Statista, for example, the data is aggregated from other sources. They don’t do the research themselves. It’s also almost too easy to copy and paste (as I’ve done here) images that might themselves be misleading. The landmark book on misleading statistics—no less relevant today than when it was written in 1954 (and perhaps more relevant than ever)—is How to Lie With Statistics.
  3. Everything is changing. For example, browsers are starting to obsolesce the roles played by ad blocking and tracking protection extensions and add-ons. Brave is the early leader, IMHO. Safari, Firefox and even Chrome are all making moves in this direction. Also check out Ghostery’s Cliqz. For some perspective on how long this is taking, take a look at what I was calling for way back in 2015.
  4. The market is sending a massive message.  That message is that advertising online has come to have massively negative value. Ad blocking and tracking protection are legitimate and eloquent messages from demand to supply. By fighting that message, marketing is crapping on most obvious and gigantic clue it has ever seen. And the supply side of the market isn’t just marketers selling stuff. It’s developers who need to start working for the hundreds of millions of customers who have proven their value by using these tools.

The Spinner* (with the asterisk) is “a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Meaning you can hire The Spinner* to hack another person.

It works like this:

  1. You pay The Spinner* $29. For example, to urge a friend to stop smoking. (That’s the most positive and innocent example the company gives.)
  2. The Spinner* provides you with an ordinary link you then text to your friend. When that friend clicks on the link, they get a tracking cookie that works as a bulls-eye for The Spinner* to hit with 10 different articles written specifically to influence that friend. He or she “will be strategically bombarded with articles and media tailored to him or her.” Specifically, 180 of these things. Some go in social networks (notably Facebook) while most go into “content discovery platforms” such as Outbrain and Revcontent (best known for those clickbait collections you see appended to publishers’ websites).

The Spinner* is also a hack on journalism, designed like a magic trick to misdirect moral outrage toward The Spinner’s obviously shitty business, and away from the shitty business called adtech, which not only makes The Spinner possible, but pays for most of online journalism as well.

The magician behind The Spinner* is “Elliot Shefler.” Look that name up and you’ll find hundreds of stories. Here are a top few, to which I’ve added some excerpts and notes:

  • For $29, This Man Will Help Manipulate Your Loved Ones With Targeted Facebook And Browser Links, by Parmy Olson @parmy in Forbes. Excerpt: He does say that much of his career has been in online ads and online gambling. At its essence, The Spinner’s software lets people conduct a targeted phishing attack, a common approach by spammers who want to secretly grab your financial details or passwords. Only in this case, the “attacker” is someone you know. Shefler says his algorithms were developed by an agency with links to the Israeli military.
  • For $29, This Company Swears It Will ‘Brainwash’ Someone on Facebook, by Kevin Poulson (@kpoulson) in The Daily Beast. A subhead adds, A shadowy startup claims it can target an individual Facebook user to bend him or her to a client’s will. Experts are… not entirely convinced.
  • Facebook is helping husbands ‘brainwash’ their wives with targeted ads, by Simon Chandler (@_simonchandler_) in The Daily Dot. Excerpt: Most critics assume that Facebook’s misadventures relate only to its posting of ads paid for by corporations and agencies, organizations that aim to puppeteer the “average” individual. It turns out, however, that the social network also now lets this same average individual place ads that aim to manipulate other such individuals, all thanks to the mediation of a relatively new and little-known company…
  • Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst., by Samuel Scott (@samueljscott) in The Drum. Alas, the piece is behind a registration wall that I can’t climb without fucking myself (or so I fear, since the terms and privacy policy total 32 pages and 10,688 words I’m not going to read), so I can’t quote from it.
  • Creepy company hopes ‘Inception’ method will get your wife in the mood, by Saqib Shah (@eightiethmnt) in The Sun, via The New York Post. Excerpt: “It’s unethical in many ways,” admitted Shefler, adding “But it’s the business model of all media. If you’re against it, you’re against all media.” He picked out Nike as an example, explaining that if you visit the brand’s website it serves you a cookie, which then tailors the browsing experience to you every time you come back. A shopping website would also use cookies to remember the items you’re storing in a virtual basket before checkout. And a social network might use cookies to track the links you click and then use that information to show you more relevant or interesting links in the future…The Spinner started life in January of this year. Shefler claims the company is owned by a larger, London-based “agency” that provides it with “big data” and “AI” tools.
  • Adtech-for-sex biz tells blockchain consent app firm, ‘hold my beer’, by Rebecca Hill (@beckyhill) in The Register. The subhead says, Hey love, just click on this link… what do you mean, you’re seeing loads of creepy articles?
  • New Service Promises to Manipulate Your Wife Into Having Sex With You, by Fiona Tapp (@fionatappdotcom) in Rolling Stone. Excerpt: The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife. Exactly.
  • The Spinner And The Faustian Bargain Of Anonymized Data, by Lauren Arevalo-Downes (whose Twitter link by the piece goes to a 404) in A List Daily. On that site, the consent wall that creeps up from the bottom almost completely blanks out the actual piece, and I’m not going to “consent,” so no excertoing here either.
  • Can you brainwash one specific person with targeted Facebook ads? in TripleJ Hack, by ABC.net.au. Excerpt: Whether or not the Spinner has very many users, whether or not someone is going to stop drinking or propose marriage simply because they saw a sponsored post in their feed, it seems feasible that someone can try to target and brainwash a single person through Facebook.
  • More sex, no smoking – even a pet dog – service promises to make you a master of manipulation, by Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) in The New Zealand Herald. Excerpt: On one level, The Spinner is a jape, rolled out as a colour story by various publications. But on another level it’s a lot more sinister: apparently yet another example of Facebook’s platform being abused to invade privacy and manipulate thought.
  • The Cambridge Analytica of Sex: Online service to manipulate your wife to have sex with you, by Ishani Ghose in meaww. Excerpt: The articles are all real but the headlines and the descriptions have been changed by the Spinner team. The team manipulating the headlines of these articles include a group of psychologists from an unnamed university. As the prepaid ads run, the partner will see headlines such as “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” or “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear”.

Is Spinner for real?

“Elliot Shefler” is human for sure. But his footprint online is all PR. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The word “Press” (as in coverage) at the top of the Spinner website is just a link to a Google search for Elliot Shefler, not to curated list such as a real PR person or agency might compile.

Fortunately, a real PR person, Rich Leigh (@RichLeighPR) did some serious digging (you know, like a real reporter) and presented his findings in his blog, PR Examples, in a post titled Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ – surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt? It ran last July 10th, the day after Rich saw this tweet by Maya Kosoff (@mekosoff):

—and this one:

The links to (and in) those tweets no longer work, but the YouTube video behind one of the links is still up. The Spinner itself produced the video, which is tricked to look like a real news story. (Rich does some nice detective work, figuring that out.) The image above is a montage I put together from screenshots of the video.

Here’s some more of what Rich found out:

  • Elliot – not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) – lives, or told me he lives, in Germany

  • When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did – keep reading

  • It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything

  • He told me that he has 5-6,000 paying users – that’s $145,000 – $174,000, if he’s telling the truth

  • Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’

  • He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said – which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang

  • The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating

Long post short, Rich says Habib and/or Elliot is real, and so is The Spinner.

But what matters isn’t whether or not The Spinner is real. It’s that The Spinner misdirects reporters’ attention away from what adtech is and does, which is spy on people for the purpose of aiming stuff at them. And that adtech isn’t just what funds all of Facebook and much of Google (both giant and obvious targets of journalistic scrutiny), but what funds nearly all of publishing online, including most reporters’ salaries.

So let’s look deeper, starting here: There is no moral difference between planting an unseen tracking beacon on a person’s digital self and doing the same on a person’s physical self.

The operational difference is that in the online world it’s a helluva lot easier to misdirect people into thinking they’re not being spied on. Also a helluva lot easier for spies and intermediaries (such as publishers) to plausibly deny that spying is what they’re doing. And to excuse it, saying for example “It’s what pays for the Free Internet!” Which is bullshit, because the Internet, including the commercial Web, got along fine for many years before adtech turned the whole thing into Mos Eisley. And it will get along fine without adtech after we kill it, or it dies of its own corruption.

Meanwhile the misdirection continues, and it’s away from a third rail that honest and brave journalists† need to grab: that adtech is also what feeds most of them.

______________

† I’m being honest here, but not brave. Because I’m safe. I don’t work for a publication that’s paid by adtech. At Linux Journal, we’re doing the opposite, by being the first publication ready to accept terms that our readers proffer, starting with Customer CommonsP2B1(beta), which says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.”

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

I came up with that law in the last millennium and it applied until Chevy discontinued the Cavalier in 2005. Now it should say, “You’re going to get whatever they’ve got.”

The difference is that every car rental agency in days of yore tended to get their cars from a single car maker, and now they don’t. Back then, if an agency’s relationship was with General Motors, which most of them seemed to be, the lot would have more of GM’s worst car than of any other kind of car. Now the car you rent truly is whatever. In the last year we’ve rented at least one Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, and that’s just off the top of my head. (By far the best was a Chevy Impala. I actually loved it. So, naturally, it’s being discontinued.)

All of that, of course, applies only in the U.S. I know less about car rental verities in Europe, since I haven’t rented a car there since (let’s see…) 2011.

Anyway, when I looked up doc searls chevy cavalier to find whatever I’d written about my felicitous Fourth Law, the results included this, from my blog in 2004…

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF A CONSUMER-CONTROLLED MARKET, by Scott Donathon in Advertising Age. An excerpt:

Larry Light, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, once again publicly declared the death of the broadcast-centric ad model: “Mass marketing today is a mass mistake.” McDonald’s used to spend two-thirds of its ad budget on network prime time; that figure is now down to less than one-third.

General Motors’ Roger Adams, noting the automaker’s experimentation with less-intrusive forms of marketing, said, “The consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control.” Echoed Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, “The consumer now has absolute power.”

“It is not your goddamn brand,” he told marketers.

This consumer empowerment is at the heart of everything. End users are now in control of how, whether and where they consume information and entertainment. Whatever they don’t want to interact with is gone. That upends the intrusive model the advertising business has been sustained by for decades.

This is still fucked, of course. Advertising is one thing. Customer relationships are another.

“Consumer empowerment” is an oxymoron. Try telling McDonalds you want a hamburger that doesn’t taste like a horse hoof. Or try telling General Motors that nobody other than rental car agencies wants to buy a Chevy Cavalier or a Chevy Classic; or that it’s time, after 60 years of making crap fixtures and upholstery, to put an extra ten bucks (or whatever it costs) into trunk rugs that don’t seem like the company works to make them look and feel like shit. Feel that “absolute power?” Or like you’re yelling at the pyramids?

Real demand-side empowerment will come when it’s possible for any customer to have a meaningful — and truly valued — conversation with people in actual power on the supply side. And those conversations turn into relationships. And those relationships guide the company.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile the decline of old-fashioned brand advertising on network TV (which now amounts to a smaller percentage of all TV in any case) sounds more to me like budget rationalization than meaningful change where it counts.

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

First, my original blog (which ran from 1999 to 2007) is still up, thanks to Jake Savin and Dave Winer, at http://weblog.searls.com. (Adjust your pointers. It’ll help Google and Bing forget the old address.)

Second, I’ve been told by rental car people that the big American car makers actually got tired of hurting their brands by making shitty cars and scraping them off on rental agencies. So now the agencies mostly populate their lots surplus cars that don’t make it to dealers for various reasons. They also let their cars pile up 50k miles or more before selling them off. Also, the quality of cars in general is much higher than it used to be, and the experience of operating them is much more uniform—meaning blah in nearly identical ways.

Third, I’ve changed my mind on brand advertising since I wrote that. Two reasons. One is that brand advertising sponsors the media it runs on, which is a valuable thing. The other is that brand advertising really does make a brand familiar, which is transcendently valuable to the brand itself. There is no way personalized and/or behavioral advertising can do the same. Perhaps as much as $2trillion has been spent on tracking-based digital advertising, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it.

And one more thing: since we don’t commute, and we don’t need a car most of the time, we now favor renting cars over owning them. Much simpler and much cheaper. And the cars we rent tend to be nicer than the used cars we’ve owned and mostly driven into the ground. You never know what you’re going to get, but generally they’re not bad, and not our problem if something goes wrong with one, which almost never happens.

 

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

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