Digital Life

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I don’t want to explain why we’re bivouac’d at a friend’s house in San Marino. What matters, for the purpose of this post, is that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Covid-19 pandemic.

But hey, it’s a nice house in a nice town. My only complaint is that there’s nothing resembling an office desk or chair here. I’ve coped by collecting my ass and my electronics within an arrangement of mostly antique furniture. That’s what you see in the screenshot above. (From my most recent Floss Weekly podcast.) The rest of the house looks kinda like the set of Knives Out.)

I start with this setting because a friend asked me to write my own version of what Francine @Hardaway published today in Releasing My Former Life. (It’s a good piece. Go read it. I also thank Francine for turning me on to #Clubhouse. It is reportedly invite-only and apparently website-less, but I’m hoping she or a reader can get me one. Or two.)

So, what to report?

Well, in pre-pandemic times my wife and I were on the road at least a third of the time, so we’re used to operating out of hotel rooms, conference spaces and seats by the gates of departing flights at airports. So living in places other than home is not odd for us. It is odd to go around wearing masks in public while keeping our distance, as if everyone had just farted; but we hardly go out at all. We provision the kitchen here with runs to Trader Joe’s or Costco on days when they open early for geezers, and that only happens every couple weeks or so. Also, this region isn’t one of those in denial of the pandemic. People here tend to have Fauci-compliant public health practices.

In the early mornings or late evenings, when it’s not 95° outside, I do venture out for walks of 2-3 miles or more in the neighborhood. The roads are wide here, and the pedestrian traffic is light, so I leave the mask off most of the time. There are also lots of amazing trees and gardens, so I’ll pause to admire those and post occasional photos of interesting stuff on Instagram. (This kind of thing, by the way, comprises almost my entire experience of Instagram.)

While paying work has taken a hit, I remain overcommitted to all the obligations I had before the pandemic arrived, plus a couple new ones, such as the Floss Weekly podcast. It bothers me that I’m not as efficient or as effective in that work as I’d like, but being bothered about it isn’t the same as being depressed or anxious. It just kinda sucks.

Other stuff…

  1. Dorothy Parker said (or is said to have said) that she preferred the company of younger men “because their stories are shorter.” I am mindful of that. I also know it’s way too easy to talk about infirmities that accumulate, lengthen and get more complicated with age. So I avoid writing, thinking or talking about being old, even though it keeps me up at night, mostly because I have to pee.
  2. I’m optimistic about the long-run future, though the short run will surely get worse before it gets better. (Bad things happen when people die at wartime rates and large hunks of the economy are turned off.) I could say more about that, but I won’t, because—
  3. There is far more than enough political writing and talk. Sure, I fantasize about speaking up, because I do think I have some useful things to say. I just don’t expect what I say to make a bit of difference. The noise level is so high right now, and the effect level of any given tweet or post is so low, that I’m disinclined to say much. Add that to what I said here in 2014 and here two months ago, and you’ll see why I’d mostly rather work on other stuff.

The main thing for me right now is Customer Commons. If it succeeds, it will be the most leveraged thing I’ve ever done, meaning the best for the world. If you’re interested in helping, drop me an email. First name at last name dot com. Thanks.



Sell tickets to attend online through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Webex, GoToMeeting, Jitsi or whatever conferencing system can supply working tech to the NBA. Then mic everyone in the paying crowd, project them all on the walls (or sheets hanging from the ceiling), combine their audio, and run it through speakers so players can see and hear the cheering crowds.

The playoffs start on July 31. That’s not much time to prepare, but there’s money in it for the NBA and the companies it hires to pull this off. And hey, the Disney folk should be up for doing something that’s this creative and fun. (And think of all the games within games that might also be played here. Also all the other sports where this can also work.)

Since the conferencing systems of the world are already very competitive, sports reporters can cover service selection as the playoff before the playoff.

Obviously Zoom is the one to beat (since so many of us already use it), but Microsoft Teams just said a bunch of stuff that makes me think they could pull this one off. (I’d also like to thank them for the imagery I used in the photo above. Also Downtown. Hope ya’ll don’t mind.) Google has immensity to leverage. Jitsi has a hearty open source dev community. As for the others, here’s your chance to leapfrog the leaders. Or yourselves. The PR will be immense.

What matters is that this can be done. Hell, we’re talking about tech here. Anything can be done with tech.

So let’s do it. Get fans on the walls of the bubble.


To answer the question Where are SiriusXM radio stations broadcasted from?, I replied,

If you’re wondering where they transmit from, it’s a mix.

SiriusXM transmits primarily from a number of satellites placed in geostationary orbit, 35,786 kilometres or 22,236 miles above the equator. From Earth they appear to be stationary. Two of the XM satellites, for example, are at 82° and 115° West. That’s roughly aligned with Cincinnati and Las Vegas, though the satellites are actually directly above points along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. To appear stationary in the sky, they must travel in orbit around the Earth at speeds that look like this:

  • 3.07 kilometres or 1.91 miles per second
  • 110,52 kilometres or 6,876 miles per hour
  • 265,248 kilometres or 165,025 miles per day

Earlier Sirius satellites flew long elliptical geosynchronous orbits on the “tundra“ model, taking turns diving low across North America and out into space again.

Satellites are also supplemented by ground repeaters. If you are in or near a site with repeaters, your Sirius or XM radio may be tuned to either or both a transmitter in space or one on the ground nearby. See’s Satellite and Repeater Map to see if there is one near you.

In addition, SiriusXM also streams over the Internet. You can subscribe to radio, streaming or both.

As for studios, those are in central corporate locations; but these days, thanks to COVID-19, many shows are produced at hosts’ homes. Such is the case, for example, with SiriusXM’s popular Howard Stern show.

So, to sum up, you might say SiriusXM’s channels and shows are broadcast from everywhere.

I should add that I’ve been a SiriusXM subscriber almost from the start (with Sirius), and have owned two Sirius radios. The last one I used only once, in August of 2017, when my son and I drove a rental minivan from Santa Barbara to Love Ranch in central Wyoming, where we watched the solar eclipse. After that it went into a box. I still listen a lot to SiriusXM, almost entirely on the phone app. The rest of my listening is over the Web, logged in through a browser.

Item: a few days ago I discovered that a large bill from SiriusXM was due to a subscription for both the radio and the Internet stream. So I called in and canceled the radio. The subscription got a lot cheaper.

I bring this up because I think SiriusXM is a single example of a transition going on within the infrastructure of what we still call radio, but instead we would call streaming if we started from scratch today. We would call it streaming because that’s how broadcasting looks like on the Internet. And the Internet is subsuming and gradually replacing over-the-air radio with what for most purposes is a better system. When it’s done, most or all of over-the-air radio will be gone.

In The Intention Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), I saw this future for what we wouldn’t call television if we started that one from scratch today (or even when this was published, eight years ago):

Intention Economy chart

Today we’d put Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube TV and Apple TV in the upper left (along with legacy premium cable staples, such as HBO and Showtime). We’d put PBS stations there too, since those became subscription services after the digital transition in 2008 and subsequent spectrum sales, which reduced over-the-air TV to a way for stations to maintain their must-carry status on cable systems. (Multiple “repacks” of TV stations on new non-auctioned channels have required frequent “re-scans” of signals on TVs of people who still want to watch TV the old-fashioned way and hook up an antenna.)

While over-the-air radio has been terminal for years, its death has been less hastened by regulatory changes to satisfy the need for more data-friendly frequencies (which TV has, and radio doesn’t). Here’s the diagnosis I published in 2016. I’ve also been keeping a photographic chronicle of radio in hospice, over on my Flickr account for Infrastructure. A touching example of one station’s demise is Abandoned America’s post on the forgotten but (then) still extant studios of WFBR (1924-1990) in Baltimore.

The main difference with radio is that it still wants to be free.

Want to have some fun with that? Go to RadioGarden and look around the globe at free streams from everywhere. My own current fave is little CJUC in Whitehorse, Yukon. (I list others here.) All of those are what we say is “on” the Internet. But where is that?

We can pinpoint sources in the physical world, as RadioGarden does, on a globe; but the Internet defies prepositions, because there is no “there” there. There is only here, where we are now, in this non-place with no distance and no gravity because its nature is to defy both, leaving those up to the individual. I’m in Santa Barbara right now, but could be anywhere. So could you.

On the Internet, over-the-air TV and radio are anachronisms, though charming ones. Like right now, as I’m listening to Capricorn FM from Polokwane, South Africa. (“Crazy up-tempo hip-hop” is the fare.) But I’m not listening on a radio, which would require tuning to 89.9fm somewhere within range of the station’s transmitter. I’m here, on (or in, or through, or pick-your-preposition) the Internet.

A few years ago my then-15-year-old son asked me what the point of “range” and “coverage” was for radio stations. Why, he wondered, were those features rather than bugs? Meaning why is it okay for a station to fade away as you drive out of town?

His frame of reference, of course, was the Internet. Not the terrestrial world where distance and the inverse square law apply.

Of course, we will always live in the terrestrial world. The Internet may go away, or get fractured into regions so telecom companies can bill for crossing borders and governments can limit what’s accessible within those borders. But the Internet is also an infrastructural genie that is not going back in the bottle. And it is granting many wishes, all in a new here. It exists in the manner of a natural law, such as we have with gravity in the physical world.

And I submit that we are still only starting to understand it. (For how we’re only starting, see here.)

This post first appeared in a sister blog, Trunk Line.

A few days ago, in Figuring the Future, I sourced an Arnold Kling blog post that posed an interesting pair of angles toward outlook: a 2×2 with Fragile <—> Robust on one axis and Essential <—> Inessential on the other. In his sort, essential + fragile are hospitals and airlines. Inessential + fragile are cruise ships and movie theaters. Robust + essential are tech giants. Inessential + robust are sports and entertainment conglomerates, plus major restaurant chains. It’s a heuristic, and all of it is arguable (especially given the gray along both axes), which is the idea. Cases must be made if planning is to have meaning.

Now, haul Arnold’s template over to The U.S. Labor Market During the Beginning of the Pandemic Recession, by Tomaz Cajner, Leland D. Crane, Ryan A. Decker, John Grigsby, Adrian Hamins-Puertolas, Erik Hurst, Christopher Kurz, and Ahu Yildirmaz, of the University of Chicago, and lay it on this item from page 21:

The highest employment drop, in Arts, Entertainment and Recreation, leans toward inessential + fragile. The second, in Accommodation and Food Services is more on the essential + fragile side. The lowest employment changes, from Construction on down to Utilities, all tending toward essential + robust.

So I’m looking at those bottom eight essential + robust categories and asking a couple of questions:

1) What percentage of workers in each essential + robust category are now working from home?

2) How much of this work is essentially electronic? Meaning, done by people who live and work through glowing rectangles, connected on the Internet?

Hard to say, but the answers will have everything to do with the transition of work, and life in general, into a digital world that coexists with the physical one. This was the world we were gradually putting together when urgency around COVID-19 turned “eventually” into “now.”

In Junana, Bruce Caron writes,

“Choose One” was extremely powerful. It provided a seed for everything from language (connecting sound to meaning) to traffic control (driving on only one side of the road). It also opened up to a constructivist view of society, suggesting that choice was implicit in many areas, including gender.

Choose One said to the universe, “There are several ways we can go, but we’re all going to agree on this way for now, with the understanding that we can do it some other way later, thank you.” It wasn’t quite as elegant as “42,” but it was close. Once you started unfolding with it, you could never escape the arbitrariness of that first choice.

In some countries, an arbitrary first choice to eliminate or suspend personal privacy allowed intimate degrees of contract tracing to help hammer flat the infection curve of COVID-19. Not arbitrary, perhaps, but no longer escapable.

Other countries face similar choices. Here in the U.S., there is an argument that says “The tech giants already know our movements and social connections intimately. Combine that with what governments know and we can do contact tracing to a fine degree. What matters privacy if in reality we’ve lost it already and many thousands or millions of lives are at stake—and so are the economies that provide what we call our ‘livings.’ This virus doesn’t care about privacy, and for now neither should we.” There is also an argument that says, “Just because we have no privacy yet in the digital world is no reason not to have it. So, if we do contact tracing through our personal electronics, it should be disabled afterwards and obey old or new regulations respecting personal privacy.”

Those choices are not binary, of course. Nor are they outside the scope of too many other choices to name here. But many of those are “Choose Ones” that will play out, even if our choice is avoidance.

Facial recognition by machines is out of control. Meaning our control. As individuals, and as a society.

Thanks to ubiquitous surveillance systems, including the ones in our own phones, we can no longer assume we are anonymous in public places or private in private ones.

This became especially clear a few weeks ago when Kashmir Hill (@kashhill) reported in the New York Times that a company called “invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously, and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.”

If your face has ever appeared anywhere online, it’s a sure bet to assume that you are not faceless to any of these systems. Clearview, Kashmir says, has “a database of more than three billion images” from “Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites ” and “goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.”

Among law enforcement communities, only New Jersey’s has started to back off on using Clearview.

Worse, Clearview is just one company. Laws also take years to catch up with developments in facial recognition, or to get ahead of them, if they ever can. And let’s face it: government interests are highly conflicted here. The need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ need to know all they can is at extreme odds with our need, as human beings, to assume we enjoy at least some freedom from being known by God-knows-what, everywhere we go.

Personal privacy is the heart of civilized life, and beats strongest in democratic societies. It’s not up for “debate” between companies and governments, or political factions. Loss of privacy is a problem that affects each of us, and calls fo0r action by each of us as well.

A generation ago, when the Internet was still new to us, four guys (one of which was me) nailed a document called The Cluetrain Manifesto to a door on the Web. It said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Since then their grasp has exceeded our reach. And with facial recognition they have gone too far.


Now it’s time for our reach to exceed their grasp.

Now it’s time, finally, to make them deal with it.

I see three ways, so far. I’m sure ya’ll will think of other and better ones. The Internet is good for that.

First is to use an image like the one above (preferably with a better design) as your avatar, favicon, or other facial expression. (Like I just did for @dsearls on Twitter.) Here’s a favicon we can all use until a better one comes along:

Second, sign the Stop facial recognition by surveillance systems petition I just put up at that link. Two hashtags:

  • #GOOMF, for Get Out Of My Face
  • #Faceless

Third is to stop blaming and complaining. That’s too easy, tends to go nowhere and wastes energy. Instead,

Fourth, develop useful and constructive ideas toward what we can do—each of us, alone and together—to secure, protect and signal our privacy needs and intentions in the world, in ways others can recognize and respect. We have those in the natural world. We don’t yet in the digital one. So let’s invent them.

Fifth is to develop the policies we need to stop the spread of privacy-violating technologies and practices, and to foster development of technologies that enlarge our agency in the digital world—and not just to address the wrongs being committed against us. (Which is all most privacy laws actually do.)



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A few days ago a Twitter exchange contained an “OK Boomer” response to one of my tweets. At the time I laughed it off, tweeting back a pointer to Report: Burying, Cremating Baby Boomers To Generate $200 Trillion In GDP, which ran five years ago in The Onion.

But it got me thinking that “OK Boomer” might be more—and worse—than a mere meme. Still, I wasn’t moved to say anything, because I had better stuff to do.

Then today I followed a link to Not So OK, Boomers, on Pulp. Illustrated by Goya’s horrifying Saturn Devouring His Son, it ends with this:

Goya’s Saturn does not swallow his children whole, but has taken chunks out of the body, chewing off the head and the limbs.

The cannibalism Boomers are inflicting on us appears to be closer to Goya’s vision: deranged, irreversible, and violent. Unwilling to accept a world that goes on without them, they are gluttonously consuming resources.

Their own lives have been extended, but without any appreciable gains in quality of life, and so in their rage, their confusion, they poison the air and water, they raise our cortisol levels.

What do we do with the knowledge that our parents are actively trying to harm us but are incapable of accepting the suffering they’re inflicting?

Our response is going to have to be better than depression memes and the odd glib, ‘OK Boomer,’ if we’re going to survive.

That got 2,200 claps. So far.

So this time I responded, with this:

I like Pulp, perhaps because I’ve been young a long time. But this piece is worse than wrong. It’s cruel and inflammatory.

To see how, answer this: Is there moral difference between prejudice against a race, a gender, an ethnicity, a nationality—and a demographic? If there is, it’s one of degree, not one of kind.

As soon as you otherize any human category as a them vs. an us, you’re practicing the same kind of prejudice—and, at its worst, bigotry.

Try substituting the words “women” or “blacks” for the word “Boomers” in this piece, and you get the point.

Ageism may not be worse than sexism or racism, but it’s still an ism, good only for amplifying itself, which seems to be the purpose of this piece.

Read the closing paragraphs again and ask what kind of action the author calls for that would be proportional to the cannibalism he accuses Boomers of inflicting on his generation.

And then hope it doesn’t happen.

That got 10 claps. So far.

But what the hell, I’ll continue.

If young people want to understand old people (which Boomers are, or soon will be) I suggest this: imagine that if a fifth, then a quarter, then a third, then half, and then most of the people you grew up or worked with in your life—friends, cousins, co-workers, classmates—are now dead. And that meanwhile you’re putting your useful experience and wisdom to work as best you can while you’re still able, knowing that, too soon at any age, you’ll be gone too.

There’s no shit you can give a person like that, sitting on the short end of life’s death row, that can measure up to their intimate familiarity with mortality, and with the work they still face, most of which they’ll never finish. So an “OK Boomer” put-down isn’t going to bother most of them.

But it’s still shit. Or worse.

We can all do better than that.



A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

—Emily Dickinson
(via The Poetry Foundation)

While that poem is apparently about a hummingbird, it’s the one that comes first to my mind when I contemplate the form of evanescence that’s rooted in the nature of the Internet, where all of us are here right now, as I’m writing and you’re reading this.

Because, let’s face it: the Internet is no more about anything “on” it than air is about noise, speech or anything at all. Like air, sunlight, gravity and other useful graces of nature, the Internet is good for whatever can be done with it.

Same with the Web. While the Web was born as a way to share documents at a distance (via the Internet), it was never a library, even though we borrowed the language of real estate and publishing (domains and sites with pages one could author, edit, publish, syndicate, visit and browse) to describe it. While the metaphorical framing in all those words suggests durability and permanence, they belie the inherently evanescent nature of all we call content.

Think about the words memorystorageupload, and download. All suggest that content in digital form has substance at least resembling the physical kind. But it doesn’t. It’s a representation, in a pattern of ones and zeros, recorded on a medium for as long the responsible party wishes to keep it there, or the medium survives. All those states are volatile, and none guarantee that those ones and zeroes will last.

I’ve been producing digital content for the Web since the early 90s, and for much of that time I was lulled into thinking of the digital tech as something at least possibly permanent. But then my son Allen pointed out a distinction between the static Web of purposefully durable content and what he called the live Web. That was in 2003, when blogs were just beginning to become a thing. Since then the live Web has become the main Web, and people have come to see content as writing or projections on a World Wide Whiteboard. Tweets, shares, shots and posts are mostly of momentary value. Snapchat succeeded as a whiteboard where people could share “moments” that erased themselves after one view. (It does much more now, but evanescence remains its root.)

But, being both (relatively) old and (seriously) old-school about saving stuff that matters, I’ve been especially concerned with how we can archive, curate and preserve as much as possible of what’s produced for the digital world.

Last week, for example, I was involved in the effort to return Linux Journal to the Web’s shelves. (The magazine and site, which lived from April 1994 to August 2019, was briefly down, and with it all my own writing there, going back to 1996. That corpus is about a third of my writing in the published world.) Earlier, when it looked like Flickr might go down, I worried aloud about what would become of my many-dozen-thousand photos there. SmugMug saved it (Yay!); but there is no guarantee that any Website will persist forever, in any form. In fact, the way to bet is on the mortality of everything there. (Perspective: earlier today, over at, I posted a brief think piece about the mortality of our planet, and the youth of the Universe.)

But the evanescent nature of digital memory shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how to take better care of what of the Net and the Web we wish to see remembered for the world. This is why it’s good to be in conversation on the topic with Brewster Kahle (of, Dave Winer and other like-minded folk. I welcome your thoughts as well.

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:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

You need all three. Subtract one or more, and all you have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. So let’s unpack those a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. 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 problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, at least toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, 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 at a bar.)

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

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the problem-making character now serving as President of the United States. Please, if you can, set the politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

He—clearly, deeply and instinctively—understands how stories work. He is experienced and skilled at finding or causing problems that generate conflict and enlarge his own character in the process.

He does this through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames: “Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times.”

He stokes the fires of conflict by staying on the attack at all times—a strategy he learned from Roy Cohn, a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”

As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

Look closely: the news Trump makes is deliberate, theatrical and constant. All of it is staged and re-staged, so every unavoidably interesting thing he says or does pushes the last thing he said or did off the stage and into irrelevance, because whatever he’s saying or doing now demands full attention, no matter what he said or did yesterday.

There is true genius to this, and it requires understanding and respect—especially by those who report on it.

You can call this trolling, or earned media coverage, meaning the free kind. Both are true. So is comparing Trump to The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (The Mule was a mutant with exceptional influence over the emotions of whole populations. It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adams, expected Trump to win in 2016.)

Regardless of what one calls it, we do have two big fails for journalism here:

  1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.
  2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for  “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible.

I’ll illustrate those points with the killing fields of Cambodia. Those fields are the setting for a story well-known today, about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide on a massive scale, wiping out between one and a half to two million people, or around twenty-five percent of the Cambodia’s population. And yet that story meant close to nothing until it became about one man with a problem rather than a whole population whose lives had ended.

A measure of how close-to-nothing that genocide meant to journalism at that time was delivered one evening in the late 1970s by Hughes Rudd, an anchor at the time of the CBS Morning News. Rudd said, almost offhandedly, that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this 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 same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: 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 conflict that was easy to describe, 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 killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant and interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

What matters for our current inquiry is that years went by, with a million or more people dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this was neither the first nor the last time 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. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, at most you have have statistics that become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of the storyless facts will be 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. Including, unavoidably, the genius in the White House.


*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 prime minister.

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 of too many different kinds.
  • 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) in the sense that they sell safe package for paying advertisers.
  • Some of the most easily sourced measures are surveys, yet what people say and what they do can be 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. Still, the market is sending a massive message. And that’s what fully matters. The message is this: 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.

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