Digital Life

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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 learned that all stories are built around just three elements: character, conflict and movement toward resolution. You need all three.

So let’s look at them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________

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

 

 

 

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.

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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