Journalism

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“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.

 

 

 

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

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

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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.”

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.

 

river bend

Publishing and advertising both need to bend back toward where they came from, and what works. I see hope for that in the news today.

In Refinery29 Lays Off 10% of Staff as 2018 Revenue Comes Up Short, by Todd Spangler, (@xpangler) of Variety reports,

Digital media company Refinery29, facing a 5% revenue shortfall for the year, is cutting 10% of its workforce, or about 40 employees.Digital media company Refinery29, facing a 5% revenue shortfall for the year, is cutting 10% of its workforce, or about 40 employees.

Company co-founders and co-CEOs Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano announced the cuts in an internal memo. “While our 2018 revenue will show continued year-over-year growth, we are projecting to come in approximately 5% short of our goal,” they wrote. As a result of its financial pressures, “we will be parting ways with approximately 10% of our workforce.”
The latest cuts, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, come after New York-based Refinery29 laid off 34 employees in December 2017.

Refinery29, which targets a millennial female audience, is going to cut back on content “with a short shelf life,” according to the execs. “While this type of content has been driving views, it has not yielded a great monetization strategy to justify the same level of continued investment.” Von Borries and Stefano wrote that they see sustainable growth in “premium, evergreen” programming, and plan to produce more video (both short- and long-form) on that front.

I’ve boldfaced the important stuff. To explain why it’s important, dig this, from Refinery29 Lays Off 10% of Its Staff, Unifies Sales Team, by Melynda Fuller (@MGrace_Fuller) in MediaPost:

As part of the restructuring, Refinery29 will also unify its sales teams into a unified Customer Solutions Group, in addition to a Sales Planning and Operations Group.

This suggests that Refinery29 is becoming a high-integrity publication, and not just another content pump and eyeball-shooting gallery for adtech (tracking-based advertising). (This Digiday piece by @maxwillens may suggest the same.) If that’s so, then there is new hope: not just for publishing online, but for the kind of brand advertising that actually sponsors publications, and which has worked for both brands and publications since forever in the offline world.

By now pretty much all of online advertising is adtech, which doesn’t sponsor publishers. Instead it uses publishers to mark and track eyeballs wherever they might go. It does that by planting tracking beacons (mixed like poison blueberries into those cookies  sites now require “consent” to) on readers’ browsers or phones, and then shoots the readers’ eyeballs with ads when they show up elsewhere on the Web, preferably on the cheapest possible site, so those eyeballs can be hit as often as possible within the budget the advertiser has paid adtech intermediaries. (To readers the most obvious example of this is “retargeting,” perfectly described by The Onion in Woman Stalked Across Eight Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.)

Advertising, real advertising—the kind that makes brands and sponsors publications—doesn’t do any of that. Here’s how I explain the difference in GDPR will pop the adtech bubble:

First, advertising:

  1. Advertising isn’t personal, and doesn’t have to be. In fact, knowing it’s not personal is an advantage for advertisers. Consumers don’t wonder what the hell an ad is doing where it is, who put it there, or why. The cognitive overhead for everybody is as close to zero as possible.
  2. Advertising makes brands. Nearly all the brands you know were burned into your brain by advertising. In fact the term branding was borrowed by advertising from the cattle business. (Specifically by Procter and Gamble in the early 1930s.)
  3. Advertising carries an economic signal. Meaning that it shows a company can afford to advertise. Tracking-based advertising can’t do that. (For more on this, read Don Marti, starting here.)
  4. Advertising sponsors media, and those paid by media. All the big pro sports salaries are paid for by advertising that sponsors game broadcasts. For lack of sponsorship, media—especially publishers—are hurting. @WaltMossberg learned why on a conference stage when an ad agency guy said the agency’s ads wouldn’t sponsor Walt’s new publication, recode. Walt: “I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Second, Adtech:

  1. Adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media, and it causes negative associations with brands. Consider this: perhaps a $trillion or more has been spent on adtech, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it. (Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, is required reading on this.)
  2. Adtech wants to be personal. That’s why it’s tracking-based. Though its enthusiasts call it “interest-based,” “relevant” and other harmless-sounding euphemisms, it relies on tracking people. In fact it can’t exist without tracking people. (Note: while all adtech is programmatic, not all programmatic advertising is adtech. In other words, programmatic advertising doesn’t have to be based on tracking people.)
  3. Adtech spies on people and violates their privacy. By design. Never mind that you and your browser or app are anonymized. The ads are still for your eyeballs, and correlations can be made.
  4. Adtech is full of fraud and a vector for malware. @ACFou is required reading on this.
  5. Adtech incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. More here and here.
  6. Intermediators take most of what’s spent on adtech. Bob Hoffman does a great job showing how as little as 3¢ of a dollar spent on adtech actually makes an “impression. The most generous number I’ve seen is 12¢. (When I was in the ad agency business, back in the last millennium, clients complained about our 15% take. Media our clients bought got 85%.)
  7. Adtech gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.
  8. Adtech incentivizes hate speech and tribalism by giving both—and the platforms that host them—a business model too.
  9. Adtech relies on misdirection. See, adtech looks like advertising, and is called advertising; but it’s really direct marketing, which is descended from junk mail and a cousin of spam. Because of that misdirection, brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire are actually chasing eyeballs to anywhere. (Pro tip: if somebody says every ad needs to “perform,” or that the purpose of advertising is “to get the right message to the right person at the right time,” they’re actually talking about direct marketing, not advertising. For more on this, read Rethinking John Wanamaker.)
  10. Compared to advertising, adtech is ugly. Look up best ads of all time. One of the top results is for the American Advertising Awards. The latest winners they’ve posted are the Best in Show for 2016. Tops there is an Allstate “Interactive/Online” ad pranking a couple at a ball game. Over-exposure of their lives online leads that well-branded “Mayhem” guy to invade and trash their house. In other words, it’s a brand ad about online surveillance.
  11. Adtech has caused the largest boycott in human history. By more than a year ago, 1.7+ billion human beings were already blocking ads online.

By focusing less on “content-production” (that stuff with a short shelf life) and consolidating its sales staff, Refinery29 appears to be re-making itself as a publication that can attract actual sponsors—real brands, doing real branding—and not just eyeball-hunting intermediaries that deliver lots of data and numbers to advertisers but nothing with rich value.

[Later…] This Digiday piece may support that t

If that’s the case, online publishing is starting to turn a corner, led by Refinery29, and heading back to what makes it valuable: to its readers, to its advertisers and to itself.

twitter down a holeSo I’m taking live notes at Blockchain in Journalism: Promise and Practice, happening at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, in the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, to name the four Russian dolls whose innards I’m inhabiting here

In advance of this gathering, Linux Journal, which I serve as editor-in-chief (but can’t use as a blog, meaning editing it live is do-able but not easy), published When the problem is the story. I wanted it up, on the outside chance that stories themselves, as journalism’s stock-in-trade, might get discussed. Because stories are a Hard Problem: maybe one we can’t solve.

Okay, now the live blogging commences::::

“Token curated registratries, aka TCRs.” Mike Goldin of AdChain is talking about those now. Looking him up. Links: Token Curated Registries 1.0#18 Mike Goldin, AdChain: Token-Curated Registries, An Emerging Cryptoeconomic Primitive.

Observation: blockchain is conceptually opaque, in ways the Internet (the way everything is connected) and the Web (a way to publish on the Internet) are not.

Not quite technically speaking, a blockchain is a distributed way of recording data in duplicate. Or something close enough to that. (Let’s not argue it.) What makes blockchain hard to grok is the “distributed” part. What it means is an ever-expanding copy of the same record accumulates on many different computers distributed everywhere. Including yours. Your computer is going to have a copy of a blockchain, or many blockchains, for the good of the world—or the parts of the world that could use a distributed way of keeping an immutable record of whatever. See what I mean? (Yes and no are equally good answers to that question.)

Mike Goldin just said that understanding blockchain is as big a cognitive leap as it took to grok the Internet way back when. Not so. Understanding blockchain is a shit-ton harder than understanding the Internet.

“Identity procreator type tool” just got uttered. My wife, who knows blockchain better than I, just made two fists and whispered “Yes!” I believe @JarrodDicker of Po.et just uttered it.

RadioTopia just got some love from Manoush Zomorodi of ZigZag.

So let’s get to the title of this post.

Normally I’d be tweeting this, but right now I can’t. Nor can I write about it in Medium. Both are closed to me, because Twitter hates my @dsearls login, for reasons unknown, and my login to Medium uses my Twitter handle.

<gripe>

When I tried to troubleshoot my eviction from Twitter this morning, I went to the trouble of creating a new password, alas without help from Dashlane, my password manager, which for some reason wasn’t able to help by generating me a new one. Dunno why.

Deeper background: I’m active on four different Twitter accounts, spread across four browsers. I tweet as myself on Chrome, and as @VRM, @CustomerCommons and @Cluetrain on the three other browsers. The latter three are ones where multiple people can also post.

(Yes, I know there are ways to post as different entities on single browsers or apps, but being different entities on different browsers is easier for me. Or was until this morning.)

So I decided to try getting onto Twitter on one of the other browsers. So I logged out @VRM on Firefox, failed to log in as myself, created the new password through Twitter’s password creating routine, made up a new password (because Dashlane couldn’t help on Firefox either), and wrote the new password down on a sticky.

Then, once I got @dsearls working on Firefox, I logged out, and tried to log in again as @vrm there. Twitter didn’t like that login and made me create a new password for that account too, again without Dashlane’s help. Now I had two passwords, for two accounts, on one sticky.

Then I got in the subway and came down to Columbia, ready to tweet about the #BlockchainJournalism from the audience at the Tow Center. But Twitter on Chrome wouldn’t let me in. Meanwhile, the new password was still on a sticky back at my apartment, and not remembered by Firefox. So I thought, hey, I’ll just create a new password again, now with Dashlane’s help. But I got stopped part way with this response from Twitter when I clicked on the new password making link: https://twitter.com/login/error?redirect… .

This kind of experience is why I posted Please let’s kill logins and passwords back in August, and the sentiment stands.

</gripe>

So now that I’m experiencing life without Twitter, on which much of journalism utterly depends, I’m beginning to think about how we’ll all work once Twitter is gone—either completely or just to hell. Also about my own dependence on it. And about how having Twitter as a constant steam valve has bled off energies I once devoted to doing full-force journalism. Or just to blogging. Such as now, here, when I can’t use Twitter.

A difference: tweets may persist somewhere, but they’re the journalistic equivalent of snow falling on water. Blog posts tend to persist in a findable form for as long as their publisher maintains their archive.

Interesting fact: back in the early ’00s, when I was kinda big in the (admittedly small) blogging world, I had many thousands of readers every day. Most of those subscribed to my RSS feed. Then, in ’06, Twitter and Facebook started getting big, most bloggers moved to those platforms, and readership of my own blog dropped eventually to dozens per day. So I got active on Twitter, where I now have 24.4k followers. But hey, so does the average parking space.

I guess where I’m going is toward where Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r)has been for some time, with The Web We Have to Save. That Web is ours, not Twitter’s or Facebook’s or any platform’s. (This is also what @DWeinberger and I said in the #NewClues addendum to The Cluetrain Manifesto back in ’15.) Journalism, or whatever it’s becoming, is far more at home there than in any silo, no matter how useful it may be.

 

 

A few weeks ago, while our car honked its way through dense traffic in Delhi, I imagined an Onion headline: American Visitor Seeks To Explain What He’ll Never Understand About India.

By the norms of traffic laws in countries where people tend to obey them, vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the dense parts of Indian cities appears to lawless. People do seem to go where they want, individually and collectively, in oblivity to danger.

Yet there is clearly a system here, in the sense that one’s body has a circulatory system. Or a nervous system. Meaning it’s full of almost random stuff at the cellular traffic level, but also organic in a literal way. It actually works. Somehow. Some way. Or ways. Many of them. Alone and together. So yes, I don’t understand it and probably never will, but it does work.

For example, a four-lane divided highway will have traffic moving constantly, occasionally in both directions on both sides. It will include humans, dogs, cattle, rickshaws and bikes, some laden with bags of cargo that look like they belong in a truck, in addition to cars, trucks and motorcycles, all packed together and honking constantly.

Keeping me from explaining, or even describing, any more than I just did, are the opening sentences of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

Shortly after dawn, on what would have been drawn in a normal sky, Mr. Artur Sammler with his bushy eye took in the books and papers of his West Side bedroom and suspected strongly that they were the wrong books, the wrong papers. In a way it did not matter to a man of seventy-plus, and at leisure. You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part it went in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It has its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

So I will disclaim being right about a damn thing here. But I will share some links from some brilliant people, each worthy of respect, who think they are right about some stuff we maybe ought to care about; and each of whom have, in their own very separate ways, advice and warnings for us. Here ya go:

Each author weaves a different handbasket we might travel to hell, but all make interesting reading. All are also downbeat as hell too.

My caution with readings that veer toward conspiracy (notably Martin’s) is one of the smartest things my smart wife ever said: “The problem with conspiracy theories is that they presume competence.”

So here’s what I’m thinking about every explanation of what’s going on in our still-new Digital Age: None of us has the whole story of what’s going on—and what’s going on may not be a story at all.

Likewise (or dislike-wise), I also think all generalizations, whatever they are, fail in the particulars, and that’s a feature of them. We best generalize when we know we risk being wrong in the details.  Reality wants wackiness in particulars. If you don’t find what’s wacky there, maybe you aren’t looking hard enough. Or believe too much in veracities.

Ed McCabe: “I have no use for rules. They only rule out the possibility of brilliant exceptions.”

We need to laugh. That means we need our ironies, our multiple meanings, our attentions misdirected, for the magic of life to work.

And life is magic. Pure misdirection, away from the facticity of non-existence.

Every laugh, every smile, is an ironic argument against the one non-ironic fact of life—and of everything—which is death. We all die. We all end. To “be” dead is not to be in a state of existence. It is not to be at all. Shakespeare was unimprovable on that point.

To some of us older people*, death isn’t a presence. It’s just the future absence of our selves in a world designed to discard everything with a noun, proper or not, eventually. Including the world itself. This is a feature, not a bug.

It’s also a feature among some of us to, as Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever”: always interested, always open to possibilities, always willing to vet what we at least think we know, always leaving the rest of existence to those better equipped to persist on the same mission. So I guess that’s my point here.

Basically it’s the same point as Bill Hicks’ “It’s just a ride.”

*I’m not old. I’ve just been young a long time. To obey Gandhi, you have to stay young. It’s the best way to learn. And perhaps to die as well.

In The Big Short, investor Michael Burry says “One hallmark of mania is the rapid rise in the incidence and complexity of fraud.” (Burry shorted the mania- and fraud-filled subprime mortgage market and made a mint in the process.)

One would be equally smart to bet against the mania for the tracking-based form of advertising called adtech.

Since tracking people took off in the late ’00s, adtech has grown to become a four-dimensional shell game played by hundreds (or, if you include martech, thousands) of companies, none of which can see the whole mess, or can control the fraud, malware and other forms of bad acting that thrive in the midst of it.

And that’s on top of the main problem: tracking people without their knowledge, approval or a court order is just flat-out wrong. The fact that it can be done is no excuse. Nor is the monstrous sum of money made by it.

Without adtech, the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) would never have happened. But the GDPR did happen, and as a result websites all over the world are suddenly posting notices about their changed privacy policies, use of cookies, and opt-in choices for “relevant” or “interest-based” (translation: tracking-based) advertising. Email lists are doing the same kinds of things.

“Sunrise day” for the GDPR is 25 May. That’s when the EU can start smacking fines on violators.

Simply put, your site or service is a violator if it extracts or processes personal data without personal permission. Real permission, that is. You know, where you specifically say “Hell yeah, I wanna be tracked everywhere.”

Of course what I just said greatly simplifies what the GDPR actually utters, in bureaucratic legalese. The GDPR is also full of loopholes only snakes can thread; but the spirit of the law is clear, and the snakes will be easy to shame, even if they don’t get fined. (And legitimate interest—an actual loophole in the GDPR, may prove hard to claim.)

Toward the aftermath, the main question is What will be left of advertising—and what it supports—after the adtech bubble pops?

Answers require knowing the differences between advertising and adtech, which I liken to wheat and chaff.

First, advertising:

    1. Advertising isn’t personal, and doesn’t have to be. In fact, knowing it’s not personal is an advantage for advertisers. Consumers don’t wonder what the hell an ad is doing where it is, who put it there, or why.
    2. Advertising makes brands. Nearly all the brands you know were burned into your brain by advertising. In fact the term branding was borrowed by advertising from the cattle business. (Specifically by Procter and Gamble in the early 1930s.)
    3. Advertising carries an economic signal. Meaning that it shows a company can afford to advertise. Tracking-based advertising can’t do that. (For more on this, read Don Marti, starting here.)
    4. Advertising sponsors media, and those paid by media. All the big pro sports salaries are paid by advertising that sponsors game broadcasts. For lack of sponsorship, media—especially publishers—are hurting. @WaltMossberg learned why on a conference stage when an ad agency guy said the agency’s ads wouldn’t sponsor Walt’s new publication, recode. Walt: “I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Second, Adtech:

    1. Adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media, and it causes negative associations with brands. Consider this: perhaps a $trillion or more has been spent on adtech, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it. (Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, is required reading on this.)
    2. Adtech wants to be personal. That’s why it’s tracking-based. Though its enthusiasts call it “interest-based,” “relevant” and other harmless-sounding euphemisms, it relies on tracking people. In fact it can’t exist without tracking people. (Note: while all adtech is programmatic, not all programmatic advertising is adtech. In other words, programmatic advertising doesn’t have to be based on tracking people. Same goes for interactive. Programmatic and interactive advertising will both survive the adtech crash.)
    3. Adtech spies on people and violates their privacy. By design. Never mind that you and your browser or app are anonymized. The ads are still for your eyeballs, and correlations can be made.
    4. Adtech is full of fraud and a vector for malware. @ACFou is required reading on this.
    5. Adtech incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. More here and here.
    6. Intermediators take most of what’s spent on adtech. Bob Hoffman does a great job showing how as little as 3¢ of a dollar spent on adtech actually makes an “impression. The most generous number I’ve seen is 12¢. (When I was in the ad agency business, back in the last millennium, clients complained about our 15% take. Media our clients bought got 85%.)
    7. Adtech gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.
    8. Adtech incentivizes hate speech and tribalism by giving both—and the platforms that host them—a business model too.
    9. Adtech relies on misdirection. See, adtech looks like advertising, and is called advertising; but it’s really direct marketing, which is descended from junk mail and a cousin of spam. Because of that misdirection, brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire are actually chasing eyeballs to anywhere. (Pro tip: if somebody says every ad needs to “perform,” or that the purpose of advertising is “to get the right message to the right person at the right time,” they’re actually talking about direct marketing, not advertising. For more on this, read Rethinking John Wanamaker.)
    10. Compared to advertising, adtech is ugly. Look up best ads of all time. One of the top results is for the American Advertising Awards. The latest winners they’ve posted are the Best in Show for 2016. Tops there is an Allstate “Interactive/Online” ad pranking a couple at a ball game. Over-exposure of their lives online leads that well-branded “Mayhem” guy to invade and trash their house. In other words, it’s a brand ad about online surveillance.
    11. Adtech has caused the largest boycott in human history. By more than a year ago, 1.7+ billion human beings were already blocking ads online.

To get a sense of what will be left of adtech after GDPR Sunrise Day, start by reading a pair of articles in AdExchanger by @JamesHercher. The first reports on the Transparency and Consent Framework published by IAB Europe. The second reports on how Google is pretty much ignoring that framework and going direct with their own way of obtaining consent to tracking:

Google’s and other consent-gathering solutions are basically a series of pop-up notifications that provide a mechanism for publishers to provide clear disclosure and consent in accordance with data regulations.

Specifically,

The Google consent interface greets site visitors with a request to use data to tailor advertising, with equally prominent “no” and “yes” buttons. If a reader declines to be tracked, he or she sees a notice saying the ads will be less relevant and asking to “agree” or go back to the previous page. According to a source, one research study on this type of opt-out mechanism led to opt-out rates of more than 70%.

Meaning only 30% of site visitors will consent to being tracked. So, say goodbye to 70% of adtech’s eyeball targets right there.

Google’s consent gathering system, dubbed “Funding Choices,” also screws most of the hundreds of other adtech intermediaries fighting for a hunk of what’s left of their market. Writes James, “It restricts the number of supply chain partners a publisher can share consent with to just 12 vendors, sources with knowledge of the product tell AdExchanger.”

And that’s not all:

Last week, Google alerted advertisers it would sharply limit use of the DoubleClick advertising ID, which brands and agencies used to pull log files from DoubleClick so campaigns could be cohesively measured across other ad servers, incentivizing buyers to consolidate spend on the Google stack.

Google also raised eyebrows last month with a new policy insisting that all DFP publishers grant it status as a data controller, giving Google the right to collect and use site data, whereas other online tech companies – mere data processors – can only receive limited data assigned to them by the publisher, i.e., the data controller.

This is also Google’s way of scraping off GDPR liability on publishers.

Publishers and adtech intermediaries can attempt to avoid Google by using Consent Management Platforms (CMPs), a new category of intermediary defined and described by IAB Europe’s Consent Management Framework. Writes James,

The IAB Europe and and IAB Tech Lab framework includes a list of registered vendors that publishers can pass consent to for data-driven advertising. The tech companies pay a one-time fee between $1,000 and $2,000 to join the vendor list, according to executives from three participating companies…Although now that the framework is live, the barriers to adoption are painfully real as well.

The CMP category is pretty bare at the moment, and it may be greeted with suspicion by some publishers.There are eight initial CMPs: two publisher tech companies with roots in ad-blocker solutions, Sourcepoint and Admiral, as well as the ad tech companies Quantcast and Conversant and a few blockchain-based advertising startups…

Digital Content Next, a trade group representing online news publishers, is advising publishers to reject the framework, which CEO Jason Kint said “doesn’t meet the letter or spirit of GDPR.” Only two publishers have publicly adopted the Consent and Transparency Framework, but they’re heavy hitters with blue-chip value in the market: Axel Springer, Europe’s largest digital media company, and the 180-year-old Schibsted Media, a respected newspaper publisher in Sweden and Norway.

In other words, good luck with that.

[Later, 26 May…] Well, Google caved on this one, so apparently Google is coming to IAB Europe’s table.

[And on 30 May…] Axel Springer is also going its own way.

One big upside for IAB Europe is that its Framework contains open source code and an SDK. For a full unpacking of what’s there see the Consent String and Vendor List Format: Transparency & Consent Framework on GitHub and IAB Europe’s own FAQ. More about this shortly.

Meanwhile, the adtech business surely knows the sky is falling. The main question is how far.

One possibility is 95% of the way to zero. That outcome is suggested by results published in PageFair last October by Dr. Johnny Ryan (@JohnnyRyan) there. Here’s the most revealing graphic in the bunch:

Note that this wasn’t a survey of the general population. It was a survey of ad industry people: “300+ publishers, adtech, brands, and various others…” Pause for a moment and look at that chart again. Nearly all those proffesionals in the business would not accept what their businesses do to other human beings.

“However,” Johnny adds, “almost a third believe that users will consent if forced to do so by ‘tracking walls’, that deny access to a website unless a visitor agrees to be tracked. Tracking walls, however, are prohibited under Article 7 of the GDPR…”

Pretty cynical, no?

The good news for both advertising and publishing is that neither needs adtech. What’s more, people can signal what they want out of the sites they visit—and from the whole marketplace. In fact the Internet itself was designed for exactly that. The GDPR just made the market a lot more willing to start hearing clues from customers that have been laying in plain sight for almost twenty years.

The first clues that fully matter are the ones we—the individuals they’ve been calling “users,” will deliver. Look for details on that in another post.

Meanwhile::::

Pro tip #1: don’t bet against Google, except maybe in the short term, when sunrise will darken the whole adtech business.

Instead, bet against companies that stake their lives on tracking people, and doing that without the clear and explicit consent of the tracked. That’s most of the adtech “ecosystem” not called Google or Facebook.

Google can say it already has consent, and that it is also has a legitimate interest (one of the six “lawful bases” for tracking) in the personal data it harvests from us.

Google can also live without the tracking. Most of its income comes from AdWords—its search advertising business—which is far more guided by what visitors are searching for than by whatever Google knows about those visitors.

Google is also also relatively trusted, as tech companies go. Its parent, Alphabet, is also increasingly diversified. Facebook, on the other hand, does stake its life on tracking people. (I say more about Facebook’s odds here.)

Pro tip #2: do bet on any business working for customers rather than sellers. Because signals of personal intent will produce many more positive outcomes in the digital marketplace than surveillance-fed guesswork by sellers ever could, even with the most advanced AI behind it.

For more on how that will work, read The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. Six years after Harvard Business Review Press published that book, what it says will start to come true. Thank you, GDPR.

Pro tip #3: do bet on developers building tools that give each of us scale in dealing with the world’s companies and governments, because those are the tools businesses working for customers will rely on to scale up their successes as well.

What it comes down to is the need for better signaling between customers and companies than can ever be possible in today’s doomed tracking-fed guesswork system. (All the AI and ML in the world won’t be worth much if the whole point of it is to sell us shit.)

Think about what customers and companies want and need about each other: interests, intentions, competencies, locations, availabilities, reputations—and boundaries.

When customers can operate both privately and independently, we’ll get far better markets than today’s ethically bankrupt advertising and marketing system could ever give us.

Pro tip #4: do bet on publishers getting back to what worked since forever offline and hardly got a chance online: plain old brand advertising that carries both an economic and a creative signal, and actually sponsors the publication rather than using the publication as a way to gather eyeballs that can be advertised at anywhere. The oeuvres of Don Marti (@dmarti) and Bob Hoffman (the @AdContrarian) are thick with good advice about this. I’ve also written about it extensively in the list compiled at People vs. Adtech. Some samples, going back through time:

  1. An easy fix for a broken advertising system (12 October 2017 in Medium and in my blog)
  2. Without aligning incentives, we can’t kill fake news or save journalism (15 September 2017 in Medium)
  3. Let’s get some things straight about publishing and advertising (9 September 2017 and the same day in Medium)
  4. Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR (3 September 2017 in ProjectVRM and 7 October in Medium).
  5. Markets are about more than marketing (2 September 2017 in Medium).
  6. Publishers’ and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door (17 June 2017 in Medium). It updates one of the 2015 blog posts below.
  7. How to plug the publishing revenue drain (9 June 2017 in Medium). It expands on the opening (#publishing) section of my Daily Tab for that date.
  8. How True Advertising Can Save Journalism From Drowning in a Sea of Content (22 January 2017 in Medium and 26 January 2017 in my blog.)It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers (26 August 2016 in ProjectVRM and 27 August 2016 in Medium)
  9. Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers (11 May 2016, and in Medium)
  10. How customers can debug business with one line of code (19 April 2016 in ProjectVRM and in Medium)
  11. An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers (15 April 2016 and in Medium)
  12. TV Viewers to Madison Avenue: Please quit driving drunk on digital (14 Aprl 2016, and in Medium)
  13. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It(11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  14. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  15. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  16. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October 2015 on the ProjectVRM blog)
  17. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  18. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  19. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  20. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  21. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  22. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015, and on 2 July 2016 in an updated version in Medium)
  23. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  24. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  25. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  26. What the ad biz needs is to exorcize direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  27. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  28. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future?(Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  29. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)

I expect, once the GDPR gets enforced, I can start writing about People + Publishing and even People + Advertising. (I have long histories in both publishing and advertising, by the way. So all of this is close to home.)

Meanwhile, you can get a jump on the GDPR by blocking third party cookies in your browsers, which will stop most of today’s tracking by adtech. Customer Commons explains how.

Nature and the Internet both came without privacy.

The difference is that we’ve invented privacy tech in the natural world, starting with clothing and shelter, and we haven’t yet done the same in the digital world.

When we go outside in the digital world, most of us are still walking around naked. Worse, nearly every commercial website we visit plants tracking beacons on us to support the extractive economy in personal data called adtech: tracking-based advertising.

In the natural world, we also have long-established norms for signaling what’s private, what isn’t, and how to respect both. Laws have grown up around those norms as well. But let’s be clear: the tech and the norms came first.

Yet for some reason many of us see personal privacy as a grace of policy. It’s like, “The answer is policy. What is the question?”

Two such answers arrived with this morning’s New York TimesFacebook Is Not the Problem. Lax Privacy Rules Are., by the Editorial Board; and Can Europe Lead on Privacy?, by ex-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Both call for policy. Neither see possibilities for personal tech. To both, the only actors in tech are big companies and big government, and it’s the job of the latter to protect people from the former. What they both miss is that we need what we might call big personal. We can only get that with personal tech that gives each of us power not just resist encroachments by others, but to have agency. (Merriam Websterthe capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.)

We acquired agency with personal computing and the Internet. Both were designed to make everyone an Archimedes. We also got a measure of it with the phones and tablets we carry around in our pockets and purses. None are yet as private as they should be, but making them fully private is the job of tech.

I bring this up because we will be working on privacy tech over the next four days at the Computer History Museum, first at VRM Day, today, and then over next three days at IIW: the Internet Identity Workshop.

On the table at both are work some of us, me included, are doing through Customer Commons on terms we can proffer as individuals, and the sites and services of the world can agree to.

Those terms are examples of what we call customertech: tech that’s ours and not Facebook’s or Apple’s or Google’s or Amazon’s.

The purpose is to turn the connected marketplace into a Marvel-like universe in which all of us are enhanced. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of laws follow.*

But hey, let’s invent the tech we need first.

*BTW, I give huge props to the EU for the General Data Protection Regulation, which is causing much new personal privacy tech development and discussion. I also think it’s an object lesson in what can happen when an essential area of tech development is neglected, and gets exploited by others for lack of that development.

Also, to be clear, my argument here is not against policy, but for tech development. Without the tech and the norms it makes possible, we can’t have fully enlightened policy.

Bonus link.

Let’s start with Facebook’s Surveillance Machine, by Zeynep Tufekci in last Monday’s New York Times. Among other things (all correct), Zeynep explains that “Facebook makes money, in other words, by profiling us and then selling our attention to advertisers, political actors and others. These are Facebook’s true customers, whom it works hard to please.”

Irony Alert: the same is true for the Times, along with every other publication that lives off adtech: tracking-based advertising. These pubs don’t just open the kimonos of their readers. They bring readers’ bare digital necks to vampires ravenous for the blood of personal data, all for the purpose of aiming “interest-based” advertising at those same readers, wherever those readers’ eyeballs may appear—or reappear in the case of “retargeted” advertising.

With no control by readers (beyond tracking protection which relatively few know how to use, and for which there is no one approach, standard, experience or audit trail), and no blood valving by the publishers who bare those readers’ necks, who knows what the hell actually happens to the data?

Answer: nobody knows, because the whole adtech “ecosystem” is a four-dimensional shell game with hundreds of players

or, in the case of “martech,” thousands:

For one among many views of what’s going on, here’s a compressed screen shot of what Privacy Badger showed going on in my browser behind Zeynep’s op-ed in the Times:

[Added later…] @ehsanakhgari tweets pointage to WhoTracksMe’s page on the NYTimes, which shows this:

And here’s more irony: a screen shot of the home page of RedMorph, another privacy protection extension:

That quote is from Free Tools to Keep Those Creepy Online Ads From Watching You, by Brian X. Chen and Natasha Singer, and published on 17 February 2016 in the Times.

The same irony applies to countless other correct and important reportage on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica mess by other writers and pubs. Take, for example, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and the Revelations of Open Secrets, by Sue Halpern in yesterday’s New Yorker. Here’s what RedMorph shows going on behind that piece:

Note that I have the data leak toward Facebook.net blocked by default.

Here’s a view through RedMorph’s controller pop-down:

And here’s what happens when I turn off “Block Trackers and Content”:

By the way, I want to make clear that Zeynep, Brian, Natasha and Sue are all innocents here, thanks both to the “Chinese wall” between the editorial and publishing functions of the Times, and the simple fact that the route any ad takes between advertiser and reader through any number of adtech intermediaries is akin to a ball falling through a pinball machine. Refresh your page while reading any of those pieces and you’ll see a different set of ads, no doubt aimed by automata guessing that you, personally, should be “impressed” by those ads. (They’ll count as “impressions” whether you are or not.)

Now…

What will happen when the Times, the New Yorker and other pubs own up to the simple fact that they are just as guilty as Facebook of leaking data about their readers to other parties, for—in many if not most cases—God knows what purposes besides “interest-based” advertising? And what happens when the EU comes down on them too? It’s game-on after 25 May, when the EU can start fining violators of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Key fact: the GDPR protects the data blood of what they call “EU data subjects” wherever those subjects’ necks are exposed in borderless digital world.

To explain more about how this works, here is the (lightly edited) text of a tweet thread posted this morning by @JohnnyRyan of PageFair:

Facebook left its API wide open, and had no control over personal data once those data left Facebook.

But there is a wider story coming: (thread…)

Every single big website in the world is leaking data in a similar way, through “RTB bid requests” for online behavioural advertising #adtech.

Every time an ad loads on a website, the site sends the visitor’s IP address (indicating physical location), the URL they are looking at, and details about their device, to hundreds -often thousands- of companies. Here is a graphic that shows the process.

The website does this to let these companies “bid” to show their ad to this visitor. Here is a video of how the system works. In Europe this accounts for about a quarter of publishers’ gross revenue.

Once these personal data leave the publisher, via “bid request”, the publisher has no control over what happens next. I repeat that: personal data are routinely sent, every time a page loads, to hundreds/thousands of companies, with no control over what happens to them.

This means that every person, and what they look at online, is routinely profiled by companies that receive these data from the websites they visit. Where possible, these data and combined with offline data. These profiles are built up in “DMPs”.

Many of these DMPs (data management platforms) are owned by data brokers. (Side note: The FTC’s 2014 report on data brokers is shocking. See https://www.ftc.gov/reports/data-brokers-call-transparency-accountability-report-federal-trade-commission-may-2014. There is no functional difference between an #adtech DMP and Cambridge Analytica.

—Terrell McSweeny, Julie Brill and EDPS

None of this will be legal under the #GDPR. (See one reason why at https://t.co/HXOQ5gb4dL). Publishers and brands need to take care to stop using personal data in the RTB system. Data connections to sites (and apps) have to be carefully controlled by publishers.

So far, #adtech’s trade body has been content to cover over this wholesale personal data leakage with meaningless gestures that purport to address the #GDPR (see my note on @IABEurope current actions here: https://t.co/FDKBjVxqBs). It is time for a more practical position.

And advertisers, who pay for all of this, must start to demand that safe, non-personal data take over in online RTB targeting. RTB works without personal data. Brands need to demand this to protect themselves – and all Internet users too. @dwheld @stephan_lo @BobLiodice

Websites need to control
1. which data they release in to the RTB system
2. whether ads render directly in visitors’ browsers (where DSPs JavaScript can drop trackers)
3. what 3rd parties get to be on their page
@jason_kint @epc_angela @vincentpeyregne @earljwilkinson 11/12

Lets work together to fix this. 12/12

Those last three recommendations are all good, but they also assume that websites, advertisers and their third party agents are the ones with the power to do something. Not readers.

But there’s lots readers will be able to do. More about that shortly. Meanwhile, publishers can get right with readers by dropping #adtech and going back to publishing the kind of high-value brand advertising they’ve run since forever in the physical world.

That advertising, as Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian) and Don Marti (@dmarti) have been making clear for years, is actually worth a helluva lot more than adtech, because it delivers clear creative and economic signals and comes with no cognitive overhead (for example, wondering where the hell an ad comes from and what it’s doing right now).

As I explain here, “Real advertising wants to be in a publication because it values the publication’s journalism and readership” while “adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them.”

Doing real advertising is the easiest fix in the world, but so far it’s nearly unthinkable for a tech industry that has been defaulted for more than twenty years to an asymmetric power relationship between readers and publishers called client-server. I’ve been told that client-server was chosen as the name for this relationship because “slave-master” didn’t sound so good; but I think the best way to visualize it is calf-cow:

As I put it at that link (way back in 2012), Client-server, by design, subordinates visitors to websites. It does this by putting nearly all responsibility on the server side, so visitors are just users or consumers, rather than participants with equal power and shared responsibility in a truly two-way relationship between equals.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Beneath the Web, the Net’s TCP/IP protocol—the gravity that holds us all together in cyberspace—remains no less peer-to-peer and end-to-end than it was in the first place. Meaning there is nothing about the Net that prevents each of us from having plenty of power on our own.

On the Net, we don’t need to be slaves, cattle or throbbing veins. We can be fully human. In legal terms, we can operate as first parties rather than second ones. In other words, the sites of the world can click “agree” to our terms, rather than the other way around.

Customer Commons is working on exactly those terms. The first publication to agree to readers terms is Linux Journal, where I am now editor-in-chief. The first of those terms is #P2B1(beta), says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me,” and is hashtagged #NoStalking.

In Help Us Cure Online Publishing of Its Addiction to Personal Data, I explain how this models the way advertising ought to be done: by the grace of readers, with no spying.

Obeying readers’ terms also carries no risk of violating privacy laws, because every pub will have contracts with its readers to do the right thing. This is totally do-able. Read that last link to see how.

As I say there, we need help. Linux Journal still has a small staff, and Customer Commons (a California-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit) so far consists of five board members. What it aims to be is a worldwide organization of customers, as well as the place where terms we proffer can live, much as Creative Commons is where personal copyright licenses live. (Customer Commons is modeled on Creative Commons. Hats off to the Berkman Klein Center for helping bring both into the world.)

I’m also hoping other publishers, once they realize that they are no less a part of the surveillance economy than Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, will help out too.

[Later…] Not long after this post went up I talked about these topics on the Gillmor Gang. Here’s the video, plus related links.

I think the best push-back I got there came from Esteban Kolsky, (@ekolsky) who (as I recall anyway) saw less than full moral equivalence between what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did to screw with democracy and what the New York Times and other ad-supported pubs do by baring the necks of their readers to dozens of data vampires.

He’s right that they’re not equivalent, any more than apples and oranges are equivalent. The sins are different; but they are still sins, just as apples and oranges are still both fruit. Exposing readers to data vampires is simply wrong on its face, and we need to fix it. That it’s normative in the extreme is no excuse. Nor is the fact that it makes money. There are morally uncompromised ways to make money with advertising, and those are still available.

Another push-back is the claim by many adtech third parties that the personal data blood they suck is anonymized. While that may be so, correlation is still possible. See Study: Your anonymous web browsing isn’t as anonymous as you think, by Barry Levine (@xBarryLevine) in Martech Today, which cites De-anonymizing Web Browsing Data with Social Networks, a study by Jessica Su (@jessicatsu), Ansh Shukla (@__anshukla__) and Sharad Goel (@5harad)
of Stanford and Arvind Narayanan (@random_walker) of Princeton.

(Note: Facebook and Google follow logged-in users by name. They also account for most of the adtech business.)

One commenter below noted that this blog as well carries six trackers (most of which I block).. Here is how those look on Ghostery:

So let’s fix this thing.

[Later still…] Lots of comments in Hacker News as well.

[Later again (8 April 2018)…] About the comments below (60+ so far): the version of commenting used by this blog doesn’t support threading. If it did, my responses to comments would appear below each one. Alas, some not only appear out of sequence, but others don’t appear at all. I don’t know why, but I’m trying to find out. Meanwhile, apologies.

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