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Is this the way you want your brand to look?

Digital advertising needs to sniff its own stench, instead of everybody’s digital butts.

A sample of that stench is wafting through the interwebs from  the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, an ad industry bullphemism for yet another way to excuse the urge to keep tracking people against their wishes (and simple good manners) all over the digital world.

This new thing is a granfalloon conjured by the Association of National Advertisers (aka the ANA) and announced today in the faux-news style of the press release (which it no doubt also is) at the first link above. It begins,

AD INDUSTRY LAUNCHES “PARTNERSHIP FOR RESPONSIBLE ADDRESSABLE MEDIA” TO ENSURE FUTURE OF DIGITAL MEDIA FOR BUSINESSES & CONSUMERS
Governing Group of Industry Leaders Includes 4A’s, ANA, IAB, IAB Tech Lab, NAI, WFA, P&G, Unilever, Ford, GM, IBM, NBCUniversal, IPG, Publicis, Adobe, LiveRamp, MediaMath, The Trade Desk

NEW YORK (August 4, 2020) — Leading trade associations and companies representing every sector of the global advertising industry today joined together to launch the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, an initiative to advance and protect critical functionalities like customization and analytics for digital media and advertising, while safeguarding privacy and improving the consumer experience. The governing group of the Partnership will include the most influential organizations in advertising.

I learned about this from @WendyDavis, who wrote this piece in MediaPostNiemanLab summarizes what she reports with a tweet that reads, “A new ad-industry group will lobby Google and Apple to let them track users just a wee bit more, please and thank you.”

Writes Wendy,

The group will soon reach out to browser developers and platforms, in hopes of convincing them to rethink recent decisions that will limit tracking, according to Venable attorney Stu Ingis, who will head the legal and policy working group.

“These companies are taking huge positions that impact the entire economy — the entire media ecosystem — with no real input from the media ecosystem,” Ingis says.

As if the “entire media ecosystem” doesn’t contain the billions of humans being tracked.

Well, here’s a fact: ad blocking, which was already the biggest boycott in world history five years ago, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Even though ad blockers had been available since 2004, use of them didn’t hockey-stick until 2012-13, exactly when adtech and its dependents in publishing gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was nothing more than a polite request, expressed by a browser, for some damn privacy while we go about our lives online. See this in Harvard Business Review:

Here’s another fact: the browser makers actually care about their users, some of whom are paying customers (for example with Apple and Microsoft). They know what we want and need, and are giving it to us. Demand and supply at work.

The GDPR and the CCPA also didn’t happen in a vacuum. Both laws were made to protect citizens from exactly what adtech (tracking based advertising) does. And, naturally, the ad biz has been working mightily to obey the letter of those laws while violating their spirit. Why else would we be urged by cookie notices everywhere to “accept” exactly what we’ve made very clear that we don’t want?

So here are some helpful questions from the world’s billions to the brands now paying to have us followed like marked animals:

Have you noticed that not a single brand known to the world has been created by tracking people and aiming ads at them—even after spending a $trillion or two on doing that?

Have you noticed that nearly all the world’s major brands became known through advertising that not only didn’t track people, but sponsored journalism as well?

Have you noticed that tracking people and directing personalized messages at them—through “addressable media”—is in fact direct marketing, which we used to call junk mail?

Didn’t think so.

Time to get the clues, ad biz. Brands too.

Start with The Cluetrain Manifesto, which says, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

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

That year was 1999.

If advertising and marketing had bothered to listen back then, they might not be dealing today with the GDPR, the CCPA, and the earned dislike of billions.

Next, please learn (or re-learn) the difference between real advertising and the junk message business. Find that lesson in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff. An excerpt:

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

That’s what had happened to the ANA in 2018, when it acquired what had been the Direct Marketing Association (aka DMA) and which by then called itself the Data & Marketing Association.

The Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media speaks in the voice of advertising’s alien replica. It does not “safeguard essential values in advertising as a positive economic force.” Instead it wants to keep using “addressable” advertising as the primary instrument of surveillance capitalism.

Maybe it’s too late to save advertising from its alien self. But perhaps not, if what’s left of advertising’s soul takes the writings of Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian) to heart. That’s the only way I know for advertising to clean up its act.

 

 

door knocker

Remember the dot com boom?

Doesn’t matter if you don’t. What does matter is that it ended. All business manias do.

That’s why we can expect the “platform economy” and “surveillance capitalism” to end. Sure, it’s hard to imagine that when we’re in the midst of the mania, but the end will come.

When it does, we can have a “privacy debate.” Meanwhile, there isn’t one. In fact there can’t be one, because we don’t have privacy in the online world.

We do have privacy in the offline world, and we’ve had it ever since we invented clothing, doors, locks and norms for signaling what’s okay and what’s not okay in respect to our personal spaces, possessions and information.

That we hardly have the equivalent in the networked world doesn’t mean we won’t. Or that we can’t. The Internet in its current form was only born in the mid-’90s. In the history of business and culture, that’s a blip.

Really, it’s still early.

So, the fact that websites, network services, phone companies, platforms, publishers, advertisers and governments violate our privacy with wanton disregard for it doesn’t mean we can’t ever stop them. It means we haven’t done it yet, because we don’t have the tech for it. (Sure, some wizards do, but muggles don’t. And most of us are muggles.)

And, since we don’t have privacy tech yet, we lack the simple norms that grow around technologies that give us ways signal our privacy preferences. We’ll get those when we have the digital equivalents of buttons, zippers, locks, shades, curtains, door knockers and bells.

This is what many of us have been working on at ProjectVRM, Customer Commons, the Me2B Alliance, MyData and other organizations whose mission is getting each of us the tech we need to operate at full agency when dealing with the companies and governments of the world.

I bring all this up as a “Yes, and” to a piece in Salon by Michael Corn (@MichaelAlanCorn), CISO of UCSD, titled We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate. Subtitle: “It’s too late to conserve our privacy — but to preserve what’s left, we must stop defining people as commodities.”

Indeed. And we do need the “optimism and activism” he calls for. In the activism category is code. Specifically, code that gives us the digital equivalents of buttons, zippers, locks, shades, curtains, door knockers and bells

Some of those are in the works. Others are not—yet. But they will be. Inevitably. Especially now that it’s becoming clearer every day that we’ll never get them from any system with a financial interest in violating it*. Or from laws that fail at protecting it.

If you want to help, join one or more of the efforts in the links four paragraphs up. And, if you’re a developer already on the case, let us know how we can help get your solutions into each and all of our digital hands.

For guidance, this privacy manifesto should help. Thanks.


*Especially publishers such as Salon, which Privacy Badger tells me tries to pump 20 potential trackers into my browser while I read the essay cited above. In fact, according to WhoTracksMe.com, Salon tends to run 204 tracking requests per page load, and the vast majority of those are for tracking-based advertising purposes. And Salon is hardly unique. Despite the best intentions of the GDPR and the CCPA, surveillance capitalism remains fully defaulted on the commercial Web—and will continue to remain entrenched until we have the privacy tech we’ve needed from the start.

For more on all this, see People vs. Adtech.

Here’s the popover that greets visitors on arrival at Rolling Stone‘s website:

Our Privacy Policy has been revised as of January 1, 2020. This policy outlines how we use your information. By using our site and products, you are agreeing to the policy.

That policy is supplied by Rolling Stone’s parent (PMC) and weighs more than 10,000 words. In it the word “advertising” appears 68 times. Adjectives modifying it include “targeted,” “personalized,” “tailored,” “cookie-based,” “behavioral” and “interest-based.” All of that is made possible by, among other things—

Information we collect automatically:

Device information and identifiers such as IP address; browser type and language; operating system; platform type; device type; software and hardware attributes; and unique device, advertising, and app identifiers

Internet network and device activity data such as information about files you download, domain names, landing pages, browsing activity, content or ads viewed and clicked, dates and times of access, pages viewed, forms you complete or partially complete, search terms, uploads or downloads, the URL that referred you to our Services, the web sites you visit after this web site; if you share our content to social media platforms; and other web usage activity and data logged by our web servers, whether you open an email and your interaction with email content, access times, error logs, and other similar information. See “Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies” below for more information about how we collect and use this information.

Geolocation information such as city, state and ZIP code associated with your IP address or derived through Wi-Fi triangulation; and precise geolocation information from GPS-based functionality on your mobile devices, with your permission in accordance with your mobile device settings.

The “How We Use the Information We Collect” section says they will—

Personalize your experience to Provide the Services, for example to:

  • Customize certain features of the Services,
  • Deliver relevant content and to provide you with an enhanced experience based on your activities and interests
  • Send you personalized newsletters, surveys, and information about products, services and promotions offered by us, our partners, and other organizations with which we work
  • Customize the advertising on the Services based on your activities and interests
  • Create and update inferences about you and audience segments that can be used for targeted advertising and marketing on the Services, third party services and platforms, and mobile apps
  • Create profiles about you, including adding and combining information we obtain from third parties, which may be used for analytics, marketing, and advertising
  • Conduct cross-device tracking by using information such as IP addresses and unique mobile device identifiers to identify the same unique users across multiple browsers or devices (such as smartphones or tablets, in order to save your preferences across devices and analyze usage of the Service.
  • using inferences about your preferences and interests for any and all of the above purposes

For a look at what Rolling Stone, PMC and their third parties are up to, Privacy Badger’s browser extension “found 73 potential trackers on www.rollingstone.com:

tagan.adlightning.com
 acdn.adnxs.com
 ib.adnxs.com
 cdn.adsafeprotected.com
 static.adsafeprotected.com
 d.agkn.com
 js.agkn.com
 c.amazon-adsystem.com
 z-na.amazon-adsystem.com
 display.apester.com
 events.apester.com
 static.apester.com
 as-sec.casalemedia.com
 ping.chartbeat.net
 static.chartbeat.com
 quantcast.mgr.consensu.org
 script.crazyegg.com
 dc8xl0ndzn2cb.cloudfront.net
cdn.digitru.st
 ad.doubleclick.net
 securepubads.g.doubleclick.net
 hbint.emxdgt.com
 connect.facebook.net
 adservice.google.com
 pagead2.googlesyndication.com
 www.googletagmanager.com
 www.gstatic.com
 static.hotjar.com
 imasdk.googleapis.com
 js-sec.indexww.com
 load.instinctiveads.com
 ssl.p.jwpcdn.com
 content.jwplatform.com
 ping-meta-prd.jwpltx.com
 prd.jwpltx.com
 assets-jpcust.jwpsrv.com
 g.jwpsrv.com
pixel.keywee.co
 beacon.krxd.net
 cdn.krxd.net
 consumer.krxd.net
 www.lightboxcdn.com
 widgets.outbrain.com
 cdn.permutive.com
 assets.pinterest.com
 openbid.pubmatic.com
 secure.quantserve.com
 cdn.roiq.ranker.com
 eus.rubiconproject.com
 fastlane.rubiconproject.com
 s3.amazonaws.com
 sb.scorecardresearch.com
 p.skimresources.com
 r.skimresources.com
 s.skimresources.com
 t.skimresources.com
launcher.spot.im
recirculation.spot.im
 js.spotx.tv
 search.spotxchange.com
 sync.search.spotxchange.com
 cc.swiftype.com
 s.swiftypecdn.com
 jwplayer.eb.tremorhub.com
 pbs.twimg.com
 cdn.syndication.twimg.com
 platform.twitter.com
 syndication.twitter.com
 mrb.upapi.net
 pixel.wp.com
 stats.wp.com
 www.youtube.com
 s.ytimg.com

This kind of shit is why we have the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). (No, it’s not just because Google and Facebook.) If publishers and the adtech industry (those third parties) hadn’t turned the commercial Web into a target-rich environment for suckage by data vampires, we’d never have had either law. (In fact, both laws are still new: the GDPR went into effect in May 2018 and the CCPA a few days ago.)

I’m in California, where the CCPA gives me the right to shake down the vampiretariat for all the information about me they’re harvesting, sharing, selling or giving away to or through those third parties.* But apparently Rolling Stone and PMC don’t care about that.

Others do, and I’ll visit some of those in later posts. Meanwhile I’ll let Rolling Stone and PMC stand as examples of bad acting by publishers that remains rampant, unstopped and almost entirely unpunished, even under these new laws.

I also suggest following and getting involved with the fight against the plague of data vampirism in the publishing world. These will help:

  1. Reading Don Marti’s blog, where he shares expert analysis and advice on the CCPA and related matters. Also People vs. Adtech, a compilation of my own writings on the topic, going back to 2008.
  2. Following what the browser makers are doing with tracking protection (alas, differently†). Shortcuts: Brave, Google’s Chrome, Ghostery’s Cliqz, Microsoft’s Edge, Epic, Mozilla’s Firefox.
  3. Following or joining communities working to introduce safe forms of nourishment for publishers and better habits for advertisers and their agencies. Those include Customer CommonsMe2B AllianceMyData Global and ProjectVRM.

______________

*The bill (AB 375), begins,

The California Constitution grants a right of privacy. Existing law provides for the confidentiality of personal information in various contexts and requires a business or person that suffers a breach of security of computerized data that includes personal information, as defined, to disclose that breach, as specified.

This bill would enact the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. Beginning January 1, 2020, the bill would grant a consumer a right to request a business to disclose the categories and specific pieces of personal information that it collects about the consumer, the categories of sources from which that information is collected, the business purposes for collecting or selling the information, and the categories of 3rd parties with which the information is shared. The bill would require a business to make disclosures about the information and the purposes for which it is used. The bill would grant a consumer the right to request deletion of personal information and would require the business to delete upon receipt of a verified request, as specified. The bill would grant a consumer a right to request that a business that sells the consumer’s personal information, or discloses it for a business purpose, disclose the categories of information that it collects and categories of information and the identity of 3rd parties to which the information was sold or disclosed…

Don Marti has a draft letter one might submit to the brokers and advertisers who use all that personal data. (He also tweets a caution here.)

†This will be the subject of my next post.

Whither Linux Journal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

calf-cow

It began,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORY OF E-COMMERCE

1995: Invention of the Cookie

The End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the story?”

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

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

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

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

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, at least toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A measure of how close-to-nothing that genocide meant to journalism at that time was delivered one evening in the late 1970s by Hughes Rudd, an anchor at the time of the CBS Morning News. Rudd said, almost offhandedly, that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no conflict that was easy to describe, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant and interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

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

And this was neither the first nor the last time massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, at most you have have statistics that become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of the storyless facts will be studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Including, unavoidably, the genius in the White House.

_________

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

This is wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus link (and metaphor)

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

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

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

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

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

† I did hear from Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel), who runs the Privacy Project series at the Times , and assured me that they would be covering the issue. And (Yay!) it did, with I Visited 47 Sites. Hundreds of Trackers Followed Me, by Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo). This was followed by critique of that piece titled Privacy Fundamentalism, by Ben Thompson in Stratechery. I responded to both with On Privacy Fundamentalism. So check those out too.

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.

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