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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 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.

 

 

 

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 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.

 

 

fruit thought

If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?

Not yet. Or maybe not really.

Either way, that’s the idea behind the urge by some lately to claim personal data as personal property, and then to make money (in cash, tokens or cryptocurrency) by selling or otherwise monetizing it. The idea in all these cases is to somehow participate in existing (entirely extractive) commodity markets for personal data.

ProjectVRM, which I direct, is chartered to “foster development of tools and services that make customers both independent and better able to engage,” and is a big tent. That’s why on the VRM Developments Work page of the ProjectVRM wiki is a heading called Markets for Personal Data. Listed there are:

So we respect that work. We also need to recognize some problems it faces.

The first problem is that, economically speaking, data is a public good, meaning non-rivalrous and non-excludable. (Rivalrous means consumption or use by one party prevents the same by another, and excludable means you can prevent parties that don’t pay from access to it.) Here’s a table from Linux Journal column I wrote a few years ago:

Excludability Excludability
YES NO
Rivalness YES Private good: good: e.g., food, clothing, toys, cars, products subject to value-adds between first sources and final customers Common pool resource: e.g., sea, rivers, forests, their edible inhabitants and other useful contents
Rivalness NO Club good: e.g., bridges, cable TV, private golf courses, controlled access to copyrighted works Public good: e.g., data, information, law enforcement, national defense, fire fighting, public roads, street lighting

 

The second problem is that nature of data as a public good also inconveniences claims that it ought to be property. Thomas Jefferson explained this in his 1813 letter to Isaac MacPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation

Of course Jefferson never heard of data. But what he says about “the thinking power called an idea,” and how ideas are like fire, is essential in a very human way.

The third problem is that all of us as human beings are able to produce forms of value that far exceed that of our raw personal data.

Specifically, treating data as if it were a rivalrous and excludable commodity—such as corn, oil or fruit—not only takes Jefferson’s “thinking power” off the table, but misdirects attention, investment and development work away from supporting the human outputs that are fully combustible, and might be expansible over all space, without lessening density. Ideas can do that. Oil can’t, even though it’s combustible.

Put another way, why would you want to make almost nothing (the likely price) selling personal data on a commodity basis when you can make a lot more by selling your work where markets for work exist?

What makes us fully powerful as human beings is our ability to generate and share ideas and other combustible public goods, and not just to slough off data like so much dandruff. Or to be valued only for the labors we contribute as parts of industrial machines.

Important note: I’m not knocking labor here. Most of us have to work for wages as parts of industrial machines, or as independent actors. I do too. There is full honor in that. Yet our nature as distinctive and valuable human beings is to be more and other than a source of labor alone, and there are ways to make money from that fact too.

Many years ago JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth) and I made a distinction between making money with something and because of something. It’s a helpful one.

Example: I don’t make money with this blog. But I do make money because of it—and probably a lot more money than I would if this blog carried advertising or if I did it for a wage.

Which gets us to the idea behind declaring personal data as personal property, and creating marketplaces where people can sell their data.

The idea goes like this: there is a $trillion or more in business activity that trades or relies on personal data in many ways. Individual sources of that data should be able to get in on the action.

Alas, most of that $trillion is in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: a giant snake-ball of B2B activity wherein there is little interest in buying what can be had for free.

Worse, surveillance capitalism’s business is making guesses about you so it can sell you shit. On a per-message basis, this works about 0% of the time, even though massive amounts of money flow through that B2B snakeball (visualized as abstract rectangles here and here). Many reasons for that. Here are a few:

  1. Most of the time, such as right here and now, you’re not buying a damn thing, and not in a mood to be bothered by someone telling you what to buy.
  2. Companies paying other companies to push shit at you do not have your interests at heart—not even if their messages to you are, as they like to put it, “relevant” or “interest based.” (Which they almost always are not.)
  3. The entrails of surveillance capitalism are fully infected with fraud and malware.
  4. Surveillance capitalism is also quite satisfied to soak up to 97% of an advertising spend before an ad’s publisher gets its 3% for pushing an ad at you.

Trying to get in on that business is just an awful proposition.

Yes, I know it isn’t just surveillance capitalists who hunger for personal data. The health care business, for example, can benefit enormously from it, and is less of a snakeball, on the whole. But what will it pay you? And why should it pay you?

Won’t large quantities of anonymized personal data from iOS and Android devices, handed over freely, be more valuable to medicine and pharma than the few bits of data individuals might sell? (Apple has already ventured in that direction, very carefully, also while not paying for any personal data.)

And isn’t there something kinda suspect about personal data for sale? Such as motivating the unscrupulous to alter some of their data so it’s worth more?

What fully matters for people in the digital world is agency, not data. Agency is the power to act with full effect in the world. It’s what you have when you put your pants on, when you walk, or drive, or tell somebody something useful while they listen respectfully. It’s what you get when you make a deal with an equal.

It’s not what any of us get when we’re just “users” on a platform. Or when we click “agree” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. Both of those are norms in Web 2.0 and desperately need to be killed.

It’s still early. Web 2.0 is an archaic stage in the formation of the digital world. surveillance capitalism has also been a bubble ready to pop for years. The matter is when, not if. It’s too absurd, corrupt, complex and annoying to keep living forever.

So let’s give people ways to increase their agency, at scale, in the digital world. There’s no scale in selling one’s personal data. But there’s plenty in putting our most human of powers to work.

The most basic form of agency in the digital world is control over how our personal data might be used by others. There are lots of developers at work on this already. Here’s one list at ProjectVRM.

Bonus links:

 

 

 

 

And the same goes for California’s AB-375 privacy bill.

The GDPR has been in force since May 25th, and it has done almost nothing to stop websites that make money from tracking-based-advertising stop participating in the tracking of readers. Instead almost all we’ve seen so far are requests for from websites to keep doing what they’re doing.

Only worse. Because now when you click “Accept” under an interruptive banner saying the site’s “cookies and other technologies collect data to enhance your experience and personalize the content and advertising you see,” you’ve just consented to being spied on. And they’re covered. They can carry on with surveillance-as-usual.

Score: Adtech 1, privacy 0.

Or so it seems. So far.

Are there any examples of publications that aren’t participating in #adtech’s spy game? Besides Linux Journal?

 

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