Category: journalism

Syndication and the Live Web Economy

This is from a December 2009 newsletter called Suitwatch, which I wrote for Linux Journal, and was 404’d long ago. (But I kept the original.) I’m re-posting it here because I think syndication may be the most potent power any of us have in the Internet age—and because the really simple kind, RSS, has been with us since before I wrote this piece. (I also think RSS has VRM implications as well, but I’ll leave those for another post.) My only edits here were to remove arcana and anachronisms that are pointless today. This graphic illustrates how entrenched and widespread RSS already is:

Until recently, the verb “syndication” was something big publishers and agencies did. As a kid, I recognized “© King Features Syndicate” was the one unfunny thing about Blondie or Dennis the Menace. All it meant to me was that some kind of Business was going on here.

Now millions of individual writers syndicate their own work, usually through RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Publishers and other large organizations do too. This article is syndicated. So are updates to product manuals, changes to development wikis, updates on SourceForge, and searches of keywords. You name it: if there’s something that updates frequently on the Web, there’s a better chance every minute that the new stuff is syndicated if it isn’t already.

Far as I know, not many sources are making money with it. Lots, however, are making money because of it. The syndicated world may not look like an economy yet. But trust me, it is.

At this early stage in its long future history, syndication is primarily a feature of blogging, which is primarily the product of too many people to count. Blogging is not about large-scale things. It’s about human beings who have no scale other than themselves. Only you can be good at being you, and nobody else is the same as you. Syndication does more to expand individual human potential than anything since the invention of type. Or perhaps ever. The syndicated world economy is the one that grows around unleashed personal powers of expression, productivity, creation, distribution, instruction, influence, leadership, whatever.

In a loose sense, syndication is one side of the conversation. Think about conversation in the best sense of the word: as the way people teach and learn from each other, the way topics start and move along. Syndication makes that happen in huge ways.

The notion that “markets are conversation”, popularized by The Cluetrain Manifesto, was borrowed from this case I used to make for a form of marketing that was far more natural and powerful than the formal kind:

  1. Markets are conversation, and
  2. Conversation is fire. Therefore,
  3. Marketing is arson.

If you want to set fires, start conversations that tend to keep going. Nothing does the latter better than syndication.

There are three reasons why we still don’t hear as much about syndication as we should (and will). First, it’s still new. Second, it didn’t come from The Big Guys. (It came from Dave Winer, father of RSS — Really Simple Syndication.) Third, it points toward a value system not grounded only in exchange — one especially suited for the Net, a deeply ironic worldwide environment where everybody is zero distance apart.

But let’s park the value system until later and talk about next week. That’s when I’ll be in San Francisco for Syndicate. It’s the second in a series of conferences by that name. The first was in New York last Spring.

Since I’m the conference chair (disclosure: it’s a paying gig), and since I’ll be giving both the introductory talk and the closing keynote, Syndication is on the front burner of my mind’s stove.

There are others subjects there as well, some of which will be visited in sessions at the show. RSS, for starters. And tagging—a practice so new it’s not even close to having standards of the sort we find at OASIS, the IETF, and the W3C. Instead, it has emerging standards, like the ones we find at

Like syndication, tagging is a long-tail activity. Something individuals do. Along with blogging and syndication, it helps outline a new branch of the Net we’re starting to call the Live Web — as opposed to the Static Web with “sites” that are “built” and tend not to change.

The World Live Web is the title of my December Linux For Suits column in Linux Journal. In it, I note that the directoryless nature of everything on the Web falls in the Unix file path east of the domain name. Every path to a document (or whatever) is a piece of straw in the static Web’s haystack. Google and Yahoo help us find needles in that haystack, but their amazing success at search also tends to confirm the haystack nature of the Static Web itself.

The Live Web is no less webby than the Static Web. They’re both parts of the same big thing. But the Live Web is new and very different. It cannot be understood in Static Web terms.

In that piece, I also observed that blogs, as continuing projects by human authors, leave chronological trails. These give the Live Web something of a structure: a chronological one that goes /year/month/day/date/post, even if that’s not the way each post’s URL is composed. There is an implicit organizational structure here, and it’s chronological.

Tagging, by which individuals can assign categorical tags of their own to everything from links to bookmarks to photos, has given the Live Web an ad hoc categorical structure as well.

So that’s what we’re starting to see emerge here: chronology and category. Rudimentary, sure, but real. And significant.

But not organized. New practices, and new ideas, are coming along too fast.

What matters, above all, is user-in-charge: a form of personal agency in the connected world. That’s a concept so key to everything else that’s happening on the Web, even on the Static one, that we may need a new word for it.

Or an old one, like independencelibertysovereignty, or autonomy. That’s my inner Libertarian, choosing those. If your sensibilities run a bit more to the social side, you may prefer words like actualization or fulfillment. Point is, the Big Boys aren’t in charge anymore. You are. I am. We are.

There’s an economy that will grow around us. I think free software and open-source practices (see various books and essays by Richard M. Stallman and Eric S. Raymond) put tracks in the snow that point in the direction we’re heading, but the phenomenon is bigger than that.

It’s also bigger than Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and IBM and Sun and Red Hat and Apple and the rest of the companies people (especially the media) look to for Leadership. For all the good those companies do in the world, the power shift is underway and is as certain as tomorrow’s dawn. The Big Boys will need to take advantage of it. We’ll need them to, as well.

This power shift is what I’d like to put in front of people’s attention when they come to Syndicate next week, or when they follow the proceedings in blogs and other reports.

Now more than ever, power is personal. Companies large and small will succeed by taking advantage of that fact. And by watching developments that aren’t just coming from The Usual Suspects. Including the Usual Economic Theories.

For example, not everything in an economy is about exchange, or the value chain, or about trade-offs of this for that. Many values come out of effort and care made without expectation of return. Consider your love for your parents, spouses, children, friends, and good work. Consider what you give and still get to keep. Consider debts erased by forgiveness. Consider how knowledge grows without its loss by anyone else.

Sayo Ajiboye, the Nigerian minister who so blew my mind in conversations we had on a plane nearly five years ago (Google them up if you like), taught me that markets are relationships, and not just conversations. Relationships, he said, are not just about exchange. They cannot be reduced to transactions. If you try, you demean the relationships themselves.

Also, in spite of the economic framings of our talk about morality and justice (owing favors, paying for crimes, just desserts), there is a deeper moral system that cannot be understood in terms of exchange. In fact, when you bring up exchange, you miss the whole thing. (Many great teachers have tried in futility to make this point, and I’m probably not doing any better.) Whatever it is, its results are positive. Growth in one place is not matched by shrinking in another. Value in both systems is created. But in the latter one, the purpose is not always, or exclusively, exchange, or profit. At least not from the activity itself. There are because effects at work. And we’re only beginning to understand them, much less practice them in new ways.

Toward that end, some questions…

Where did the Static Web, much less the Live Web, come from? What is it for? What are we doing with it? Whatever the answers, nothing was exchanged for them. (No, not even the record industry, the losses of which owe to their own unwillingness to take advantage of new opportunities opened by the Net.)

Nor was anything exchanged for Linux, which has grown enormously.

As Greg Kroah-Hartman said recently on the Linux-Elitists list,

Remember, Linux is a species, and we aren’t fighting anyone here, we are merely evolving around everyone else, until they aren’t left standing because the whole ecosystem changed without them realizing it.

Yes, we have living ends.

On privacy fundamentalism

This is a post about journalism, privacy, and the common assumption that we can’t have one without sacrificing at least some of the other, because (the assumption goes), the business model for journalism is tracking-based advertising, aka adtech.

I’ve been fighting that assumption for a long time. People vs. Adtech is a collection of 129 pieces I’ve written about it since 2008.  At the top of that collection, I explain,

I have two purposes here:

  1. To replace tracking-based advertising (aka adtech) with advertising that sponsors journalism, doesn’t frack our heads for the oil of personal data, and respects personal freedom and agency.

  2. To encourage journalists to grab the third rail of their own publications’ participation in adtech.

I bring that up because Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) of The New York Times grabbed that third rail, in a piece titled  I Visited 47 Sites. Hundreds of Trackers Followed Me.. He grabbed it right here:

News sites were the worst

Among all the sites I visited, news sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had the most tracking resources. This is partly because the sites serve more ads, which load more resources and additional trackers. But news sites often engage in more tracking than other industries, according to a study from Princeton.


That piece is one in a series called the  Privacy Project, which picks up where the What They Know series in The Wall Street Journal left off in 2013. (The Journal for years had a nice shortlink to that series: It’s gone now, but I hope they bring it back. Julia Angwin, who led the project, has her own list.)

Knowing how much I’ve been looking forward to that rail-grab, people  have been pointing me both to Farhad’s piece and a critique of it by  Ben Thompson in Stratechery, titled Privacy Fundamentalism. On Farhad’s side is the idealist’s outrage at all the tracking that’s going on, and on Ben’s side is the realist’s call for compromise. Or, in his words, trade-offs.

I’m one of those privacy fundamentalists (with a Manifesto, even), so you might say this post is my push-back on Ben’s push-back. But what I’m looking for here is not a volley of opinion. It’s to enlist help, including Ben’s, in the hard work of actually saving journalism, which requires defeating tracking-based adtech, without which we wouldn’t have most of the tracking that outrages Farhad. I explain why in Brands need to fire adtech:

Let’s be clear about all the differences between adtech and real advertising. It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and a vector for malware. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that 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.

Real advertising doesn’t do any of those things, because it’s not personal. It is aimed at populations selected by the media they choose to watch, listen to or read. To reach those people with real ads, you buy space or time on those media. You sponsor those media because those media also have brand value.

With real advertising, you have brands supporting brands.

Brands can’t sponsor media through adtech because adtech isn’t built for that. On the contrary, >adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media.

Adtech is magic in this literal sense: it’s all about misdirection. You think you’re getting one thing while you’re really getting another. It’s why brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire chase eyeballs. Since adtech systems are automated and biased toward finding the cheapest ways to hit sought-after eyeballs with ads, some ads show up on unsavory sites. And, let’s face it, even good eyeballs go to bad places.

This is why the media, the UK government, the brands, and even Google are all shocked. They all think adtech is advertising. Which makes sense: it looks like advertising and gets called advertising. But it is profoundly different in almost every other respect. I explain those differences in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff

To fight adtech, it’s natural to look for help in the form of policy. And we already have some of that, with the GDPR, and soon the CCPA as well. But really we need the tech first. I explain why here:

In the physical world we got privacy tech and norms before we got privacy law. In the networked world we got the law first. That’s why the GDPR has caused so much confusion. It’s the regulatory cart in front of the technology horse. In the absence of privacy tech, we also failed to get the norms that would normally and naturally guide lawmaking.

So let’s get the tech horse back in front of the lawmaking cart. With the tech working, the market for personal data will be one we control. For real.

If we don’t do that first, adtech will stay in control. And we know how that movie goes, because it’s a horror show and we’re living in it now.

The tech horse is a collection of tools that provide each of us with ways both to protect our privacy and to signal to others what’s okay and what’s not okay, and to do both at scale. Browsers, for example, are a good model for that. They give each of us, as users, scale across all the websites of the world. We didn’t have that when the online world for ordinary folk was a choice of Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy and other private networks. And we don’t have it today in a networked world where providing “choices” about being tracked are the separate responsibilities of every different site we visit, each with its own ways of recording our “consents,” none of which are remembered, much less controlled, by any tool we possess. You don’t need to be a privacy fundamentalist to know that’s just fucked.

But that’s all me, and what I’m after. Let’s go to Ben’s case:

…my critique of Manjoo’s article specifically and the ongoing privacy hysteria broadly…

Let’s pause there. Concern about privacy is not hysteria. It’s a simple, legitimate, and personal. As Don Marti and and I (he first) pointed out, way back in 2015, ad blocking didn’t become the biggest boycott in world history in a vacuum. Its rise correlated with the “interactive” advertising business giving the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was never anything more than a polite request not to be followed away from a website:

Retargeting, (aka behavioral retargeting) is the most obvious evidence that you’re being tracked. (The Onion: Woman Stalked Across Eight Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.)

Likewise, people wearing clothing or locking doors are not “hysterical” about privacy. That people don’t like their naked digital selves being taken advantage of is also not hysterical.

Back to Ben…

…is not simply about definitions or philosophy. It’s about fundamental assumptions. The default state of the Internet is the endless propagation and collection of data: you have to do work to not collect data on one hand, or leave a data trail on the other.

Right. So let’s do the work. We haven’t started yet.

This is the exact opposite of how things work in the physical world: there data collection is an explicit positive action, and anonymity the default.

Good point, but does this excuse awful manners in the online world? Does it take off the table all the ways manners work well in the offline world—ways that ought to inform developments in the online world? I say no.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be a debate about this data collection, and how it is used. Even that latter question, though, requires an appreciation of just how different the digital world is from the analog one.

Consider it appreciated. (In my own case I’ve been reveling in the wonders of networked life since the 80s. Examples of that are thisthis and this.)

…the popular imagination about the danger this data collection poses, though, too often seems derived from the former [Stasi collecting highly personal information about individuals for very icky purposes] instead of the fundamentally different assumptions of the latter [Google and Facebook compiling massive amounts of data to be read by machines, mostly for non- or barely-icky purposes]. This, by extension, leads to privacy demands that exacerbate some of the Internet’s worst problems.

Such as—

• Facebook’s crackdown on API access after Cambridge Analytica has severely hampered research into the effects of social media, the spread of disinformation, etc.


• Privacy legislation like GDPR has strengthened incumbents like Facebook and Google, and made it more difficult for challengers to succeed.


Another bad effect of the GDPR is urging the websites of the world to throw insincere and misleading cookie notices in front of visitors, usually to extract “consent” that isn’t, to exactly what the GDPR was meant to thwart.

• Criminal networks from terrorism to child abuse can flourish on social networks, but while content can be stamped out private companies, particularly domestically, are often limited as to how proactively they can go to law enforcement; this is exacerbated once encryption enters the picture.


Again, this is not to say that privacy isn’t important: it is one of many things that are important. That, though, means that online privacy in particular should not be the end-all be-all but rather one part of a difficult set of trade-offs that need to be made when it comes to dealing with this new reality that is the Internet. Being an absolutist will lead to bad policy (although encryption may be the exception that proves the rule).

It can also lead to good tech, which in turn can prevent bad policy. Or encourage good policy.

Towards Trade-offs
The point of this article is not to argue that companies like Google and Facebook are in the right, and Apple in the wrong — or, for that matter, to argue my self-interest. The truth, as is so often the case, is somewhere in the middle, in the gray.

Wearing pants so nobody can see your crotch is not gray. That an x-ray machine can see your crotch doesn’t make personal privacy gray. Wrong is wrong.

To that end, I believe the privacy debate needs to be reset around these three assumptions:
• Accept that privacy online entails trade-offs; the corollary is that an absolutist approach to privacy is a surefire way to get policy wrong.

No. We need to accept that simple and universally accepted personal and social assumptions about privacy offline (for example, having the ability to signal what’s acceptable and what is not) is a good model for online as well.

I’ll put it another way: people need pants online. This is not an absolutist position, or even a fundamentalist one. The ability to cover one’s private parts, and to signal what’s okay and what’s not okay for respecting personal privacy are simple assumptions people make in the physical world, and should be able to make in the connected one. That it hasn’t been done yet is no reason to say it can’t or shouldn’t be done. So let’s do it.

• Keep in mind that the widespread creation and spread of data is inherent to computers and the Internet,

Likewise, the widespread creation and spread of gossip is inherent to life in the physical world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have civilized ways of dealing with it.

and that these qualities have positive as well as negative implications; be wary of what good ideas and positive outcomes are extinguished in the pursuit to stomp out the negative ones.

Tracking people everywhere so their eyes can be stabbed with “relevant” and “interest-based” advertising, in oblivity to negative externalities, is not a good idea or a positive outcome (beyond the money that’s made from it).  Let’s at least get that straight before we worry about what might be extinguished by full agency for ordinary human beings.

To be clear, I know Ben isn’t talking here about full agency for people. I’m sure he’s fine with that. He’s talking about policy in general and specifically about the GDPR. I agree with what he says about that, and roughly about this too:

• Focus policy on the physical and digital divide. Our behavior online is one thing: we both benefit from the spread of data and should in turn be more wary of those implications. Making what is offline online is quite another.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t use what’s offline to inform what’s online. We need to appreciate and harmonize the virtues of both—mindful that the online world is still very new, and that many of the civilized and civilizing graces of life offline are good to have online as well. Privacy among them.

Finally, before getting to the work that energizes us here at ProjectVRM (meaning all the developments we’ve been encouraging for thirteen years), I want to say one final thing about privacy: it’s a moral matter. From Oxford, via Google: “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior” and “holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.”

Tracking people without their clear invitation or a court order is simply wrong. And the fact that tracking people is normative online today doesn’t make it right.

Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, does the best job I know of explaining why tracking people online became normative—and why it’s wrong. The book is thick as a brick and twice as large, but fortunately Shoshana offers an abbreviated reason in her three laws, authored more than two decades ago:

First, that everything that can be automated will be automated. Second, that everything that can be informated will be informated. And most important to us now, the third law: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

I don’t believe government restrictions and sanctions are the only ways to  countervail surveillance capitalism (though uncomplicated laws such as this one might help). We need tech that gives people agency and companies better customers and consumers.  From our wiki, here’s what’s already going on. And, from our punch list, here are some exciting TBDs, including many already in the works already:

I’m hoping Farhad, Ben, and others in a position to help can get behind those too.

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