Do we really want the Web to be a strip mall when it grows up?

On FlightAware I see three spaces filled with the same message. That’s a screenshot of one, on the right.

The guilty extension, I am sure, is Adblock Plus for Chrome. What that extension blocks is an ad, not a page. I can tell it’s an ad by looking on other browsers without that extension.

The block is also not an error. It is intentional, on my part. I’d rather not see the ads, or wait for them to load before I do.

On other sites in Chrome, such as the New York Times, blocked ads are just blank or closed spaces. On Firefox, where I also run AdBlock Plus, the same spaces are blank. So, what causes that image to appear? Is it Google (maker of Chrome) saying a blocked ad is a blocked page? Is it FlightAware? Does it appear only for Google-placed display ads? Or is there some other mechanism involved that has nothing to do with the Chrome brand? (Which is diminished by this practice, regardless of who’s doing it.)

[Later… It’s a bug. Thanks to Hanan Cohen in the comments below for digging up that fact.]

The unclarity of all this testifies to the opacity of the whole advertising system to users, and even to the media through which ads are placed.

For example, an ad for laundry detergent that appears next to a story about little league baseball on the YourTown Journal site may not be placed by the detergent maker, its ad agency or the YourTown Journal. Its provenance might be any combination of ad networks, ad exchanges, dynamic auctions with real time bidding (RTB), demand side platforms (DSPs), supply side platforms (SSPs), or or some other arcane mechanism inside the millworks of online advertising placement.

In many — perhaps most — cases, no one person has the whole picture of how a given ad gets placed at any given time. That’s why you don’t know whether the detergent ad is meant for all the readers of the YourTown Journal, or if the ad was targeted to you personally. Or, in the latter case, if it was targeted because you have kid who plays baseball or because the system at the moment “thinks” it knows some other personal facts about you.

In the case of Flightaware, on another browser (without ad blocking) I see three ads in the three spaces occupied by “error” messages such as the one above in Chrome. Those ads are for Fisher Investments, Verizon FiOS and Target Stores‘ weekly savings. All three are wasted on me, except as brand messages. I already have FiOS, I’ll probably never use Fisher Investments (though now I’ve heard of them) and sometimes I shop at Target (but would never want to get into their promotional mill, which clicking on the ad would likely do).

For what it’s worth, which is more than zero, I love FlightAware, and would gladly pay them for the services they provide.

And, for what it’s also worth, which is $billions more than zero, it is important to understand the distinction between brand and direct response advertising:

  1. Brand advertising is not personal. It is broadcast to whole populations, and conveys what economists call a signal of sufficiency. That signal says “we are substantial enough to afford advertising.”
  2. Direct response advertising, which began decades ago as direct mail, and then grew to become direct response marketing in general, is personal. That’s an economic signal that says “this is for you.”

On broadcast and print media, which are not personal, the distinction is clear. Here on the Web, which for each of us is personal, the line between brand and direct response advertising is fully blurred. It is very hard — or impossible — to tell if an ad is just for you or for lots of people that some system thinks resemble you — or for everybody, because the advertiser and its agency happen to like the site where the ad is displayed.

I want to make clear here that I don’t dislike advertising or marketing. I was in that business for most of my adult life, made a good living at it, and am proud of the work we did. Our agency was Hodskins Simone & Searls. It was born in 1978 in North Carolina and headquartered in Silicon Valley from 1985 to 1998, when it was acquired by Publicis. One of our core principles was to “respect the media environment.”

Lack of respect for the Web is a big reason I have a problem with the blurred distinction between brand and direct response advertising there, and with the extreme liberties that are taken by sites and services with our personal spaces and our personal data. They take those liberties because they enjoy a lopsided power advantage over users — an advantage that has turned an ordinary distributed computing model called client-server into a complex but hardened system of obfuscation and entrapment we call calf-cow. We users are the calves and the sites are the cows. We go to the cows for the milk of HTML, plus cookies and other tracking files we neither want nor ask for.

The market is pushing back on bad practices by the cows of the world. For evidence look at the Mozilla stats for AdBlock Plus:

  • 3,442,720 in last 30 days
  • 14,781,239 Average Daily Users
  • 14,645,444 average in last 30 days

Look also at ClarityRay’s report on ad blocking. While the company has an interest in the subject, the figures seem close enough to real for me, because advertising on the Web is clearly out of control — namely, ours.

The original browser was like a car: a private vehicle that was operated by the individual for his or her own purposes. Like a car its spaces and operations were ours. We drove it around, “browsing” and “surfing” up and down the “information superhighway,” seeing and collecting only what we wanted to see and collect.

Today the Web has gone almost fully commercial, becoming a vast strip mall. In it the browser has morphed from a car into a shopping cart that gets skinned afresh at each commercial site we visit. As a shopping cart, the browser is no longer private. Its spaces are those of the sites we visit, and so are the liberties taken with those spaces when we are there. That’s why sites feel free to infest our browsers with tracking files that we carry around the way a deer carries fleas and ticks. Those files report our travels, choices and behaviors back to the sites and their third parties, most of which are advertising mills. Operators of today’s online marketing mills are now urged by vendors of big data analytics to imagine that constructing a “portrait” of us is a worthy substitute from knowing us directly, and that this portrait — rather our real and human selves — is the “chief executive customer.” (More about that.)

Here is what I said about all this in The Wall Street Journal, back in July:

…the Internet is young, and most development work has been done to improve the supply side of the marketplace. Individual customers have benefited, but improving their own native technical capacities has attracted relatively little interest from developers or investors.

As a result, big business continues to believe that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors. Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you’d like to live under house arrest. It’s why marketers still talk about customers as “targets” they can “acquire,” “control,” “manage” and “lock in,” as if they were cattle. And it’s why big business thinks that the best way to get personal with customers on the Internet is with “big data,” gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge—so they can be stalked wherever they go, with their “experiences” on commercial websites “personalized” for them.

It is not yet clear to the perpetrators of this practice that it is actually insane. Think about it. Nobody from a store on Main Street would follow you around with a hand in your pocket and tell you “I’m only doing this so I can give you a better shopping experience.” But that is exactly what happens online (as The Wall Street Journal has shown at length in its investigative series “What They Know”).

It’s easy to forget that a founding and persistent grace of Google is the relative lack of promotional cruft on its index page. For a brief sweet moment before we search there, we don’t see ads for anything. Its brand value at that moment is maximally “thick” (as Umair Haque explains here).

We need to get back into that headspace and zero-base our thinking about advertising. Leave business-as-usual outside the door and look again at what a site or a service was born to do. In most cases it’s not advertising.. Peter Drucker says a company doesn’t go into business to make a profit, but “to make shoes.”

Most businesses don’t call themselves “advertisers.” If they do advertise, they see that as one activity among many, and as a form of overhead. It’s mostly people in the advertising business who call companies advertisers.

What makes FlightAware valuable is not its ads. Same goes for Google, Facebook and Twitter. None of them went into business just so they could run ads. They created their services to do other things, and only later came to rely on advertising as a business model.

The Web as we know it is only seventeen years old. That’s old enough to develop some bad habits and young enough to change them.

Do we want the Web to be a strip mall when it grows up? Or what it was born to be in the first place?

Bonus linkage: Don Marti’s business posts.


  1. Dave Rogers’s avatar

    Can you be certain Google didn’t go into business to be an advertising company? What was the alternative?

    They thought they had the best big data solution to find the most relevant sites in response to search. Then the “search engine optimization” companies learned how to game those algorithms. Results were less “relevant.”

    Google discovered they could gather user data, much harder to game, market that to advertisers, and provide _them_ with “relevant” data: Us.

    It’s always been about advertising. Only now, the all-seeing eye of Sauron, er, Google, has been turned from the web to us. Instead of using big data to index the web and offer it to us, they index us and offer us to advertisers.

  2. gregorylent’s avatar

    i don’t own a tv because of ads

    i won’t watch an or a youtube video if they have pre-roll ads.

    unaddressed in this great post of doc searls is the dreadfully low quality of almost all advertising … it really will rot our brains .. how do we know? look at our society after sixty years of the stuff.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Hey, Dave. Good to see you here.

    Like so many other speculative businesses started on the Web, Google had no business model when it started out. It was originally at and its founders were opposed to advertising as a business model. (See here.)

    The Sauron stage, you might say, came later.

    Running with that metaphor, I see perfectly personalized online advertising less as a holy grail than as the ring that turned Sméagol into Gollum. It corrupts those who long after it, reaching, as did Gollum, for “my precious.”

  4. Jonathan Peterson’s avatar

    A quick look at the most popular websites shows that overwhelmingly ads income drives the vast majority of of places where people spend their time online. Flightaware has a freemium model – but I assume that it’s value to you is under the $20/month commercial service pricetag. (No idea if the ads are done for those customers – but they should be).

    My current gig is product managing ad products at Turner. We have HUGE amounts of free content supported by advertising, BUT we are working incredibly hard to open up HUGE amounts MORE that mostly is ad free to cable subscribers who use our TV Everywhere connected products.

    Gregory is indicative of the problem. Exactly how is espn supposed to get paid for their huge production and licensing costs if he isn’t willing to see ads OR pay for cable OR pay $8 a month for ESPN Insider?

    It would have been nice had blogs and comments evolved standards for interconneted conversations that could have made the web commons attractive and friendly instead of a strip mall full of trolls, and perhaps over time that will evolve.

    But the web is American culture writ large – everyone wants lots of free stuff from the government, but no one wants to PAY taxes. Why would we expect the web to be any different?

    At least on the web, building a nice, private neighborhood is incredibly easy – while I use FB, I spend significantly more time in a handful of private BBS sites where I know all (or most) of the members. I can spin up YABB on a $7 a month 1&1 hosting account in less than an hour if I have an audience that wants it.

  5. Hanan Cohen’s avatar

    The Chrome error seems to be a bug, not a feature. See here:

    Lately I have talked to someone who has told me stuff about advertising on the web that made me realize I don’t know shit about it. I cannot cite it publicly but if you want I can email you.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Hanan. I just added a note to the post pointing to that link, and to your help here.

    Jonathan, I think calling the Web “American culture writ large” might be true in a general sense, but fails to pay full respect both to what good we also have in our culture and our ability to fix something that is clearly screwed up.

    As business models and architectures go, advertising and calf-cow are both cheap and easy to do; but hardly an end state.

    If all goes well, we never will have an end state. But we can certainly do better than what we’re putting up with now.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    An additional note on ESPN’s and FlightAware’s subscription choice issues.

    I would gladly pay FlightAware something. $20/month is a bit high for me, though. It’s a professional rate, and I don’t use the service as a pro. Likewise I’d be glad to pay ESPN á la carte for everything — or some fraction of a monthly cable bill, just for their sports programming, and not through cable or satellite, which always comes with a proprietary set top box and very clunky choice-limiting offerings.

    Without openness to signaling directly from users — which are also prospective customers — we’ll be stuck with the clunky systems we have, including real bad guesswork about what choices and costs the market will bear. Which is why I’ve been working on #VRM for the past six years.

  8. Jim Bursch’s avatar

    Quoting Jonathan: “Exactly how is espn supposed to get paid for their huge production and licensing costs if he isn’t willing to see ads OR pay for cable OR pay $8 a month for ESPN Insider?”

    I would suggest that ESPN is not “supposed” to get paid for anything. Producers of products that people are not willing to pay for lose money and go out of business.

    Ad-supported media is a bizarre business because its end users are not its customers. Its a third-party-payer system, which leads to extreme distortions of market behavior (other examples of third party payer systems: socialism/communism, employer-provided healthcare).

    Jonathan’s general perception of people as a bunch of whiny deadbeats is what ad-supported media produces — a culture of dependence.

    For those who are interested in changing this, I offer the My Mindshare 10-Point Declaration:

    mind-share n.

    the amount of attention required by something, the time spent thinking about something

    1. My mindshare is mine.

    2. My mindshare is valuable.

    3. I have a right sell, trade, or share my mindshare as I choose.

    4. Nobody is entitled to take my mindshare without my permission.

    5. Unsolicited and intrusive advertising amounts to mindshare theft.

    6. Mindshare theft is wrong.

    7. I have a right to resist mindshare theft.

    8. I demand media that does not deal in stolen mindshare.

    9. I support media that respects my mindshare.

    10. The world is better when individuals control their mindshare and their media.

  9. Bob Bashor’s avatar

    Some thoughts about a part of Doc’s piece: “The Web as we know it is only seventeen years old. That’s old enough to develop some bad habits and young enough to change them.

    Do we want the Web to be a strip mall when it grows up?”–

    The internet as adolescent is a notion to play with. Adolescents indeed! – they can be brash, risk taking, arrogant, think they will live forever, secretive, loud, . . .. We’re angry at them at times and we love them so. But certainly, we aren’t neutral about our adolescents. At some basic tribal, cultural, species level we know that without adolescents, there is no future. Perhaps it even gets played out on a global level. The world needs an adolescent nation and the U.S. supplies that — brash, risk taking, arrogant, think they will live forever, secretive, loud,. . .. It won’t always be so, but make no mistake, the world loves an adolescent – including loving/hating the internet as it is.

    Helping an adolescent is problematic. And yet we must try because in trying we become a strong presence against which the adolescent can push and launch (we hope).

    This too is reason for the VRM effort

  10. Dave Rogers’s avatar

    The problem is greater than one of merely “advertising” and its intrusive distractions.

    The business model of “free” advertising-supported services is generally regarded as the best.

    Tim Bray hates Apple because it’s a “walled garden.” He works for Google because it’s “open.”

    It’s not just advertising anymore. It’s Google’s wish to be able to anticipate your needs and desires and to facilitate fulfilling them. In order to achieve this vision, they need us to be “open.” That’s why privacy is not a priority with them. Indeed, privacy is a threat to their business model.

    And how far is it from “anticipating” our needs and desires to influencing them? Not very, in my opinion. Not when Google is in your face 24×7 with its ubiquitous apps, self-driving cars, Google goggles that peer back at you as you peer at the world through Google’s selected data fog.

    Ever wonder why Google doesn’t get more scrutiny from the feds regarding the user data it collects?

    If Google didn’t exist, the NSA would have to invent it.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We’re all just riding along in Google’s self-driving car.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    This is a killer insight, Dave:

    “It’s not just advertising anymore. It’s Google’s wish to be able to anticipate your needs and desires and to facilitate fulfilling them. In order to achieve this vision, they need us to be “open.” That’s why privacy is not a priority with them. Indeed, privacy is a threat to their business model.”

    Google has lately taken to bragging about their data centers, which have assumed an infrastructural role no less central than those of power plants, dams and container ports — though far less accountable, except to the marketplace, which for them is not the general population but advertisers. Note the copy: “Where the Internet lives.” Thought balloon on reading that: “It looks like a jail. Please let’s get it out of there.”

    On the NSA issue (good line there too), here’s a bonus link.

  12. Mike Warot’s avatar

    It’s like old home week here… hi Dave!

    I think it might be time to dust off my old “InterTubes” idea, which was a mega-rss feed for friends, which synced metadata (likes, dislikes, comments, etc)….

    If we can hold on to general purpose computing long enough, we can build a completely self-owned network of our own stuff, with no ads, spam, etc.

  13. Dave Rogers’s avatar

    @pcooper – tragically, there’s nothing “simple” about the 4 simple steps.

    Doc, one of the challenges is that much of the digital élite still regard Google as a good citizen. Apple gets far more critical review than Google. For Chinese workplace matters; product repairability; environmental content; etc. To say nothing of the “walled garden” criticism that has been levied against Apple ever since the iTunes Music Store came online.

    Irony is the fifth fundamental force of the universe.

    Apple’s success has been dismissed by the digital élites as mere “marketing” over technological merit.

    Ironically, Apple is a successful technology company. They make money selling advanced technology at affordable prices.

    Google, the darling of the tech community, is an advertising company that uses technology to advance marketing.

    Amazon is a retail company that uses technology to advance its retail operation.

    I have little problem with Apple or Amazon. Google, on the other hand, is genuinely problematic. The people most knowledgeable about its potential for creating adverse outcomes appear to be the least likely to call attention to it. I suspect it may have something to do with loss and grieving. Too many people bought into Google’s “don’t be evil,” embrace of so-called “openness,” use of open source software, free services (“information wants to be FREE!”), to recognize how adroitly those values have been used against them. They are stuck in denial, which is where I think Tim Bray is. Some may be in bargaining.

    We have a long way to go before we get through anger, depression and acceptance and we can have an honest conversation about how we feel about an unaccountable corporation to have access to that much information about ordinary citizens.

    How much information? We don’t know. Because Google isn’t very “open” or “transparent” about that.

    Apple sells widgets. Amazon sells stuff. Google sells us.

    Why are they so admired?

  14. Dave Rogers’s avatar

    Hmmmm… Still can’t edit a comment.

    “…about an unaccountable corporation to have access to that much information…”

    Should have read – “…about an unaccountable corporation having access to that much information…”

    But hey, it’s a free service, so who am I to complain?

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Don’t know why your posts aren’t editable, Dave. I’ve found sometimes that certain links appear on some browsers and not on others, so maybe that’s it. Does the word “edit” appear in parentheses next to your name and date/time?

    As for it being free, it’s because Harvard provides it. No advertising here.

    I think the tide of sentiment, even among the tech crowd, is beginning to turn against Google a bit. Not much yet, but it’s definitely starting to happen.

    Google has done much good for otherwise independent code developers. They produce and support a great deal of open source development, and have projects such as the Data Liberation Front. I believe these are sincere efforts, especially by the geeks doing the work.

    As part of that, Google likes to hire star programmers like Tim Bray, who indeed do find more freedom at Google, personally, than they would at Apple, which notoriously make blogging dangerous for its employees. But even among those there are misgivings, mostly because a great deal of what Google does is highly secretive, and much of what’s a secret has to do with understanding people more than most of us would like. One reason is to improve service. Another is to “improve” advertising by making it ever more close to perfectly personal.

    This last urge is the One Ring they hold, like Sméagol, and it is turning them into Gollum.

    There are risks for the rest of us, beyond loss of privacy, and the creepiness of being the things sold rather than the ones sold to. I’ve written about this a number of times, to little if any effect. The Google Exposure, in Linux Journal, is one example.

    Google is also admired for its 3/4-hearted fight for keeping the Internet open and free, and not captive to phone and cable carriers, which see it instead as a billing system for usage and “content,” rather than the most powerful generator of positive economic externalities ever created. Which it is. But the carriers are wraiths with rings of their own, and Google through Android and the whole mobile phone industry is now in alliance with them.

    I could go on, but we’re in the midst of moving furniture and stuff. More later.

  16. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    @Dave Rogers – a few people have talked seriously about the connections between Google and surveillance. It’s a tough topic, because on one hand there’s a risk of being tarred as a tin-foil hat type, while on the other there’s not going to be any promotional academic or marketing reputation gain for such work. And while I don’t hold with those who see Google Shills everywhere, I also think that for example Google being a major corporate donor to the Berkman Center plus a source of jobs and political connections, has influence on how some high-attention holders regard it. I get pretty cynical when observing how the ISP vs Google fight was presented as net-freedom, while the possibility of a big anti-trust case being brought against Google draws … crickets chirping. It’s very interesting how in this framework possible abuses of power by Google are at best worth tut-tut muttering, not threats to net-freedom which must be opposed to preserve openness. Maybe there’s a psychological aspect, that’s a possible factor. But I think the most prominent part is simply the amount of money and where it’s spread around.

    Small example:

    “Google this week disclosed it spent $4.18 million on U.S. lobbying in the third quarter of 2012, bringing the company to $13.13 million spent this year — a record.

    That makes Google the seventh-biggest lobbying spender out there,
    right after AT&T and the pharmaceutical industry.”

    That’s a lot of A-listers and conference-clubbers.

    [Sigh, none of this is intended as personal criticism or simplistic straw-man shill accusations. But Lessig wrote a whole book about money being influence, and that problem isn’t just applicable to Congress. It’s relevant to corporate power as well.]

  17. Jim’s avatar

    A website like yours, Doc, is the heart of what I love about the Internet. God bless you and all the commenters.

  18. Ron Brown’s avatar

    I don’t think they will take it to that level. Money does drive the search engine and online ad industries. Once it hits wall street it is a wrap. We need to create a new public search engine that can never be owned and management personal must switch every 5 fives years and management can not be related in any kind of way.

  19. alan herrell’s avatar


    You really have to stop equivocating on this issue. On one hand you keep saying that you want to manage your privacy, yet you keep pointing out things that you would pay for like the Flight Aware thing. Which according to you is doing the very thing you say you are against, i.e. web wiretapping, third party advertising, electronic espionage, etc.

    The web has gone way beyond strip mall to being trapped in an indoor swap market whose only outlet is to buy your way out.

    Google is at the top of the list of data miners especially if you use the chrome browser. It creates a unique ID when you install it that is transmitted to google every time you open it up and uses https to track and record every place you go online. This is also used every time that you use any other google services. Using google ‘incognito’ mode does nothing to prevent real time tracking, but tosses a fig leaf in deleting browser history on close. You still give up your privacy during your online session including cookies despite enabling ‘Do Not Track’. I have mentioned that before on the VRM site. DNT relies on setting a cookie that regardless of its content still enables tracking.

    Google’s claim to ‘fame’ was creating the Text Ad, which at the time was seen as a relief among users during the great pop up/pop under ad blitz a few years ago. Folks decided that wasn’t evil. Silly Us!

    Facebook does the same types of data mining including creating profiles even if you are not a member through the facebook icon and like buttons on websites.

    The rest of the ‘Social Networks’ do the same with varying degrees.

    The problem with these large data collections is not that they exist but how they are used. On the one hand the social media PR firms are screaming ‘Targeting’ ,reach, engagement, to sell you stuff. And these folks are happy to sell it. On the other hand they can be used for tracking folks for alleged crimes, based on loose laws and criteria set by people with agendas, from copyright nazis to IP loons to governments attempting to stifle speech.

    The back end of the web is turning into a nightmare of data mining that on its best day will be sold for a Minority Report style pre-buy and on its worst pre-crime.

    We are all guilty of compliance and complicity turning the web into a strip mall in either browsing naked or attempting to ‘route around’ this with ad blockers, cookie crushers, and other methods of attempting of maintaining ‘privacy.

    We continue to patronize websites with or without blockers who are addicted to advertiser support for income.

    Until we can change the game, we are screwed.

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