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The term “fake news” was a casual phrase until it became clear to news media that a flood of it had been deployed during last year’s presidential election in the U.S. Starting in November 2016, fake news was the subject of strong and well-researched coverage by NPR (here and here), Buzzfeed, CBS (here and here), Wired, the BBC, Snopes, CNN (here and here), Rolling Stone and others. It thus became a thing…

… until Donald Trump started using it as an epithet for news media he didn’t like. He did that first during a press conference on February 16, and then the next day on Twitter:

And he hasn’t stopped. To Trump, any stick he can whup non-Fox mainstream media with is a good stick, and FAKE NEWS is the best.

So that pretty much took “fake news,” as a literal thing, off the table for everyone other than Trump and his amen chorus.

So, since we need a substitute, I suggest decoy news. Because that’s what we’re talking about: fabricated news meant to look like the real thing.

But the problem is bigger than news alone, because advertising-funded media have been in the decoy business since forever. The difference in today’s digital world is that it’s a lot easier to fabricate a decoy story than to research and produce a real one—and it pays just as well, or even better, because overhead in the decoy business rounds to nothing. Why hire a person to do an algorithm’s job?

In the content business the commercial Web has become, algorithms are now used to target both stories and the advertising that pays for them.

This is why, on what we used to call the editorial side of publishing (interesting trend here), journalism as a purpose has been displaced by content production.

We can see one tragic result in a New York Times story titled In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen (@davidwchen). In it he reports that “The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”

This calls to mind how Saturday Night Live in 1977 introduced the Blues Brothers in a skit where Paul Shaffer, playing rock impresario Don Kirshner, proudly said the Brothers were “no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product.”

To be viably commercial today, all media need to be in the content production business, paid for by adtech, which is entirely driven by algorithms informed by surveillance-gathered personal data. The result looks like this:

To fully grok how we got here, it is essential to understand the difference between advertising and direct marketing, and how nearly all of online advertising is now the latter. I describe the shift from former to latter in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:

Advertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.

Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.

Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.

First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.

Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making brands sponsoring a game familiar to everybody watching it.

In their landmark study, “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375–390), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. Thus branding is about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative one.

Plain old brand advertising also paid for the media we enjoyed. Still does, in fact. And much more. Without brand advertising, pro sports stars wouldn’t be getting eight and nine figure contracts.

But advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is now an article of faith within today’s brain-snatched advertising business that the best ad is the most targeted and personalized ad. Worse, almost all the journalists covering the advertising business assume the same thing. And why wouldn’t they, given that this is how advertising is now done online, especially by the Facebook-Google duopoly.

And here is why those two platforms can’t fix it: both have AI machines built to give millions of advertising customers ways to target the well-studied eyeballs of billions of people, using countless characterizations of those eyeballs.nIn fact, the only (and highly ironic) way they can police bad acting on their platforms is by hiring people who do nothing but look for that bad acting.

There are only two fixes that can work.

One fix is regulation. We now have that, hugely, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s an EU law, but it protects the privacy of EU citizens everywhere—with potentially massive fines. In spirit, if not also in letter (which the platforms are struggling mightily to weasel around), the GDPR outlaws tracking people like tagged animals online. I’ve called the GDPR an extinction event for adtech, and the main reason brands (including the media kind) need to fire it.

The other fix is personal, meaning ways each of us have to manage all our dealings with other entities online. I explain this in Giving Customers Scale, and in many other posts, columns and essays compiled in my People vs. Adtech series. I’d say more about all of it, but need to catch a plane. See you on the other coast.

Meanwhile, the least we can do is start talking about decoy news and the business model that pays for it.

 

 

 

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Linux Journal is folding.

Carlie Fairchild, who has run the magazine almost since it started in 1994, posted Linux Journal Ceases Publication today on the website. So far all of the comments have been positive, which they should be. Throughout its life, Linux Journal has been about as valuable as a trade pub can be, and it’s a damn shame to see it go. I just hope a way can be found to keep the site and the archives alive for the duration, as a living legacy.

I suppose a rescue might still be possible. But, as Carlie wrote in her post, “While we see a future like publishing’s past—a time when advertisers sponsor a publication because they value its brand and readers—the advertising world we have today would rather chase eyeballs, preferably by planting tracking beacons in readers’ browsers and zapping them with ads anywhere those readers show up. But that future isn’t here, and the past is long gone.”

I’m working hard at making that future happen (see the list below), and it bums me deeply that we didn’t succeeded in time to save Linux Journal. But here we are.

My own history with Linux Journal began when Phil Hughes pulled me into an email discussion of his plan to start a free software magazine. That was in 1993: twenty-four years ago. Phil ended that discussion when he announced, to everyone else’s surprise, that he had found this kid who had written a new version of UNIX that would likely take over the world. The kid was Linus Torvalds and his operating system was called Linux. I thought, what? But, as he was about so many things, Phil was right. Our first issue came out in April 1994, when Linux hit version 1.0. Linux Journal’s editor for that issue Bob Young, who left shortly after that to start Red Hat and much else. (I once asked Bob—by then a billionaire but no less a great guy—if Phil actually taught Bob how to spell Linux. Bob said yes.)

I first appeared on the masthead in 1996, and I haven’t left it since 1998. For many years I wrote the “Linux for Suits” column, and for many after that “EOF,” which ran inside the back cover. I also wrote a newsletter called “Suitwatch” and a spin-off blog called IT Garage (which you can still find at that link in the Internet Archive). I was the least technical of all Linux Journal‘s editors, but readers mostly seemed to appreciate my elevated but devoted perspective on Linux’s role in the world.

There were heady times in that history. Linux Journal succeeded fast, got fat during the dot-com craze in the late ’90s, and managed to survive the crash when many other rags went down. Remember Upside? Red Herring? The original FastCompany? (Tip your hat to Brewster Kahle and friends for the fossils of those you’ll still find in the Internet Archive.)

We can thank resourceful management and devoted subscribers for our persistence. And, of course, Linux itself. Today all 500 of the world’s top supercomputers run Linux. Since Android is built on Linux, most of the world’s smartphones run on Linux. Name a giant tech company (e.g. Google, Amazon, Akamai) and chances are the services it deploys run on Linux too. Month after month, Netcraft‘s Most Reliable Hosting Company Sites lists are either all-Linux or close enough. Linux is also embedded in countless devices, from clocks to wi-fi routers to flat-screen TVs.

In its own small but significant way, Linux Journal helped make that happen. Wish it could keep doing that, but alas.

So a hearty thanks to everyone who helped us through all those years. It’s been great, and will remain so.

Now, in hope that other publications might be saved, here are some of the posts and essays I’ve written toward that goal—and toward saving the advertising business from itself as well:

  1. Without aligning incentives, we can’t kill fake news or save journalism (15 September 2017 in Medium)
  2. An easy fix for a broken advertising system (12 October 2017 in Medium and in my blog)
  3. Let’s get some things straight about publishing and advertising (9 September 2017 and the same day in Medium)
  4. Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR (3 September in ProjectVRM and 7 October in Medium).
  5. Publishers’ and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door (17 June 2017 in Medium). It updates one of the 2015 blog posts below.
  6. How to plug the publishing revenue drain (9 June 2017 in Medium). It expands on the opening (#publishing) section of my Daily Tab for that date.
  7. Customertech Will Turn the Online Marketplace Into a Marvel-Like Universe in Which All of Us are Enhanced (29 May 2017 at ProjectVRM and in Medium)
  8. What if businesses agreed to customers’ terms and conditions? (28 April 2017)
  9. How are ad blockers affecting journalism? (My answer to a Quora question on 27 April 2017)
  10. The only way customers come first (26 April 2017 in Customer Commons)
  11. Brands need to fire adtech (23 March, and 25 March in Medium)
  12. The Problem with Content (1 March 2017 in Linux Journal)
  13. The Next Revolution in Advertising Will Be One Customers Lead (7 February 2017 in Medium)
  14. How True Advertising Can Save Journalism From Drowning in a Sea of Content (22 January 2017 in Medium and 26 January 2017 in my blog.)
  15. The problem for people isn’t advertising, and the problem for advertising isn’t blocking. The problem for both is tracking.(21 October 2016 and same date in Medium).
  16. It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers (26 August 2016 in ProjectVRM and 27 August 2016 in Medium)
  17. The cash model of customer experience (17 August 2016 and 18 August 2016 in Medium).
  18. If it weren’t for retargeting, we might not have adblocking (13 August 2016 in ProjectVRM and 15 August 2016 in Medium)
  19. The Castle Doctrine (19 June 2016 in ProjectVRM, and in Medium)
  20. Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers (11 May 2016, and in Medium)
  21. An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers (15 April 2016 and in Medium)
  22. TV Viewers to Madison Avenue: Please quit driving drunk on digital (14 Aprl 2016, and in Medium)
  23. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It(11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  24. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  25. How the Big Data Craze Will Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  26. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  27. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  28. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  29. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  30. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  31. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  32. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  33. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015, and on 2 July 2016 in an updated version in Medium)
  34. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  35. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  36. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  37. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  38. What the ad biz needs is to exorcize direct marketing (6 October 2013)

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dat is the new love

Personal data, that is.

Because it’s good to give away—but only if you mean it.

And it’s bad to take it, even it seems to be there for the taking.

I bring this up because a quarter million pages (so far) on the Web say “data is the new oil.”

That’s because a massive personal data extraction industry has grown up around the simple fact that our data is there for the taking. Or so it seems. To them. And their apologists.

As a result, we’re at a stage of wanton data extraction that looks kind of like the oil industry did in 1920 or so:

It’s a good metaphor, but for a horrible business. It’s a business we need to reform, replace, or both. What we need most are new industries that grow around who and what we are as individual human beings—and as a society that values what makes us human.

Our data is us. Each of us. It is our life online. Yes, we shed some data in the course of our activities there, kind of like we shed dandruff and odors. But that’s no excuse for the extractors to frack our lives and take what they want, just because it’s there, and they can.

Now think about what love is, and how it works. How we give it freely, and how worthwhile it is when others accept it. How taking it without asking is simply wrong. How it’s better to earn it than to demand it. How it grows when it’s given. How we grow when we give it as well.

True, all metaphors are wrong, but that’s how metaphors work. Time is not money. Life is not travel. A country is not a family. But all those things are like those other things, so we think and talk about each of them in terms of those others. (By saving, wasting and investing time; by arriving, departing, and moving through life; by serving our motherlands, and honoring our founding fathers.)

Oil made sense as a metaphor when data was so easy to take, and the resistance wasn’t there.

But now the resistance is there. More than half a billion people block ads online, most of which are aimed by extracted personal data. Laws like the GDPR have appeared, with heavy fines for taking personal data without clear permission.

I could go on, but I also need to go to bed. I just wanted to get this down while it was in the front of my mind, where it arrived while discussing how shitty and awful “data is the new oil” was when it first showed up in 2006, and how sadly popular it has become since then:

It’s time for a new metaphor that expresses what our personal data really is to us, and how much more it’s worth to everybody else if we keep, give and accept it on the model of love.

You’re welcome.

 

symbiosis

Synopsis—Advertising supported publishing in the offline world by sponsoring it. In the online world, advertising has been body-snatched by adtech, which tracks eyeballs via files injected into apps and browsers, then shoots those eyeballs with “relevant” ads wherever the eyeballs show up. Adtech has with little or no interest in sponsoring a pub for the pub’s own worth. Worse, it encourages fake news (which is easier to produce than the real kind) and flooding the world with “content” rather than old-fashioned (and infinitely more worthwhile) editorial. When publishers agreed to funding by adtech, they sold their souls and their readers down a river full of fraud and malware, as well as indefensible manners. Fortunately, readers can bring both publishers and advertisers back into a soulful reunion. Helpfully, the GDPR makes it illegal not to, and that will be a huge issue as the deadline for compliance (next May 25th) approaches.


Yesterday Digiday published The GDPR will help or hurt publishers, depending on who you ask, by Ross Benes (@RossBenes). I was one of the people Ross asked, and the piece includes a quote from me. His question went this way:

I saw this blog you wrote about the topic.

http://blogs.harvard.edu/vrm/2017/09/03/good-news-for-publishers-and-advertisers-fearing-the-gdpr/

Do you think advertisers will pay enough for SafeAds to offset the losses publishers will have from selling fewer targeted ads due to privacy regs?

It’s a good question. (That’s what people say when they don’t have an answer, or can’t think of an easy one right away. But…) I thought about it, and replied with this:

Yes, and then some.

They’ll do it because there is more brand value to SafeAds.

The bigger question is for publishers: what business do they want to be in?

Do they want to operate barrels of “content” full of tracked fish baited there so adtech can shoot them with “interest-based” ads?

Or do they want to operate actual publications with good editorial that advertisers sponsor so their ads can be seen by readers who know those ads support the publication and are appropriate without being personal?

That’s the choice.

It helps that the second business — actual publishing — has been around for a couple hundred years, and even worked fine on the Web before publishers fell for the adtech sell.

Publishers sold a big piece of their soul when they consented to having their readers’ privacy violated, and with rampant impunity, by adtech. They also chose to ignore the fact that adtech is in the business of chasing eyeballs, not of sponsoring the good work publishers do, or of building brand reputation. (Which can’t be done by shooting people constantly with “interest-based” ads that mostly creep people out if they hit a bulls-eye.)

The GDPR, if it works like it should, will force publishers to fire adtech and normalize their relationship with readers. When that happens, publishers, advertisers, readers and agents for all three can start working out better business models than the creepy one we’ve had with adtech.

More of that in my People vs. Adtech series: http://j.mp/adbwars.

Ross quoted the first sentence of the second-to-last paragraph, which is probably the best one of the bunch he could have used. Most of the quotes he gathered from other folks in the biz were also very good. I study this topic a lot, and I still learned some new things. Hats off for that.

While I’m saluting what I just learned from Ross, however, I also want to visit some assumptions that surface in his piece. They aren’t his, but rather pretty much everybody’s, and that’s a problem. Here are four of them.

1) Consent can only go one way, meaning each of us should always be the ones consenting to terms proffered by sites and services. Here’s how Ross puts it:

The General Data Protection Regulation, which prevents brands from using a person’s data unless they have explicit permission to do so, could send more ad dollars to premium publishers that are more likely to obtain user consent than lower-quality publishers.

In fact consent can go the other way, meaning the publisher or advertiser can consent to our terms.

It is only because we made a Faustian bargain with client-server in 1995 that we remain stuck inside a model that assumes we “users” should always be second (and second-class) parties, with no choice but to agree as “clients” to terms proffered by server operators.

It helps that the Internet was designed so any one of us can be peers. This is an especially good design feature in the age that (at least I hope) begins with the GDPR.

One reason why I’m encouraged about the GDPR is that it says each of us can be “data controllers” as well as “data subjects.” (White & Case have a good unpacking of that, here.)

I visit the possibilities in Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR (3 September in ProjectVRM), How to plug the publishing revenue drain (9 June 2017 in Medium), Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers (11 May 2016, and in Medium), How customers can debug business with one line of code (19 April 2016 in ProjectVRM and in Medium) and An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers (15 April 2016 and in Medium).

2) The choice is between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” ads (as Adblock Plus believes) or between “intrusive” ads and those that aren’t.

In fact the real choice is between ads based on tracking and those that aren’t (which I call #SafeAds in Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR, and which are what you see in all non-digital commercial media).

Tracking is the reason ad blocking, which has been around since 2003, didn’t hockey-stick toward the sky until 2012. That was when publishers and advertisers, led by the IAB, gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was merely a polite request not to be tracked that people could express in their browsers.

I wrote about this in Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review) and Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015). Here’s a graphic showing what happened:

I also unpack the difference between SafeAds and tracking based ones (aka adtech) in Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015, and on 2 July 2016 in an updated version in Medium).

3) The best advertising is the most measurable, and is looking for a response from an individual.

That’s not true for advertising, but it is for direct response marketing (the wheat and chaff I talk about in the last cited piece). Unfortunately, as I say in that piece, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”

The outlines of that alien replica can be seen in what Ross cites here:

Eric Berry, CEO of native ad platform TripleLift, said the GDPR could lead to a reduction in programmatic ad spend because ad buyers will struggle to measure whether their ads lead to purchases. There’s uncertainty about how the law will be enforced, but if users have to give consent to individual publishers, demand-side platforms and attribution vendors, the attribution companies won’t likely have enough data to make accurate measurements, which will lead ad buyers to shift their dollars to other marketing tactics. This would hurt publishers that rely on programmatic ad revenue, he said.

There is a reason perhaps a $trillion has been spent on adtech and not one worldwide brand everyone can name has been created by it, much less sustained or helped in any way.

As Don Marti says, only real advertising can carry the full economic and creative signals required to create and sustain a brand. And, as Bob Hoffman hammers home constantly (and very artfully) in The Ad Contrarian, the ad industry’s equation of “digital” with tracking is based entirely on bullshit. (His term, and the right one.)

Direct response marketing, which began as junk mail, and which looks to measure results for every message, wasn’t designed for that, and can’t do it.

Calling direct response marketing advertising was one of the biggest mistakes the ad industry ever made and masks the real problem the GDPR invites, which is that we risk throwing out the SafeAds baby with the FakeAds (adtech) bathwater.

If all the GDPR leads publishers to do is (as Ross says in his piece) “use intrusive messages — like pop-ups or interstitials — to get user consent,” and the EU fails to fine publishers and their adtech funders for violating the spirit as well as the letter of the GDPR, the GDPR will be as big a fail as the useless cookie consent notices people see on European sites.

4) There’s nothing really wrong with adtech.

Pretty much everything is wrong about adtech, but perhaps the wrongest of the wrong is the problem Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivasaid) visits in a NY Times piece titled Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses. Here’s a pull quote:

A core principle in political advertising is transparency — political ads are supposed to be easily visible to everyone, and everyone is supposed to understand that they are political ads, and where they come from. And it’s expensive to run even one version of an ad in traditional outlets, let alone a dozen different versions. Moreover, in the case of federal campaigns in the United States, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance act requires candidates to state they approve of an ad and thus take responsibility for its content.

The bold-face is mine (or actually my wife’s, who found and highlighted it for me).

The economic signaling value of an ad comes from what it costs. Only a brand with a lot of heft can afford to sponsor a publication or a mainstream broadcaster. But it’s super-cheap to run ads that narrowcast to just a few people. Or to put up a fake news site. (Both are big reasons why journalism is now drowning in a sea of contentAdtech is what paid publishing to trade journalism for “content generation.” This is a cancer on advertising, publishing and journalism, and makes adtech the Agent Smith of digital.)

What’s more, adtech has created environments where micro-targeted ads and adtech-funded fake news can work very effectively to destroy brands.

Consider this possibility: Trump and his sympathizers succeeded in destroying Hillary Clinton’s brand, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of her own big-budget and big-media branding efforts (#SafeAds all) could do about it. (And try, if you are a Trump sympathizer, to ignore whatever you think about how much Hillary brought it on herself or deserved it. In badness of the smear-worthy sort, she has plenty of company, especially Trump. In using modern adtech and fake news methods, the Trump campaign and those helping it were very smart and effective.)

As Siva says in his Times piece,

Ads on [Facebook] meant for, say, 20- to 30-year-old home-owning Latino men in Northern Virginia would not be viewed by anyone else, and would run only briefly before vanishing. The potential for abuse is vast. An ad could falsely accuse a candidate of the worst malfeasance a day before Election Day, and the victim would have no way of even knowing it happened. Ads could stoke ethnic hatred and no one could prepare or respond before serious harm occurs.

Can the GDPR address that problem?

Yes, by supporting individuals (not mere “users” or “consumers”) operating as first parties, getting the good publishers to agree not to run ads like the ones Siva describes, and to open the floodgates to brand ads that actually sponsor those publications, rather than regarding them as bait for shooting tracked eyeballs.

I explain how this will work in What if businesses agreed to customers’ terms and conditions? (28 April 2017 in Medium) as well as in a number of posts in my People vs. Adtech series.

In the long run only the targets of advertising can stop advertisers and publishers from driving drunk on digital, and to start respecting the very people they’ve been abusing.

If that fails, we’ll finally get one answer to the question I asked in January of last year: What if we don’t need advertising at all?

Who Owns the Internet? — What Big Tech’s Monopoly Powers Mean for our Culture is Elizabeth Kolbert‘s review in The New Yorker of several books, one of which I’ve read: Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things—How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.

The main takeaway for me, to both Elizabeth’s piece and Jon’s book, is making clear that Google and Facebook are at the heart of today’s personal data extraction industry, and that this industry defines (as well as supports) much of our lives online.

Our data, and data about us, is the crude that Facebook and Google extract, refine and sell to advertisers. This by itself would not be a Bad Thing if it were done with our clearly expressed (rather than merely implied) permission, and if we had our own valves to control personal data flows with scale across all the companies we deal with, rather than countless different valves, many worthless, buried in the settings pages of the Web’s personal data extraction systems, as well as in all the extractive mobile apps of the world.

It’s natural to look for policy solutions to the problems Jon and others visit in the books Elizabeth reviews. And there are some good regulations around already. Most notably, the GDPR in Europe has energized countless developers (some listed here) to start providing tools individuals (no longer just “consumers” or “users”) can employ to control personal data flows into the world, and how that data might be used. Even if surveillance marketers find ways around the GDPR (which some will), advertisers themselves are starting to realize that tracking people like animals only fails outright, but that the human beings who constitute the actual marketplace have mounted the biggest boycott in world history against it.

But I also worry because I consider both Facebook and Google epiphenomenal. Large and all-powerful though they may be today, they are (like all tech companies, especially ones whose B2B customers and B2C consumers are different populations—commercial broadcasters, for example) shallow and temporary effects rather than deep and enduring causes.

I say this as an inveterate participant in Silicon Valley who can name many long-gone companies that once occupied Google’s and Facebook’s locations there—and I am sure many more will occupy the same spaces in a fullness of time that will surely include at least one Next Big Thing that obsolesces advertising as we know it today online. Such as, for example, discovering that we don’t need advertising at all.

Even the biggest personal data extraction companies are also not utilities on the scale or even the importance of power and water distribution (which we need to live), or the extraction industries behind either. Nor have these companies yet benefitted from the corrective influence of fully empowered individuals and societies: voices that can be heard directly, consciously and personally, rather than mere data flows observed by machines.

That direct influence will be far more helpful than anything they’re learning now just by following our shadows and sniffing our exhaust, mostly against our wishes. (To grok how little we like being spied on, read The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation, a report by Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Our influence will be most corrective when all personal data extraction companies become what lawyers call second parties. That’s when they agree to our terms as first partiesThese terms are in development today at Customer Commons, Kantara and elsewhere. They will prevail once they get deployed in our browsers and apps, and companies start agreeing (which they will in many cases because doing so gives them instant GDPR compliance, which is required by next May, with severe fines for noncompliance).

Meanwhile new government policies that see us only as passive victims will risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with regulations that last decades or longer. So let’s hold off on that until we have terms of our own, start performing as first parties (on an Internet designed to support exactly that), and the GDPR takes full effect. (Not that more consumer-protecting federal regulation is going to happen in the U.S. anyway under the current administration: all the flow is in the other direction.)

By the way, I believe nobody “owns” the Internet, any more than anybody owns gravity or sunlight. For more on why, see Cluetrain’s New Clues, which David Weinberger and I put up 1.5 years ago.

favorite-peets

My loyalty to Peet’s Coffee is absolute. I have loved Peet’s since it was a single store in Berkeley. I told my wife in 2001 that I wouldn’t move anywhere outside the Bay Area unless there was a Peet’s nearby. That pre-qualified Santa Barbara, where we live now. When we travel to where Peets has retail stores, we buy bags of our favorite beans (which tend to be one of the above) to take to our New York apartment, because there are no Peets stores near there. When we’re in New York and not traveling, we look for stores that sell bags of one of the bean bags above.

Since our car died and we haven’t replaced it yet, we have also taken to ordering beans through Peet’s website. Alas, we’re done with that now. Here’s why:

screen-shot-2017-06-22-at-11-34-17-pm

I ordered those beans (Garuda and New Guinea) two Thursdays ago, June 16, at 7:45am. A couple days after I ordered the beans, I checked my account online to see where the shipment stood, and the site said the beans would be shipped on Monday, June 19. According to the email I got yesterday (a section of which I show above), the beans didn’t ship until the following Wednesday, June 21. Now the estimated delivery is next Wednesday, June 28.

While this isn’t a big deal, it’s still annoying because we just ran out of our last batch of beans here and we’ll be gone when that shipment arrives. Subscribing (which Peet’s e-commerce system would rather we do) also won’t work for us because we travel too much and don’t settle in any one place for very long. True, that’s not Peet’s problem, and I’m a sample of one. But I’ve experienced enough e-commerce to know that Peet’s shipping thing isn’t working very well.

And maybe it can’t. I don’t know. Here’s what I mean…

Way back in the late ’90s I was having lunch in San Francisco with Jamie Zawinski, whose work as a programmer is behind many of the graces we take for granted in the online world. (He’s a helluva writer too.) At one point he said something like “Somebody should figure out what Amazon does, bottle it, and sell it to every other retailer doing e-commerce.” And here we are, nearly two decades later, in a world where the one e-commerce company everybody knows will do what it says is still Amazon. (I’ll spare you my much worse tale of woe getting new air conditioners bought and shipped from Home Depot.)

So that’s a problem on the service side.

Now let’s talk marketing. A while back, Peet’s came out with an app that lets you check in at its stores for rewards when you buy something there. You do that this way at the cash register:

  1. Find the app on your phone.
  2. Click on Check In, so a QR code materializes on your phone’s screen.
  3. Aim the QR code at a gizmo by the cash register that can read the QR code.
  4. Hope it works.

I’ve done this a lot, or at least tried to. Here are just some of the problems with it, all of which I offer both to help Peet’s and to dissuade companies everywhere from bothering with the same system:

  1. It doesn’t work at every Peet’s location. This is annoying to customers who break out their phone, bring up the app, get ready to check in, and then get told “It’s not here yet.”
  2. Workers at the stores don’t like it—either because it’s one more step in the ordering process or because, again, “it’s not here yet.” Some employees put a nice face on, but you can tell many employees consider it an unnecessary pain in the ass.
  3. The customer needs to check in at exactly the right point in the purchase, or it doesn’t count. Or at least that’s been my experience a time or two. Whatever the deal is, the narrow check-in time window risks bumming out both the customer and the person behind the counter.
  4. The customer reviews are bad, with good reason. On the app’s page in iTunes Preview it says, “Current Version: 17 Ratings (1.5 stars) All Versions: 94 Ratings (2 stars).” The only published 4-star review reads, “They are a little vague on the rewards system – do I get a point per visit, or a point per drink? Also not a very rewarding system, esp when compared to starbucks or non chains I know of. However, I’ve had no problems with the app malfunctioning, so although I dislike the system it’s not the apps fault.”
  5. It sometimes doesn’t work. I mean, bzzzt: no soap. Or worse, works poorly. For example, when I opened the app just now, it said “Hi, Peetnik” and told me I have 0/15 reward points, meaning I’ve checked in zero times. Then, when I clicked on the “>”, it said “15 more & your next cup’s on us.” Finally, when I fiddled with the app a bit, it woke up and told me “4 points until your next reward.”

Here’s the thing: None of this stuff is necessary. Worse, it’s pure overhead, a value-subtract from the start. And Peet’s is one of the all-too-rare retailers that doesn’t need this kind of crap at all. It has already earned, and keeps, the loyalty of its customers. It just needs to keep doing a better job of making better coffee.

In The Intention Economy I tell the story of Trader Joe’s, another retailer that does a good job of earning and keeping its customers’ loyalty. You know how they do that? With approximately no marketing at all. “We don’t do gimmicks,” Doug Rauch, the retired President of Trader Joe’s told me. No loyalty cards. No promotional pricing. No discounts for “members.” (In fact they have no discounts at all. Just straightforward prices for everything.) Almost no advertising. Nothing that smacks of coercion. And customers love them.

My recommendation to Peet’s on the service side is to ship as fast and well as Amazon, or to stop trying and let Amazon handle the whole thing. Amazon already carries a variety of Peet’s beans and other coffee products. Either way, there is no excuse for taking almost two weeks to deliver an order of beans.

On the marketing side, I suggest dropping the app and the gizmos at the stores. Save the operational costs and reduce the cognitive overhead for both personnel and customers. Personal data gathered through apps is also a toxic asset for every company—and don’t let any marketers tell you otherwise. Like Trader Joe’s, Peet’s doesn’t need the data. Make the best coffee and provide the best service at the stores, and you’ll get and keep the best customers. Simple as that.

You’re in the coffee game, Peet’s. Keep winning that way. For everything that isn’t doing what you’ve always done best, less is more.

 

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crysalisIn The Adpocalypse: What it MeansVlogbrother Hank Green issues a humorous lament on the impending demise of online advertising. Please devote the next 3:54 of your life to watching that video, so you catch all his points and I don’t need to repeat them here.

Got them? Good.

All of Hank’s points are well-argued and make complete sense. They are also valid mostly inside the bowels of the Google beast where his video work has thrived for the duration, as well as inside the broadcast model that Google sort-of emulates. (That’s the one where “content creators” and “brands” live in some kind of partly-real and partly-imagined symbiosis.)

While I like and respect what the brothers are trying to do commercially inside Google’s belly, I also expect them, and countless other “content creators” will get partly or completely expelled after Google finishes digesting that market, and obeys its appetite for lucrative new markets that obsolesce its current one.

We can see that appetite at work now that Google Contributor screams agreement with ad blockers (which Google is also joining) and their half-billion human operators that advertising has negative value. This is at odds with the business model that has long sustained both YouTube and “content creators” who make money there.

So it now appears that being a B2B creature that sells eyeballs to advertisers is Google’s larval stage, and that Google intends to emerge from its chrysalis as a B2C creature that sells content directly to human customers. (And stays hedged with search advertising, which is really more about query-based notifications than advertising, and doesn’t require unwelcome surveillance that will get whacked by the GDPR anyway a year from now.) 

Google will do this two ways: 1) through Contributor (an “ad removal pass” you buy) and 2) through subscriptions to YouTube TV (a $35/month cable TV replacement) and/or YouTube Red ($9.99/month for “uninterrupted music, ad-free videos, and more”).

Contributor is a way for Google to raise its share of the adtech duopoly it comprises with Facebook. The two paid video offerings are ways for Google to maximize its wedge of a subscription pie also sliced up by Apple, Amazon, Netflix, HBO, ShowTime, all the ISPs and every publication you can name—and to do that before we all hit Peak Subscription. (Which I’m sure most of us can see coming. I haven’t written about it yet, but I have touched hard on it here and here.)

I hope the Vlogbrothers make money from YouTube Red once they’re behind that paywall. Or that they can sell their inventory outside all the silos, like some other creators do. Maybe they’ll luck out if EmanciPay or some other new and open customer-based way of paying for creative goods works out. Whether or not that happens, one or more of the new blockchain/distributed ledger/token systems will provide countless new ways that stuff will get offered and paid for in the world’s markets. Brave Payments is already pioneering in that space. (Get the Brave browser and give it a try.)

It helps to recognize that the larger context (in fact the largest one) is the Internet, not the Web (which sits on top of the Net), and not apps (which are all basically on loan from their makers and the distribution systems of Apple and Google). The Internet cannot be contained in, or reduced to, the feudal castles of Facebook and Google, which mostly live on the Web. Those are all provisional and temporary. Money made by and within them is an evanescent grace.

All the Net does is connect end points and pass data between them through any available path. This locates us on a second world alongside the physical one, where the distance between everything it connects rounds to zero. This is new to human experience and at least as transformative as language, writing, printing and electricity—and no less essential than any of those, meaning it isn’t going to go away, no matter how well the ISPs, governments and corporate giants succeed in gobbling up and spinctering business and populations inside their digestive tracts.

The Net is any-to-any, by any means, by design of its base protocols. This opens countless possibilities we have barely begun to explore, much less build out. It is also an experience for humanity that is not going to get un-experienced if some other base protocols replace the ones we have now.

I am convinced that we will find new ways in our connected environment to pay for goods and services, and to signal each other much more securely, efficiently and effectively than we do now. I am also convinced we will do all that in a two-party way rather than in the three-party ways that require platforms and bureaucracies. If this sounds like anarchy, well, maybe: yeah. I dunno. We already have something like that in many disrupted industries. (Some wise stuff got written about this by David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules.)

Not a day goes by that my mind isn’t blown by the new things happening that have not yet cohered into an ecosystem but still look like they can create and sustain many forms of economic and social life, new and old. I haven’t seen anything like this in tech since the late ’90s. And if that sounds like another bubble starting to form, yes it is. You see it clearly in the ICO market right now. (Look at what’s lined up so far. Wholly shit.)

But this one is bigger. It’s also going to bring down everybody whose business is guesswork filled with fraud and malware.

If you’re betting on which giants survive, hold Amazon and Apple. Short those other two.

allthenewsthatfitsintabs

#Publishing

When I heard that Backchannel would be moving to Wired while Google’s Contributor service (“buy an ad removal pass for the web”) was not only rolling out, but already deployed by some publishers (e.g. by Business Insider UK)—and while Wired (with the rest of Condé Nast) was still mistaking tracking protection for ad blocking (and hitting readers with the same lame interruptive shakedown popover I wrote about over a year ago)— I copied and pasted this section of the Daily Tab into Medium and expanded it into a piece titled How To Plug the Publishing Revenue Drain. I also wanted to get it up in advance of the Gillmor Gang webcast/podcast I’d be on that afternoon.

The (not so great) state of UK print advertising in 4 charts (Lucinda Southern @Lucy28Southern in DigiDay) Here they are:

uknewspaperevenue

Publishers can reverse that. Here’s how:

  1. Follow their customers’ lead. That means they should—
  2. Fire adtech (tracking-based advertising), which is full of fraud and malware, clogs data pipes, spies on people (which will soon be illegal in the EU thanks to the GDPR), and carries enormous operational and cognitive overhead for everybody. This will—
  3. Save journalism from drowning in a sea of content. (The problem with content is that it’s not editorial. It’s eyeball bait.) To do this publishers should—
  4. Agree to readers’ terms and conditions. These will live at Customer Commons (much as individuals’ copyright terms live at Creative Commons) and can be expressed in one line of code in the reader’s browser. The first and simplest term is called #NoStalking and says “just give me ads not based on tracking me.” These ads—simple brand ads—are far more valuable, and brand-supporting, than anything adtech has ever done, or ever can do. They also sponsor the publisher, which adtech also can’t do, because its actual business is chasing eyeballs. With #NoStalking, publishers will—
  5. Get cleaner, better and more supportive sponsorship from advertisers than they ever got from adtech. Agreeing not to stalk readers will also pave a way off the cattle ranches of Facebook and Google while also getting out of adtech’s bubble before it bursts. It will also respect The Castle Doctrine—for everybody involved, including readers, publishers, advertisers and intermediaries.

Bonus link: After Peak Marketing. And everything by Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), Don Marti (@dmarti), Augustine Fou, aka Ad Fraud Researcher (@acfou), WhiteOps (@WhiteOps), Dave Carroll (@profcarroll) and @MikkoKotila.

#Advertising vs. #Adtech

As Apple and Google take aim at ads, publishers tremble (Lucia Moses @lmoses in DigiDay)

De-blurring Lines Between ‘Ad Tech’ and Advertising (Daniel Meehan @MeehanDaniel in Martech Series). I’m kindly sourced: “…Doc Searls dug into what on earth brands are doing — and have been doing for years. He’s just as confused by this shift of advertisers effectively offloading their jobs to algorithms. Searls also calls for an end to ad tech, in favor of a return to “traditional” advertising approaches. The state of ad tech’s been killing media, too. And he wants to save it before we venture too far.”

Also by Daniel, this time in Martech TodayStop Calling ‘Ad Tech’ Advertising. Bonus link: Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.

Not listening to either Daniel or me:

#Random

Saturn is amazing. (Time)

Introducing FilterBubbler: A WebExtension built using React/Redux. Based on this idea by @dmarti. (Ean Schuessler in Mozilla Hacks) “The idea was to turn the tables on the kinds of sophisticated analysis that advertisers do with the everyday browsing activities we take for granted.”

 

 

away2remember2manytabsFor today’s entries, I’m noting which linked pieces require you to turn off tracking protection, meaning tracking is required by those publishers. I’m also annotating entries with hashtags and organizing sections into bulleted lists.


#AdBlocking and #Advertising

#Apple

#Photography

#Other

docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.

Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)

As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)

As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.

Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.

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