Digital Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the story?”

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

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend. More about that below.)

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

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

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

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

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

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the character now serving as President of the United States, creating problems and movement around them with nearly everything he says and does.

We have never seen Donald Trump’s like before, and may never again. His genius at working all three elements are without equal in our time—or perhaps any time. So please, if you can, set your politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

Donald Trump spins up stories at least four ways:

  1. Through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames (“Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times”)
  2. By finding or creating problems, and characterizing those too: “witch hunt,” “fake news,” “illegal ballots,” “Dominion-izing the Vote.”
  3. By creating movement via the Roy Cohn and Roger Stone playbook: always attack or counter-attack, sue constantly, claim victory no matter what. (Roy Cohn was a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”)
  4. By playing the ultimate alpha. That’s why he constantly calls himself the winner, no matter what.
  5. By de-legitimizing facts, truths, norms, and those who traffic in them. Key to this is accusing others of wrongs he commits himself. This is why he labels CNN and other news organizations “fake news” while turning the generation of it into an art form. Also why his accusations against others are a reliable tell of his own guilt for doing the same thing.
  6. As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

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

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

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

This speaks of two big fails for journalism:

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

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

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

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

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

I heard about that genocide one evening in the late 1970s, when Hughes Rudd, a CBS anchor at the time, said on a newscast, almost offhand, that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but lacking in the elements of a story. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

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

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

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

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

Without a story, statistics are cemeteries of facts.

Sure, academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists) can exhume those facts. But Big-J journalism will always be preoccupied with stories. Including, unavoidably, the genius for generating them who currently occupies the White House.

_________

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

The answer is, we don’t know. Also, we may never know, because—

  • It’s too hard to measure (especially if you’re talking about the entire Net).
  • Too so much of the usage is in mobile devices of too many different kinds.
  • The browser makers are approaching ad blocking and tracking protection in different and new ways that change frequently, and the same goes for ad-blocking and tracking-protecting extensions and add-ons. One of them (Adblock Plus) is actually in the advertising business (which Wikipedia politely calls ad filtering) in the sense that they sell safe package for paying advertisers.
  • Some of the most easily sourced measures are surveys, yet what people say and what they do can be very different things.
  • Some of the most widely cited findings are from sources with conflicted interests (for example, selling anti-ad-blocking services), or which aggregate multiple sources that aren’t revealed when cited.
  • Actors good and bad in the ecosystem that ad blocking addresses also contribute to the fudge.

But let’s explore a bit anyway, working with what we’ve got, flawed though much of it may be. If you’re a tl;dr kind of reader, jump down to the conclusions at the end.

Part 1: ClarityRay and Pagefair

Between 2012 and 2017, the most widely cited ad blocking reports were by ClarityRay and PageFair, in that order. There are no links to ClarityRay’s 2012 report, which I cited here in 2013. PageFair links to their 2015, 2016 (mobile) and 2017 reports are still live. The company also said last November that it was at work on another report. This was after PageFair was acquired by Blockthrough (“the leading adblock recovery program”). A PageFair blog post explains it.

I placed a lot of trust in PageFair’s work, mostly because I respected Dr. Johnny Ryan (@JohnnyRyan), who left PageFair for Brave in 2018. I also like what I know about Matthew Cortland, who was also at PageFair, and may still be. Far as I know, he hasn’t written anything about ad blocking research (but maybe I’ve missed it) since 2017.

Here are the main findings from PageFair’s 2017 report:

  • 615 million devices now use adblock
  • 11% of the global internet population is blocking ads on the web

Part 2: GlobalWebIndex

In January 2016, GlobalWebIndex said “37% of mobile users … say they’ve blocked ads on their mobile within the last month.” I put that together with Statista’s 2017 claim that there were then more than 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world, which suggested that 1.7 billion people were blocking ads by that time.

Now GlobalWebIndex‘s Global Ad-Blocking Behavior report says 47% of us are blocking ads now. It also says, “As a younger and more engaged audience, ad-blockers also are much more likely to be paying subscribers and consumers. Ad-free premium services are especially attractive.” Which is pretty close to Don Marti‘s long-standing claim that readers who protect their privacy are more valuable than readers who don’t.

To get a total ad blocking population from that 47%, one possible source to cite is Internet World Stats:

Note that Internet World Stats appears to be a product of the Miniwatts Marketing Group, whose website is currently a blank WordPress placeholder. But, to be modest about it, their number is lower than Statista’s from 2016: “In 2019 the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion.” So let’s run with the lower one, at least for now.

Okay, so if 47% of us are using ad blockers, and Internet World Stats says there were 4,312,982,270 Internet users by the end of last year (that’s mighty precise!), the combined numbers suggest that more than 2,027,101,667 people are now blocking ads worldwide. So, we might generalize, more than two billion people are blocking ads today. Hence the headline above.

Perspective: back in 2015, we were already calling ad blocking The biggest boycott in human history. And that was when the number was just “approaching 200 million.”

More interesting to me is GlobalWebIndex’s breakouts of listed reasons why the people surveyed blocked ads. Three in particular stand out:

  • Ads contain viruses or bugs, 38%
  • Ads might compromise my online privacy, 26%
  • Stop ads being personalized, 22%

The problem here, as I said in the list up top, is that these are measured behaviors. They are sympathies. But they’re still significant, because sympathies sell. That means there are markets here. Opportunities to align incentives.

Part 3: Ad Fraud Researcher

I rely a great deal on Dr. Augustine Fou (@acfou), aka Independent Ad Fraud Researcher, to think and work more deeply and knowingly than I’ve done so far here (or may ever do).

Looking at Part 2 above (in an earlier version of this post), he tweeted, “I dispute these findings. ASKING people if they used an ad blocker in the past month is COMPLETELY inaccurate and inconsistent with people who ACTUALLY USE ad blockers regularly.” Also, “Source: GlobalWebIndex Q3 2018 Base: 93,803 internet users aged 16-64, among which were 42,078 respondents who have used an ad-blocker in the past month”. Then, “Are you going to take numbers extrapolated from 42,078 respondents and extrapolate that to the entire world? that would NOT be OK.” And, “Desktop ad blocking in the U.S. measured directly on sites which humans visit is in the 8 – 19% range. Bots must also be scrubbed because bots do not block ads and will skew ad blocking rates lower, if not removed.”

On that last tweet he points to his own research, published this month.There is lots of data in there, all of it interesting and unbiased. Then he adds, “your point about this being the ‘biggest boycott in human history’ is still valid. But the numbers from that ad blocking study should not be used.”

Part 4: Comscore

Among the many helpful tweets in response to the first draft of this post was this one by Zubair Shafiq (@zubair_shafiq), Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, where he researches computer networks, security, and privacy. His tweet points to Ad Blockers: Global Prevalence and Impact, by Matthew Malloy, Mark McNamara, Aaron Cahn and Paul Barford, from 2016. Here is one chart among many in the report:

The jive in the Geo row is explained at that link. A degree in statistics will help.

Part 5: Statista

Statista seems serious, but Ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020 is behind a paywall. Still, they do expose this hunk of text: “The statistic presents data on ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020. It was found that 25.2 percent of U.S. internet users blocked ads on their connected devices in 2018. This figure is projected to grow to 27.5 percent in 2020.”

Provisional Conclusions

  1. The number is huge, but we don’t know how huge.
  2. Express doubt about any one large conclusion. Augustine Fou cautions me (and all of us) to look at where the data comes from, why it’s used, and how. In the case of Statista, for example, the data is aggregated from other sources. They don’t do the research themselves. It’s also almost too easy to copy and paste (as I’ve done here) images that might themselves be misleading. The landmark book on misleading statistics—no less relevant today than when it was written in 1954 (and perhaps more relevant than ever)—is How to Lie With Statistics.
  3. Everything is changing. For example, browsers are starting to obsolesce the roles played by ad blocking and tracking protection extensions and add-ons. Brave is the early leader, IMHO. Safari, Firefox and even Chrome are all making moves in this direction. Also check out Ghostery’s Cliqz. For some perspective on how long this is taking, take a look at what I was calling for way back in 2015.
  4. Still, the market is sending a massive message. And that’s what fully matters. The message is this: advertising online has come to have massively negative value.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are legitimate and eloquent messages from demand to supply. By fighting that message, marketing is crapping on most obvious and gigantic clue it has ever seen. And the supply side of the market isn’t just marketers selling stuff. It’s developers who need to start working for the hundreds of millions of customers who have proven their value by using these tools.

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

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