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Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” just to get down to where civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) can be fixed. It’s a huge thing.

The big questions:

  1. Did we know a catastrophe this huge was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
  2. Was there any way to prevent it?

Geologists had their expectations, expressed as degrees of likelihood and detailed on this map by the United States Geological Survey:

That was dated more than a month before huge rains revised to blood-red the colors in the mountains above town. Worries of County Supervisors and other officials were expressed in The Independent on January 3rd and 5th. Edhat also issued warnings on January 5th and 6th.

Edhat’s first report began, “Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a weather briefing of a potential significant winter storm for Santa Barbara County on January 9-10. With the burn scar created by the Thomas Fire, the threat of flash floods and debris/mud flows is now 10 times greater than before the fire.”

But among those at risk, who knew what a “debris/mud flow” was—especially when nobody had ever seen one of those anywhere around here, even after prior fires?

The first Independent story (on January 3rd) reported, “County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons ‘as soon as the fire department would let us in.’ It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire. While touring the impact areas in recent days, (Office of Emergency Management Director Robert) Lewin said problems have already occurred. ‘We’re starting to see gravity rock fall, he said. ‘One rock could close a road.'”

The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is The Independent‘s After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, published four days after the disaster. In that report, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said, “no one alive has probably ever seen one before.” [January 18 update: Nick Welch in The Independent reports, “Last week’s debris flow was hardly Santa Barbara’s first. Jim Stubchaer, then an engineer with County Flood Control, remembers the avalanche of mud that took 250 homes back in November 1964 when heavy rains followed quickly on the heels of the Coyote Fire. He was there in 1969 and 1971 when it happened again.” Here is a long 2009 report on the Coyote Fire in The Independent by Ray Ford, now with Noozhawk. No mention of the homes lost in there. Perhaps Ray can weigh in.]

My point is that debris flows over Montecito ae a sure bet in geologic time, but not in the human one. In the whole history of Montecito and Santa Barbara (of which Montecito is an unincorporated part), there are no recorded debris flows that started on mountain slopes and spread all the way to the sea. But on January 9th we had several debris flows on that scale, originating simultaneously in the canyons feeding Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero Creeks. Those creeks are dry most of the time, and beautiful areas in which to build homes: so beautiful, in fact, that Montecito is the other Beverly Hills. (That’s why all these famous people have called it home.)

One well-studied prehistoric debris flow in Santa Barbara emptied a natural lake that is now Skofield Park,dumping long-gone mud and lots of rocks in Rattlesnake Canyon, leaving its clearest evidence in a charming tree-shaded boulder field next to Mission Creek called Rocky Nook Park.

What geologists at UCSB learned from that flow is detailed in a 2001 report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. It begins, “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood.” It also says that flood would “most likely occur every few thousand years.”

And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.

I’ve read somewhere that studies of charcoal from campfires buried in Rocky Nook Park date that debris flow at around 500 years ago. This is a good example of how the geologic present fails to include present human memory. Still, you can get an idea of how big this flow was. Stand in Rattlesnake Canyon downstream from Skofield Park and look at the steep rocky slopes below houses on the south side of the canyon. It isn’t hard to imagine the violence that tore out the smooth hillside that had been there before.

To help a bit more with that exercise, here is a Google Streetview of Scofield Park, looking down at Santa Barbara through Rattlesnake Canyon:

I added the red line to show the approximate height of the natural dam that broke and released that debris flow.

I’ve also learned that the loaf-shaped Riviera landform in Santa Barbara is not a hunk of solid rock, but rather what remains of a giant landslide that slid off the south face of the Santa Ynez Mountains and became free-standing after creeks eroded out the valley behind. I’ve also read that Mission Creek flows westward around the Riviera and behind the Mission because the Riviera itself is also sliding the same direction on its own tectonic sled.

We only see these sleds moving, however, when geologic and human time converge. That happened last Tuesday when rains Kevin Cooper calls “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, saturating the mountain face creek beds that were burned by the Thomas Fire just last month. As a result, debris flows gooped down the canyons and stream valleys below, across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.

So in retrospect, those slopes in various colors in the top map above should have been dark red instead. But, to be fair, much of what geology knows is learned the hard way.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, is fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. One friend barely escaped. Some victims were friends of friends. Some of the stories are beyond awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is by reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So I’ll start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. [January 17 update: 95%.] I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses that pop up into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 747 Indian Lane
  6. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  7. 590 Meadowood Lane
  8. 830 Rockbridge Road
  9. 800 Rockbridge Road
  10. 790 Rockbridge Road
  11. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  12. 1261 East Valley Road
  13. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  14. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  15. 1254 East Valley Drive
  16. 1255 East Valley Road
  17. 1247 East Valley Road A
  18. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  19. 1231 East Valley Road A
  20. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  22. 1221 East Valley Road A
  23. 1221 East Valley Road B
  24. 369 Hot Springs Road
  25. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  26. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  27. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  28. 355 Hot Springs Road
  29. 335 Hot Springs Road A
  30. 335 Hot Springs Road B
  31. 333 Hot Springs Road (Not marked in final map)
  32. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  33. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  34. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  35. 340 Hot Springs Road
  36. 319 Hot Springs Road
  37. 325 Olive Mill Road
  38. 285 Olive Mill Road
  39. 275 Olive Mill Road
  40. 325 Olive Mill Road
  41. 220 Olive Mill Road
  42. 200 Olive Mill Road
  43. 275 Olive Mill Road
  44. 180 Olive Mill Road
  45. 170 Olive Mill Road
  46. 144 Olive Mill Road
  47. 137 Olive Mill Road
  48. 139 Olive Mill Road
  49. 127 Olive Mill Road
  50. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  51. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  52. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  53. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  54. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  55. 82 Olive Mill Road
  56. 1308 Danielson Road
  57. 81 Depot Road
  58. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek—
  1. 601 San Ysidro Road
  2. 560 San Ysidro Road B
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 1689 Mountain Drive
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane C (all the Lane addresses appear to be in San Ysidro Ranch)
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  14. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  15. 900 San Ysidro Lane E
  16. 900 San Ysidro Lane F
  17. 900 San Ysidro Lane G
  18. 900 San Ysidro Lane H
  19. 900 San Ysidro Lane I
  20. 900 San Ysidro Lane J
  21. 900 San Ysidro Lane K
  22. 900 San Ysidro Lane L
  23. 900 San Ysidro Lane M
  24. 900 San Ysidro Lane N
  25. 900 San Ysidro Lane O
  26. 900 San Ysidro Lane R
  27. 900 San Ysidro Lane S
  28. 900 San Ysidro Lane T
  29. 888 San Ysidro Lane A
  30. 888 San Ysidro Lane B
  31. 888 San Ysidro Lane C
  32. 888 San Ysidro Lane D
  33. 888 San Ysidro Lane E
  34. 888 San Ysidro Lane F
  35. 805 West Park Lane B
  36. 799 East Mountain Drive
  37. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  38. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  39. 771 Via Manana Road
  40. 899 El Bosque Road
  41. 771 Via Manana Road
  42. 898 El Bosque Road
  43. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  44. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  45. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  46. 559 El Bosque Road (This is between Oak Creek and San Ysidro Creek)
  47. 680 Randall Road
  48. 670 Randall Road
  49. 660 Randall Road
  50. 650 Randall Road
  51. 640 Randall Road
  52. 630 Randall Road
  53. 619 Randall Road
  54. 1685 East Valley Road A
  55. 1685 East Valley Road B
  56. 1685 East Valley Road C
  57. 1696 East Valley Road
  58. 1760 Valley Road A
  59. 1725 Valley Road A
  60. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  61. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  62. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  63. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  64. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  65. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  66. 1705 East Valley Road A
  67. 1705 East Valley Road B
  68. 1705 East Valley Road C
  69. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  70. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  71. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  72. 1707 East Valley Road A
  73. 1685 East Valley Road C
  74. 1709 East Valley Road
  75. 1709 East Valley Road B
  76. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  77. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  78. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  79. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  80. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  81. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  82. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  83. 1715 East Valley Road A
  84. 1715 East Valley Road B
  85. 1719 East Valley Road
  86. 1721 East Valley Road A (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  87. 1721 East Valley Road B (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  88. 1721 East Valley Road C (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  89. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  90. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  91. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  92. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  93. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  94. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  95. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  96. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  97. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  98. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  99. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  100. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  101. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 670 Lilac Drive
  6. 658 Lilac Drive
  7. 2075 Alisos Drive (marked earlier, but I don’t see it in the final map)
  8. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1000 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  4. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  7. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Below Toro Canyon—

  1. 876 Toro Canyon Road
  2. 572 Toro Canyon Park Road

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the Toro Canyon—

  1. 2000 Cravens Lane

Ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 163* 178† among the destroyed alone.

[* This is on January 17, when the map says it is 95% complete. All the additions appear to be along San Ysidro Creek, especially on San Ysidro Lane, which I believe is mostly in San Ysidro Ranch. Apparently nearly the whole place has been destroyed. Adjectives such as “lovely” fail to describe what it was.]

[† This is on January 18, when the map is complete. I’ll need to go over it again, because there are subtractions as well as additions.]

Now let’s go back and look more closely at this again from the geological perspective.

What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.

This same pattern accounts for much of California, including all of the South Coast and the Los Angeles basin.

To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close.

Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last forty seconds. In that short time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional landscapes in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among its most casual methods. (By the way, I am writing this in a San Marino house that sits atop the Raymond Fault scarp, which on the surface takes the form of a forty-foot hill. The suite of rock under the bottom of that hill is displaced 17,000 feet from the identical suite under the base at the top. Many earthquakes produced that displacement, and erosion has buffed 16,960 feet of rock and soil off the top.)

So we might start to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito not as a stable land form but rather as a volcano of mud and rock that’s sure to go off every few dozen or hundreds of years—and will possibly deliver a repeat performance if we get more heavy rains and there is plenty of debris left to flow out of mountain areas adjacent to those that flowed on January 9th. If there’s a lot of it, why even bother saving Montecito?

Here’s why:

One enters the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming under that stone plaque, which celebrates what may be our species’ greatest achievement and conceit: controlling nature. (It’s also why geology is starting to call our present epoch the anthropocene.)

This also forecasts exactly what we will do for Montecito. In the long run we’ll lose to nature. But meanwhile se strive on, especially here in California.

In our new strivings, it will help to look toward other places in California that are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The largest of those by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of all the large canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of these dwarf the ones above Montecito. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that roll in constantly from the eroding creek beds above. None are pretty.

To understand the challenge involved, it helps enormously to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which took its title from the inscription above. Fortunately, you can start right now by reading the first essay in a pair that became the relevant chapter of that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th.

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks—and maybe much longer if officials declare the hills above town ready to flow again.

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:

 

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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.In 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.

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 main fixes begin on the personal side. Don Marti (@dmarti) tweets, “Build technologies to implement people’s norms on sharing their personal data, and you’ll get technologies to help high-reputation sites build ad-supported business models ABSOLUTELY FREE!” Those models are all advertising wheat, not adtech chaff.

Now here’s the key: what we need most are single and simple ways for each of us to manage all our dealings with other entities online. Having separate means, each provided by the dozens or hundreds of sites and services we each deal with, all with different UIs, login/password gauntlets, forms to fill out, meaningless privacy policies and for-lawyers-only terms of service, cannot work. All that shit may give those companies scale across many consumers, but every one of them only adds to those consumers’ relationship overhead. I explain how this will work in Giving Customers Scale, plus many other posts, columns and essays compiled in my People vs. Adtech series, which is on its way to becoming a book. 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.

[Later…] I’m on the other coast now, but preoccupied by the #ThomasFire threatening our home in Santa Barbara. Since this blog appears to be mostly down, I’m writing about it at doc.blog.

 

 

 

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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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Here’s what I wrote about pirate radio in New York, back in 2013 . I hoped to bait major media attention with that. Got zip.

Then I wrote this in 2015 (when I also took the screen shot, above, of a local pirate’s ID on my kitchen radio). I got a couple people interested, including one college student, but we couldn’t coordinate our schedules and the moments were lost.

Now comes news of pirate radio crackdowns by the FCC*, yet little of that news concerns the demand these stations supply. The default story is about FCC vs. Pirates, not how pirates address the inadequacies of FCC-licensed broadcast radio. (One good exception: this story in the Miami Herald about an FCC-fined pirate that programs for a population licensed radio doesn’t serve.)

To sample the situation, drive your car up Broadway north of 181st Street in Manhattan (above which the city gets very hilly, and there is maximal signal shadowing by big apartment buildings), or into the middle of the Bronx (same kind of setting), on any weekend evening. Then hit SCAN on your radio. Betcha a third of the stations you’ll hear are pirates, and the announcers will be speaking Spanish or Caribbean English. Some stations will have ads. Even if you only hear three or four signals (I’m on the wrong coast for checking on this), you’re tapping into something real happening which—far as I know—continues to attract approximately zero interest among popular media. (Could be it’s a thing on Twitter, but I don’t know.)

But there is a story here, about a marketplace of the literal sort. As I say in both those posts (at the top two links above), I wish I knew Spanish. For a reporter who does, there’s some great meat to chew on here. And it’s not just about the FCC playing a game of whack-a-mole. It’s about what licensed broadcasting alone can’t or won’t do.

Low power FM transmitters are cheap, by the way. The good ones are in low four figures. (One example.) The okay ones are in the two- and three-figure range. (Examples on Amazon and eBay.)

By the way, anything more than a small fraction of one watt is almost certainly in violation of Part 15 of the FCC rules, and therefore illegal. But hey, there’s a market for these things, so they sell.

By the way, is anyone visiting the topic of what will happen if Cumulus and/or iHeart can’t pay their debts? If either or both go down, a huge percentage of over-the-air radio in the U.S. goes with them.

The easy thing to blame is bad corporate decisions of one kind or another. The harder one is considering what the digital world is doing to undermine and replace the analog one.

If you’re wondering about why pirate radio is so big in New York yet relatively nowhere in Los Angeles (the next-largest broadcast market), here’s the main reason: New York FM stations are weak. None are more than 6000 watts, and those are on the Empire State Building, only about 1300 feet up in the air above the center of a metro that’s thick with signal shadowing by buildings that bang up FM signals. In nearby New Jersey and the outer boroughs, you can put out a 10 or a 50 watt signal from a whip antenna on top of a house or a high-rise, on a channel right next to a licensed one, and cover a zip code or two with little trouble. It’s hard to do that in most of Los Angeles, where stations radiate from 6000-foot Mt. Wilson, at powers up to 110000 watts, and strong signals pack the dial from one end to the other. There are similar situations in Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Denver and San Francisco (though a few more terrain shadows to operate in). In flat places without thick clusters of high-rises in their outlying areas—Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit—there are few places for pirates to hide among the buildings. In those places it’s relatively easy to locate and smack down a pirate, especially if they’re operating in a wide open way (as was the Miami example).

Tab closings

These are all the non-advertising-related items I just moved out of this post here on doc.blog.

This Wired piece on podcasting’s history fails to mention either Dave Winer or RSS. Huge oversights, those. Without mentioning the Wired piece, Dave offers many corrections.

Mount Hope Cemetery in Lander, Wyoming: the final resting place of many memorable characters in Ethel Waxham Love’s Lady’s Choice, which I am reading and re-reading right now. Such an amazing character. I visited her family’s abandoned ranch house (“one hundred miles from water, women and wood,” her son David said) this summer, for The Eclipse.

Radio ratings in Canadian cities. Which I want so I can complete this post about sports radio. I expected that post to be hugely provocative ad popular, by the way. The opposite was true. Still, I want to finish it.

Aeonyour brain is not a computer. No surprise there, but very much counter to the prevailing bullshit.

The RSA, where I’ve applied for a fellowship. We’ll see how it goes. I’m excited about the possibilities.

NiemanLab: Civil, the blockchain-based journalism marketplace, is building its first batch of publications…One of the most confusing efforts to fund journalism in recent memory is inching closer to reality.

Niche Publishers: DCN Research Report | January 2017— How to Create Sustainable Business Models in a Digital Marketplace. All good advice, but very hard to do with a small staff and little initial revenue flow.

Mastercard Simplifies Managing Your Digital Footprint with Launch of Consumer Control—New solution will help the 60 percent of people who say they don’t know where their card credentials are stored. Fine, but its just one credit card and its API. Real control will be something you own and control, and has scale across all your cards and services. Change your address, for example, one time for all of them.

allthenewsthatflirtstoprint

Required viewing: A Good Americanbillbinneya documentary on Bill Binney and the NSA by @FriedrichMoser. IMHO, this is the real Snowden movie. And I say that with full respect for Snowden. Please watch it. (Disclosure: I have spent quality time with both Bill and Fritz, and believe in both.) Bonus dude: @KirkWiebe, also ex-NSA and a colleague of Bill’s. (In case you think this is all lefty propaganda, read Kirk’s tweets.)

Ice agents are out of control. And they are only getting worse (@TrevorTimm in The Guardian)

Conservatives are fighting each other about Trump, while agreeing that defeating The Left is the main thing. (@DennisPraeger in National Review) Remember William F. Buckley Jr.? He fathered National Review and the intellectual right while failing to defeat The Left. Instead he befriended The Left’s best and brightest. A lesson in there somewhere.

Trump +/vs. Twitter, or something.

Deep background on the dude. From exactly 20 years and a few days ago. Revealing what you already knew, only vividly now. Pull-quote: “And, most important, every square inch belonged to Trump, who had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul. ‘Trump’—a fellow with universal recognition but with a suspicion that an interior life was an intolerable inconvenience, a creature everywhere and nowhere, uniquely capable of inhabiting it all at once, all alone.” Now “it all” is the USA.

WillRobotsTakeMyJob is brilliant. Check out its suggested jobs for titles it has no stats for.

Yo to WaPo and the rest: as long as you bait & switch people with that 99¢ come-on, I won’t subscribe.

Maybe Fox & Friends is Donald & Tools. (AdAge)

The Wall Street Journal sticks it to non-paying readers and non-paying Google in one move. (AdAge)

Speaking of the NSA.

No surprise: SnapChat’s spy glasses will be used for spying. Because we all want that better advertising experience, don’t we? (AdAge again.)

Here’s what Snapchat Spectacles ought to (or could) be.

Dave Winer’s Binge-Worthy TV Shows. Definitive. And I say that entirely because I trust Dave. He’s my designated watcher. (I also like that Twin Peaks isn’t in there. I binge-watched the original, both seasons, end to end, and hated where it went, meaning where it didn’t go, such as to an ending. A quarter century later I watched most of the first episode and part of the second, punching out of both when it got too gratuitously bloody and strange in what I thought were non-David-Lynchian ways, meaning I can guess the ending now: Cooper kills his doppelganger (a better character than Cooper, btw) and rescues Laura Palmer from hell. Tell me if I’m wrong in a year or few.

Theresa May wants to regulate the Internet. (Time) Which would be like regulating gravity. (Clue: you can think you’re regulating the Internet by mistaking containers on it for the real thing, and then regulating the containers in and the people in them. It does help that the containers aren’t the Net. So there’s still hope.)

Errata SecurityYour printers and files are designed to narc on you. Here’s the fuck: “most new printers print nearly invisible yellow dots that track down exactly when and where documents, any document, is printed.” Also, if you want to see the personal metadata embedded invisibly in your own images (yes, all of them), or in those you find on the Web or elsewhere, go to MetaPicz. Among the gems in my own metadata is this item: “Owner: Tangent Mind llc.” Search: Tangent Mind llc. Can’t figure it. Yet. Help welcome.

Federation of American Scientists (fas.org)A lengthy, linky legal sidebar on net neutrality.

Computing.co.uk: GDPR spells the end of programmatic advertising as we know it: Mark Roy, chairman of ReAD Group, believes that the new legislation will limit the use of AI, whatever Google, Facebook et al might try to do to stop it

Random and uncategorized:

 

 

 

 

Jamie Bartlett in The GuardianForget far-right populism – crypto-anarchists are the new masters. Well, yes, no and maybe. Hard to tell. At least it’s a good look around many curves.

Says here Robert E. Lee was a bad guy. Specifically, a white supremacist and slave abuser.

You’re hundreds (or thousands) of miles but only one click away from The Wall Drug Store. Bonus link. Both courtesy of Country Living, which is new to me. As a magazine, that is.

Everybody, it seems, (or, well, 93% of them) likes the new Wonder Woman movie. Not Jill Lepore.

South China Morning PostThe rise of the QR code and how it has forever changed China’s social habits. The subhead explains,
“It’s being used to encourage tipping at restaurants, receive cash gifts at weddings…even beggars are using it to collect handouts. The little barcode is driving China’s rapid shift towards a cashless society.” And you (if you’re Kevin Marks) thought it was just robot barf.

Intel sees a $7 billion business in self-driving cars. With a .pdf to approve it.

Until I read this about Carol Connors, I only knew her as the sweet girly sounding lead singer of The Teddy Bears, whose only hit was To Know Him Is To Love Him, which was the slow-dance song of the late ’50s. She was in high school at the time. The song was written and produced by bandmate Phil Spector, and based on an inscription on his old man’s grave. Carol not only went on to a fine career as a singer, but she scored big as a songwriter too. Among other achievements, she co-wrote Gonna Fly Now, which you know better as the theme music for the movie Rocky. Somewhere in there she also wrote the Rip Cords’ Hey Little Cobra.

No news, but the U.S. forgot how to do infrastructure. (Bloomberg)

Young power plants are closing. Found this one because it used one of my aerial photos. (E&E News)

 

 

 

 

fireadtech

Brands are bailing from adtech, and news about it is coming fast and hard.

The New York Times said AT&T and Johnson & Johnson were pulling their ads from YouTube, concerned that “Google is not doing enough to prevent brands from appearing next to offensive material, like hate speech.” Business Insider said “more than 250” advertisers were bailing as well. Both reports came on the heels of one Guardian story that said Audi, HSBC, Lloyds, McDonald’s, L’Oréal, Sainsbury’s, Argos, the BBC and Sky were doing the same in the UK. Another Guardian story that said O2, Royal Mail and Vodaphone were joining the boycott as well. Wired and AdAge have weighed in too.

Agencies placing those ads on YouTube were shocked, shocked! that ads for these fine brands were showing up next to “extremist material,” and therefore sponsoring it. They blame Google, and so does most of the press coverage as well.

And Google admits guilt. Business Insider:

Google’s executives were summoned to appear in front of the UK government last week after ads for taxpayer-funded services were found next to extremist videos, following an investigation by The Times newspaper. Google must return later this week with a timetable for the work it is doing to prevent the issue from occurring again.

On Monday, at a breakfast briefing with journalists before he took to the stage at Advertising Week Europe — Brittin said the annual ad industry event gave Google a “good opportunity to say first and foremost, sorry, this should not happen, and we need to do better.”

Brittin added: “There are brands who have reached out to us and are talking to our teams about whether they are affected or concerned by this. I have spoken personally to a number of advertisers over the last few days as well. Those that I have spoken to, by the way, we have been talking about a handful of impressions and pennies not pounds of spend — that’s in the case of the ones I’ve spoken to at least. However small or big the issue, it’s an important issue that we address.”

Google also isn’t alone at this. They’re just the biggest player in an icky business. That business is adtech: tracking-based advertising.

Let’s be clear about all the differences between adtech and real advertising. It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and a vector for malware. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.

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

With real advertising, you have brands supporting brands.

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

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

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

…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.

This whole problem wouldn’t exist if the alien replica wasn’t chasing spied-on eyeballs, and if advertisers still sponsored desirable media the old-fashioned way.

Fixing it won’t be easy, because the alien replica has been drunk on digital for so long that very little humanity remains. This is true not just for Madison Avenue, but for both the client and the media stages of the advertising supply chain. On the client side, old-school sales & marketing VPs have been replaced by data-obsessed CMOs who would rather hire an IBM to paint a portrait of a fiction called “the chief executive customer” than actually talk to a real one. On the media side, publishers and broadcasters have long since fired their human sales people and outsourced income production to dozens of third party adtech systems.

But at least we’re seeing brands start to wake up, even if they’re still fooled by adtech’s magic tricks. And consciousness is surely happening a level or two above the CMO. Those senior executives, whose brains have not been snatched by adtech, will still recognize the obvious: that brands are best made and served by sponsoring media they know, like and trust.

After all, sponsoring trusted media is what produced brands in the first place. It’s also what still what makes brands familiar to whole populations, and what still sponsors worthy publications and the journalism they contain.

If brands still want to do “interest-based” or “interactive” advertising (adtech’s euphemisms for what it actually does) they should realize five things:

  1. Adtech sucks at branding. Hundreds of $billions have been spent on adtech so far, and not one brand known to the world has come out of it.
  2. Yes, it works, about .0x% of the time, on average. The other 99.9x% of the time it produces nothing but negative externalities, including lots of tendentious math by agencies and platforms to justify the expense.Among those externalities are subtracted value from brands themselves.
  3. Yes, direct response marketing does work, and it works best when target customers have already opted in, consciously and deliberately. (Note that there is a great deal of ambiguity about how much being a Google or Facebook member amounts to deliberate and conscious agreement to being followed and targeted, privacy controls withstanding. The choices in those controls should be much more binary and clear than they are.) So if L’Oreal wants to get a conversation going with customers of Lancôme, Giorgio Armani or The Body Shop, they should do it by those customers’ grace, not because the robots they’ve hired guess those customers might be interested, based on surveillance-gathered personal data.
  4. Adtech starts with spying on people. This isn’t the elephant in the middle of adtech’s room. It’s the volcano about to erupt from under adtech’s floor. In that volcano are pissed off people who will soon get their own ways to kill off adtech. The rumbling under the floor right now is ad blocking. The lava that will pave over adtech is full tracking protection.
  5. Adtech’s rationalizations are all around putting the “right message in front of the right people at the right time,” and aiming those messages with spyware-harvested Big Data. Both of those are direct marketing purposes, not those of brand advertising. The difference is stark, absolute, and essential for everyone to understand.
  6. The only reason publishers go along with adtech is that they don’t know any other way to make money from advertising online — and no developers have provided them one. (But that will happen soon. Trust me on this. I know things I can’t yet talk about.)
  7. What Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” is going to be illegal a year from now in the EU anyway, thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation, aka GDPR. Mark your calendars: on 25 May 2018 will come an extinction event for adtech, because here are the fines the GDPR will impose for unpermitted harvesting of personal data: 1) “a fine up to 10,000,000 EUR or up to 2% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater (Article 83, Paragraph 4)”‘; and 2) “a fine up to 20,000,000 EUR or up to 4% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater (Article 83, Paragraph 5 & 6).”

Ad choices won’t do the job. That’s adtech’s way to “give you control” over “how information about your interests is used for relevant advertising.” The link into that system is this little symbol you see in the corner of many ads:

While clicking on it does provide a way for you to opt out of surveillance, you have to do it over and over again for every ad you see with the damn thing, like playing a slo-mo game of whack-a-mole, and it still relies on the adtech industry keeping cookies in your browsers.

If there is a market on the receiving end for “interest based advertising,” let’s have a standard system that puts full control in the hands of individuals, and speaks through open code and protocols to any and all publishers and broadcasters. Anything less will just be another top-down adtech industry paint-job on the same old shit.

An open question is if agencies can be programmatic online without spying on people. I think they can, if they start by admitting that spying is where the problem lies.

It should be clear that spying is why Do Not Track became a thing, and whyad blocking hockey-sticked when the adtech industry and publishers together gave the middle finger to people’s polite request not to be tracked. (Which is all Do Not Track provides.) It should also be clear that ad blocking and tracking protection are not “threats” and “costs” to publishers and agencies. They are clear and legitimate market responses by human beings to having adtech’s digital hands up their skirts.

It also won’t be easy for the big platforms to fix their adtech systems. Consider, for example, the egg that was splattered on Mark Zuckerberg’s face by Facebook’s own adtech when he posted his insistence that “99% of what people see is authentic” and “only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” and fraudulent ads ran right next to his post:

zuckegg

These ads are fraudulent in at least three ways: 1) the headlines are lies; 2) espn.com is not the advertiser; 3) if you click on them, you find they’re bait for switches to something else. (One I clicked on was for a diet supplement.)

And this is no isolated case. Medium’s Ev Williams also reported the same kind of adtech-aimed fakery.

Facebook is going to have a hard time fixing this, because it is entirely in the chaff business. With Google, even though it’s hard to tell whether any given ad placed in a Google property is wheat or chaff, at least some of it really is wheat. (I would guess most search ads are, for example.) It should be just as easy for Google to disclose those ads’ nature as wheat as it is for the company to use Ad Choices to disclose adn ad’s nature as chaff. (I suggest one possible approach to this in A way to peace in the adblock war.)

But fixing the mess needs to start with advertisers. They can do it by firing adtech and its agents and going back to sponsoring reputable broadcasters and publishers. Simple as that.

 

highmountainI’ve long thought that the most consequential thing I’ve ever done was write a newspaper editorial that helped stop development atop the highest wooded hilltop overlooking the New York metro. The hill is called High Mountain, and it is now home to the High Mountain Park Preserve in Wayne, New Jersey. That’s it above, highlighted by a rectangle on a shot I took from a passenger plane on approach to LaGuardia in 2008.

The year was 1970, and I was a 23-year-old reporter for a suburban daily called Wayne Today (which may still exist). One day, while at the police station picking up copies of the previous day’s reports, I found a detailed plan to develop the top of High Mountain, and decided to pay the place a visit. So I took a fun hike through thick woods and a din of screaming cicadas (Brood X, I gather—the same one that inspired Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locust”) to a rocky clearing at the crest, and immediately decided the mountain was a much better place for a park than for the office building specified in the plan.

As it happened there was also a need for an editorial soon after that, and Jerry Fuchs, who usually wrote our editorials, wasn’t available. So I came off the bench and wrote this:

wayne-today-editorial

That was a draft proof of the piece.* I ran across it today while cleaning old papers from a file cabinet in my garage. I doubt anybody has the final printed piece, and I’m amazed that the proof exists.

I left for another paper after that, and didn’t keep up with Wayne news, beyond hearing that my editorial derailed the development plan. No doubt activists of various kinds were behind the eventual preservation of the mountain. But it’s nice to know that there is some small proof that I had something to do with that.

*Additional history: Wayne Today published in those days using old-fashioned letterpress techniques. Type was set in lead by skilled operators on Linotype machines. Each line was a “slug,” and every written piece was a pile of slugs arranged in a frame, inked with a roller and then proofed by another roller that printed on blank paper. That’s what we marked up (as you see above) for the Linotype operators, who would create replacement slugs, give them to the page composers in layout, who could read upside down and backwards as they arranged everything in what was called a forme. The layout guys (they were all guys) then embossed each page into a damp papier-mâché sheet, which would serve as a mold for the half-cylinder of hot lead that would eventually do the printing. So the whole process went like this: reporter->Linotype operator->editor->Linotype operator->page composer->stereotype operator->printer. Ancestors of robotics eventually replaced all of it. And now in the U.S., exemplars of big-J journalism (New York Times, Washington Post) are tarred by the President as “fake news,” and millions believe it. My, how times change.

More High Mountain links:

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adtech-content-journalism

Journalism is in a world of hurt because it has been marginalized by a new business model that requires maximizing “content” instead. That model is called adtech.

We can see adtech’s effects in The New York TimesIn New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen. His prime example is the Newark Star-Ledger, “which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago,” and “has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”

That quota is to attract adtech placements.

While adtech is called advertising and looks like advertising, it’s actually a breed of direct marketing, which is a cousin of spam and descended from what we still call junk mail.

Like junk mail, adtech is driven by data, intrusively personal, looking for success in tiny-percentage responses, and oblivious to harms it causes, which include wanton and unwelcome surveillance, annoying the shit out of people and filling the world with crap.

But adtech is far worse, because it also funds hyper-partisan news flows, including vast rivers of fake news, much of it from pop-up publishers that are as fake as the clickbait they maxiize. Without adtech, fake news would be marginalized to the digital equivalent of supermarket tabloids.

Here’s one way to tell the difference between real advertising and adtech:

  • Real advertising wants to be in a publication because it values the publication’s journalism and readership.
  • Adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them.

Here’s one way to tell the difference between journalism and content:

  • Journalism has ethics.
  • Content has volume.

Another:

  • Journalism is supported by advertising and subscriptions.
  • Content is supported by adtech.

Companies advertising in the old publishing world were flattered to appear in publications like the Star-Ledger. They were also considered sponsors of those publications.

Companies advertising in the new publishing world are drunk on digital and want to maximize the “big data” they acquire. And there are thousands of bartenders to help with that.

As I wrote in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, in the new publishing world “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”

That’s also why, to operate in publishing’s new alien-built economy, journalists need to meet that “ever-increasing quota of page views.” Better to “generate content” than to do the best journalism we can, the proposition goes. It’s still a losing one.

See, adtech doesn’t care about journalism, because its economy incentives maximizing the sum of content in the world, so it has as many places as possible to chase followed eyeballs with ads. Case in point, from @WaltMossberg:

About a week after our launch, I was seated at a dinner next to a major advertising executive. He complimented me on our new site’s quality and on that of a predecessor site we had created and run, AllThingsD.com. I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.

If Recode insisted on real ads, rather than coming to depend on surveillance-based adtech, its advertisers would have valued the publication, and not just the eyeballs of its readers, wherever it could find them.

Walt concludes,

It’s no easy task to either make money online as a publisher or to advertise your product in a world where attention is so fleeting and divided. But the current system of ad-supported web content isn’t working for readers and viewers. It needs to be reset.

The ad business is too brain-snatched to do that reset alone. It needs help from readers and brave publishers willing to stop participating in the adtech game.

As I explain in How customers can debug business with one line of code (hashtag: #NoStalking), each of us can come to publishers with a simple term that says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.” In other words, “Give us real advertising. We can live with that.”

#NoStalking is not only in the works at Customer Commons, but saying yes to it will be an ideal move by companies wishing to obey the General Data Protection Regulation (aka GDPR), which will start punishing stalking severely, starting in 2018.

While the GDPR will blow up adtech as we’ve known it, #NoStalking will save real advertising, and the best of ad-supported publishing along with it, because it will bring economic incentives back into alignment with journalism. We had that in the old ad-and-subscription supported world of offline journalism, and we can get it back in the new world of online journalism. As I explain in Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers,

Individuals issuing the offer get guilt-free use of the goods they come to the publisher for, and the publisher gets to stay in business — and improve that business by running advertising that is actually valued by its recipients.

So, if you want to save journalism, the best of publishing and civil discourse that depends on both, bring back real advertising and cure the cancer of adtech.

For more help with that, go back and read Don Marti’s Targeting failure: legit sites lose, intermediaries win. You might also visit the Adblock War Series at my blog.

Two bonus links:

  1. Don Marti‘s What The Verge can do to help save web advertising
  2. Ethan Zuckerman’s It’s Journalism’s Job to Save Civics.

The original version of this post was published in Medium on 23 January 2017. This is an experiment in publishing first in Medium and second here. We’ll see how it goes.

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