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For some reason, many or most of the images in this blog don’t load in some browsers. Same goes for the ProjectVRM blog as well. This is new, and I don’t know exactly why it’s happening.

So far, I gather it happens only when the URL is https and not http.

Okay, here’s an experiment. I’ll add an image here in the WordPress (4.4.2) composing window, and center it in the process, all in Visual mode. Here goes:


Now I’ll hit “Publish,” and see what we get.

When the URL starts with https, it fails to show in—

  • Firefox ((46.0.1)
  • Chrome (50.0.2661.102)
  • Brave (0.9.6)

But it does show in—

  • Opera (12.16)
  • Safari (9.1).

Now I’ll go back and edit the HTML for the image in Text mode, taking out class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-10370 from between the img and src attributes, and bracket the whole image with the <center> and </center> tags. Here goes:


Hmm… The <center> tags don’t work, and I see why when I look at the HTML in Text mode: WordPress removes them. That’s new. Thus another old-school HTML tag gets sidelined. 🙁

Okay, I’ll try again to center it, this by time by taking out class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-10370 in Text mode, and clicking on the centering icon in Visual mode. When I check back in Text mode, I see WordPress has put class=”aligncenter” between img and src. I suppose that attribute is understood by WordPress’ (or the theme’s) CSS while the old <center> tags are not. Am I wrong about that?

Now I’ll hit the update button, rendering this—


—and check back with the browsers.

Okay, it works with all of them now, whether the URL starts with https or http.

So the apparent culprit, at least by this experiment, is centering with anything other than class=”aligncenter”, which seems to require inserting a centered image Visual mode, editing out size-full wp-image-whatever (note: whatever is a number that’s different for every image I put in a post) in Text mode, and then going back and centering it in Visual mode, which puts class=”aligncenter” in place of what I edited out in text mode. Fun.

Here’s another interesting (and annoying) thing. When I’m editing in the composing window, the url is https. But when I “view post” after publishing or updating, I get the http version of the blog, where I can’t see what doesn’t load in the https version. But when anybody comes to the blog by way of an external link, such as a search engine or Twitter, they see the https version, where the graphics won’t load if I haven’t fixed them manually in the manner described above.

So https is clearly breaking old things, but I’m not sure if it’s https doing it, something in the way WordPress works, or something in the theme I’m using. (In WordPress it’s hard — at least for me — to know where WordPress ends and the theme begins.)

Dave Winer has written about how https breaks old sites, and here we can see it happening on a new one as well. WordPress, or at least the version provided for bloggers, may be buggy, or behind the times with the way it marks up images. But that’s a guess.

I sure hope there is some way to gang-edit all my posts going back to 2007. If not, I’ll just have to hope readers will know to take the s out of https and re-load the page. Which, of course, nearly all of them won’t.

It doesn’t help that all the browser makers now obscure the protocol, so you can’t see whether a site is http or https, unless you copy and paste it. They only show what comes after the // in the URL. This is a very unhelpful dumbing-down “feature.”

Brave is different. The location bar isn’t there unless you mouse over it. Then you see the whole URL, including the protocol to the left of the //. But if you don’t do that, you just see a little padlock (meaning https, I gather), then (with this post) “ | Doc Searls Weblog • Help: why don’t images load in https?” I can see why they do that, but it’s confusing.

By the way, I probably give the impression of being a highly technical guy. I’m not. The only code I know is Morse. The only HTML I know is vintage. I’m lost with <span> and <div> and wp-image-whatever, don’t hack CSS or PHP, and don’t understand why <em> is now preferable to <i> if you want to italicize something. (Fill me in if you like.)

So, technical folks, please tell us wtf is going on here (or give us your best guess), and point to simple and global ways of fixing it.



Some answer links, mostly from the comments below:

That last one, which is cited in two comments, says this:

Chris Cree who experienced the same problem discovered that the WP_SITEURL and WP_HOME constants in the wp-config.php file were configured to structure URLs with http instead of https. Cree suggests users check their settings to see which URL type is configured. If both the WordPress address and Site URLs don’t show https, it’s likely causing issues with responsive images in WordPress 4.4.

Two things here:

  1. I can’t see where in Settings the URL type is mentioned, much less configurable. But Settings has a load of categories and choices within categories, so I may be missing it.
  2. I wonder what will happen to old posts I edited to make images responsive. (Some background on that. “Responsive design,” an idea that seems to have started here in 2010, has since led to many permutations of complications in code that’s mostly hidden from people like me, who just want to write something on a blog or a Web page. We all seem to have forgotted that it was us for whom Tim Berners-Lee designed HTML in the first place.) My “responsive” hack went like this: a) I would place the image in Visual mode; b) go into Text mode; and c) carve out the stuff between img and src and add new attributes for width and height. Those would usually be something like width=”50%” and height=”image”. This was an orthodox thing to do in HTML 4.01, but not in HTML 5. Browsers seem tolerant of this approach, so far, at least for pages viewed with the the http protocol. I’ve checked old posts that have images marked up that way, and it’s not a problem. Yet. (Newer browser versions may not be so tolerant.) Nearly all images, however, fail to load in Firefox, Chrome and Brave when viewed through https.

So the main question remaining are:

  1. Is this something I can correct globally with a hack in my own blogs?
  2. If so, is the hack within the theme, the CSS, the PHP, or what?
  3. If not, is it something the übergeeks at Harvard blogs can fix?
  4. If it’s not something they can fix, is my only choice to go back and change every image from the blogs’ beginnings (or just live with the breakage)?
  5. If that’s required, what’s to keep some new change in HTML 5, or WordPress, or the next “best practice” from breaking everything that came before all over again?

Thanks again for all your help, folks. Much appreciated. (And please keep it coming. I’m sure I’m not alone with this problem.)


I started calling online advertising a bubble in 2008.

I made “The Advertising Bubble” a chapter in The Intention Economy in 2012.

I’ve been unpacking what I figure ought to be obvious (but isn’t) in 52 posts and articles (so far) in the Adblock War Series. This will be the 53rd.

And it ain’t happened yet.

But, now comes this, from Kalkis Research:


Some charts:





And here is their downbeat conclusion:

We are living through the latest stages of the online advertising bubble, as available high-quality ad space is shrinking, leading to a decline ad space quality, and a decline of ad efficiency. Awareness for fraud is growing, and soon, clients will cut their online ad spending, and demand higher accountability. This will destroy the high-margin market of automated reselling worthless ad space, and will force advertisers to focus only on prime publishers, with expensive ad space.

This is a re-run of the online advertising crash of the early 2000s, when the proliferation of banners and pop- ups destroyed any value these ads had (and led people to install pop-up killers, just like with ad blockers today)…

We estimate that the online advertising market has been artificially inflated since the end of 2013, and is much more mature than its pundits are claiming. 90% of Google’s revenues come from advertising. We expect Alphabet’s share price to go down by 75%…

A larger number of companies will be impacted, as a growing number of third-party tech giants are involved in the advertising play (Oracle, Amazon, Salesforce), and we expect the whole tech sector to be hard hit by the unwinding of the bubble…

Currently, January 2018 Alphabet puts with a strike of $400 are trading at around $8, for a 20x return should our scenario materialize.

There are other signs. For example, a falling ping-pong table index:


GroupM, the “world’s largest media investment group,” also just published Interaction 2016, which is also bearish on adtech:

Advertisers and the entities that place their ads have always sought relevance and engagement; the consumer has chosen to set a higher bar. Advertisers and the buyers of media have a further responsibility.

Until now, we have assumed almost all data are worth having. But however much he gathers, no advertiser commands complete, continuous data. This creates a risk that the advertiser’s left hand may not know what his right hand is doing. A customer who has already made a purchase may be bombarded with redundant repeat ads wherever he roams: what we might call the phenomenon of “repetitive irrelevance.” Even worse, several advertisers may be sharing the same data and using performance-oriented media, multiplying the “repetitive irrelevance.” Tracking and targeting intended to make advertising welcome makes it a nuisance. It is dysfunctional. The advertiser damages his reputation and pays to do so.

This brief analysis suggests that a partial solution to adblocking is a combination of design, technology, common sense and the ability to establish the point, across channels and vendors, at which the application of a particular data point becomes the poison of marketing rather than the antidote to ineffectiveness.

The emphasis is mine. (Hey, I know boldface tends to get read and blockquotes don’t.)

There are other signs. Last May Business Insider said The ad tech sector looks an awful lot like a bubble that just popped. In June, The Wall Street Journal said adtech investment dollars are running dry. “These companies are struggling to even get meetings,” they said. In December Ad Exchanger called 2015 a “reality check” year for adtech.

Clearly the end isn’t near for Facebook or Google. Tony Haile, founding CEO of Chartbeat — and to me the reigning king of adtech moneyball — compares Facebook to the Sun, and everybody else to planets and other debris orbiting around it. One pull-quote: “It is Facebook that curates and distributes. It owns the relationship with the user, and decides what content the user sees and how many see it.” Meanwhile Google, which places a huge percentage of online ads (for itself and countless others), is said by Digiday to be exploring an “acceptable ads” policy obviously modeled on the one launched by Adblock Plus. And while ad fraud has been bad, AdAge reports that it’s down, dramatically: “analytics firm Integral Ad Science found a 20.9% decrease in both overall and programmatic ad fraud last quarter compared to the fourth quarter of 2015.”

Still, I’ve been told by one (big) adtech exec that his business is “a walking zombie” and that he’s looking toward “the next paradigm.” One of the biggest online advertisers told me late last year that they yanked $100 million/year out of adtech and put it into traditional advertising for one simple reason: “It didn’t work.” I have a sense that they are not alone.

Got any more examples? I want us to get as clear a picture as we can of the adtech edifice as it starts crumbling to the ground. Or not. Yet.

(Later…) Okay we have some:

Tags: , ,

[Update: 29 June 2016 — Forbes has backed off, but Wired hasn’t yet. So the invitation stands. So does a path forward.]


A few days ago, I followed this link at Digg to Forbes, where I was met by the message above.

Problem is, I don’t have an ad blocker installed. I have tracking protection. Three kinds, in fact. (Let me explain: my work requires experimenting with many different privacy protection tools. It just happens that right now I have these three working in Firefox, my default browser.) Here is what Ghostery sees:


Here is what Disconnect sees:


And here is what Privacy Badger sees:


So I’m guessing what blocked the ad was one of the two red sliders in Privacy Badger. I slid the one to yellow and it seemed to load the desired page without a problem, but I don’t know if Forbes would have let me though anyway or not . I dunno how to tell what did what.

Then today I ran into the same thing at Wired, looking for some of my own words there. Here’s the roadblock Wired put in my path:


Again, I’m not blocking ads. I’m just trying to block tracking. I also just checked, and Disconnect, Ghostery and Privacy Badger are each doing nothing, far as I can tell, to block anything on Wired. They’re all green-lighting everything. That means they’ve already whitelisted it. Yet Wired thinks I’m blocking ads.

As it happens I‘ve been a Wired subscriber for the duration. But, when I log in (by clicking on the link above), it takes me to a billing page. There it wants to charge me $3.99 every four weeks, which comes to about $52 a year, on top of what I’m already paying for the print publication, which (I would hope) ought to give me access to the same thing online. Very confusing.

Thing is, I don’t mind ads. I even like some of them. Back in the last millennium, I was a partner in Hodskins Simone & Searls, one of Silicon Valley’s top advertising agencies.

And, like most readers, I want publishers to make money.

But I also believe publishers don’t need to do that by tracking me in ways I neither like nor approve. They can give me ads on their pages that are perfectly safe, just like the ads that have funded print magazines for the duration. Those were always respectful of people’s privacy, and don’t rely on a herd of third parties following people around while they go about their lives. They were also more valuable, because they sent clear creative and economic signals, both uncompromised by suspicions of surveillance and other forms of bad acting.

Here is what Joshua Bernstein (@JoshuaBernstein), sourcing Wired‘s Mark McClusky (@markmcc), reported in Bloomberg about what the magazine is trying to do here:

More than 1 in 5 people who visit Wired Magazine’s website use ad-blocking software. Starting in the next few weeks, the magazine will give those readers a choice: stop blocking ads, pay to look at a version of the site that is unsullied by advertisements, or go away…

Wired plans to charge $3.99 for four weeks of ad-free access to its website. In many places where ads appear, the site will simply feature more articles, said Mark McClusky, the magazine’s head of product and business development. The portion of his readership that uses ad blockers are likely to be receptive to a discussion about their responsibility to support the businesses they rely on for information online, McClusky said.

There are legitimate reasons that people use ad blockers, according to McClusky, like a desire to speed up web browsing or not wanting to be tracked online. But Wired has bills to pay. “I think people are ready to have that conversation in a straightforward way,” he said.

This post is part of that conversation. So is what I’ve been writing over the last eight years on what we’ve recently come to call the “adblock war.”

The reason this is a “war,” and it’s impossible for publishers on their own to make peace, is that the only solutions that can scale are the individual reader’s. Ad blockers and tracking protection in browsers all work for the individual, giving everybody scale. Roadblocks and tollbooths like Forbes’ and Wired’s piss readers off, drive them away, or both. Worse, every one of them is different, which is kind of an anti-scale way of doing things.

At this early stage, however, none of the solutions that scale for individuals also work in ways that are friendly to publishers. (Nor do what the browser makers are doing on their own—each differently, which is also anti-scale.)

So we need to take another step, again from the individual’s side, this time with an olive branch.

And that’s what we’ll do at VRM Day (25 April) and IIW(26–28 April), both at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. I invite Forbes, Wired, and all publishers, advertisers, agencies, browser makers and other parties interested in peace to come join us there.

On the table is an easy solution: simple publisher-friendly preference a reader can assert and a publisher can agree to. It says, “Just show me ads not based on tracking me” — or words to that effect, which we’ll work out. (Update: we’ve dubbed this the #NoStalking offer.)

This term will be standard and enabled by code on both the client and server side. The standard and code will live at Customer Commons, which is built for that purpose, on the Creative Commons mode, which has worked well for many years. (And, like ProjectVRM, was hatched at the Berkman Center.) Some of the code already exists. We’ll start writing the rest at IIW next week.

Both VRM Day and IIW are unconferences. No keynotes, no panels, no sponsor exhibits. Everything happens at breakouts, all of which are topics chosen and led by participants. VRM Day is for presenting and planning the work we’ll be doing over the next three days at IIW. We do two IIWs per year, and this is our 22nd. I don’t know any gathering that is more leveraged for getting stuff done. Register here.

For more background on the peace we can forge together, see here and here.



Today AdAge gives us Clinton and Sanders Using Addressable Advertising in New York Market: Precision Targeting Is Especially Relevant in NYC, Say Political Media Observers, by @LowBrowKate. Here’s how it works:

In order to aim addressable TV spots to those voters, the campaigns provide a list of the individual voters they want to target to Cablevision or satellite providers DirecTV and Dish. That list is matched against each provider’s customer database and ads are served to the matching households. Because voter data includes actual names and addresses, the same information the TV providers have for billing purposes, they readily can match up the lists.

Speaking as a Dish Network customer—and as a sovereign human being—I don’t want to be an “addressable target” of any advertising—and I already feel betrayed.

I don’t care what measurable results “addressable” or “precision” targeting gets for those who practice it. The result that matters is that I’m pissed to know that my provider has sold me out to advertisers putting crosshairs on me and my family. Same goes for other viewers who get creeped out when they see that an ad on TV is just for them and not for everybody watching the show.

It should be obvious by now that people hate being tracked like animals and shot with digital blow-guns by advertisers. The feedback has been loud and clear.

First the market responded with Do Not Track, which the ad industry mocked and ignored. Then the market installed ad blockers and tracking protection in numbers massive enough to comprise the largest boycott in human history. (More than 200 million doing ad blocking alone, by last June.) Again, the industry didn’t listen, and instead went to war with its own consumers and mocked the their choice as a “fad.”

Here is a fact: people value their privacy, safety and time infinitely more than whatever they might get from commercial messages packed around the content they actually demand.

Here is another: anonymity is a form of privacy. One of the graces of watching TV is being anonymous, as both a private individual and part of a crowd.

Advertising respected both those facts before it got body-snatched by direct marketing. Now is the time to respect the difference again, and separate the wheat of respectful advertising from the chaff of disrespectful “addressable targeting” and other junk mail methods that were alien to Madison Avenue before it got drunk on “digital.”

Make no mistake: addressable targeting is disrespectful to both its targets and the very media respectful advertising has supported for the duration. For a gut-check on that, ask if anybody wants it. Make it opt-in. Don’t just take advantage of whatever data collection has been done, surely without express permission from individual customers.

Here is another fact the industry needs to face: people have tools for safeguarding their privacy now, and they’ll get more, whether the industry likes it or not. In fact, the more precisely advertising invades and violates people’s personal spaces, the faster people will acquire the protections they need.

What’s at stake now for the industry is the survival of whatever remains of advertising’s value as a contribution to business and culture. The only reason the industry can’t see that fact, which ought to be obvious, is that it’s driving drunk on digital kool-aid.

Time to sober up.

Bonus reading: Bob Hoffman, Don Marti, Jason Kint, Dave Carroll, yours truly.

Bonus opportunity to participate in moving from blocking all advertising to welcoming the respectful kind: VRM Day and IIW, the week after next, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

The original draft of this post was my comment under the AdAge piece.

It didn't happen in 2010, but it will in 2016.

It didn’t happen in 2010, but it will in 2016.

This Post ran on my blog almost six years ago. I was wrong about the timing, but not about the turning: because it’s about to happen this month at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. More about that below the post.

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

It’s pretty freaking amazing — and amazingly freaky, when you dig down to the business assumptions behind it. Here’s the gist:

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

It gets worse:

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen — tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks — competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.” The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer. As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles. But over two-thirds — 2,224 — were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

Here’s what’s delusional about all this: There is no demand for tracking by individual customers. All the demand comes from advertisers — or from companies selling to advertisers. For now.

Here is the difference between an advertiser and an ordinary company just trying to sell stuff to customers: nothing. If a better way to sell stuff comes along — especially if customers like it better than this crap the Journal is reporting on — advertising is in trouble.

Here is the difference between an active customer who wants to buy stuff and a consumer targeted by secretive tracking bullshit: everything.

Two things are going to happen here. One is that we’ll stop putting up with it. The other is that we’ll find better ways for demand and supply to meet — ways that don’t involve tracking or the guesswork called advertising.

Improving a pain in the ass doesn’t make it a kiss. The frontier here is on the demand side, not the supply side.

Advertising may pay for lots of great stuff (such as search) that we take for granted, but advertising even at its best is guesswork. It flourishes in the absence of more efficient and direct demand-supply interactions.

The idea of making advertising perfectly personal has been a holy grail of the business since Day Alpha. Now that Day Omega is approaching, thanks to creepy shit like this, the advertsing business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: “consumers” are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.

Rough impersonal guesswork is tolerable. Totally personalized guesswork is not.

Trust me, if I had exposed every possible action in my life this past week, including every word I wrote, every click I made, everything I ate and smelled and heard and looked at, the guesswork engine has not been built that can tell any seller the next thing I’ll actually want. (Even Amazon, widely regarded as the best at this stuff, sucks to some degree.)

Meanwhile I have money ready to spend on about eight things, right now, that I’d be glad to let the right sellers know, provided that information is confined to my relationship with those sellers, and that it doesn’t feed into anybody’s guesswork mill. I’m ready to share that information on exactly those conditions.

Tools to do that will be far more leveraged in the ready-to-spend economy than any guesswork system. (And we’re working on those tools.) Chris Locke put it best in Cluetrain eleven years ago. He said, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal, that dealing may finally come in 2010.

[Later…] Jeff Jarvis thinks the Journal is being silly. I love Jeff, and I agree that the Journal may be blurring some concerns, off-base on some of the tech and even a bit breathless; but I also think they’re on to something, and I’m glad they’re on it.

Most people don’t know how much they’re being followed, and I think what the Journal’s doing here really does mark a turning point.

I also think, as I said, that the deeper story is the market for advertising, which is actually threatened by absolute personalization. (The future market for real engagement, however, is enormous. But that’s a different business than advertising — and it’s no less thick with data… just data that’s voluntarily shared with trusted limits to use by others.)

[Later still…] TechCrunch had some fun throwing Eric Clemons and Danny Sullivan together. Steel Cage Debate On The Future Of Online Advertising: Danny Sullivan Vs. Eric Clemons, says the headline. Eric’s original is Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet. Danny’s reply is at that first link. As you might guess, I lean toward Eric on this one. But this post is a kind of corollary to Eric’s case, which is compressed here (at the first link again):

I stand by my earlier points:

  • Users don’t trust ads
  • Users don’t want to view ads
  • Users don’t need ads
  • Ads cannot be the sole source of funding for the internet
  • Ad revenue will diminish because of brutal competition brought on by an oversupply of inventory, and it will be replaced in many instances by micropayments and subscription payments for content.
  • There are numerous other business models that will work on the net, that will be tried, and that will succeed.

The last point, actually, seemed to be the most important. It was really the intent of the article, and the original title was “Business Models for Monetizing the Internet: Surely There Must Be Something Other Than Advertising.” This point got lost in the fury over the title of the article and in rage over the idea that online advertising might lose its importance.

My case is that advertisers themselves will tire of the guesswork business when something better comes along. Whether or not that “something better” funds Web sites and services is beside the points I am making, though it could hardly be a more important topic.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the Googles of the world are well positioned to take advantage of a new economy in which demand drives supply at least as well as supply drives demand. So, in fact, are some of those back-end data companies. (Disclosure: I currently consult one of them.)

Look at it this way…

  • What if all that collected data were yours and not just theirs?
  • What if you could improve that data voluntarily?
  • What if there were standard ways you could get that data back, and use it in your own ways?
  • What if those same companies were in the business of helping you buy stuff, and not just helping sellers target you?

Those questions are all on the table now.


9 April 2016 — The What They Know series ran in The Wall Street Journal until 2012. Since then the tracking economy has grown into a monster that Shoshana Zuboff calls The Big Other, and Surveillance Capitalism.

The tide against surveillance began to turn with the adoption of ad blockers and tracking blockers. But, while those provide a measure of relief, they don’t fix the problem. For that we need tools that engage the publishers and advertisers of the world, in ways that work for them as well.

They might think it’s working for them today; but it’s clearly not, and this has been apparent for a long time.

In Identity and the Independent Web, published in October 2010, John Battelle said “the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal.”

In The Data Bubble II (also in October 2010) I replied,

In fact we don’t know, we’re not cool with it, and it isn’t a deal.

If we knew, The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have a reason to clue us in at such length.

We’re cool with it only to the degree that we are uncomplaining about it — so far.

And it isn’t a “deal” because nothing was ever negotiated.

To have a deal, both parties need to come to the table with terms the other can understand and accept. For example, we could come with a term that says, Just show me ads that aren’t based on tracking me. (In other words, Just show me the kind of advertising we’ve always had in the offline world — and in the online one before the surveillance-based “interactive” kind gave brain cancer to Madison Avenue.)

And that’s how we turn the tide. This month. We’ll prepare the work on VRM Day (25 April), and then hammer it into code at IIW (26–28 April). By the end of that week we’ll post the term and the code at Customer Commons (which was designed for that purpose, on the Creative Commons model).

Having this term (which needs a name — help us think of one) is a good deal for advertisers because non-tracking based ads are not only perfectly understood and good at doing what they’ve always done, but because they are actually worth more (thank you, Don Marti) than the tracking-based kind.

It’s a good deal for high-reputation publishers, because it gets them out of a shitty business that tracks their readers to low reputation sites where placing ads is cheaper. And it lets them keep publishing ads that readers can appreciate because the ads clearly support the publication. (Bet they can charge more for the ads too, simply because they are worth more.)

It’s even good for the “interactive” advertising business because it allows the next round of terms to support advertising based on tracking that the reader actually welcomes. If there is such a thing, however, it needs to be on terms the reader asserts, and not on labor-intensive industry-run opt-out systems such as Ad Choices.

If you have a stake in these outcomes, come to VRM Day and IIW and help us make it happen. VRM Day is free, and IIW is very cheap compared to most other conferences. It is also an unconference. That means it has no keynotes or panels. Instead it’s about getting stuff done, over three days of breakouts, all on topics chosen by you, me and anybody else who shows up.

When we’re done, the Data Bubble will start bursting for real. It won’t mean that data goes away, however. It will just mean that data gets put to better uses than the icky ones we’ve put up with for at least six years too long.


This post also appears in Medium.

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While The Cluetrain Manifesto is best known for its 95 theses (especially its first, “Markets are conversations”), the clue that matters most is this one, which runs above the whole list:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.


That was the first clue we wrote. And by “we” I mean Christopher Locke (aka RageBoy), who sent it to the other three authors in early 1999. At that time we were barely focused on what we wanted to do, other than to put something up on the Web.

But that ur-clue, addressed to marketers on behalf of markets, energized and focused everything we wrote on Cluetrain site, and then in the book.

But it failed. Are you hearing me, folks? It failed. For a decade and a half, Cluetrain succeeded as a book and as a meme, but it failed to make its founding clue true. Deal with this:

our reach did not exceed marketers’ grasp.
instead, marketers grasped more than ever, starting with our privacy.


As heedless of manners as a mosh pit on Ecstasy, the online advertising business went nuts with surveillance, planting cookies and beacons in people’s browsers and tracking them like animals, harvesting and shipping off personal data to who-knows-where, all for the dubious purpose of spamming them with advertising based on algorithmic guesswork about what people might want to buy. All this in spite of two simple facts:

  1. Nobody comes to a webstite for advertising. At most they just tolerate it.
  2. Most of the time people aren’t buying anything. That’s why people don’t click on ads at a rate that rounds to 100%.

For years we played nice, quietly purging cookies from our browsers’ innards, or just putting up with the abuse. For few years (2007-2012, specifically — see below), we put some hope in Do Not Track.

Then, when that failed (most dramatically in 2012), we started blocking ads, en masse:


More than 200 million of us are blocking ads now, and (in many or most cases) blocking tracking as well. This is great news for Cluetrain fans, because:::

blocking ads and tracking
are great ways to deal with marketers’ grasp.


Depending on marketers to stop bad acting on their own is putting responsibility in the wrong place. It’s our job to stop them. Besides, asking the online advertising business to reform is like asking Versailles to start the French Revolution. Writes Jessica Davies,

I was recently in front of about 400 advertisers talking to them about fraud, and they all nodded their heads and listened, but there was apathy. Behind the scenes I ask them what they’re doing about it and some of them shrug their shoulders…

The funniest conversation I’ve ever had with an agency was when I told them a campaign they had run was 90 percent fraudulent, and their reply was: ‘Oh, I know, but it really performed well. The click-through rates were phenomenal.’ I re-emphasized that those click-throughs were fraudulent; the ads weren’t seen by humans, and their response was ‘The client is happy. We’re renewing the contract.’

Here’s a fact about those clients: They don’t call themselves advertisers, and they don’t have to advertise. To them advertising is overhead. A discretionary expense. They can spend it other ways. I know this, because I was a partner in one of Silicon Valley’s top advertising agencies for the better part of two decades. And, because of that, I also know how well old-fashioned Madison Avenue advertising — the uncomplicated kind not based on tracking — can actually work, while sponsoring publishers and broadcasters of all kinds.

That kind of advertising, aka #SafeAds, is the best hope the online advertising industry and its dependents in publishing and broadcasting actually have — especially if future ad and tracking blockers permit those through while saying #NoAds to the rest.

Now let’s go back to dealing. What else, besides #SafeAds, can we get with leverage from blocking ads and tracking? Clue: it has to be good for both sides. That’s how business works at its best. Both sides win. We don’t need to reach for their privates just because they grasped our privacy.

How about this deal: better signaling between customers and companies than marketing alone can provide— especially when marketing today is mostly about grabbing for “net new” and flushing customers into “the pipeline” through “the funnel.”

We can help companies (and ourselves) a lot more if we have standard ways to connect with sales, service and product and service development functions — and they with us. Then “Markets are conversations” will finally mean what it’s failed to mean for the last sixteen years.

Bonus link: VRM development projects, many of which are already working on this.


We know shit.

I mean, in respect to the Everything that surrounds us, and the culture in which we are pickled from start to finish, what we know rounds to nothing and is, with the provisional exception of the subjects and people we study and love, incomplete and therefore somewhere between questionable and wrong.

But we can’t operate in the present without some regard for the future, which brings me to a comparison of futurist related ideologies, from H+pedia, which was new to me when I saw this in a post to a list I’m on:


Here is my reply to the same list:

Must we all be “ists?”

I mean, is a historian a “pastist?”

I’m into making the future better than the present by understanding everything I can. Most of what I can understand is located in the past, but I’ve only lived through a few dozen years of that, and none of the future. So I tend to be focused on enlarging the little I know, with full awe and respect for what I don’t, and never will.

Hey, we all do our best.

A shrink I know says nearly everything mentally productive about us owes to OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. Same goes for nearly all our problems. Name one of either, and there’s a good chance OCD is at work there.

Just passing that along. Not sure it’s a learning, but as provisional wisdom it doesn’t fully suck.

And maybe that’s the best we can do.

Whch is also, by the way, roughly what I got from The End of the Tour, which I watched on a friend’s home screen a couple nights ago. Here’s a good essay about it by Stephen Marche (@StephenMarche) in Esquire.

reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:


As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

no-ads-trackingHere is a list of pieces I’ve written on what has come to be known as the “adblock wars.” That term applies most to #22 (written August of ’15) those that follow. But the whole series works as a coherent whole that might make a good book if a publisher is interested.

  1. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  2. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  3. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  4. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  5. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  6. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  7. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  8. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  9. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  10. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  11. Thoughts on Privacy (31 August 2013)
  12. What the ad biz needs is to evict direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  13. We are not fish and advertising is not food (23 January 2014 in Customer Commons)
  14. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  15. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  16. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  17. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  18. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  19. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  20. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  21. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  22. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  23. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  24. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  25. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  26. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  27. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  28. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  29. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  30. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  31. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  32. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  33. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  34. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  35. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  36. At last, Cluetrain’s time has come (5 December 2015)
  37. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It (11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  38. More thoughts on privacy (13 December 2015)
  39. Why ad blocking is good (17 December 2015 talk at the U. of Michigan)
  40. What we can do with ad blocking’s leverage (1 January 2016 in Linux Journal)
  41. Rethinking John Wanamaker (18 January 2016)

There are others, but those will do for now.

ripping up a contractLet’s reset our thinking to what a user’s expectations are, when operating a browser and interacting with pages and sites.

In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.

So, for example, when I go to, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In  Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”

When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.

Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends

My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.

This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.

Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.

But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.

Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.

A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.

What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.

Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.

In The Data Bubble, I said,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions

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