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Category Error: Tracking Ads Are Not a Funding Mechanism

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:01.

A note to put this in perspective: This blog post doesn’t pull any punches, and there will be legitimate exceptions to the broad strokes I’ll be painting here. But I believe that this category error is real and has disastrous negative effects. So let’s get right to it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about category errors: The error of thinking of an issue as being in a certain category of problems even though it is primarily in another. Meaning that all analysis and debate will by necessity miss the intended goals until we shift this debate into a more appropriate category.

I increasingly believe that it is a category error to think of online advertising as a means to fund the creation of content. It’s not that online advertising doesn’t fund the creation of content, but this is almost a side effect, and that function is dwarfed by the negative unintended consequences it enables.

When we discuss ads online, it’s usually in the framing of funding. Like this: Ads pay for free news. Or: We want to pay our writers, and ads is how we can do that.

To be clear, these are solid arguments. Because you want to keep news and other types of journalism as accessible to as many people as possible (and it doesn’t get more accessible than “free”). And you do want to pay writers, editors and all the others involved in creating media products.

However.

Those sentences make sense if we consider them in their original context (newspaper ads) as well as the original digital context (banner ads on websites).

There, the social contract was essentially this: I give my attention to a company’s advertisement, and that company gives the media outlet money. It wasn’t a terribly elegant trade in that there are still (at least) three parties involved, but it was pretty straightforward.

Fast forward a few years, and tracking of success of individual ads gets introduced, which happens in steps: First, how many times is this ad displayed to readers? Then, how many readers click it? Then, how many readers click it and then follow through with a purchase? There’s a little more to it, but that’s the basic outline of what was going on.

Fast forward a few years again, and now we have a very different picture. Now, ads place cookies on readers’ devices, and track not just how often they’re been displayed or clicked or how often they convert to a purchase.

Contemporary tracking ads and their various cookies also do things like these: Track if a reader moves the cursor over the ad. Tracks from which website a reader comes to the current website and where they head after. Track the whole journey of any user through the web. Track the software and hardware of any reader’s devices and create unique fingerprints to match with other profiles. Match movement through the web with social media profiles and activities and likes and shares and faves. Track movement of the reader in the physical world. Build profiles of readers combined from all of this and then sell those in aggregate or individually to third parties. Allow extremely granular targeting of advertisements to any reader, down to the level of an ad personalized for just one person. And so on.

This is nothing like the social contract laid out above, even though the language we use is still the same. Here, the implied social contract is more like this: I get to look a little at a website without paying money, and that website and its owner and everyone the owner chooses to make deals with gets to take an in-depth look at all my online behaviors and a significant chunk of my offline behaviors, too, all without a way for me to see what’s going on, or of opting out of it.

And that’s not just a mouthful, it’s also of course not the social contract anyone has signed up for. It’s completely opaque, and there’s no real alternative when you move through the web, unless you really know about operational security in a way that no normal person should ever have to, just in order to read the news.

This micro-targeting is also at the core of what might (possibly, even though we won’t have reliable data on it until it would be too late, if confirmed) undermines and seriously threatens our political discourse. It allows anti-democratic actors of all stripes to spread disinformation (aka “to lie”) without oversight and it’s been shown to be a driver of radicalization by matching supply with demand at a whole new scale.

Even if you don’t want to go all the way to this doomsday scenario, the behavior tracking and nudging that is supposed to streamline readers into just buying more stuff all the time (you probably know how it feels to be chased around the web by an ad for a thing you looked up online once) without a reasonable chance to stop it is, at best, nasty. At worst, illegal under at least GDPR, as a recent study demonstrated. It also creates a surprising — and entirely avoidable! — carbon footprint.

So, to sum up, negative externalities of tracking ads include:

  • micro-targeting used to undermine the democratic process through disinformation and other means;
  • breaches of privacy and data rights;
  • manipulation of user behavior, and negatively impacting user agency;
  • and an insane carbon footprint.

Of course, the major tracking players benefit a great deal financially: Facebook, who make a point of not fact-checking any political ads, i.e. they willingly embrace those anti-democratic activities. Google, who are one of the biggest provider of online ad tracking and also own the biggest browser and the biggest mobile phone operating system, i.e. they collect data in more places than anyone else. And all the data brokers, the shadiest of all shadow industries.

Let me be clear, none of this is acceptable, and it is beyond me that at least parts of it are even legal.

So, where does that lead us?

I argue we need to stop talking about tracking ads as if they were part of our social contract for access to journalism. Instead, we need to name and frame this in the right category:

Tracking ads are not a funding method for online content. Tracking ads are the infrastructure for surveillance & manipulation, and a massive attack vector for undermining society and its institutions.

Funding of online content is a small side-effect. And I’d argue that while we need to fund that content, we can’t keep doing it this way no matter what. Give me dumb (i.e. privacy friendly, non-tracking) ads any day to pay for content. Or, if it helps keep the content free (both financially as well as free of tracking) for others then I think we should also consider paying for more news if we’re in any financial position to do so.

(What we shouldn’t do is just pay for our own privacy and let the rest still be spied on, that’s not really a desirable option. But even that doesn’t currently exist: If you pay for a subscription you’ll still be tracked just like everyone else, only with some other values in your profile, like “has demonstrated willingness to spend money on online content”.)

So, let’s recognize this category error for what it is. We should never repeat these statement again that ads pay for content; they do not. (Digital ad spend goes up and up but over the last 15 years or so newspaper revenue through digital ads have stayed pretty flat, and print collapsed.) Ads online today are almost completely tracking ads, and those are just surveillance infrastructure, period. 

It’s surveillance with a lot of negative impact and some positive side effects. That’s not good enough. So let’s start from there, and build on that, and figure out better models.

Guardian: We need to become a platform!

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Now here’s a bold move by a major newspaper: The Guardian is becoming a platform.

And boy, is that a smart move compared to many other newspapers that try to lock up their content and try charging readers directly, be it by subscription model or pay-per-view.

Quoting GigaOM:

While some newspapers like the Times of London and the New York Times have either implemented or are expected to launch paywalls for their content, The Guardian in Britain has taken the exact opposite approach: Not only does it give its content away for free to readers, but through its “open platform” and API, it allows developers and companies to take its content as well, and do whatever they want with it — including building it into commercial applications.

It’s interesting to see so much movement in the newspaper market. Just earlier today I’ve discussed with a friend how it comes that so many people don’t read newspapers anymore in paper. (Including myself: The days when I had a newspaper subscription are long gone. These days I occasionally buy a newspaper for certain articles – usually when journalist friends recommend it – or read all my stuff online, usually for free. I do buy print magazines and subscribe, for example, to Wired UK. Of course, that’s a purchase more as a fetish than for its actual use, plus I want to support some magazines because they rock. Not sure how a tablet device might change my behavior there. I also subscribe to a wearable magazine.) Long story short, a theory bubbled up: That maybe we (our group of freelancers in the discussion) don’t read newspapers anymore since we stopped commuting. Asking Twitter about this theory, the response was clear: Some pointed out that there are more reasons than just the commute. One was even harsher. One mentioned that other media like podcasts suffered the same problem. But no one defended newspapers. Ouch.

German newspaper taz announced to experiment with donations through Flattr. Traditionally left-leaning, taz had been ad-free online until 2006, for both better or worse: of course there’s not much money to be had without ads in a strong ad market, but there’s much less to lose in a bad ad market like we’ve seen recently. For taz with their strongly committed reader base, donations might turn out well – the rational certainly makes sense. The question will be: Is Flattr the right platform? It’s still tough to provide readers an easy, hassle-free way to send money your way on a non-subscription basis, particularly in Germany where credit cards just aren’t ubiquitous.

But back to the Guardian. Where German publishers have been complaining about Google News “stealing” their content and making money off of it (both parts of this statement not necessarily true as Google only quotes teasers and doesn’t run ads on Google News), the Guardian not only gives away their content, but encourages commercial use:

“We not only say that you can use the content in a commercial application, we encourage it,” Thorpe said. “It gets our content to places where it wouldn’t be otherwise, and then we can build relationships with content partners around that.” The platform, which is still in the experimental stage, has attracted about 2,000 developers who have signed up for the API and created over 200 apps and web services. Platform developer Matt McAlister has called it an attempt to “weave The Guardian into the fabric of the Internet.”

The Guardian’s “developer advocate” Chris Thorpe summarizes the move:

Update (31 May 2010): On a related note, the BBC plans to increase the number of outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That right: They aim to double the number of readers they send away. Someone got it right!

Vaynerchuk on Social Media ROI

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Gary Vaynerchuk strikes with another awesome rant: “You Down With ROI?… Yeah You Know Me“. Are social media in trouble because of the U.S. financial crisis? Nope, it’s magazines, radio and TV who are in trouble, say Vaynerchuk. And guess who agrees: Yours truly.

Because social media have a number of clear advantages over traditional media when it comes to advertising. Says Vaynerchuk: “ROI. I am talking about Return on the Investment of your advertising dollar. Traditional media advertising is incredibly expensive and doesn’t provide nearly the rate of return you can derive from intelligent web-based marketing campaigns in 2008 and beyond.”

Not only are social media much cheaper both to produce and to advertise on, they also have more value – in their respective niches.

You donated $9.55 to EFF through my ads (thanks!)

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A little while back, I proposed to run social ads on blogs and to donate the revenue. This, it seemed, would be the easiest way to raise some funds and to donate money, paying with your attention. Eyeballs for money, the usual model for ads, applied in a social way. Here’s the ad I put on my blog. Every time someone clicked the ad, some money came in through Google Adsense:

Of course the deal is still on: Click the ad, I’ll donate for a good cause.

Not too many people clicked, but those of you who did raised $9.55. Not huge, but not so bad for just a few clicks, eh?

EFF.orgSo this time, a round $10 will go went to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to help protect bloggers rights and our privacy. The money raised in August will go to Stiftung Bridge (“Bridge Foundation”), a German non-profit that fights for digital rights by supporting small projects.

Thanks a lot, all of you. And please consider doing the same thing.

Ad-Activism: Support something good by clicking those social ads

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Lately I’ve been approached by a folks who were interested in advertising on this blog. Although the blogger in me was flattered, I wasn’t so sure I even wanted any ads here. (I have Google Ads in the individual posts, but nowhere else, and that’s more for experiments and experience than for revenue.)

So I talked it over with a few friends, and that’s where the really good ideas come from. Sven (thanks!) proposed that if there should be any ads, then why not do it for a good, or interesting, cause?

The new plan is this: I’ll reserve some ad space on the front page of this blog. (Advertisers, feel free to contact me about this.) I won’t keep any of the revenue, but instead I will donate it to a worthy cause.

Let’s start right here. Click the ad to donate a few cents to a good cause:

About once a month (a week? We’ll see.) I’ll set another recipient. Suggestions are highly welcome. We could also think about a readers’ vote. Let me know what you guys prefer. Spontaneously, I’d say it should be either a classic good cause (think charity), or some kind of project that’s worth supporting (creative, artsy, or anything else). The first round will go to something education-related, details to be announced.

Let’s be clear here: It won’t be a lot of money. But hey, just click the ads a few more time, and your eyeballs will support something cool. (If it turns out to be a non-clicker in the below $1 range it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. So click away!) I’d click myself, but I think that’d be a breach of contract. So I’ll click your social ads once you have them online.

Deal?

Update: The first day, you clicked for $4.10. Let’s see if we can get some more by just a few more clicks. (Each click is pretty valuable here.) By the end of the month, donations will go to… Right now I’m thinking an organization fighting for free speech (Electronic Frontier Foundation? Reporters Without Borders?) or battling the digital divide. What do you think? Please share your proposals in the comments. (And thanks a lot for your click!)

Facebook Beacon is Serious Breach of Trust

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Facebook recently introduced Facebook Beacon, a new technique for businesses and website operators to “enable your customers to share the actions they take on your website with their Facebook friends.”

Beacon can be installed by simply adding a few lines of code:

Simply determine which user actions you would like publish to Facebook (…) Facebook Beacon actions include purchasing a product, signing up for a service, adding an item to a wish list, and more. When a user performs the action, they will be alerted that your website is sending a story to their profile and have a chance to opt out.

And that’s the problem right there: Why would a user have to opt out of broadcasting his activities? If I like to share what I’m doing right now, there are many ways to do so, like Twitter. (On Twitter you’re even prompted to just answer the one question: “What are you doing?”)

I do not want any website to be able to send my activities to Facebook, or any other service. And I’m not alone here.

As Forrster’s Charelene Li points out, she got blindsided by Facebook Beacon while instead she should be in control of the information in her Facebook account. She rightfully criticizes the lack of transparency Beacon brings for users.

Nate Weiner shares her concerns and is also annoyed:

I want Facebook to sit still and let me check out how many of my friends enjoy the movie Sleepover and look at pictures of people I didn’t like in High School. I don’t need Facebook extrapolating data about me as I go about my business on the web.

(By the way, this is what should be called Digital Rights Management: User being able to manager their own digital lifes.)

While I understand that Facebook needs to find ever more effective ways of advertising, this one clearly sides with their ad customers (which is good), but against their users (which is bad, bad, bad). Google Adsense was a win/win. But Beacon…? In Kathy Sierra’s words: How is Facbeook helping us users kick ass?

Beacon is crossing the line to too much integration, if there is such a thing, or rather: It’s the wrong kind of integration. Folks will start feeling alienated and annoyed, and in my eyes Beacon will seriously backfire.

Luckily, this is Teh Interwebs, and someone already came up with a solution. Feel free to check out Nate Weiner’s Beacon Blocker.