Essays on Technology and Culture

Fake Traffic and the Ad Reckoning

“As an advertiser we were paying for eyeballs and thought that we were buying views. But in the digital world, you’re just paying for the ad to be served, and there’s no guarantee who will see it, or whether a human will see it at all.”

The Fake Traffic Schemes That Are Rotting the Internet – Bloomberg Business

If you want more evidence that online advertising is heading for a reckoning of biblical proportions, read this. What good is a directly targeted ad when the only person that will “see” it is an AI? That is, if anyone sees it at all.

I’m Not Signing Up for Apple Music, and Neither Should You

My Apple Music trial ends today, and—to the surprise of nobody who reads my work regularly—I will not be signing up as a paid customer. Why? Well, aside from the one feature of Apple Music I wanted most, iCloud Music Library, eating my library for lunch, and demanding seconds, streaming music is antithetical to the way I relate to music.

Maybe I’m just preternaturally old. I’m approaching 32 years old, after all, and for most of my life, music has been a physical thing. I owned an LP, Pac-Man Fever (don’t judge me) when I was barely old enough to know what a record was. I would listen to CDs on my parents sound system as a kid, typically movie soundtracks. Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II were favorites, but I also had thing as a child for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Go figure. As a teenager, I would buy CDs, when I could, but I also embraced the world of Napster and piracy. I’m not proud of it, but so much of the music I know and love, I discovered because I downloaded it illegally.

I buy most of the music I listen to now. I prefer to buy direct from the artist, when available, typically on physical media. So far this year, I’ve bought albums from Holly Herndon, Eskimeaux, DEVO, Dweezil Zappa, Listening Center, and CHVRCHES on a variety of formats: vinyl LP, CD, and even a cassette tape. I don’t even own a cassette player! I wanted a physical artifact of the music, and cassette was the only way to get it. But even the music I buy digitally has a certain physicality to it. There is an external hard drive on my desk that holds my 200GB-plus iTunes library. I sync a portion to my iPhone. Back when I started downloading music, I would burn albums and custom mixes to audio CD, and even burned MP3 CDs to play in a pre-iPod MP3 CD Player. The music may exist as zeros and ones, but they have a physical container.

The thing about files from the iTunes Music Store, about LPs, ripped CDs, and downloaded music—legal and otherwise—is that they are mine. I can do what I choose with them, maybe not legally, but there’s no easily enforceable restrictions on what I do with the copies of the music I own, regardless of format. [1] They won’t go away (assuming I back the files up, which I do. Religiously.) Streaming is ephemeral, and that worries me. If an artist or a label decides it doesn’t like the deal Apple is playing, what’s to stop them from pulling their music? Remember Taylor Swift and Spotify? Prince pulled his music from everything but TIDAL. They won’t be the last ones. Anyone who grumbles about needing membership to a bunch of different video streaming services to watch the shows they want, yet is happy to sign up for a streaming music service, is just asking for the same pain down the line.

I would pay to keep all the music I own in a place where I could be sure I can listen from anywhere I have connectivity. This seems fair, but unless Apple raises the limit on iTunes Match (or, for that matter iCloud Music Library), and ensures that I when I listen to the live concert recording of DEVO from 1977 that I bought on CD, legally, [2] and ripped to my iTunes Library, I won’t get studio tracks instead, I’ll suffer with having to sync the files to my iPhone. The cost of ownership is a small amount of inconvenience and a huge degree of freedom. It’s worth the price. If you value music, don’t won’t stream it—buy it.

  1. Remember, iTunes dropped DRM for music purchases back in 2009.  ↩
  2. Said live recording is not available as a digital release, only on vinyl and CD.  ↩

I Work in Online Publishing and I Block Ads. Here’s Why.

The sky is not falling, at least not yet. That seems to be the takeaway from most of the pieces, for and against, I’ve read on ad blocking in the wake of iOS 9, and the Content Blocker drizzle. [1] It’s something I’ve watch with interest as both a dedicated ad blocker, and an employee in the world of ad-supported digital publishing. As a consumer of content, I don’t want my data tracked and sold, and I don’t want ads to interrupt what I’m reading or watching. As a guy with $36,000 in student loan debt, who also needs to pay rent and eat, I want to make sure I still have a job.

There’s a balance to be struck, for sure. Advertising is a necessity in a society where people have things to sell, and other people have things they need to buy. It’s that simple. We will never live in a world that is free of advertising, and I am fine with this. What I, and so many others, are not fine with, are ads that keep us from doing whatever it is we set out to do, and ads that follow us around on our travels across the web. In my digital publishing role, I get to see some incredibly detailed information about the audience for target advertisements.

I’m forced to be vague here, and this level of details is partially a function of pulling publicly available data sources for the information on a class of professionals, and paying handsomely for the privilege. With all the information everyone is feeding to social networks, which also work as ad networks, data brokers, and track us across the web, it’s not a leap to assume some office drone is able to pore through my personal information collected for the purposes of ad tracking, as well. Ad and tracker blocking software is the only tool most of us have to change that balance. It’s possible to opt-out of a lot of social and ad tracking and data collection, but it’s a huge pain to do so.

For this reason, among others, I am not willing to join ranks with publishers who rage and bluster against ad blocking as if the users were amoral thieves. If anything, it’s the ad networks who collect our data who are the thieves, because we never explicitly consented to giving them our data in the first place. We put our information out there into the aether, and they suck it down and spit it back in our faces with badly targeted ads that follow us wherever we click to next. But that targeting is getting better by the day.

This is pure avarice on the side of the advertisers—their dream of a day of one-to-one targeted ads that offer us exactly what we want, exactly when we want it requires massive data collection, to make happen. The idea of an advertiser knowing exactly what I want and showing it to me gives me the willies. It should give you the willies too for the reasons I outlined above: if the advertiser, their network, or their algorithm has that much data, who else does? What protections exist? Why should we trust advertisers to use our data ethically?

The answers: everyone with database access—authorized and otherwise, none, and we shouldn’t.

Yet, not all advertisers behave this way. The Deck, which advertises on a number of sites run by people I respect and admire, released a privacy statement explaining their disinterest in tracking users. I’m happy, when I visit a site with Deck ads, to whitelist them in my ad blocker. Their ads respect me, and in turn, I will respect them back. This is a fair exchange. The Deck only knows that someone saw the ad, and that’s all the information I think it is fair to give to an advertiser, or the network it runs on. I also think it’s fair for a website owner to know that I visited their site, and even what platform and browser I used to do so. Anything beyond that is too far.

I’m also not a fan of the idea of Facebook, Google, Snapchat, or even Apple being the primary distribution points for content. It gives too much power to companies that have too much control over what we see and do already. Independence is essential for good journalism, for free expression, and I’ll remain suspicious of anything that risks violating that. This suspicion even extends towards Native Advertising, the practice of advertisers sponsoring and even providing, content for websites—though I’m more open to it than Ben Brooks. [2] The acceptability of Native Advertising is based on our trust of the publisher to choose sponsors in an ethical way, but all too often money will trump ethics any day of the week, especially for larger publishers.

At least we’re talking about solutions. I might be willing to drop my ad blocker and my tracking script blocker if, say, Maciej Cegłowski’s “Six Fixes” were implemented across the web. Ad blockers that make judgment calls about what ad networks and advertisers are behaving ethically, such as Dean Murphy’s Crystal app are another option. As networks and sites learn to behave and treat audiences with respect, it can be easier to whitelist them.

I don’t know how this will shake out, though research suggests that it certainly won’t be the bloodbath that online publisher’s assume it to be. There will be shifts, and there will be pain for any number of online publishers. If you get any emails from a publisher, expect to see more ads there—iOS Content Blockers don’t work in the Mail app. Expect more “Native Advertising,” and expect companies pushing you disable your ad blocker, or pull other tricks. Once it all shakes out, it’ll be something like the war on pop-up ads, and, for a while, the pendulum will shift to a calmer, quieter web with more respectful ads that we won’t mind seeing. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  1. Seriously, there were, what, five that came out on the first day?  ↩
  2. While a membership model might work for an independent, solo publisher, you can’t run anything at scale that way. Subscription and circulation revenue in print has long been a fraction of advertising revenue for publishing.  ↩

How the Internet Saved an Introvert

Being social has never come easily for me. I blame it on a combination of natural introversion, compounded by being on the wrong side of juvenile cliquedom and outright bullying. The lingering psychological effects of both often manifest themselves as social anxiety, and have left me ill-equipped when treading the waters of social interaction. At least, this is true in meatspace. Socialization is a lot easier when you have the luxury to do it from behind a screen, at least for some of us.

I think of this when I read people arguing about how online social interactions aren’t real, that they’re unhealthy, or dangerous. These are part of a long narrative about how technology isolates us, how screen-intermediated interaction is false interaction. It’s an attitude that extends back to the rise of the telephone in the home, and even extends to social criticism of novels and other forms of solitary entertainment. If you’re not directly interacting with your fellow human beings, the argument goes, you are not being human. Never mind what you, the human, would rather do with your time and reserves of social energy.

For myself, and many others, technology provides a way to satisfy the natural desire for social contact that even exists in the most shy and introverted among us, and it lets us do it on our own terms. A screen provides a form of safety, a screen name a form of anonymity. When the real world all-too-often forces us to be someone we are not, technology gives us the freedom to be who we are. It also gives us the freedom to be many people at once, to try on identities at will, and find the ones that suit us best. The ability is a double-edged sword, as shown time and time again by anonymous harassers and the Joshua Goldbergs of the world. It’s important to not lose sight of what we gain by choosing our identities, instead of being tied to a “real” self so Facebook can better target ads.

I know that, had I not discovered IRC as a socially isolated teenager, I would have been in a far worse place at a delicate and dangerous time in my life. Had I not found a diverse message board for a now defunct comedy site, I would never have met the love of my life, and my partner for over twelve years. My online social life has been as much of an emotional rollercoaster as anyone’s social life in the “real” world. I’ve been on the inside, and on the outside of circles. I’ve made friends, and made enemies. I’ve broken hearts, and had my heart broken. That most of these interactions occurred through a screen does not make them any less real, and any less emotional. Most, of course, because these online social interactions formed the bridge to real world socializing, bypassing the screaming monster in my head that worries if the other human beings will eat me alive.

This is what critics who decry online social interaction miss. They operate from the assumption that extroversion is the only correct way to be, that social anxiety either doesn’t exist, or can be cured though forced socialization. It’s true that technologically mediated social contact is different from what occurs in “reality,” but for those of us for whom “real” social interaction is fraught with peril, it’s often a lifesaver. More importantly, online social interaction does not preclude “real” interactions. Technology opens up doors for so many of us. Let’s not close them based on some antiquated notion of the “correct” way to interact with each other. To do so closes the door on so many who need that help—myself included.

“The Death of Thought”

“I spend so much of my day having information pushed at me, yet I spend almost no time to actually process it. Doing so would require a pause in the flow of information. And I’m afraid of what I might miss.”

The Death of Thought — 500ish Words — Medium

Some excellent thoughts on constant connection by M.G. Siegler. Something that hits home as I sit and write out a description for this while a podcast blasts into my ear…