The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama.
John Lanchester reviews ‘The Attention Merchants’ by Tim Wu, ‘Chaos Monkeys’ by Antonio García Martínez and ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin · LRB 17 August 2017
Triple the hand-wringing in this combined review of three books:
- The Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention Is Harvested and Sold by Tim Wu,
- Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine by Antonio García Martínez, and
- Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon have Cornered Culture and What It Means for All of Us by Jonathan Taplin.
What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.
With New Browser Tech, Apple Preserves Privacy and Google Preserves Trackers | Electronic Frontier Foundation
It’s interesting to see how excessive surveillance is (finally!) being treated as damage and routed around. Apple seem to get it—they’re tackling the tracking issue. Meanwhile Google are focusing purely on the visibility and UX of invasive advertising, without taking steps against tracking.
There’s a huge opportunity here for Chrome’s competitors—if Firefox and Safari protect users from unwarranted tracking, that could be enough to get people to switch, regardless of the feature sets of the browsers.
So what happens when these tools for maximizing clicks and engagement creep into the political sphere?
This is a delicate question! If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.
Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this.
I’d love to see other publishers take a firm stand against the shoddy ad tech from data brokers slowing down their sites.
We go to our partners and say, ‘This is how fast things need to be executed; if you don’t hit this threshold, we can’t put you on the site.’
(I mean, I’d really like to see publishers take a stand against invasive tracking via ads, but taking a stand on speed is a good start.)
Digital Assistants, Facebook Quizzes, And Fake News! You Won’t Believe What Happens Next | Laura Kalbag
A great presentation from Laura on how tracking scripts are killing the web. We can point our fingers at advertising companies to blame for this, but it’s still developers like us who put those scripts onto websites.
We need to ask ourselves these questions about what we build. Because we are the gatekeepers of what we create. We don’t have to add tracking to everything, it’s already gotten out of our control.
A lot has been written about the future of journalism, the importance of businesses like the LA Times being profitable as a way to protect American democracy. I agree with that in theory. But this sort of incompetence and contempt for readers makes me completely uninterested in helping their business.
Like Craig says…
between personal data suction and total disrespect of bandwidth, I'm not sure how you can *not* run ad blockers and browse the web— A Walkin' Dude (@craigmod) March 26, 2017
Another typically excellent talk from Maciej, this time to the Library of Congress. Digital preservation, surveillance, machine learning …it’s all in there, and it makes for grim reading, but there’s also optimism:
My dream for the web is for it to feel like big city. A place where you rub elbows with people who are not like you. Somewhere a little bit scary, a little chaotic, full of everything you can imagine and a lot of things that you can’t. A place where there’s room for chain stores, room for entertainment conglomerates, but also room for people to be themselves, to create their own spaces, and to learn from one another.
The more I reflect on the current practices of the online advertising industry, the more I think that ad-blocking is a moral imperative.
A great talk from Bruce on the digital self-defence that ad-blockers provide. I think it’s great that Opera are building ad-blocking straight into the browser.
If you think people using ad blockers are just anti-ad or want to freeload on publishers, you’re completely missing the point. The online advertising industry has been abusing users for 20 years now, and we’re sick of it.
Widespread XSS Vulnerabilities in Ad Network Code Affecting Top Tier Publishers, Retailers - Randy Westergren
This industry-wide problem serves as a great example of how 3rd-party components can compromise the security of an otherwise secure site.
One more reason to install an ad blocker.
A fascinating insight into some of Tumblr’s most popular accounts:
Some posts get more than a million notes—imagine a joke whispered in biology class getting a laugh from a city the size of San Francisco.
It’ll be a real shame when Tumblr disappears.
That’s “when”, not “if”. Remember:
In 2013, Yahoo bought Tumblr.
The ability to follow links down and around and through an idea, landing hours later on some random Wikipedia page about fungi you cannot recall how you discovered, is one of the great modes of the web. It is, I’ll go so far to propose, one of the great modes of human thinking.
This is advertising we’re talking about, the industry founded on the hallucination that people secretly appreciate being tracked, analysed and told what to buy. Advertisers, and the technology companies that cater to them, are responding to ad blocking the only way they know how: doubling down on their fantasy that viewers will suddenly love advertising just as soon as ads are so all-knowing that they anticipate one’s every need and desire.
A superb talk on performance, advertising, and the future of the web. No doubt a transcript will appear in due time on Maciej’s site and when it does, I will enjoy it all over again.
Trust me: you’ll want to watch this.
The prognosis for publishers is grim. Repent! Find a way out of the adtech racket before it collapses around you. Ditch your tracking, show dumb ads that you sell directly (not through a thicket of intermediaries), and beg your readers for mercy. Respect their privacy, bandwidth, and intelligence, flatter their vanity, and maybe they’ll subscribe to something.
In reality, ad blockers are one of the few tools that we as users have if we want to push back against the perverse design logic that has cannibalized the soul of the Web.
If enough of us used ad blockers, it could help force a systemic shift away from the attention economy altogether—and the ultimate benefit to our lives would not just be “better ads.” It would be better products: better informational environments that are fundamentally designed to be on our side, to respect our increasingly scarce attention, and to help us navigate under the stars of our own goals and values. Isn’t that what technology is for?
Given all this, the question should not be whether ad blocking is ethical, but whether it is a moral obligation.