Increasingly, I think UX doesn’t live up to its original meaning of “user experience.” Instead, much of the discpline today, as it’s practiced in Big Tech firms, is better described by a new name.
UX is now “user exploitation.”
Friday, February 12th, 2021
Monday, November 30th, 2020
Imagine if you were told that fossil fuels were the only way of extracting energy. It would be an absurd claim. Not only are other energy sources available—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear—fossil fuels aren’t even the most effecient source of energy. To say that you can’t have energy without burning fossil fuels would be pitifully incorrect.
And yet when it comes to online advertising, we seem to have meekly accepted that you can’t have effective advertising without invasive tracking. But nothing could be further from the truth. Invasive tracking is to online advertising as fossil fuels are to energy production—an outmoded inefficient means of getting substandard results.
Before the onslaught of third party cookies and scripts, online advertising was contextual. If I searched for property insurance, I was likely to see an advertisement for property insurance. If I was reading an article about pet food, I was likely to be served an advertisement for pet food.
Simply put, contextual advertising ensured that the advertising that accompanied content could be relevant and timely. There was no big mystery about it: advertisers just needed to know what the content was about and they could serve up the appropriate advertisement. Nice and straightforward.
What if, instead of matching the advertisement to the content, we could match the advertisement to the person? Regardless of what they were searching for or reading, they’d be served advertisements that were relevant to them not just in that moment, but relevant to their lifestyles, thoughts and beliefs? Of course that would require building up dossiers of information about each person so that their profiles could be targeted and constantly updated. That’s where cross-site tracking comes in, with third-party cookies and scripts.
This is behavioural advertising. It has all but elimated contextual advertising. It has become so pervasive that online advertising and behavioural advertising have become synonymous. Contextual advertising is seen as laughably primitive compared with the clairvoyant powers of behavioural advertising.
But there’s a problem with behavioural advertising. A big problem.
It doesn’t work.
First of all, it relies on mind-reading powers by the advertising brokers—Facebook, Google, and the other middlemen of ad tech. For all the apocryphal folk tales of spooky second-guessing in online advertising, it mostly remains rubbish.
None of this works. They are still trying to sell me car insurance for my subway ride.
Have you actually paid attention to what advertisements you’re served? Maciej did:
I saw a lot of ads for GEICO, a brand of car insurance that I already own.
I saw multiple ads for Red Lobster, a seafood restaurant chain in America. Red Lobster doesn’t have any branches in San Francisco, where I live.
Finally, I saw a ton of ads for Zipcar, which is a car sharing service. These really pissed me off, not because I have a problem with Zipcar, but because they showed me the algorithm wasn’t even trying. It’s one thing to get the targeting wrong, but the ad engine can’t even decide if I have a car or not! You just showed me five ads for car insurance.
And yet in the twisted logic of ad tech, all of this would be seen as evidence that they need to gather even more data with even more invasive tracking and surveillance.
It turns out that bizarre logic is at the very heart of behavioural advertising. I highly recommend reading the in-depth report from The Correspondent called The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising:
It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality.
The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).
Suppose someone told you that they keep tigers out of their garden by turning on their kitchen light every evening. You might think their logic is flawed, but they’ve been turning on the kitchen light every evening for years and there hasn’t been a single tiger in the garden the whole time. That’s the logic used by ad tech companies to justify trackers.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for users. The advertisements are irrelevant most of the time, and on the few occasions where the advertising hits the mark, it just feels creepy.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is bad for advertisers. They spend their hard-earned money on invasive ad tech that results in no more sales or brand recognition than if they had relied on good ol’ contextual advertising.
Tracker-driven behavioural advertising is good for the middlemen doing the tracking. Facebook and Google are two of the biggest players here. But that doesn’t mean that their business models need to be permanently anchored to surveillance. The very monopolies that make them kings of behavioural advertising—the biggest social network and the biggest search engine—would also make them titans of contextual advertising. They could pivot from an invasive behavioural model of advertising to a privacy-respecting contextual advertising model.
The incumbents will almost certainly resist changing something so fundamental. It would be like expecting an energy company to change their focus from fossil fuels to renewables. It won’t happen quickly. But I think that it may eventually happen …if we demand it.
In the meantime, we can all play our part. Just as we can do our bit for the environment at an individual level by sorting our recycling and making green choices in our day to day lives, we can all do our bit for the web too.
The least we can do is block third-party cookies. Some browsers are now doing this by default. That’s good.
Alas, because this software is labelled under ad blocking, it has led to the ludicrous situation of an ethical argument being made to allow surveillance and tracking! It goes like this: websites need advertising to survive; if you block the ads, then you are denying these sites revenue. That argument would make sense if we were talking about contextual advertising. But it makes no sense when it comes to behavioural advertising …unless you genuinely believe that online advertising has to be behavioural, which means that online advertising has to track you to be effective. Such a belief would be completely wrong. But that doesn’t stop it being widely held.
To argue that there is a moral argument against blocking trackers is ridiculous. If anything, there’s a moral argument to be made for installing anti-tracking software for yourself, your friends, and your family. Otherwise we are collectively giving up our privacy for a business model that doesn’t even work.
It’s a shame that advertisers will lose out if tracking-blocking software prevents their ads from loading. But that’s only going to happen in the case of behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising won’t be blocked. Contextual advertising is also more lightweight than behavioural advertising. Contextual advertising is far less creepy than behavioural advertising. And crucially, contextual advertising works.
That shouldn’t be a controversial claim: the idea that people would be interested in adverts that are related to the content they’re currently looking at. The greatest trick the ad tech industry has pulled is convincing the world that contextual relevance is somehow less effective than some secret algorithm fed with all our data that’s supposed to be able to practically read our minds and know us better than we know ourselves.
Y’know, if this mind-control ray really could give me timely relevant adverts, I might possibly consider paying the price with my privacy. But as it is, YouTube still hasn’t figured out that I’m not interested in Top Gear or football.
The next time someone is talking about the necessity of advertising on the web as a business model, ask for details. Do they mean contextual or behavioural advertising? They’ll probably laugh at you and say that behavioural advertising is the only thing that works. They’ll be wrong.
I know it’s hard to imagine a future without tracker-driven behavioural advertising. But there are no good business reasons for it to continue. It was once hard to imagine a future without oil or coal. But through collective action, legislation, and smart business decisions, we can make a cleaner future.
Thursday, November 12th, 2020
James has penned a sweeping arc from the The Mechanical Turk, Sesame Street, and Teletubbies to Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
Monday, October 19th, 2020
To be blunt, I feel we, the folks who have been involved with designing and developing for the web for a significant period of time–including me as I feel a strong sense of personal responsibility here–are in no small part responsible for it falling far short of its promise.
Thursday, October 1st, 2020
I’d like to see more of this thinking – maybe we could call it the future owners test – in contemporary responsible tech work. We mustn’t get so wrapped up in today that we overlook tomorrow.
Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020
This is an excellent new tool for showing exactly what kind of tracking a site is doing:
Who is peeking over your shoulder while you work, watch videos, learn, explore, and shop on the internet? Enter the address of any website, and Blacklight will scan it and reveal the specific user-tracking technologies on the site—and who’s getting your data. You may be surprised at what you learn.
Best of all, you can inspect the raw data and analyse the methodology.
There are some accompanying explainers:
Sunday, August 30th, 2020
RFC 8890 maybe the closest thing we’ve got to a Hippocratic oath right now.
A community that agrees to principles that are informed by shared values can use them to navigate hard decisions.
Many discussions influenced this document, both inside and outside of the IETF and IAB. In particular, Edward Snowden’s comments regarding the priority of end users at IETF 93 and the HTML5 Priority of Constituencies were both influential.
Sunday, August 16th, 2020
Now this is the kind of response I was hoping to stir up with the first season of the Clearleft podcast!
With echos of design’s subjugation reverberating across all six episodes, this first season inadvertently told the story of how my profession has been captured by a desire to serve business interests above all others, while being disarmed by its tendency for introspection and need to be recognised.
Can digital design redeem itself? I hope so. Maybe in the next season of the Clearleft podcast, we’ll find out how.
Friday, August 14th, 2020
As a web designer or developer burnout comes calling when you try to do good work, but you’re not allowed.
- You want to make the app more performant; your boss wants to fill it full of third party trackers
- You want to make the app more accessible; your boss wants you to focus on the ‘able market’ instead
- You want to word the app more clearly; your boss wants to trick users with misleading language
If you are a good developer, and a good person, asked to do shit work, you will burn out.
Tuesday, July 28th, 2020
I’ve been using Duck Duck Go for ages so I didn’t realise quite how much of a walled garden Google search has become.
41% of the first page of Google search results is taken up by Google products.
Note the fear with which publishers talk about Google (anonymously). It’s the same fear that app developers exhibit when talking about Apple (anonymously).
Ain’t centralisation something?
Monday, May 4th, 2020
May 1st was my last day as a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun. I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.
Fair play, Tim Bray!
The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people; here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls.
I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?
Monday, April 6th, 2020
I wrote something recently about telling the story of performance. Sue Loh emphasis the importance of understanding what makes people tick:
Performance engineers need to be an interesting mix of data-lovers and people-whisperers.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2020
Friday, January 17th, 2020
Can you believe we used to willingly tell Google about every single visitor to basecamp.com by way of Google Analytics? Letting them collect every last byte of information possible through the spying eye of their tracking pixel. Ugh.
In this new world, it feels like an obligation to make sure we’re not aiding and abetting those who seek to exploit our data. Those who hoard every little clue in order to piece of together a puzzle that’ll ultimately reveal all our weakest points and moments, then sell that picture to the highest bidder.
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
Surveillance giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights | Amnesty International
Amnesty International have released a PDF report on the out-of-control surveillance perpetrated by Google and Facebook:
Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost. The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.
This page on the Amnesty International website has six tracking scripts. Also, consent to accept tracking cookies is assumed (check dev tools). It looks like you can reject marketing cookies, but I tried that without any success.
The stone PDF has been thrown from a very badly-performing glass house.
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
Let us not overlook the fact that a semantic HTML web site is inherently accessible by default. When we bend the web to our will, we break that. So we have a responsibility to correct it. Sure the new technologies are neat, but the end result is usually garbage. This all requires some next-level narcissism that our goals and priorities as developers are far more important than that of the audience we’re theoretically building software to serve.
Monday, November 11th, 2019
The slides from Laura’s excellent talk at FF Conf on Friday.