Unoriginal sin

The amazing Ethan Zuckerman argues at eloquent length in The Atlantic that advertising was the web’s original sin, which really is just a corollary to the contention that giving away content for free on the web (and supporting it with advertising) was newspapers’ and magazines’ original sin.

I’m going to disagree. What bothers Ethan, I think, is not advertising but mass media economics — which, I will agree, do not fit on the net. And the solution that preachers against this sin bless — consumer payment — brings with it a host of unintended and unfortunate consequences.

Ethan amusingly confesses his role as a serpent in the Garden when he was an early staffer at Tripod and not only introduced advertising support as a means of providing a free homepage service, and not only created the means to target ads to users but also — damn them! — invented the pop-up ad. (“Iā€™m sorry. Our intentions were good.”)

He argues correctly that advertising leads to various subsins: traffic whoring and surveillance among them. What he’s really arguing against is stupid advertising.

We are yet in an early phase of media on the net: the shovelware phase. We started by shoveling our old content onto the web until pioneers such as Ethan showed the way to enabling anyone — anyone! — to create content there, and that’s what led to Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Medium, et al. (Thank you.) But even more fundamental, we also shoveled our old, mass-media business model onto the net. That’s the first stupidity. That is what leads to traffic whoring and clickbaiting and listicles and dark-art SEO and click fraud. That is what leads to every damned media outlet rewriting and aggregating everybody else’s stories — “More content! More content!” shout the coal stokers of hell — instead of doing what they do best and linking to all the rest. That is because advertising is still bought the way it is on billboards, TV, and pulp — on volume, by the thousands, by the eyeball-ton — so that marketers can just keep shoving their unwanted messages at us.

When those advertisers do smarten up a little they start to target, but they do that dumbly, too. Here’s the second stupidity. The advertisers — and their serpents: agencies and media and technology companies — creep out their own customers by collecting data on them without being open about it, without revealing the reason and the benefits (free content! less noise!), without giving them any control over the data, and then by following us all around the web haunting us with that stupid pair of boots we looked at on Amazon once. That is what Ethan calls surveillance. I call it idiocy.

At the start of the tome about new paths for news I’ve been threatening you with, I argue that journalism should reconsider itself not as a mass medium but instead as a service. Performing a service requires that we know people and understand their needs as individuals and communities. That’s not surveillance. That is a relationship.

There’s nothing stopping media and its neighbors in the Garden from doing relationships right. That means making a consensual transaction around information: “I am willingly and gladly giving you information about me (‘here’s where I am right now, Google’) to get service of relevance and value in return (‘OK, Google, tell me how to get from here to where I want to go’).” That means giving me transparency to your methods — what you are doing and why — and to my data. It means giving me the opportunity to correct and erase information (which only gives you more reliable information, by the way). The only reason you should expect me to give you information about myself — data big or small — is if I get something of value in return. This pertains to advertising: Don’t bother me with your irrelevant noise. And it pertains to journalism and media: I don’t want the 678th rewrite of an AP story; I want help to improve my community and my life. That’s not mass media. That’s not surveillance. That’s service.

Now you could argue that we pay for services — we pay for plumbers to fix our toilets — so won’t we pay for this service called journalism? Oh, we could, but I don’t think you’d like the result: a return to the earliest origins of news when correspondents were paid to provide bespoke and private newsletters — avissi — to their rich clients. Or we could see a return to another preadvertising model when interested parties — more precisely, political parties — paid for news that served their needs rather than those of the public.

The payment meme appeals to editorial ego: “My work is worth something and you should pay for it.” But as countless multitudes of zine publishers and book self-publishers (and published authors, for that matter) have learned, making great shit often gets you paid shit for it. If you can do it, mazel tov! (click here to buy my Kindle Single). But end up having to hawk your work. Or to coin a corollary to the “if you’re not paying, you’re the product” meme: If you’re not supported by advertising, you are the advertiser.

Micropayments — with or without Bitcoin — will not save us as everyone who thinks they should be paid won’t be paid and most of us are already fed up paying for internet and cable and phones to get us to all this content. Paywalls will not save us — after a first influx of cash, they stop growing, like your audience. Patrons will not save us: There is not enough charity for the media needy and, besides, charity brings strings.

hhautomatIf the net became an Automat, it would get a helluva lot smaller. It would redline information, making it available only to those who could afford it. It would discourage investment and entrepreneurship as there’d be fewer means to pay for invention and to make its fruits scale. It would no longer subsidize the free use of tools by revolutionaries and campaigners that Ethan celebrates. It would empower the big companies that do charge. This would be a net as made by Comcast, Verizon, Microsoft. Be careful what you wish for.

Instead, I say we should be demanding smarter advertising: more relevant, more transparent, more respectful, more trustworthy, less noisy, less wasteful of their money and our time and attention. We should all pull out our copies of the Cluetrain Manifesto and remind them again and again that markets are conversations and conversations are held among people. Like The Prisoner, we should shout up to the heavens — or down to hell, where advertisers more likely are: “I am not a number. I am a free man.” We are not a mass.

And yet even Facebook, which, as Ethan points out, has the means to target advertising smartly, still reverts to the mass, as The New York Times revealed in a long but fascinating view inside its ways: They’ve made targeting so expensive — too expensive — and so even there users are treated as a mass. Advertising is still stupid.

But if advertising doesn’t work, our response shouldn’t be to give up on it. It’s way, way too soon for that. Remember: it’s still just 1472 in Gutenberg Years. If we give up on advertising in media, my big fear — my gigantic, hairy, smelly, keep-me-up-at-night fear — is that we’ll end up with far fewer journalists (not to mention journalism students). So, no, don’t give up on newspapers, David Carr. Don’t give up on advertising, Ethan Zuckerman. Fix them. Invent something better. Not trying would be a sin.

: ETHAN RESPONDS: Some glitch in my comments (or perhaps Amtrak wifi) prevented Ethan from leaving a comment here but all the better for I get to post it up front for all to see. To wit:

Jeff, thanks very much for your thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you have to say, though I differ in a couple of key areas.

Yes, the stupidity, the bluntness, the imprecision of advertising is part of what I’m frustrated by. I think you and I agree that advertising based on intention, not attention – as Doc Searls has argued for in his work on VRM – is a better approach to advertising economies. I worry that not all advertising can be intentional. Advertisers want to build brands, which means they need to create desire, get people to want things they don’t yet want. I suspect that means they will continue to want the attention of groups of people they believe might want the product or service. Funneling people into those groups involves a great deal of behavioral, demographic and psychographic targeting – it’s that targeting that I believe is leading towards a tolerance of surveillance and a corrosion of our expectations about privacy. I don’t think better targeting addresses that set of my concerns.

I should be clear that my argument is at least as much about social networking services than about the news and magazines. I think some corners of the “content industry” have an easier time ahead than social networks as some brands may be willing to pay to be associated with high-quality content (my friends at the Atlantic, I hear, are doing quite well because advertisers want to be associated with their brand.) But I think services have a harder time, and I fear the service model for journalism may aggravate the surveillance problems I am concerned with. The better the NYTimes knows what I want as a reader, the more tempting it is to sell that information to other players in a way that makes me more uncomfortable, not less.

I’ll happily concede that my nod towards micropayments is half-baked at best. My not in that direction, and towards subscriptions is meant to suggest that there are other alternatives than more ads and more surveillance. I’d love to see as much investment in alternative business models as there has been in figuring out how to better target ads.

I do share your worry that Internet as automat would be one that’s closed and discriminatory. I’d hope that some of the models we explore consider the internet as a public good and consider models beyond the commercial and philanthropic to ensure we have public spaces to debate and high quality information to debate with.

If it’s not clear by now, I most certainly don’t have a solution – this is a critique and rant, not a business plan. My fondest hope for it would be that one or more readers comes up with an alternative business model, writes about it, tries it out and succeeds or fails. But I hope that some of those models aren;t about improving ads but looking for new ways to innovate in this space that we both love.

Thanks for your time and thoughtfulness, Jeff.