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It’s Time to Flip the Bit on Publishing and Data

By - September 27, 2015

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My god, do we like to talk about ourselves.

That’s my takeaway from the recent algae-bloom of writing around ad blocking and fraud lately – most of it tinged with apocalyptic implications for the future of independent publishing. I’ve hung back from writing because I’ve been so busy *reading* everything – like this piece by Anil. Or this “expose” by Bloomberg (honestly, this is not a new story!). Or this one by Jason, this by Frederic, this by Doc, or this by Cory.

Cory calls for a new model, and I think he’s right. I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about new models in publishing and media for a good long time. Perhaps now is the time to revive an idea I’ve been on about for years.

Because as Tim points out, quoting Schrage, great new companies aren’t created by assuming that we keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. They instead demand that we alter our behavior entirely, because the benefit is so great. As Ben put it, publishers need to rethink their business models. In a private post on his daily (subscription-based) newsletter, Ben further points out that the iPhone didn’t succeed because it followed the generally acceptable rules of Clayton Christensen’s famous disruption thesis, it worked precisely because it didn’t. It created so much value that people were willing to change their behavior, from using a phone to call and text people, to using it to connect them to the Internet and its extraordinarily broad set of services. Same goes for Facebook, Uber, and many other “unicorns” that have forced new behaviors (sharing all our data into a central platform, shifting from flagging a cab to pushing a button, etc.).

So this begs the question: What is the new set of behaviors consumers might adopt with regard to publishing? And what might be the 10x shift in value creation that augurs such a shift? Might there be an antlered pony buried within all this fraud and ad-blocking horseshit?

First the (somewhat easier) bit – the new set of behaviors. To me this has to do with the relationship of publisher and reader/audience member. The rise of free content on the Web has broken what was previously a clear one-to-one relationship: reader subscribed to a periodical, delivering demographic and geographic data in the process. Now, that relationship has been re-aggregated through a crazy quilt of advertising technologies seeking to identify who you are and what you might want. This “advertising industrial complex” has led to the conditions we all now lament – hundreds of data-sucking ad trackers on most web pages, slow load times, crappy ads, and massive fraud which takes advantage of a disjointed and leaky ecosystem.

But what if user behavior actually reverted to a direct, one to one relationship between publisher and reader? What if that data that advertisers so openly covet – your name, age, zip code, interests, etc. – was held by the *reader*, instead of the publisher or the adtech industry? And what if, upon coming to a new site for the first time, that site simply asked “will you please share your data with us, so we may serve you the best and most appropriate ads?” If you say no, perhaps the content doesn’t load. But why say no – if you’re in control and the data will only make your life better?

I’ve argued for just such a model in We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will. The bit that has to flip is summarized in this quote:

We lack an ecosystem that encourages innovation in data use, because the major platforms hoard our data. This is retarded, in the nominal/verb sense of the word. Facebook’s picture of me is quite different from Google’s, Twitter’s, Apple’s, or Acxiom’s*. Imagine what might happen if I, as the co-creator of all that data, could share it all with various third parties that I trusted? Imagine further if I could mash it up with other data entities – be they friends of mine, bands I like, or even brands?

It’s insane that as consumers we outsource our data wardrobe to Facebook, Apple, Google, and the hot mess that is the adtech industry. The consumer behavior I believe will change our world, and by extension the economics of publishing and advertising, is a shift in control of our own data from third party platforms to ourselves as the platform. Put in Internet terms, from the server to the node (we’re the nodes). If this happens, all manner of innovation and efficiency will erupt.

But the rub lies in the second part of this innovation equation: What will be the astonishing, disruptive force that drives such a shift? What is the Uber or Facebook or iPhone that will drive this shift in data use behavior?

God, if I knew that…I’d start that company. But I sense when it does break out (and I am certain it will), it will seem hugely obvious. How frustrating to not know what it is. Like a vivid dream lost seconds after waking, it haunts me every day. Any ideas?!

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3 thoughts on “It’s Time to Flip the Bit on Publishing and Data

  1. The biggest part of the problem is that the ad blocking technology is open source and the ad serving technology is not. That’s why we created NginAd Foundation. We will continue to implement the IAB specification documents as open source and free software people can use to serve ads. As for ad fraud, well, the IAB has not really published anything barring view-ability criteria (50% viewable for 1 second), so in this segment, NginAd Foundation will provide non-patented, free and open source alternates for ad fraud detection on big data sets.

  2. Chris McCoy says:

    I have some ideas.

    Key to them is imagining the data layer as an open one. Or, not connected to an app.

    Thinking through it but first working on bringing data journalism and data visualization to the study of government in this new non-profit Data4America.

    Chris

  3. Henry Thornton says:

    Consumers would have to hand over a lot of personal information to make one-to-one personalization work in a meaningful way.

    Before innovating to a direct one-to-one relationship between consumer and publisher (or any outfit), publishers could step back to their original business model. Take control of the distribution channel by developing their own native ad delivery system and invest in internal digital sales teams to get the right advertisers for their publications.