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We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will.

By - March 12, 2014

SenatorTogaWe are all accustomed to the idea of software “Preferences” – that part of the program where you can personalize how a particular application looks, feels, and works. Nearly every application that matters to me on my computer – Word, Keynote, Garage Band, etc. –  have preferences and settings.

On a Macintosh computer, for example, “System Preferences” is the control box of your most important interactions with the machine.

I use the System Preferences box at least five times a week, if not more.

And of course, on the Internet, there’s a yard sale’s worth of preferences: I’ve got settings for Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Evernote, and of course Google – where I probably have a dozen different settings, given I have multiple identities there, and I use Google for mail, calendar, docs, YouTube, and the like.

preferencesAny service I find important has settings. It’s how I control my interactions with The Machine. But truth is, Preferences are no fun. And they should be.

The problem: I mainly access preferences when something is wrong. In the digital world, we’ve been trained to see “Preferences” as synonymous with “Dealing With Shit I Don’t Want To Deal With.” I use System Preferences, for example, almost exclusively to deal with problems: Fixing the orientation of my monitors when moving from work to home, finding the right Wifi network, debugging a printer, re-connecting a mouse or keyboard to my computer.  And I only check Facebook or Google preferences to fix things too – to opt out of ads, resolve an identity issue, or  enable some new software feature. Hardly exciting stuff.

Put another way, Preferences is a “plumbing” brand – we only think about it when it breaks.

But what if we thought of it differently? What if managing your digital Preferences was more like….managing your wardrobe?

A few years back I wrote The Rise of Digital Plumage, in which I posited that sometime soon we’ll be wearing the equivalent of “digital clothing.” We’ll spend as much time deciding how we want to “look” in the public sphere of the Internet as we do getting dressed in the morning (and possibly more). We’ll “dress ourselves in data,” because it will become socially important – and personally rewarding –  to do so. We’ll have dashboards that help us instrument our wardrobe, and while their roots will most likely stem from the lowly Preference pane, they’ll soon evolve into something far more valuable.

This is a difficult idea to get your head around, because right now, data about ourselves is warehoused on huge platforms that live, in the main, outside our control. Sure, you can download a copy of your Facebook data, but what can you *do* with it? Not much. Platforms like Facebook are doing an awful lot with your data – that’s the trade for using the service. But do you know how Facebook models you to its partners and advertisers? Nope. Facebook (and nearly all other Internet services) keep us in the dark about that.

We lack an ecosytem 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?

Our current model of data use, in which we outsource individual agency over our data to huge factory farms, will soon prove a passing phase. We are at once social and individual creatures, and we will embrace any technology that allows us to express who we are through deft weavings of our personal data – weavings that might include any number of clever bricolage with any number of related cohorts. Fashion has its tailors, its brands, its designers and its standards (think blue jeans or the white t-shirt). Data fashion will develop similar players.

Think of all the data that exists about you – all those Facebook likes and posts, your web browsing and search history, your location signal, your Instagrams, your supermarket loyalty card, your credit card and Square and PayPal purchases, your Amazon clickstream, your Fitbit output – think of each of these as threads which might be woven into a fabric, and that fabric then cut into a personalized wardrobe that describes who you are, in the context of how you’d like to be seen in any given situation.

Humans first started wearing clothing about 170,000 years ago. “Fashion” as we know it today is traced to the rise of European merchant classes in the 14th century. Well before that, clothing had become a social fact. A social fact is a stricture imposed by society – for example, if you don’t wear clothing, you are branded as something of a weirdo.

Clothing is an extremely social artifact –  *what* you wear, and how, are matters of social judgement and reciprocity. We obsess over what we wear, and we celebrate those “geniuses” who have managed to escape this fact (Einstein and Steve Jobs both famously wore the same thing nearly every day).

There’s another reason the data fabric of your life is not easily converted into clothing – because at the moment, digital clothing is not a social fact. There’s no social pressure for your “look” a certain way, because thanks our outsourcing of our digital identity to places like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, we all pretty much look the same to each other online. As I wrote in Digital Plumage:

How strange is it that we as humans have created an elaborate, branded costume culture to declare who we are in the physical world, but online, we’re all pretty much wearing khakis and blue shirts?

At it relates to data, we are naked apes, but this is about to change. It’s far too huge an opportunity.

Consider: The global clothing industry grosses more than $1 trillion annually. We now spend more time online that we do watching television. And as software eats the world, it turns formerly inanimate physical surroundings into animated actors on our digital stage. As we interact with these data lit spaces, we’ll increasingly want to declare our preferences inside them via digital plumage.

An example. Within a few years, nearly every “hip” retail store will be lit with wifi, sensors, and sophisticated apps. In other words, software will eat the store. Let’s say you’re going into an Athleta outlet. When you enter, the store will know you’ve arrived, and begin to communicate with your computing device – never mind if its Glass, a mobile phone, or some other wearable.  As the consumer in this scenario, won’t you want to declare “who you are” to the retail brand’s sensing device? That’s what you do in the real world, no? And won’t you want to instrument your intent – provide signal to that store that will allow the store to understand your intent? And wouldn’t the “you” at Athleta be quite different from, say, the “you” that you become when shopping at Whole Foods or attending a Lord Huron concert?

Then again, you could be content with whatever profile Facebook has on you, (or Google, or ….whoever). Good luck with that.

I believe we will embrace the idea of describing and declaring who we are through data, in social context. It’s wired into us. We’ve evolved as social creatures. So I believe we’re at the starting gun of a new industry. One where thousands of participants take our whole data cloth and stitch it into form, function, and fashion for each of us. Soon we’ll have a new kind of “Preferences” – social preferences that we wear, trade, customize, and buy and sell.

In a way, younger generations are already getting prepared for such a world – what is the selfie but a kind of digital dress up?

Lastly, as with real clothing, I believe brands will be the key driving force in the rise of this industry. As I’m already over 1,000 words, I’ll write more on that idea in another post. 

*(fwiw, I am on Acxiom’s board)

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Predictions 2014: A Difficult Year To See

By - January 03, 2014

1-nostradamusThis post marks the 10th edition of my annual predictions – it’s quite possibly the only thing I’ve consistently done for a decade in my life (besides this site, of course, which is going into its 12th year).

But gazing into 2014 has been the hardest of the bunch – and not because the industry is getting so complicated. I’ve been mulling these predictions for months, yet one overwhelming storm cloud has been obscuring my otherwise consistent forecasting abilities. The subject of this cloud has nothing – directly – to do with digital media, marketing, technology or platform ecosystems – the places where I focus much of my writing. But while the topic is orthogonal at best, it’s weighing heavily on me.

So what’s making it harder than usual to predict what might happen over the coming year? In a phrase, it’s global warming. I know, that’s not remotely the topic of this site, nor is it in any way a subject I can claim even a modicum of expertise. But as I bend to the work of a new year in our industry, I can’t help but wonder if our efforts to create a better world through technology are made rather small when compared to the environmental alarm bells going off around the globe.

I’ve been worried about the effects of our increasingly technologized culture on the earth’s carefully balanced ecosystem for some time now. But, perhaps like you, I’ve kept it to myself, and assuaged my concerns with a vague sense that we’ll figure it out through a combination of policy, individual and social action, and technological solutions. Up until recently, I felt we had enough time to reverse the impact we’ve inflicted on our environment. It seemed we were figuring it out, slowly but surely. The world was waking up to the problem, new policies were coming online (new mileage requirements, the phase out of the incandescent bulb, etc). And I took my own incremental steps – installing a solar system that provides nearly 90% of our home’s energy, converting my heating to solar/electrical, buying a Prius for my kids.

But I’m not so sure this mix of individual action and policy is enough – and with every passing day, we seem to be heading toward a tipping point, one that no magic technological solution can undo.

If you’re wondering what’s made me feel this way, a couple of choice articles from 2013 (and there were too many to count) should do the trick. One “holy shit” moment for me was a piece on ocean acidification, relating scientific discoveries that the oceans are turning acidic at a pace faster than any time since a mass extinction event 300 million years ago. But that article is a puff piece compared to this downer, courtesy The Nation: The Coming Instant Planetary Emergency. I know – the article is published in a liberal publication, so pile on, climate deniers… Regardless, I suggest you read it. Or, if you prefer whistling past our collective graveyard, which feels like a reasonable alternative, spare yourself the pain. I can summarize it for you: Nearly every scientist paying attention has concluded global warming is happening far faster, and with far more devastating impact, than previously thought, and we’re very close to the point where events will create a domino effect – receding Arctic ice allowing for huge releases of super-greenhouse methane gases, for instance. In fact, we may well be past the point of “fixing” it, if we ever could.

And who wants to spend all day worrying about futures we can’t fix? That’s no fun, and it’s the opposite of why I got into this industry nearly 30 years ago. As Ben Horowitz pointed out recently, one key meaning of technology is  “a better way of doing things.” So if we believe that, shouldn’t we bend our technologic infrastructure to the world’s greatest problem? If not – why not? Are the climate deniers right? I for one don’t believe they are. But I can’t prove they aren’t. So this constant existential anxiety grows within me – and if conversations with many others in our industry is any indication, I’m not alone.

In a way, the climate change issue reminds me of the biggest story inside our industry last year: Snowden’s NSA revelations. Both are so big, and so hard to imagine how an individual might truly effect change, that we collectively resort to gallows humor, and shuffle onwards, hoping things will work out for the best.

And yet somehow, this all leads me to my 2014 predictions. The past nine prediction posts have been, at their core, my own gut speaking (a full list is at the bottom of this post). I don’t do a ton of research before I sit down to write, it’s more of a zeitgeistian exposition. It includes my hopes and fears for our industry, an industry I believe to be among the most important forces on our planet. Last year, for example, I wrote my predictions based mainly on what I wished would happen, not what I thought realistically would.

For this year’s 2014 predictions, then, I’m going to once again predict what I hope will happen. You’ll see from the first one that I believe our industry, collectively, can and must take a lead role in addressing our “planetary emergency.” At least, I sure hope we will. For if not us…

1. 2014 is the year climate change goes from a political debate to a global force for unification and immediate action. It will be seen as the year the Internet adopted the planet as its cause.

Because the industry represents the new guard of power in our society,  Internet, technology, and media leaders will take strong positions in the climate change debate, calling for dramatic and immediate action, including forming the equivalent of a “Manhattan Project” for technological solutions to all manner of related issues – transportation, energy, carbon sequestration, geoengineering, healthcare, economics, agriculture.

While I am skeptical of a technological “silver bullet” approach to solving our self-created problems, I also believe in the concept of “hybrid vigor” – of connecting super smart people across multiple disciplines to rapidly prototype new approaches to otherwise intractable problems. And I cannot imagine one company or government will solve the issue of climate change (no matter how many wind farms or autonomous cars Google might create), nor will thousands of well meaning but loosely connected organizations (or the UN, for that matter).

I can imagine that the processes, culture, and approaches to problem solving enabled by the Internet can be applied to the issue of climate change. The lessons of disruptors like Google, Twitter, and Amazon, as well as newer entrants like airbnb, Uber, and Dropbox, can be applied to solving larger problems than where to sleep, how to get a cab, or where and how our data are accessed. We need the best minds of our society focused on larger problems – but first, we need to collectively believe that problem is as large as it most likely is.

2014, I hope, is the year the problem births a real movement – a platform, if you will, larger than any one organization, one industry, or one political point of view. The only time we’ve seen a platform like that emerge is the Internet itself. So there’s a certain symmetry to the hypothesis – if we are to solve humankind’s most difficult problem, we’ll have to adopt the core principles and lessons of our most elegant and important creation: the Internet. The solution, if it is to come from us, will be native to the Internet. I can’t really say how, but I do know one thing: I want to be part of it, just like I wanted to be part of the Internet back in 1987.

I’ll admit, it’s kind of hard to write anything more after that. I mean, who cares if Facebook has a good or bad year if the apocalypse is looming? Well, it’s entirely possible that my #1 prediction doesn’t happen, and then how would that look, batting .000 for the year (I’ve been batting better than .500 over the past decade, after all)? To salvage some part of my dignity, I’m going to go ahead and try to prognosticate a bit closer to home for the next few items.

2. Automakers adopt a “bring your own” approach to mobile integration. The world of the automobile moves slowly. It can take years for a new model to move from design to prototype to commercially available model. Last year I asked a senior executive at a major auto manufacturer the age old question: “What business are you in?” His reply, after careful consideration, was this: “We are in the mobile experience business.” I somewhat expected that reply, so I followed up with another question: “How on earth will you compete with Apple and Google?” Somewhat exasperated, he said this was the  existential question his company had to face.

2014 will be the year auto companies come to terms with this question. It won’t happen all at once, because nothing moves that fast in the auto industry. While most car companies have some kind of connectivity with smart phone platforms, for the most part they are pretty limited. Automakers find themselves in the same positions as carriers (an apt term, when you think about it) back at the dawn of the smart phone era – will they attempt to create their own interfaces for the phones they market, or will they allow third parties to own the endpoint relationship to consumers? It’s tempting for auto makers to think they can jump into the mobile user interface business, but I think they’re smart enough to know they can’t win there. Our mobile lives require an interface that understands us across myriad devices –  the automobile is just one of those devices. The smartest car makers will realize this first, and redesign their “device platforms” to work seamlessly with whatever primary mobile UI a consumer picks. That means building a car UI not as an end into itself, but as a platform for others to build upon.

Remember, these are predictions I *hope* will happen. It’s entirely possible that automakers will continue the haphazard and siloed approach they’re currently taking with regard to mobile integration, simply because they lack conviction on whether or not they want to directly compete with Google and Apple for the consumer’s attention inside the car. Instead, they should focus on creating the best service possible that integrates and extends those already dominant platforms.

3. By year’s end, Twitter will be roundly criticized for doing basically what it did at the beginning of the year. The world loves a second act, and will demand one of Twitter now that the company is public. The company may make a spectacular acquisition or two (see below), but in the main, its moves in 2014 will likely be incremental. This is because the company has plenty of dry powder in the products and services it already has in its arsenal – it’ll roll out a full fledged exchange, a la FBX, it’ll roll out new versions of its core ad products (with a particular emphasis on video), it’ll create more media-like “events” across the service, it’ll continue its embrace of television and popular culture…in other words, it will consolidate the strengths it already has. And 12 months from now, everyone will be tweeting about how Twitter has run out of ideas. Sound familiar, Facebook?

Now this isn’t what I hope for the company to do, but I already wrote up my great desire for Twitter last year. Still waiting on that one (and I’m not sure it’s realistic).

4. Twitter and Apple will have their first big fight, most likely over an acquisition. Up till now, Twitter and Apple have been best of corporate friends. But in 2014, the relationship will fray, quite possibly because Apple comes to the realization it has to play in the consumer software and services world more than it has in the past.  At the same time, there will be a few juicy M&A targets that Twitter has its eye on, targets that most likely are exactly what Apple covets as well. I’ll spare you the list of possible candidates, as most likely I’d miss the mark. But I’d expect entertainment to be the most hotly contested space.

5. Google will see its search related revenues slow, but will start to extract more revenues from its Android base. Search as we know it is moving to another realm (for more, see my post on Google Now). Desktop search revenues, long the cash cow of Google, will slow in 2014, and the company will be looking to replace them with revenues culled from its overall dominance in mobile OS distribution. I’m not certain how Google will do this – perhaps it will buy Microsoft’s revenue generating patents, or maybe it’ll integrate commerce into Google Now – but clearly Google needs another leg to its revenue stool. 2014 will be the year it builds one.

6. Google Glass will win – but only because Google licenses the tech, and a third party will end up making the version everyone wants. Google Glass has been lambasted as “Segway for your face” – and certainly the device is not yet a consumer hit. But a year from now, the $1500 price tag will come down by half or more, and Google will realize that the point isn’t to be in the hardware business, it’s to get Google Now to as many people as possible. So Google will license Glass sometime next year, and the real consumer accessory pros (Oakley? GoPro? Nike? Nest?!) will create a Glass everyone wants.   

7. Facebook will buy something really big. My best guess? Dropbox. Facebook knows it’s become a service folks use, but don’t live on anymore. And it will be looking for ways to become more than just a place to organize a high school reunion or stay in touch with people you’d rather not talk to FTF. It wants and needs to be what its mission says it is: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” The social graph is just part of that mission – Facebook needs a strong cloud service if it wants a shot at being a more important player in our lives. Something like Dropbox (or Box) is just the ticket. But to satisfy the egos and pocketbooks of those two players, Facebook will have to pay up big time. It may not be able to, or it may decide to look at Evernote instead. I certainly hope the company avoids the obvious but less-substantive play of Pinterest. I like Pinterest, but that’s not what Facebook needs right now.

As with Twitter, this prediction does not reflect my greatest hope for Facebook, but again, I wrote that last year, and again…oh never mind.

8. Overall, 2014 will be a great year for the technology and Internet industries, again, as measured in financial terms. There are dozens of good companies lined up for IPOs, a healthy appetite for tech plays in the markets, a strong secular trend in adtech in particular, and any number of “point to” successes from 2013. That strikes me as a recipe for a strong 2014. However, if I were predicting two years out, I’d leave you with this warning: Squirrel your nuts away in 2014. This won’t last forever.

Related:

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

Why The Banner Ad Is Heroic, and Adtech Is Our Greatest Artifact

By - November 17, 2013

hotwiredbanner

Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.

Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.

There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).

lumascapedisplayYes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions - it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference - The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire - The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. - The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.

OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are  you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?

These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by LessigZittrainWu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.

“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that,  it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.

My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.

Ubiquitous Video: Why We Need a Robots.txt For the Real World

By - November 13, 2013

illustration_robotLast night I had an interesting conversation at a small industry dinner. Talk turned to Google Glass, in the context of Snapchat and other social photo sharing apps.

Everyone at the table agreed:  it was inevitable – whether it be Glass, GoPro, a button in your clothing or some other form factor – personalized, “always on” streaming of images will be ubiquitous. Within a generation (or sooner), everyone with access to mass-market personal electronics (i.e., pretty much everyone with a cell phone now) will have the ability to capture everything they see, then share or store it as they please.

That’s when a fellow at the end of the table broke in. “My first response to Glass is to ask: How do I stop it?”

The dinner was private, so I can’t divulge names, but this fellow was a senior executive in the banking business. He doesn’t want consumers streaming video from inside his banks, nor does he want his employees “Glassing” confidential documents or the keys to the safe deposit boxes.

All heads at the table nodded, as if this scenario was right around the corner  - and the implications went far beyond privacy at a bank. Talk turned to many other situations where people agreed they’d not want to be “always on.” It could be simple –  a bad hair day – or complicated: a social pariah who just wanted to be left alone. All in all, people were generally sympathetic to the notion of “the right to be left alone” – what in this case might be called “the right to not be in a public stream.”

But how to enforce such a right? The idea of banning devices like Glass infringes the wearer’s rights, and besides, it just won’t scale – tiny cameras will soon be everywhere, and they’ll be basically imperceptible. Sure, some places (like banks, perhaps), will have scanning devices and might be able to afford the imposition of such bans. But in public places? Most likely impossible and quite possibly illegal (in the US, for instance, there is an established right to take photographs in public spaces).

This is when my thoughts turned to one of the most powerful devices we have to manage each other: the Social Contract. I believe we have entered an era in which we must renegotiate our contract with society – that invisible but deeply powerful sets of norms that guide “civil behavior.” Glass (among other artifacts) is at the nexus of this negotiation – the debate laid bare by a geeky pair of glasses.

Back at the table, someone commented that it’d be great if there was a way to let people know you didn’t want to be “captured” right now. Some kind of social cloaking signal*, perhaps. Now, we as humans are damn good at social signaling. We’ve built many a civilization on elaborate sets of social mores.  So how might our society signal a desire to not be “streamed”? Might we develop the equivalent of a “robots.txt” for the real world?

For those of you not familiar with robots.txt, it’s essentially a convention adopted early in the Web’s life, back when search became a powerful distributor of attention, and the search index the equivalent of a public commons (Zittrain wrote a powerful post about it here). Some sites did not want to be indexed by search engines, for reasons ranging from a lack of resources (a search engine’s spiders put a small tax on a site’s resources) to privacy.  No law was enacted to create this convention, but every major search engine obeys its strictures nevertheless. If a site’s robots.txt tells an indexing spider to not look inside, the robot moves along.

It’s an elegant solution, and it works, as long as everyone involved keeps their part of the social contract. Powerful recriminations occur if an actor abuses the system – miscreants are ostracized, banned from social contact with “good” actors.

So might we all, in some not-so-distant future, have our own “robots.txt” – a signal that we can instrument at will, one which is constantly on, a beacon which others can pick up and understand? Such an idea seem to me not at all far fetched. We already all carry the computing power and bandwidth on our person to effect such a signal. All we need is a reason for it to come online. Glass, or something like it, may well become that reason.

The instrumentation of our new social contract is closer at hand than we might think.

*We already have  deeply a meaningful “social cloaking device” – its called our wardrobe. But I’ll get into that topic in another post.

 

Search and Immortality

By - September 19, 2013

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

But what I was reminded of was the very end of my book on search, some 8 years ago. I was trying to put the meaning of search into context, and I found myself returning again and again to the concept of immortality.  This was my epilogue, which I offer here as perhaps some context for Google’s announcement this week:

“Search and Immortality”

On a fine sunny morning in 2003, not long after the birth of my third and most likely final child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. I can’t explain why I turned to a search engine for metaphysical comfort, but I sensed the search might lead me somewhere—here I was writing a book about search, but what did it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things?

In an instant, Google took me to the Immortality Institute, an organization dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white.

Nothing really caught my eye. Cryonics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc., pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen. There were four ads, each no more than three lines of text. The first was someone who claimed to have met immortal ETs. Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo Shopping. These megasites had purchased the immortality keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might well find relief through . . . buying shit online. (In fact, what Yahoo and eBay were doing was the equivalent of search arbitrage— buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own sites, in the hope of capturing high-value customers).

Interesting, but I wasn’t looking to buy the concept of immortality; I wanted to understand it. I took a pass on those as well. But the second paid link pointed to the epic Gilgamesh, which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down—in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served. I clicked on the link, earning Google a few pennies in the process, and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. My search was bearing fruit. But I didn’t want to buy a book and wait for it to come. I was in the moment of discovery, the heat of possible consummation. I wanted to read that epic, right now.1 So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options.

But this time the organic results (the search results in the middle of a Google page, as opposed to the ads on the right) nailed it: the first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State University professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story. It read:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 b.c. Although historians . . . tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on  Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 b.c. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive . . . written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets . . . found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, 669–633 b.c., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 b.c., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author in the history of Western civilization. Thanks to the speed, vastness, and evanescent power of Google, I came to know his name and his work within thirty seconds of proffering a vaguely worded query. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind. Through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, he had, in a sense, become immortal.

But wait! There’smore. Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism—the destruction of a great king’s library. As I contemplated all of this, sensing that, just possibly, I had found a way to explain why search was so important to our culture.

I read the first tablet’s opening lines:

The one who saw all (Sha nagba imuru) I will declare to the world, The one who knew all I will tell about [line missing] He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, And then carved his story on stone.

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay—or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the Web? Is that not what every person longs for—what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality— to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint: is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For anyone who has ever written his own name into a search box and anxiously awaited the results, I believe the answer is yes.

Something to think about, anyway. Good luck, Mr. Levinson and Mr. Page. I’m cheering you on, even if I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it’s that missing line from Gilgamesh we’re all trying to find….

*Hat tip to one of my editors Bill Brazell, for pinging me as I was writing this about this very news.

A Social, Elastic Model for Paid Content

By - July 10, 2013

esquirepieceI was interested to read today that Esquire is currently experimenting with a per-article paywall. For $1.99, you can read a  10,000-word piece about a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven. Esquire’s EIC on the experiment: “…great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn’t free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase.”

I predicted that payment systems and paid services/content were going to take off this year (see here), but this isn’t what I had in mind. But it did get me thinking. What if you added social and elastic elements to the price? For example, the article would initially cost, say, $1.99, but if enough people decided to buy it, the price goes down for everyone. The more people who buy, the cheaper the price gets. It’d never go to zero, of course, but there’d be some kind of a demand/price curve that satisfies the two most important things publishers care about: readership (the more, the better) and revenue (ideally, enough to cover the costs of creation and make a fair profit).

The tools to do this already exist. There are plenty of sites that crowdsource demand to create pricing leverage, and sites like Kickstarter have gotten all of us used to the idea of hitting funding goals. And the social sharing behaviors already exist as well: Nearly all content has social sharing widgets attached these days. Why not combine the two? Those who initially paid the highest price – $1.99 say – would be motivated to share a summary of the article with friends and encourage them to buy it as well. They are economically incented to do so – the more friends who buy, the greater the chance that their initial $1.99 charge will decrease. And they’re socially incented to do so – perhaps they could get credit for being one of the early advocates or tastemakers who recognized and surfaced a great piece of content before anyone else did.

Let’s break down the economics to see how it might work. A really great piece of long form journalism in a magazine like Esquire pays around $15,000 (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the author, subject, length, and title). But for this model, let’s say the payment to the journalist is $15K. Then you need to factor in the cost of the editor, copy editor, production, sales and design, as well as general overhead of the publication per piece. Let’s call that another $5K per piece (I’m spitballing here but probably not too far off). So for this article to make a profit, it needs to make $20,000 – or sell roughly 10,000 copies. Of course, the article is also monetized through the regular magazine and tablet editions, so the real number it has to hit is probably far less – let’s cut it in half and say it’s $10,000. Now to clear a profit, the article really just needs to sell 5,000 copies at $1.99.

Let’s not forget that Esquire also shows advertising against its articles. If it maintains a healthy $25 CPM, and shows two “spread”  (two-page) ads between those 10,000 words, that’s roughly  $100 per 1000 readers that Esquire can make. If it indeed does sell 5,000 copies of that article, that’s $500 of advertising revenue earned. And if it gets more readers, it can earn more advertising revenue – and decrease the paid content price in some correlated fashion. (No matter what, Esquire wants more readers – both to increase its advertising revenue, but also to accomplish its journalistic mission – all authors want more readers).

Perhaps a model could work like this: The piece costs $1.99 for the first 5,000 articles sold, garnering $10,000 in revenue (Ok, $9,500 for you sticklers). Once that threshold hits, the price adjusts dynamically to maintain at least $10,000 in overall revenue, but adjusting downward against the paying population as more and more readers commit (which also earns Esquire additional advertising revenue). A “clearing price” is set, perhaps at 50 cents, after which all profits go to Esquire. In this case, the clearing price kicks in at 20,000 copies sold – everyone would pay .50 at that point, and it’s a win win win for all.

Just spitballing, as I said, but I think it’s a pretty cool idea. What do you think?

A Berkeley Commencement Speech, Some Years Ago…

By - May 25, 2013

Last week LinkedIn asked me to post a commencement speech, if I had given one, as part of a series they were doing. Turns out, I’ve given two, but the one they wanted was at Berkeley, my alma mater. If you want to read the one I gave at my high school, I’d be happy to post it (I think it’s better), but since I already have the Berkeley one at the ready, here it is. I want it to be on my own site as well, just for the record.

—–

Back in 2005, as Web 2.0 was taking off, I was honored to be asked to give the commencement address at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management, or SIMS. It was a perfect day, and the ceremony was outside at the base of the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s proudest monument. As a double Cal graduate, and three-generation legacy, this was a crowning moment for me. Below are some excerpts, edited for clarity given the time that has lapsed since.

I have a feeling that I was chosen to make these brief remarks because I deeply believe in the following statement: The field you’ve chosen is the most important and interesting line of inquiry to be found at this great University, and one of the most important new schools to emerge since the rise of computer science in the middle of last century.

Of course, it’s also misunderstood, miscategorized, and poorly defined, but that’s to be expected. Just 10 years ago, “information management” was still a fancy way of saying “librarian.” While librarians knew better, many others had not caught on to this basic truth: the most valuable resource in our culture is knowledge, and as SIMS graduates, you are not simply becoming knowledge workers, you are becoming builders of knowledge refineries—the architects who drive how knowledge itself is created.

SIMS suffers from something of a definition problem, doesn’t it? Is it computer science, anthropology, or journalism? Is it library science, architecture, design? Of course, this is the same problem that plagues the Internet—what exactly is it, anyway? It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary. Like SIMS, the Internet is a study in interdisciplinary mechanics.

At various times, the world has declared the Internet dead. Fortune 500 executives— particularly in the media and communications business—were thrilled that their monopolies were safe from what appeared to be a very real threat. They and the press declared the revolution stillborn. They wrote the Internet off as just another distribution channel and, for a while, it seemed that was a pretty safe assumption.

But a funny thing happened around the time this graduating class applied to SIMS—Google began turning a profit. Yahoo, Amazon, and even Priceline shook off the snows of 2002 and began to grow again. And the collective wisdom of thousands of geeks began expressing itself in myriad and wondrous ways—in new photo tools like Flickr and in new social networking applications like LinkedIn.

And millions of people kept using the Internet, and millions more joined. As they used it, they changed it, making it their own and building a medium not only in their own image but in the likeness of the culture they were becoming. It’s a culture driven by knowledge and shaped by relationships and community. In short, while most folks weren’t paying attention over the past few years, the Web was reborn, not as a repository of information, but as a creation engine of knowledge.

Most graduates face the world with an equal sense of optimism and trepidation—this ceremony, after all, marks a major transition for you all. But now comes the rest of your life, and with it uncertainty and the terrifying joy of starting all over once again.

My advice to you, insofar as I can give any, is simple: Hold onto this feeling you have right now. Rinse and repeat as often as you can. Get used to it but don’t take it for granted—it’s how the world is evolving. Every few years, if you’re not leaping into a new project, a new and challenging startup, or a new challenge at a larger company, then you’re not really exercising the skills you all so clearly demonstrated with your Masters projects. The world wants more projects like yours, and it stands ready to fund them, tweak them, embrace them, and inspire you to build them again and again.

You are, all of you, entrepreneurs, deciding what vision to follow and what path to take toward it. It’s a rather addictive feeling, and I, for one, hope you keep making new stuff for the rest of your sure to be very long careers.

As I said earlier, the world of media and business you are entering is very different from that of just five years ago. The Web 2.0 world is defined by new ways of understanding ourselves, of creating value in our culture, of running companies, and of working together.

Companies in this world are run more like artist studios or graduate projects—they are lightweight – they leverage the work of thousands that came before them and potentially millions who use their products or services over the Web. Craigslist, for example, is challenging the entire newspaper industry not by hiring thousands of workers and taking on publishers on their turf, but by reorganizing how people find, create and use classifieds. How they turn information into actionable knowledge. A very simple idea, but also very powerful.

These companies thrive by innovating in assembly—they find new ways to sort, organize, and present options to their customers. Information is a commodity, after all. Knowledge is king. If you can help someone refine information into knowledge and if you help them make sense of the world, you win. And it takes a special kind of person to do that—a knowledge architect—exactly what you all have chosen as your field of study, and, I hope, your careers.

I’ve noticed that the best companies and ideas are driven by these knowledge architects who realize that in an information age, the best business to be in is that of refinery.

Each of you has the chance to make this your life’s work. I say, well done—and don’t let us down. For as Nikola Tesla, hero to Google co-founder Larry Page, once said:

Of all the frictional resistance in the world, the one that most retards human movement is ignorance, what Buddha called “the greatest evil in the world.” The friction which results from ignorance can be reduced only by the spread of knowledge … No effort could be better spent.

Hold Hands or Die Apart

By - May 05, 2013

I’ve been a bit slow to update this site lately, as my return to Federated Media, and preparation for the CM Summit and OpenCo NYC, have pretty much eaten up all my time lately. But I did want to repost a few things I have written elsewhere, starting with this article in Ad Age, written two weeks ago.

Titled Publishers, Ad-Tech Firms, Marketers Need to Connect, Build Trust (no, I didn’t write that headline, if I was in charge, it might have been “Hold Hands or Die Apart” – pageviews, ya know?), the article argues that our industry is not yet prepared for what the market is going to demand – solutions that integration adtech and brand marketing. Here’s a sampling:

Something troubling has jumped out at me. There’s an extraordinary asymmetry of information among these three important players in our industry, and a disturbing sense of distrust. Brand marketers don’t believe that ad-tech companies view brands as true partners. Ad-tech companies think brand marketers are paying attention to the wrong things. And publishers, with a few important exceptions, feel taken advantage of by everyone.

Here’s a representative sample of things I’ve heard:

“If I had it to do over again, I am not sure I’d be in publishing. You can’t win over the machines.”
“Brand marketers are wasting their money. If they’d just get smarter about data, they’d realize content doesn’t matter — what matters is leveraging what you know about a customer. They’ll never get it. “

“The Lumascape has devolved into a pay-per-click machine. Tech companies are too full of themselves. I don’t trust them. It’s a “black box.’ “

“Agencies and technology companies are leveraging their data advantage to arbitrage publishers’ inventory — and even their marketing clients’ spend — so as to pad their bottom lines.”

“I won’t put any of my inventories on exchanges — the last time I did, CPMs were so low it was embarrassing.”

This isn’t a pretty picture. But even as I hear statements like these, I also hear story after story about how data-driven marketing practices are working. Publishers like Forbes, Ziff Davis and Weather.com have seen revenue from “programmatic premium” rise to as much as 20% of total top line, up from 5% or so just a year ago. (Programmatic premium is the practice of running premium inventory through programmatic channels in ways that “protect” that inventory, such as building private marketplaces or adding publisher first-party data.)

Smart marketers are leveraging ad tech to drive real brand lift, conversion and sales. And a platoon of top ad-tech companies are preparing to go public in the next 12 months, hardly a sign that they have business models built on shady business practices. (We’d do well to recall that Google went public one year after “click fraud” was considered pervasive in the search marketplace.)

What we have here is a failure of communication and shared values. The brand marketers I speak with acknowledge that they don’t understand how to map their brand-building skills to the offerings of ad-tech companies. The ad-tech companies confide that they don’t understand the motivations of brand marketers (nor do they believe it would be profitable to try).

For more, head to Ad Age. 

 

That Guilty Pile of Outdated Technology

By - February 20, 2013

(image Wired) Way back in the day when I was making magazines, I was buried in print. I subscribed to at least twenty periodicals, easily twice that many came my way without my asking. It made for a huge pile of printed material on the end of my desk (stuff I really should read), and it creeped into the horizontal spaces behind me (stuff I think I should read, in case I get the time), or on my shelves (stuff I can’t throw out yet), and the damn things even spilled onto my floor (stuff I probably will never read, but feel too guilty to toss out).

I dubbed this mountain of print The Guilt Pile. Every so often, usually when it was time to move offices, I’d take inventory of the pile, and toss most of it. It always felt so good – a fresh start, a new day, this time, I promise, I’ll not let that pile accumulate again!

Then digital took over my print life, and the pile vanished.

At least, the pile of print vanished. But a new scourge of guilt-inducing matter has now taken over my desks, shelves, and storage spaces, and I’m finding it damn near impossible to toss it out. Devices: phones, tablets, webcams, gee-gaws and dongles, power cords and hard drives – I’ve got drawers full of the stuff. And every time my eye rests upon them, I feel terribly. The device stares back at me, baleful. I somehow owe it my attention, my time and energy – I feel I’m failing at some implicit contract. It’d be simply irresponsible to toss the stuff – it’s probably full of hazardous materials, and most of it is worth something, and at the very least, I should give it to someone who can make use of it. But who? And how? Much of it is…shudder…outdated! Not to mention, many of the devices have my digital fingerprints inside – I couldn’t toss them, recycle them, or sell them without first firing them up and figuring out what’s on there, and how to transfer or erase that data before sending the item to its next phase of life.

And for a significant portion of these technological devices, I’m not even sure I could find the power cords, dongles, and accessories that would make the damn things useful in the first place. The idea of getting all this sh*t ready for sale on eBay feels like Way Too Much Work.

A quick inventory around my home office turns up a couple iPhone 4s, one with a broken home button and the other with a cracked screen, a brand new Sony Internet TV, a BlackBerry Playbook (also never used), five digital cameras of various capacities and ages, four years worth of external storage devices, each smaller and higher capacity than the one before and all obviated by the one sitting next to my Mac as I write this, three old MacBook pros, two of which I’m not sure will ever boot again due to age or infirmities of one kind or another, an old webcam, two Android tablets (the old ones, not the new one), two cracked Kindles, scores of power cords and dongles, a couple of outdated Fitbits, some older Sonos gear, two ancient Airport routers, at least six old iPods, a few feature phones from the pre smartphone era, and ten or so other gadgets (GPS, digital recorders, etc).

And that’s just what I can see. I have boxes of even older stuff in my garage.

Now, I’m probably an edge case, because I buy a lot of this stuff,  and I also go to a lot of swell conferences where they give a lot of this stuff away in the goody bags. Plus, companies sometimes send me things to evaluate (which I rarely get around to doing). But such is not the case for my son, who has a similar, if smaller, cache of technology guilt sitting up in his room right now, all of it collected over ten years of Christmases, birthdays, and allowances.

It all seems like so much work. So I ignore the growing pile of tech, hoping that at some point, someone or something will come along that will solve for my Guilt Pile. I’m not sure it ever will.

But wouldn’t it be grand if you could just sweep all of it into a big box, and send it to a service where they categorized it, valued it, listed it on eBay or gave it to charity, all the while wiping your data (but sending it back to you via some cloud storage link)? They’d then ask what you wanted to do with the money – Send it to charity, buy some groceries, pick up the tab at dinner next time or….get some new devices, perhaps?

Fantasy? Or does this business already exist?

Please, someone, start it up! There’s gotta be a business model in there somewhere….

When It’s This Easy To Take Someone’s Money…

By - February 18, 2013

Earlier in the month I wrote about fraud in the advertising technology ecosystem – a post which has spawned dozens of fascinating conversations that I will continue to write about here and elsewhere. But this past weekend I encountered another kind of scam – a combination of time-honored phishing (online identity theft via social manipulation) and good old-fashioned wire fraud.

My family has been going to a small island off the coast of Massachussets for my entire life – my grandparents are buried there, my great grandmother moved there around the turn of the century (1900, not 2000!). My mother owns a cottage near the beach, a cottage that my great-grandmother purchased nearly 100 years ago.

Suffice to say, I have a deep history with the place. But with a bevy of kids and friends descending upon us each summer, my family has outgrown the cottage, so we’ve started looking for a larger place to rent. Like most folks these days, we turned to the Internet. We fired up VRBO.com, a popular marketplace for quality vacation rentals. It’s a great site for checking the market, and my wife and I figured we might get lucky and find just the right place.

We refined our search to mid-sized homes in Edgartown, MA available on the dates we wanted to stay. Most of the good places were above our desired price range, but one listing really stood out:

We are very familiar with the location of this house, having stayed nearly across the street a few years back. And boy, was the price right – about one-third that of similar homes in the neighborhood. This was a “new listing,” VRBO told us, meaning we were one of the first folks to find it. We better act quick, before this deal goes away!

We emailed the owner using VRBO’s contact widget (shown at right in the screen shot). Within hours, the “owner” had contacted us back. She was ready to send us a contract with payment information right away.

Now, I’ve been around long enough to sense when something wasn’t quite right. First off, she was using a non-personal email from Yahoo (the handle was “livinghome1234″ or somesuch). And the owner’s last name (her first was Kathy) seemed vaguely machine-generated – I won’t repeat it here just in case a real person’s identity has been stolen and re-used to portray the “owner.” When I put the name into Google, I got the kind of results that aren’t exactly comforting – a barely used Facebook page of a person in rural Pennsylvania, and a ton of “find this person” websites. It struck me that someone who owned a million-dollar home on Martha’s Vineyard probably had more of a digital footprint than this.

Secondly, the deal did seem too good to be true. Was I about to take advantage of some poor elderly woman who didn’t understand the true value of her home? Given my history with the island, I didn’t want to be the guy who did that. I decided to cross check Kathy’s name with public real estate records for the address in question.

Turns out, they didn’t match. The real owner of the property was a very nice-looking older woman who was obviously a real person – a year or so ago she had penned a sweet obit in a local paper for her dearly departed poodle. (I know the type very well, she reminded me of my Mom, who spends a lot of time on the island with her beloved golden retriever). Hmm. Well, could be that the person who contacted me – Kathy – was just an agent working on the owner’s behalf. That certainly happens a lot. I called the real owner’s number (it was listed in public real estate records), but got a full answering machine. Darn.

Cautious but still optimistic, I told “Kathy” to send me the contract.

It was about this time I got the following email from VRBO:

Ah, drat. The listing was believed to be a fake.

But hope springs eternal, no? I awoke the next morning to a contract from Kathy. It included wire transfer instructions for the full amount of the rental, to a bank based, interestingly, in the same town as the rural Pennsylvanian’s hollow Facebook page. And it had a phone number at the top – which, when dialed, informed me that the Google Voice subscriber I had called was not available.

At this point I abandoned all hope of snagging that swell house in Edgartown, and called VRBO’s fraud department. They  were nice, but not very helpful, reminding me that the site is “just an advertising service” that does its best to protect its users, but, to summarize: Buyer beware. I asked what made VRBO suspect that the listing was fraudulent, but the nice man on the other end of the phone refused to give any more information, citing privacy concerns.

So, why am I writing all of this up? Isn’t this just another pedestrian case of Internet fraud? Well, yes, and that’s kind of the point.

Think about how easy it was for the fraudster to run this scam. First, scrape all the information from a real listing (probably last summer’s in this case), and resubmit it under a different identity.  Second, create a free email account and Facebook page for an owner’s identity, just in case a renter Googles the fraudulent name (as I did). Third, leverage Google’s free phone service to provide a contact number. And fourth, set up a bank account to collect the dough. Lather, rinse, repeat! After all, if only one in 10,000 attempts gets you a hit, it costs you nothing but time to create those 10,000 opportunities. And with some simple programming scripts, even your time isn’t really that taxed.

When it’s this easy to set up fraudulent transactions, they will flourish – and indeed, within a few hours of my being told about the listing’s suspicious nature, it was up again on VRBO, under a new listing number but otherwise unchanged. (I told VRBO about the new listing, and they once again banned it. But apparently, they don’t have any way to stop someone from listing it yet again.)

A quick perusal of the community boards on VRBO (or any other rental marketplace) reveals that this kind of scam happens a lot in the listings business. And there are some pretty basic steps one should take to insure you don’t get fooled. But to my mind the larger story here is one of incentive, trust and identity. If you take a look at the incentives working on VRBO, it becomes clear how easy it is to game the platform. VRBO wants to make it as frictionless as possible to list hot properties on its site. Renters like me want to quickly score the best deal on a hot property. And owners want to connect to VRBO’s vast market of potential renters.

But VRBO’s business model is also based on trust – as consumers of the service, we want to trust that the identities of those listing their homes for rent are in fact authentic. And clearly, for the vast majority of listings, that is the case. But given how easy it is for scammers to game the system with false listings, I don’t think I’ll ever be sending money to anyone I’ve met via their platform. And that’s a shame – because if VRBO and others took the time to qualify their marketplace up front, this kind of fraud would be far less rampant.

I think there’s a lesson here for all of us in the marketing industry. There are always going to be bad actors trying to game complex systems. Back when click fraud was a major issue, our industry had one major player who had the incentive to clean it up – Google. Google was the dominant player in search, and was a newly public company that couldn’t afford to be seen as profiting from fraud. But the programmatic adtech space is deeply fragmented, with scores of players, all of who are – according to many sources – reaping untold millions in revenue from fraudulent behavior. In short, the incentives to clean this up aren’t exactly aligned.

But imagine if just one major marketer – playing the role of the defrauded rentor – decides to make a public stink about fraud in programmatic exchanges, declaring they’ll never again spend money there. When that happens, our burgeoning ecosystem is imperiled. So once again, I say: It’s time for us to get further out in front of this problem. I’ll have more on how we might do so in future posts. Meanwhile, wish me luck in finding a place to stay this summer – from now on, I’ll be working with real humans who work on the island and know the owners personally. It might cost me more, but at least I’ll have a place to stay at the end of the day.