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This Is What Happens When Context Is Lost.

By - September 15, 2017

Buzzfeed Google Ads

(Cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Facebook and Google’s advertising infrastructure is one of humanity’s most marvelous creations. It’s also one of its most terrifying, because, in truth, pretty much no one really understands how it works. Not Mark Zuckerberg, not Larry Page, and certainly not Russian investigator Robert Mueller, although of the bunch, it seems Mueller is the most interested in that fact.

And that’s a massive problem for Facebook and Google, who have been dragged to the stocks over their algorithms’ inability to, well, act like a rational and dignified human being.

So how did the world’s most valuable and ubiquitous companies get here, and what can be done about it?

Well, let’s pull back and consider how these two tech giants execute their core business model, which of course is advertising. You might want to pour yourself an adult beverage and settle in, because by the end of this, the odds of you wanting the cold comfort of a bourbon on ice are pretty high.

In the beginning (OK, let’s just say before the year 2000), advertising was a pretty simple business. You chose your intended audience (the target), you chose your message (the creative), and then you chose your delivery vehicle (the media plan). That media plan involved identifying publications, television programs, and radio stations where your target audience was engaged.

Those media outlets lived in a world regulated by certain hard and fast rules around what constituted appropriate speech. The FCC made sure you couldn’t go full George Carlin in your creative execution, for example. The FTC made sure you couldn’t commit fraud. And the FEC — that’s the regulatory body responsible for insuring fairness and transparency in paid political speech — the FEC made sure that when audiences were targeted with creative that supports one candidate or another, those audiences could know who was behind same-said creative.

But that neat framework has been thoroughly and utterly upended on the Internet, which, as you might recall, has mostly viewed regulation as damage to be routed around.

After all, empowering three major Federal regulatory bodies dedicated to old media advertising practices seems like an awful lot of liberal overkill, n’est ce pas? What waste! And speaking of waste, honestly, if you want to “target” your audience, why bother with “media outlets” anyway?! Everyone knows that Wanamaker was right — in the offline world, half your advertising is wasted, and thanks to offline’s lack of precise targeting, no one has a clue which half that might be.

But as we consider tossing the offline baby out with the bathwater waste, it’s wise to remember a critical element of the offline model that may well save us as we begin to sort through the mess we’re currently in. That element can be understood via a single word: Context. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s go back to our story of how advertising has shifted in an online world, and the unintended consequences of that shift (if you want a even more thorough take, head over to Rick Webb’s NewCo Shift series: Which Half Is Wasted).

Google: Millions Flock to Self Service, Rise of the Algos

Back in the year 2000, Google rolled out AdWords, a fantastically precise targeting technology that allowed just about anyone to target their advertisements to…just about anyone, as long as that person was typing a search term into Google’s rapidly growing service. (Keep that “anyone” word in mind, it’ll come back to haunt us later.) AdWords worked best when you used it directly on Google’s site — because your ad came up as a search result right next to the “organic” results. If your ad was contextually relevant to a user’s search query, it had a good chance of “winning” — and the prize was a potential customer clicking over to your “landing page.” What you did with them then was your business, not Google’s.

As you can tell from my fetishistic italicization, in this early portion of the digital ad revolution, context still mattered. Google next rolled out “AdSense,” which placed AdWords on publishers’ pages around the Internet. AdSense didn’t work as well as AdWords on Google’s own site, but it still worked pretty well, because it was driven by context — the AdSense system scanned the web pages on which its ads were placed, and attempted to place relevant AdWordsin context there. Sometimes it did so clumsily, sometimes it did so with spectacular precision. Net net, it did it well enough to start a revolution.

Within a few years, AdWords and AdSense brought billions of dollars of revenue to Google, and it reshaped the habits of millions of advertisers large and small. In fact, AdWords brought an entirely new class of advertiser into the fold — small time business owners who could compete on a level playing field with massive brands. It also reshaped the efforts of thousands of publishers, many of whom dedicated small armies of humans to game AdWords’ algorithms and fraudulently drink the advertisers’ milk shakes. Google fought back, employing thousands of engineers to ward off spam, fraud, and bad actors.

AdWords didn’t let advertisers target individuals based on their deeply personal information, at least not in its first decade or so of existence. Instead, you targeted based on the expressed intention of individuals — either their search query (if on Google’s own site), or the context of what they were reading on sites all over the web. And over time, Google developed what seemed like insanely smart algorithms which helped advertisers find their audiences, deliver their messaging, and optimize their results.

The government mostly stayed out of Google’s way during this period.

When Google went public in 2004, it was estimated that between 15 to 25 percent of advertising on its platform was fraudulent. But advertisers didn’t care — after all, that’s a lot less waste than over in Wanamaker land, right? Google’s IPO was, for a period of time, the most successful offering in the history of tech.

Facebook: People Based Marketing FTW

Then along came Facebook. Facebook was a social network where legions of users voluntarily offered personally identifying information in exchange for the right to poke each other, like each other, and share their baby pictures with each other.

Facebook’s founders knew their future lay in connecting that trove of user data to a massive ad platform. In 2008, they hired Sheryl Sandberg, who ran Google’s advertising operation, and within a few years, Facebook had built the foundation of what is now the most ruthlessly precise targeting engine on the planet.

Facebook took nearly all the world-beating characteristics of Google’s AdWords and added the crack cocaine of personal data. Its self service platform, which opened for business a year or so after Sandberg joined, was hailed as ‘ridiculously easy to use.’ Facebook began to grow by leaps and bounds. Not only did everyone in the industrialized world get a Facebook account, every advertiser in the industrialized world got themselves a Facebook advertising account. Google had already plowed the field, after all. All Facebook had to do was add the informational seed.

Both Google and Facebook’s systems were essentially open — as we established earlier, just about anyone could sign up and start buying algorithmically generated ads targeted to infinite numbers of “audiences.” By 2013 or so, Google had gotten into the personalization game, albeit most folks would admit it wasn’t nearly as good as Facebook’s, but still, way better than the offline world.

So how does Facebook’s ad system work? Well, just like Google, it’s accessed through a self-service platform that lets you target your audiences using Facebook data. And because Facebook knows an awful lot about its users, you can target those users with astounding precision. You want women, 30–34, with two kids who live in the suburbs? Piece of cake. Men, 18–21 with an interest in acid house music, cosplay, and scientology? Done! And just like Google, Facebook employed legions of algorithms which helped advertisers find their audiences, deliver their messaging, and optimize their results. A massive ecosystem of advertisers flocked to Facebook’s new platform, lured by what appeared to be the Holy Grail of their customer acquisition dreams: People Based Marketing!

The government mostly stayed out of Facebook’s way during this period.

When Facebook went public in 2012, it estimated that only 1.5% of its nearly one billion accounts were fraudulent. A handful of advertisers begged to differ, but they were probably just using the system wrong. Sad!

Facebook’s IPO quickly became the most successful IPO in the history of tech. (Till Alibaba, of course. But that’s another story).

(Meanwhile, Programmatic.)

The programmatic Lumascape. Seems uncomplicated, right?

Stunned by the rise of the Google/Facebook duopoly, the tech industry responded with an open web answer: Programmatic advertising. Using cookies, mobile IDs, and tons of related data gathered from users as they surfed the web, hundreds of startups built an open-source version of Facebook and Google’s walled gardens. Programmatic was driven almost entirely by the concept of “audience buying” — the purchase of a specific audience segment regardless of the context in which that audience resided. The programmatic industry quickly scaled to billions of dollars — advertisers loved its price tag (open web ads were far cheaper), and its seemingly amazing return on investment (driven in large part by fraud and bad KPIs, but that’s yet another post).

Facebook and Google were unfazed by the rise of programmatic. In fact, they bought the best companies in the field, and incorporated their technologies into their ever advancing platforms.

The Storm Clouds Gather

But a funny thing happened as Google, Facebook and the programmatic industry rewrote advertising history. Now that advertisers could precisely identify and target audiences on Facebook, Google and across the web, they no longer needed to use media outlets as a proxy for those audiences. Media companies began to fall out of favor with advertisers and subsequently fail in large numbers. Google and Facebook became advertisers’ primary audience acquisition machines. Marketers poured the majority of their budgets into the duopoly — 70–85% of all digital advertising dollars go to the one or the other of them, and nearly all growth in digital marketing spend is attributable to them as well.

By 2011, regulators began to wrap their heads around this burgeoning field. Up till then, Internet ads were exempt from political regulations governing television, print, and other non digital outlets. In fact, both Facebook and Google have both lobbied the FEC, at various times over the past decade or so, to exclude their platforms from the vagaries of regulatory oversight based on an exemption for, and I am not making this up, “bumper stickers, pins, buttons, pens and similar small items” where posting a disclaimer is impracticable (sky writing is also mentioned). AdWords and mobile feed ads were small, after all. And everyone knows the Internet has limited space for disclaimers, right?

Anyway, that was the state of play up until 2011, when Facebook submitted a request to the FEC to clear the issue up once and for all. With a huge election coming in 2012, it was both wise and proactive of Facebook to want to clarify the matter, lest they find themselves on the wrong end of a regulatory ruling with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The FEC failed to clarify its position, but did request comment from industry and the public on the issue (PDF). In essence, things remained status quo, and nothing happened for several years.

That set the table for the election of 2016. In October of that year, perhaps realizing it had done nothing for half a decade while the most powerful advertising machine in the history of ever slowly marched toward its seemingly inevitable date with emergent super intelligence, the FEC re-opened its request for comments on the whether or not political advertising on the Internet should have some trace of transparency. But that was far too late for the 2016 election.

The rest, as they inevitably say, is history in the making.

Time will tell, I suppose.

So Now What?

Most everyone I speak to tells me that last week’s revelations about Facebook, Russia, and political advertising is, in the words of Senator Mark Warner, “the tip of the iceberg.” Whether or not that’s true (and I for one am quite certain it is), it’s plenty enough to bring the issue directly to the forefront of our political and regulatory debate.

Now the news is coming fast and furious: At what was supposed to be a relatively quotidian regular meeting of the FEC this week, the commissioners voted unanimously to re-open (again) the comment period on Internet transparency. The Campaign Legal Center, launched in 2002 by a Republican ally of Senator John McCain (co-sponsor of the McCain Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002), this week issued a release calling for Facebook to disclose any and all ads purchased by foreign agents. (Would that it were that simple, but we’ll get to that in the next installment.) One of the six FEC commissioners, a Democrat, subsequently penned an impassioned Op Ed in the Washington Post, calling for a new regulatory framework that would protect American democracy from foreign meddling. The catch? The Republicans on the commission refuse to consider any regulations unless the commission receives “enough substantive written comments.”

Once the link for comments goes up in a week or two, I’m pretty sure they will.

But in the meantime, there’s plenty of chin stroking to be done over this issue. While this may seem like a dust up limited to the transparency of political advertising on the internet, the real story is vastly larger and more complicated. The wheels of western capitalism are greased by paid speech, and online, much of that speech is protected by the first amendment to our constitution, as well as established policies enshrined in contract law between Facebook, Google, and their clients. There are innumerable scenarios where a company or organization demands opacity around its advertising efforts. So many, in fact, that if I were to go into them now, I’d extend this piece by another 2,500 words.

And given I’m now close to 3,000 words in what was supposed to be a 600-word column, I’m going to leave exploring those scenarios, and their impact, to next week’s columns. In the meantime, I’ll be speaking with as many experts and policy folks from tech, Washington, and media as I can find. Suffice to say, big regulation is coming for big tech. Never in the history of the tech industry has the 1996 CDMA ruling granting tech platforms immunity from the consequences of speech on their own platforms been more germane. Whether it’s in jeopardy or not remains to be seen.

This is not a simple issue, and resolving it will require a level of rational discourse and debate that’s been starkly absent from our national dialog these past few years. At stake is not only the fundamental advertising models that built our most valuable tech companies, but also the essential forces and presumptions driving our system of democratic capitalism*. Not to mention the nascent but utterly critical debate around the role of algorithms in civil society. And as we explore solutions to what increasingly feels like an intractable set of questions, we’d do well to keep one word in mind: Context.


*Ask yourselves this: Are the advertising platforms behind Alibaba and Tencent worried about transparency?

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The Data Deal Is Opaque. We Should Fix It.

By - August 23, 2017

I wrote this post over on NewCo Shift, but it’s germane to the topics here on Searchblog, so I’m cross posting here…

What Did You *Think* They Do With Your Data?

Admit it, you know your data is how you pay for free services. And you’re cool with it. So let’s get the value exchange right.

Topping the charts on TechMeme yesterday is this story:

So as to be clear, what’s going on here is this: AccuWeather was sharing its users’ anonymized data with a third-party company for profit, even after those same users seemingly opted out of location-based data collection.

But the actual story is more complicated.

Because….come on. Is anyone really still under the impression that your data isn’t what you’re trading for free weather, anywhere, anytime, by the hour? For free e-mail services? For free social media like Instagram or Facebook? For pretty much free everything?

All day long, you’re giving your data up. This is NOT NEW. Technically, what AcccuWeather did is more than likely legal, but it violates the Spirit Of Customers Are Always Right, Even If They Don’t Know What They Are Talking About. It also fails the Front Page Test, and well, when that happens it’s time for a crucifixion!

Hold on, a reasonable person might argue, sensing I’m arguing a disagreeable case. The user opted out, right? In this instance the user (and we can’t call them a “customer,” because a customer traditionally pays money for something) did in fact explicitly tell the app to NOT access their location. Here’s the screen shot in that story:

But what does that really mean? Access for what? Under what circumstance? My guess is AcccuWeather asked this question for a very specific reason: When an app uses your location to deliver you information, it can get super creepy, super fast. It’s best to ask permission, so the user gets comfortable with the app “knowing” so much about where the user is. This opt out message has nothing to do with the use of location data for third party monetization. Nothing at all.

In fact, AccuWeather is not sharing location data, at least not in a way that contradicts what they’ve communicated. Once you ask it not to, the AccuWeather app most certainly does NOT use your location information to in any way inform the user’s experience within the app.

Here’s what AccuWeather should ask its users, if it wanted to be totally honest about the value exchange inherent in the use of free apps:

“Ban AcccuWeather from using your anonymized data so AccuWeather, which really likes giving you free weather information, can stay in business?”

But nope, it surely doesn’t say that.

Yet if we want to get all huffy about use of data, well, that’s really what’s going on here. Because if you’re a publisher, in the past five years you’ve had your contextual advertising revenue* stripped from your P&L. And if you’re going to make it past next Thursday, you have to start monetizing the one thing you have left: Your audience data.

AcccuWeather is a publisher. Publishers are under assault from a massive shift in value extraction, away from the point of audience value delivery (the weather, free, to your eyeballs!) and to the point of audience aggregation (Facebook, Google, Amazon). All of these massive platforms can sell an advertiser audiences who check the local weather, six ways to Sunday.** If you’re an advertiser, why buy those audiences on an actual weather site? It’s easier, cheaper, and far safer to just buy them from the Big Guys.

Publishers need revenue to replace those lost direct ads, so they sell our data — anonymized and triangulated, mind you — so they can stay in business. Because for publishers, advertising as a business sucks right about now.

Anyway. AcccuWeather has already responded to the story. Scolded by an industry that fails to think deeply about what’s really going on in its own backyard, AccuWeather is now appropriately abject, and will “fix” the problem within 24 hours. But that really won’t fix the damn problem.***

  • * and that’s another post.
  • **and with a lot more detailed data!
  • ***and that’s probably a much longer post.

Walmart and Google: A Match Made By Amazon

The retail and online worlds collided late yesterday with the news that Google and Walmart are hooking up in a stunning e-commerce partnership. Walmart will make its impressive inventory and distribution network available to shoppers on Google’s Express e-commerce service. This market the first time Walmart has leveraged its massive inventory and distribution assets outside its own e-commerce offerings. A few weeks ago I predicted in this space that Walmart would hook up with Facebook or Pinterest. I should have realized Google made more sense — though I’m sure there’s still room for more partnerships in this evolving retail landscape.

Those 1.3 million Records We Wanted? Never Mind.

Defenders of citizen’s rights briefly went on high alert when the Department of Justice subpoenaed the IP addresses (and much more) for every single visitor to an anti-Trump website. The web hosting company at the business end of that subpoena, DreamHost, went public with the request, which alerted the world to the government’s unreasonable demands. As the outcry grew, the DOJ relented, saying yesterday, in effect, “never mind, just kidding.” Here’s what chills me — and should chill you: What if DreamHost hadn’t stood up to the man?

My New Column – Please Sign Up!

By - August 05, 2017

Hi Searchblog readers. I know it’s been a while. But I’m writing a new column over at NewCo Shift, and instead of posting it verbatim here every other day (it comes out three times a week), I figured I’d let you know, and if you’d like to read it (my musings are pretty Searchbloggy, to be honest), you can get it right in your inbox by signing up for the NewCo Daily newsletter right here.

Here are my columns so far:
Is Social Media The New Tobacco?

Dow 36,000?

Bears and Dragons Bite Tech Where It Hurts

Memo to Tech’s Titans: Please Remember What It Was Like to Be Small

Don’t Quite Grok Blockchain? We Got You Covered.

This Is How Walmart Will Defend Itself Against Amazon

Facebook’s Data Trove May Well Determine Trump’s Fate

Google and Amazon Hit the Feed Trough

A Trio of Tech Takedowns

Thanks for reading Searchblog. I’ll continue to post stuff here – but probably not every column, which are meant to be short takes on key news of the day.

Uber Does Not Equal The Valley

By - June 14, 2017

Uber Protest

Now that the other shoe has dropped, and Uber’s CEO has been (somewhat) restrained, it’s time for the schadenfreude. Given Uber’s remarkable string of screwups and controversies, it’s coming in thick, in particular from the East coast. And while I believe Uber deserves the scrutiny — there are certainly critical lessons to be learned — the hot takes from many media outlets are starting to get lazy.

Here’s why. Uber does not reflect the entirety of the Valley, particularly when it comes to how companies are run. As I wrote in The Myth of the Valley Douchebag, there are far more companies here run by decent, earnest, well meaning people than there are Ubers. But of course, the Ubers get most of the attention, because they confirm an easy bias that all of tech is off the rails, and deserves to be taken down a notch.

Such is the case with this piece in Time — painting all of Uber’s failures broadly as the Valley’s failures. And to a point, the piece is correct — but only to a point. While the entire Valley (and let’s face it, Congress, the judiciary, the Fortune 500, nearly every public board in America, etc. etc.) has a major race and gender problem, Uber has far more troubles than just gender and race. Far more. And painting every company in the Valley with the tarred brush of Uber’s approach to business is simply unfair.

To that bias, I’d like to counter with Matt Mullenwegg, from Automattic, or Jen Pahlka, from Code for America, or Ben Silbermann, from Pinterest, or Michelle Zatlyn, from CloudFlare, or Jeff Huber, from Grail Bio. Sure, their companies aren’t worth billions (on second thought, Pinterest, CloudFlare, and Automattic are, and Grail may be on its way), but they are excellent examples of game changing organizations run by good people who, while they may not be perfect, are driven by far more than arrogance, lucre, and winning at all costs.

It’s certainly a good thing that Uber has been chastened. There are still far too many frothy startups driven by immature, bro-tastic founders eager to “move fast and break things” and “ask for forgiveness, not for permission.” Kalanick and Uber’s fall from grace is visceral proof that they must change their ways. But the Silicon Valley trope is starting to wear thin. Let’s not forget the good as we excise the bad. We’ve got a lot of important work to do.

The Internet Big Five Is Now The World’s Big Five

By - May 17, 2017

Back in December of 2011, I wrote a piece I called “The Internet Big Five,” in which I noted what seemed a significant trend: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook were becoming the most important companies not only in the technology world, but in the world at large. At that point, Facebook had not yet gone public, but I thought it would be interesting to compare each of them by various metrics, including market cap (Facebook’s was private at the time, but widely reported). Here’s the original chart:

I called it “Draft 1” because I had a sense there was a franchise of sorts brewing. I had no idea. I started to chart out the various strengths and relative weaknesses of the Big Five, but work on NewCo shifted my focus for a spell.

Three years later, in 2014, I updated the chart. The growth in market cap was staggering:

Nearly a trillion dollars in net market cap growth in less than three years! My goodness!

But since 2014, the Big Five have rapidly accelerated their growth. Let’s look at the same chart, updated to today:

Ummm..HOLY SHIT! Almost two trillion dollars of market cap added in less than seven years. And the “Big Five” have become, with a few limited incursions by Berkshire Hathaway, the five largest public companies in the US. This has been noted by just about everyone lately, including The Atlantic, which just employed the very talented Alexis Madrigal to pay attention to them on a regular basis. In his maiden piece, Madrigal notes that the open, utopian world of the web just ten years ago (Web 2, remember that? I certainly do…) has lost, bigly, to a world of walled-garden market cap monsters.

I agree and disagree. Peter Thiel is fond of saying that the best companies are monopolists by nature, and his predictions seem to be coming true. But monopolies grow old, fray, and usually fail to benefit society over time. There’s a crisis of social responsibility and leadership looming for the Big Five — they’ve got all the power, now it’s time for them to face their responsibility. I’ll be writing much more about that in coming weeks and months. As I’ve said elsewhere, in a world where our politics has devolved to bomb throwing and sideshows, we must expect our businesses — in particular our most valuable ones — to lead.

It’s Time For Facebook to Start Making Media

By - March 22, 2017

There’s only one company that can possibly spin media gold on Facebook. And that’s Facebook.

Round and round and round goes the debate — Facebook’s not a media company, Facebook’s not a traditional media company, Facebook’s a new kind of media company. Facebook’s gonna pay media creators to make stuff on Facebook! Wait, no they’re not. Wait, maybe they will make it themselves! Gah

We’ve seen this debate before — Google refused to call itself a media business for years and years. Now, well…YouTube. And Play. Twitter had similar reluctancies, and now…the NFL (oh, and college softball!). Microsoft tried, but ultimately failed, to be a media company (there’s a reason it’s called MSNBC), and had the sense to retreat from “social media” into “enterprise tools” so as to not beg confusion. Then again, it just bought LinkedIn, so the debate will most certainly flare up (wait, is LinkedIn a media company?!).

Truth is, with all these platform players, media is not only a crucial product, it’s the primary product. I’m not going to get into why in this post (I will next time, promise.) Instead I’ll predict that quite soon, platforms, including Facebook, will lose their equivocation and embrace content creation.

In the meantime, let’s talk about cute toddlers, shall we?

Here’s a video of two cute toddlers practicing for a future as nightclub promoters (or WWF entertainers, it’s hard to decide). It’s been watched nearly 70 million times on Facebook. In one day.

Did you read that right? Yep. 70 million times. In one day.

The video is two minutes long. Scores of “traditional” media outlets have somehow gotten access to the video, chroming it up with their own logos, music, and advertising. But the thing went viral on Facebook, and it’s Facebook that insured the kids got their 140 million minutes of fame (and counting).

Here’s the thing. There are literally dozens, if not thousands, of these kinds of media objects on Facebook every day. Sure, maybe they’re not all 70-million-views-in-one-day big, but nevertheless, they’re media gold. They spread all over Facebook, all day long, but what drives me crazy is there’s no way to find them reliably. There’s no media product on Facebook that curates these gems, there’s only media distribution. And as everyone in the Valley (and in media) will tell you, Product Matters.

So it’s time for Facebook to start making good media products. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a “Facebook trending viral videos” product at least once a day? Right? Search for viral videos on Facebook now, and you get dreck like this. I don’t know what angle these jokers’ are playing (I mean, there’s no ads there…), but it ain’t what Facebook, with their inside knowledge of what makes stuff go viral, could create.

Sure, there are a ton of “media” players trying to find a way to make a living on Facebook — and the entire media world is now fretting over how dependent they’ve become on the attention black hole Facebook’s become. But the truth is, only Facebook knows what’s really happening behind that 2 billion person curtain. Anyone else making shit for Facebook is running with cement in their shoes.

Facebook will never open up its ecosystem and let a million media flowers bloom. And the “media experience” on the site blows. Soon enough, they’ll have to fix it. It’s time for them to get on with it.

Predictions 2017: A Chain Reaction

By - January 06, 2017

Nostradamus_prophecies

This is my 14th annual predictions post. And as I look back on the previous 13 and consider what to write, I’m flooded with uncertainty. That’s not like me. Writing these predictions is something I’ve always looked forward to – I don’t prepare in any demonstrable way, but I do gather crumbs over time, filing them away for the day when I sit down and free associate for however long it takes me to complete this post.

But this time, well, for the first time ever I have very little idea what’s about to come out of the keyboard. Honestly, when I consider the coming 12 months, so much feels up for grabs that I wonder whether it’s wise to prognosticate. Then I remember, it’s all of you reading these words who keep me writing in the first place – your encouragement, your wise (and sometimes cutting) commentary, and your willingness to spend a little time with me and my thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more – it’s always been how I make sense of the world, and this year, the world feels like it needs a lot more sense making. So I’ll be writing at least a few times a week going forward, starting with this uncertain post.

Let’s see what happens….

1. The bloom comes off the tech industry rose. Two years ago, I predicted that the tech industry would wake up to the power it had accrued and start giving a shit both about its impact on the world, and about the world’s largest problems, with climate change being the most pressing of them. That didn’t really happen, despite truly commendable philanthropic, social, and climate change work done by all of the “Big 5” tech companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook). As of this writing, the technology industry is now the undisputed leader of the business world. Its power has concentrated into demonstrable oligarchy – beyond the Big 5, Uber and Airbnb are now being called to question because of their potential monopolistic, rent extracting behavior. But the industry’s philosophical outlook remains rooted in its days as a challenger brand. This can’t stand. 2017 will be the year the industry is cast as a villain – for its ravenous and largely opaque data collection practices, its closed and self-serving approach to its own platforms, and its refusal to acknowledge or address the very real externalities, particularly in employment, created by its products and services. Some of this backlash will be unfair – but that’s not my point. Society vilifies those in power who appear to be unfairly profiting from that power. And in 2017, tech will be that villain.

2. The conversation economy breaks out. This is certainly related to #1, if oddly oppositional. The Big Five will be in an all out battle to engage us through conversational interfaces this year. If you’ve been reading me for over a decade, you might remember my predictions around the “conversation economy.” I was a bit early (OK, a decade too early), but the technology and the consumer behavior/expectations are now aligned to allow for a breakout year in user experience to finally occur. This began in earnest last year with the hype around chatbots, and the ascendance of Alexa and Google Home, all of which followed on the heels of Google Voice Search and Siri. But what will really shift the experience will be the explosion of smart chatbots that actually get shit done – I’m with Kik CEO Ted Livingston, chat is the new browser. Combine smart chat with voice, and … well, we’ll start to see a new UX for the web. What’s the economic model for this new UX? Good question! But the key will be meaningful interaction between all these services, instead of attempts to create a vertically integrated, locked-down walled garden. But that will only happen if…

3. Open starts to win again. It’s dangerous to link two predictions, because if one doesn’t work out, the other is likely to fail as well. It’s even worse to link your first three… but what the hell. Tech’s hegemony is so great at this point, that the only way I can see it breaking down is through a return to the open standards which bequeathed us the Internet in the first place. 2017 will be the year that open starts to win again as a business model and an approach to creating a developer (and hence consumer) ecosystem. Google can and should be the leader here, given its core DNA, but I’m not sure that will be the case. Now, what do I mean by open? Well, interoperability, for one. It’s great that anyone can create a chatbot on Messenger, or Kik, or WhatsApp, but true innovation will come when anyone can create a chatbot that works with all of them, sharing data and user profiles across platforms. The same goes for the marketing industry – publishers and marketers alike should be able to consolidate and leverage data across all meaningful platforms, instead of cultivating different patches in every service’s walled gardens. The same goes for consumers, of course – I want to know what data is being used to mold the choices being laid out in front of me (including the ads, and yes, my f*cking newsfeed!). There will be meaningful demand from “users” to have more fluid and intuitive controls of their experience. And if my #2 holds true, then voice becomes a literal lingua franca, rendering platform lock in long-term meaningless, because jumping from service to service will be as easy as saying “Alexa, WhatsApp my pal Chris with the results of my Google search on open platforms.” This year won’t be a turning point in this battle, but it will show meaningful progress, in large part because…

4. Privacy will become a strong product category. These linked predictions are  certainly becoming a theme. But last year saw strong growth for a number of stand alone privacy products like Signal and Confide, and the inclusion of strong crypto into massive platforms like iOS (remember the FBI fracas?), WhatsApp and Google (via its new Allo and Duo products). Influencers like Fred and many others are predicting a boon in this field, and I agree. But it’s one thing to encrypt your messaging. It’s another to secure your entire online life. That kind of security is hard to do, mainly because it obviates much of the value of the data harvesting which drives convenience in the consumer tech world. But fear of cyber warfare, fraud, and over-reaching marketers and government will create huge openings for consumer friendly versions of currently opaque products like PGP, password managers, and the like. And it’ll also drive political and consumer pressure for more robust consumer control around algorithmically driven consumer experiences. Smart companies won’t resist this trend, they’ll encourage it.

5. Adtech has a ripper of a year. Wait, I just predicted consumers will pivot to caring about privacy, but I’m saying the adtech business is going to have a great year?! Well…yes. Embrace the contradictions, because adtech is ready for its second act. It’s really sucked to be a leader in the advertising technology industry – half of the media industry openly hates your guts, and the other half is convinced your days are numbered because of the Google/Facebook oligarchy. But they’re all wrong. Advertising technology is, at its simplest, the ability to apply data to a decision at scale. And the more open and free flowing that data economy becomes, the better and more valuable the companies which enable it become. If my predictions 1-4 come true, then this one will as well: Independent, high-integrity companies in ad/martech are going to have a banner (no pun intended) year, because they’ll tack into the resistance the large platform players have to the trends I’ve outlined above. Watch: Sovrn Holdings*, AppNexus, Acxiom*, Trade Desk, and OpenX.

6. Apple releases a truly bad hardware product. OK, this one isn’t really tied to the others, but I think Apple’s poised to not just have a boring year (as I predicted it would last year,) but to really lay an egg for the first time in a very long time. It may be their answer to Amazon Echo/Alexa, or Google Home/Assistant, or it may be a follow on to the watch, or perhaps something the company has had up its sleeve for a few years that it feels obliged to roll out given its essentially uninspiring last few years of product releases. But in 2017, the press and the public will find a tangible reason to turn on Apple, and the company will likely respond by reorganizing, repatriating its cash (to curry favor with the current administration), and keep buying its way into the markets where it has repeatedly failed (IE, software as a service, entertainment (NetFlix?!!), and possibly social media).

7. A Fortune 100 company will announce its intention to become a B Corp. Large companies are increasingly under pressure from employees, customers, and society to create value for more than just their shareholders. For decades, business was allowed to tax environmental, social, and societal resources in pursuit of profit. A new generation of consumers and employees are demanding that business ladder to more than simple profit, but rather, have a core purpose—one that makes the world a little (or a lot) better place. Of course, there’s already a corporate governance structure that encourages this approach to running a company—the Public Benefit Corporation, or B Corp. (I wrote about B Corps last year here). My money is on Unilever, which has already been publicly discussing such a move. Two dark horses: Walmart and GE.

8. President Trump leaves Twitter. Ever since Twitter launched, I’ve usually included a Twitter prediction. This one sounds crazy, but it strikes me there are a few ways this might plausibly happen. Perhaps Trump will come to his senses and stop trying to run the country through a series of tweets. OK, that’s not very plausible. More likely is Trump will end up in some kind of a feud with Twitter over something utterly ridiculous, claim he’s the only reason the service is viable anymore, and decamp for Facebook, Snapchat, or who knows, maybe VK (that’s the largest Russian social media network, FWIW). Or maybe someone slips a cure for narcissism into his evening flute of Trump Champagne….

9. Snap soars – then sours. I’m increasingly of the opinion that this company is going to force a total rethink of our online culture. In fact, I think most of us have no idea how over our skis we are when it comes to the power that Snapchat has aggregated. I’m not talking about typical tech power, like number of active users or advertising revenue. I mean the power of the platform to engage and exploit our pleistocene-era social brains. I’m not entirely sure Snap Inc. has fully grokked that power. But Snapchat feels like a step function beyond anything that has come before it. I watch my own children use it, and I’ve watched them fall in love with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and countless pretenders (though I’m keeping my eye on Houseparty). Nothing compares to what happens when a group of kids connect on Snapchat. It literally becomes their social geography, and that fact will be widely recognized by the business community when Snap goes public. But almost hand in hand with that will come the Snapchat backlash, as scholars, alarmists, parents and school administrators speak out about the impact the app is having on the structure of society. Spectacles? By the end of 2017, those will seem quaint. Side note: There’ll be an amazing science fiction novel that comes out in early 2017 whose main protagonist will be compared to Snap. And yeah, that’s a fix, because I’ve already read it…

10. Human connection commands a premium in the workforce. OK, OK, this has certainly been the case for all of history, at least – ahem –  for a certain kind of connectivity. But in an age where it seems every job can be replaced by AI or a robot (or both), we’ll see a shift in how society values previously under-appreciated jobs that cannot be automated away (or if they can, the automated version fails to deliver human connection). Think about jobs that are socially valuable, require direct human contact, but are currently very poorly remunerated: Teacher, nurse/home care aide, waiter, small business owner, musician/artist come to mind. In 2017, we’ll come to realize that we’re valuing the wrong things, and start a conversation about paying people to connect with each other – because if we can automate the other stuff, why the heck wouldn’t we value each other more?! Related: The conversation around Universal Basic Income (or my preferred term, the Citizens’ Dividend) will become white hot (it’s white hot in the Valley at present, but it’ll move into broader circles in 2017).

Well that’s ten predictions, which seems like a nice round number. As I review them, I realize there’s a pretty high chance I could seriously whiff this year. What do you think?!

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Related:

Predictions 2016 

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

 

Google Capitulates to Facebook’s Identity Machine: Is This Good News For The Open Web?

By - October 22, 2016

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Long time readers of this site know that once a year I make predictions, and revisit those I made the year before. But it’s not often I look back farther than one year to see if perhaps I was just a tad too early. It appears in the case of Google and personal data, I was.

In my predictions for 2015 I wagered that Google would “face existential competition from Facebook” forcing it to “connect its search and personal data to its Doubleclick asset.” This was a debatable prediction – Google had long prided itself on its privacy policies, and when it acquired DoubleClick, it canonized its stance with this line in its online policy“We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.”

That line is now gone. In its place is this: “Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”

Put another way, Google has capitulated to the power of Facebook’s online identity tsunami, and has connected all the information it has about us – our search history, usage of Google apps like Gmail, Docs, or YouTube, and our history of interaction with Google’s advertising business – so as to better target us on behalf of advertisers. Of course, this move also allows Google to  better compete with Facebook, which can target Facebook users – and now even non users – across the web.

Given I predicted this would happen, I’m not that surprised it finally did – in fact, I’m surprised it took this long. To its credit, Google has made the shift by asking its customers to opt in – but the process, as described in this ProPublica piece, was pretty opaque.

Pulling back, I actually believe this represents good news for the web, and for the evolving adtech industry. For years we’ve built an open web advertising infrastructure based on anonymity, even as Facebook leveraged its native advantages based on real identity. If we can get to the point where advertisers can actually know who they are communicating with, perhaps our advertising ecosystem will evolve to a place where it adds value to consumers’ lives on a regular basis, as opposed to interrupting and annoying us all day long. When that happens, Facebook’s implicit advantage – that it knows who we are – will become commodified, and perhaps – just perhaps – the open web will once again thrive.

Update: Google reached out with a clarification – here’s their statement on the change: 

Our advertising system was designed before the smartphone revolution. It offered user controls and determined ads’ relevance, but only on a per-device basis. This past June we updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices. Before we launched this update, we tested it around the world with the goal of understanding how to provide users with clear choice and transparency. As a result, it is 100% optional–if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged. Equally important: we provided prominent user notifications about this change in easy-to-understand language as well as simple tools that let users control or delete their data. Users can access all of their account controls by visiting My Account and we’re pleased that more than a billion have done so in its first year alone.

Where I’ll Be For NewCo Boston April 26-7 – Come Join Me!

By - April 19, 2016

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The first ever NewCo Boston goes off in less than two weeks, and I’ve been studying the schedule and making my picks for the companies I most want to visit. The lineup is insanely great – Boston is brimming with innovative NewCos, 79 of which will open their doors on April 27th. Thanks to our partners at MassTLC – you guys really know how to do it right!

Tuesday, April 26th, 6 pm: VIP Kick-off & Reception @ Hatch Fenway NewCo Boston kicks off at Hatch Fenway, a NewCo incubator that was once an industrial hub. Mingle, swill, and get inspired by host company CEOs, city leaders, and VIP ticket holders alike.

Weds., April 27th

8.30 am – HubSpot Long the leader in the new art of “inbound marketing,” HubSpot is one of Boston’s pillars. I’m looking forward to learning about the company’s unique culture. Yes, this is the company that Dan Lyons recently skewered, but I’m not buying his version of reality. The great thing about NewCo is you can see it for yourself, and I plan to do just that. Wish I could also go to: Oxfam America and CIC Cambridge.

10.30 am – Ginkgo Bioworks I’ve been fascinated by this company ever since I heard the term “organism engineering foundry,” which is how they describe their offices. I can’t wait to see what they’re up to – I sense it’s a taste of the future, right now. Wish I could also go to: Artaic – Innovative Mosaic  and Resilient Coders.

12.30 pm – athenahealth – I recently met Todd Park, one of the original founder of athenahealth, and I am excited to see how the company he founded (he went on to be the CTO of the US Government) is changing healthcare for the better. Wish I could also go: Emulate, Inc. and Carbonite.

2.30 pm – Wayfair – This top ecommerce site is thriving, and it’s expanding into new forms of merchandising, including VR. Co-founder Steven Conine will be leading a Q&A session, which are always fascinating at a NewCo festival – everyone in the audience is there because they want to learn about the company, and they always have awesome questions. Which I could also go: Freight Farms and Greentown Labs.

4.30 pm – clypd – I’m an investor in this video advertising innovator, but in their NewCo session, they’re going to focus on company culture. I’ve never seen their offices, but I hear there’ll be beer on tap, and by late afternoon, I’m sure I’ll have a thirst! Wish I could also go: Roxbury Innovation Center and Localytics.

5.30 pm – After Party @ GEM Lounge After a long day of killer Boston NewCo sessions, I’ll be hanging at the GEM Lounge, a Boston original with a very long stone bar, and plenty of libations. See you there!

Metaservices FTW!

By - March 07, 2016

Chiclets

Way back when — well, a few years back anyway— I wrote a series of posts around the idea of “metaservices.” As I mused, I engaged in a bit of derision around the current state (at that point) of the mobile ecosystem, calling it “chiclet-ized” — silos of useful data without a true Internet between them. You know, like individually wrapped cubes of shiny, colored gum that you had to chew one at a time.

I suggested that we needed a connective layer between all those chiclets, letting information flow between all those amazing services.

It’s happening. First, with deep linking, which has successfully integrated the apps, the mobile OS via notification layer, email, and the broader mobile and desktop web. And now with an emerging, multi-tasking layer of user command and control based on the simplest of interfaces: Text.

Check out Prompt, which TechCrunch aptly called “a command line for the real world.” Prompt is about two things. First, integrations with useful mobile services — the chiclets. And second, a simple, social, text-like interface that allows us to get shit done. Text Uber, get a car. Text Nest, turn your thermostat down. Text Google, get a search result. Text Facebook, post a status update. Text any smart service, get shit done.

Bots are at the center of this interface — simple, rules-based bots that take our commands, execute them, and tell us of the result. It’s not rocket science, and that’s kind of the point.

It’s great. It’s right. It’s going to work — but only if we remember the other side of the coin. Links should go both ways, after all. If Prompt and others like it want to win, they have to become a clearing house for both data going out — our commands — as well as data coming in. It’s one thing to tell our bots and services what to do. It’s another to allow them to talk to each other, and to instrument a platform that gives us control of how they might combine. Once we light that candle, the Internet will shift to another level entirely.