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Twitter Drops Other Shoe, Which You All Saw Coming, Right?

By - August 30, 2012

Way back in the spring of 2010, when Twitter was constantly under siege for “not having a business model,” I co-hosted “Chirp,” Twitter’s first (and I think only) developer conference. This was just two and half years ago, but it seems like a decade. But it was at that conference, in an interview with me, that then-COO (now CEO) Dick Costolo first laid out the vision for “the Interest Graph.” I wrote about this concept extensively (herehere, here), because I felt that understanding the interests of its users would be the core driver of Twitter’s long-term monetization strategy.

Fast forward to now. Twitter today announced its “promoted” suite of ad units may now be targeted by user interest, which to me is a long-expected move that should clarify to anyone confused by the company’s recent announcements (cue link to recent tempest). Twitter’s statements around its decision to sever ties with Instagram and Tumblr couldn’t be more clear:

We understand that there’s great value associated with Twitter’s follow graph data, and we can confirm that it is no longer available to (insert company here)…

In short, if you are a potential competitor, and have the resources, motivation, and potential to harvest the connections between Twitter users at scale, well, expect to get cut off. You’re a threat to Twitter’s revenue stream.

None of this should come as a surprise, if you’ve been paying attention. Back in 2010, the second autocomplete answer for the statement “I don’t get…” in Google was “I don’t get Twitter”:

Interestingly, today, the same search today shows Twitter has only managed to drop down to third, even though the company now sports 140 million active users:

And while one could argue that in 2010, it was consumers who didn’t “get” Twitter, perhaps the folks scratching their heads via Google now are developers, who of late have been concerned that building on top of Twitter’s APIs might be dangerous for their long-term livelihood.

Twitter’s announcement today clarifies things quite a bit. Twitter has already declared its distaste for any business that manages how people consume tweets. Today, the other shoe dropped: Don’t build your business leveraging Twitter if you plan to run interest-based advertising at scale. Of course, the entire traditional media business is driven by interest-based advertising, which means Twitter’s business development group has a lot of work ahead. Interesting times ahead, to be sure.

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Who’s On First? (A Modest Proposal To Solve The Problem with First- and Third-Party Marketing)

By - July 26, 2012

Early last month I wrote a piece entitled Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat. In it I covered Microsoft’s controversial decision to incorporate a presumptive “opt out of tracking” flag in the next release of its browser, which many in the ad industry see as a major blow to the future of our business.

In the piece, I argued that Microsoft’s move may well force independent publishers (you know, like Searchblog, as well as larger sites like CNN or the New York Times) to engage in a years-overdue dialog with their readers about the value exchange between publisher, reader, and marketer. I laid out a scenario and proposed some language to kick that dialog off, but I gave short shrift to a problematic and critical framing concept. In this post, I hope to lay that concept out and offer, by way of example, a way forward. (Caveat: I am not an expert in policy or tech. I’ll probably get some things wrong, and hope readers will correct me if and when I do.)

The “concept” has to do with the idea of a first-party relationship – a difficult to define phrase that, for purposes of this post, means the direct relationship a publisher or a service has with its consumer.  This matters, a lot, because in the FTC’s recently released privacy framework, “first-party marketing” has been excluded from proposed future regulation around digital privacy and the use of data. However, “third-party” marketing, the framework suggests, will be subject to regulation that could require “consumer choice.”

OK, so in that last sentence alone are three terms, which I’ve put in quotes, that need definition if we are going to understand some pretty important issues. The most important is “first-party marketing,” and it’s damn hard to find a definition of that in the FTC document. But if you go back to the FTC’s *preliminary* report, issued in December of 2010, you can find this:

First-party marketing: Online retailers recommend products and services based upon consumers’ prior purchases on the website.

Later in the report, the term is further defined:

Staff proposes that first-party marketing include only the collection of data from a consumer with whom the company interacts directly for purposes of marketing to that consumer.

And in a footnote:

Staff also believes that online contextual advertising should fall within the “commonly accepted practices” category (Ed. note: Treated as OK, like first party marketing). Contextual advertising involves the delivery of advertisements based upon a consumer’s current visit to a web page or a single search query, without the collection and retention of data about the consumer’s online activities over time. As staff concluded in its 2009 online behavioral advertising report, contextual advertising is more transparent to consumers and presents minimal privacy intrusion as compared to other forms of online advertising. See OBA Report, supra note 37, at 26-27 (where a consumer has a direct interface with a particular company, the consumer is likely to understand, and to be in a position to control, the company’s practice of collecting and using the consumer’s data).

The key issue here for publishers, as far as I can tell, is this: “the delivery of advertisements based upon a consumer’s current visit to a web page or a single search query, without the collection and retention of data about the consumer’s online activities over time…where a consumer has a direct interface with a particular company, the consumer is likely to understand, and to be in a position to control, the company’s practice of collecting and using the consumer’s data.”

Whew. OK. We’re getting somewhere. Now, when that 2010 report came out, many in our industry freaked out, because of the next sentence, one which refers to – wait for it – third party marketing:

If a company shares data with a third party other than a service provider acting on the company’s behalf – including a business affiliate unless the affiliate relationship is clear to consumers through common branding or similar means – the company’s practices would not be considered first-party marketing and thus they would fall outside of “commonly accepted practices” … Similarly, if a website publisher allows a third party, other than a service provider, to collect data about consumers visiting the site, the practice would not be “commonly accepted.”

Now, this was a preliminary report, and the final report, which as I said earlier came out this past Spring, incorporates a lot of input from companies engaged in what the FTC described as “third party” marketing – companies like Google that were very concerned that the FTC was about to wipe out entire swathes of their business. And the fact is, it’s still not clear what’s going to be OK, and what isn’t. For now, my best summary is this: it’s OK for websites that have a “first party” relationship to use data collected on the site to market to consumers. If, however, those sites was to let “third parties” market to consumers, then, at some point soon, the sites need to figure out a way to give “consumers a choice” to opt out. If they don’t, they may be subject to regulation down the road.

Which brings us back to “Do Not Track,” or DNT. Now DNT has been held up as the easiest way to give consumer a choice about this issue – if a consumer has DNT enabled on their browser, then that consumer has very clearly made a choice – they don’t want third-party advertisements or data collection, thank you very much. See how easy that was?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!!! As implemented by Microsoft in IE 10, DNT is an extremely blunt instrument, one that, in fact, does *not* constitute a choice. It’s defaulted to “on,” which means that a consumer is not ever given a choice one way or the other. And once it’s on, it’s the same for every single site – which means you can’t say that you’re fine with third-party ads on a site you love (say, Searchblog, naturally), but not fine with a site you don’t like so much (say, I dunno,  You Got Rick Rolled).

That’s pretty lame. Shouldn’t we, as consumers, be able to chose which sites we trust, and which we don’t? That’s pretty much the point of my post on DNT last month.

Fact is, we don’t really have a way to demonstrate that trust. Many in the industry – including the IAB, where I am a board member – are working to clarify all this with the FTC. The working assumption is that it’s far too much to ask of most publishing sites to give consumers a choice, much less give them access to the data used to “target” them.

Well, I’m not so sure about that.

Check out this screen shot from independent site GigaOm (yes, FM works with GigaOm):

A few other sites are starting to do similar notices – and I applaud them (this is already becoming standard practice in the UK, due to strict regulations around cookies). GigOm is saying, in essence, that by simply continuing to read the site, you agree to their privacy policies. Now, take a look at what GigaOm’s policy has to say about “third party advertising:”

GigaOM may allow third party advertising serving companies, including ad networks (“Advertisers”), to display advertisements or provide other advertising services on GigaOM. These third party Advertisers may use techniques other than HTTP cookies to recognize your computer or device and/or to collect and record demographic and other Information about you, including your activities on or off GigaOM. These techniques may be used directly on GigaOM….Advertisers may use the information collected to display advertisements that are tailored to your interests or background and/or associate such information with your subsequent visits, purchases or other activities on other websites. Advertisers may also share this information with their clients or other third parties.

GigaOM has no responsibility for the technologies, tools or practices of the Advertisers that provide advertising and related services on GigaOM. This Privacy Policy does not cover any collection, use or disclosure of Information by Advertisers who provide advertising and related services on GigaOM. These Advertisers’ information gathering practices, including their policies regarding the use of cookies and other tracking technologies, are governed entirely by their own privacy policies, not this one.

To summarize: By reading GigaOm, you’ve made a choice, and that choice is to let GigaOm use third-party advertising. It’s a nifty move, and one I applaud: GigaOm has just established you as a first party to its content and services just like….

….Facebook, which just announced revenue of more than a billion dollars last quarter. Facebook, of course, has a first-party relationship with 955 million or so of us – we’ve already “opted in” to its service, through the Terms of Service we’ve all agreed to (and probably not read.) We’ve made a choice as consumers, and we’ve chosen to be marketed to on Facebook’s terms.

The same is true of Apple, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, and any number of other large services which require registration and acceptance of Terms of Service in order for us to gain any value from their platforms. Google and Microsoft have been frantically catching up, getting as many of us as they can to register our identity and agree to a unified TOS in some way.

But what about independent publishers? You know, the rest of the web? Well, save folks like GigaOm (and AllThingsD, which warns its audience about cookies), we’ve never really paid attention to this issue. In the past, publishers have avoided doing anything that might get in the way of an audience consuming their content – it’s a death sentence if you’re engaged in the high holy art of Increasing Page Views. And bigger publishers like Time or Conde Nast don’t want to rock the boat, they’ll wait till a consensus forms, and then follow it.

But I like what GigaOm has done. It’s a very clear notice, it goes away after the first visit, and it reappears only if you’ve cleared your cookies (which happens a lot if you run an anti-virus program).

I think it’s time the “rest of the web” follows their lead. We rely on third-party advertising services (like FM) to power our sites. We live in uncertain times as it relates to regulation. And certainly we have direct relationships of trust with our audiences – or you wouldn’t be reading this far down the page. It’s time the independent web declares the value of our first-party relationships with audiences, and show the government – and our readers – that we have nothing to hide.

I plan to look into ways we might make easily available the code and language necessary to enact these policies. I’ll be back with more as I have it….

*Now, the other two terms bear some definition as well. I think it’s fair to say “consumer choice” means “give the consumer the ability to decide if they want their data used, and for what purposes,” and “third party marketing” means the use of data and display of commercial messages on a first party site by third-party companies – companies that are not the owner of the site or service you are using.

What We Lose When We Glorify “Cashless”

By - July 24, 2012

Look, I’m not exactly a huge fan of grimy greenbacks, but I do feel a need to point out something that most coverage of current Valley darling Square seems to miss: The “Death of Cash” also means the “death of anonymous transactions” – and no matter your view of the role of  government and corporations in our life, the very idea that we might lose the ability to transact without the creation of a record merits serious discussion. Unfortunately, this otherwise worthy cover story in Fortune about Square utterly ignores the issue.

And that’s too bad. A recent book called “The End of Money” does get into some of these issues – it’s on my list to read – but in general, I’ve noticed a lack of attention to the anonymity issue in coverage of hot payment startups. In fact, in interviews I’ve read, the author of “The End of Money” makes the point that cash is pretty much a blight on our society – in that it’s the currency of criminals and a millstone around the necks of the poor.

Call it a hunch, but I sense that many of us are not entirely comfortable with a world in which every single thing we buy creates a cloud of data. I’d like to have an option to not have a record of how much I tipped, or what I bought at 1:08 am at a corner market in New York City. Despite protections of law, technology, and custom, that data will remain forever, and sometimes, we simply don’t want it to.

What do you think?  (And yes, I am aware of bitcoin…)

BTW, this mini-rant is very related to my last post: First, Software Eats the World, Then, The Mirror World Emerges.

Google’s “Mute” Button: Why Didn’t I Think Of That? Oh, Wait…

By - June 30, 2012

One of my pet peeves about our industry is how slowly we change – I understand it takes a long time to gather consensus (it took three years to get AdChoices rolled out, for example) – but man, why don’t the big players, like Google, innovate a bit more when it comes to display advertising?

Well, yesterday Google did just that, announcing a “mute this ad” feature that it will roll out across its network over the next few months. The feature does what you might expect it to do – it stops a particular ad from “following” you around the web. It will look like this:

 

As you can see, the “mute this ad” is right next to the AdChoice icon, adding a bit more clutter to the creative, but also, more control for consumers, in particular those who find the practice of “retargeting” irritating.

All I can say is, it’s about time. Back in August of 2010, I wrote about my own experience: On Retargeting: Fix The Conversation. In the post, I suggested:

…as I’ve said a million times, marketing is a conversation. And retargeted ads are part of that conversation. I’d like to suggest that retargeted ads acknowledge, with a simple graphic in a consistent place, that they are in fact a retargeted ad, and offer the consumer a chance to tell the advertiser “Thanks, but for now I’m not interested.” Then the ad goes away, and a new one would show up.

Well, it looks like Google has gotten with the program. Of course, Facebook already has that “X” on all of its display ads, but so far, retargeting hasn’t come to Facebook – yet. Watch that space, because I gotta believe it will soon.

Google’s Transparency Report: A Good And Troubling Thing

By - June 19, 2012

A couple of days ago Google released its latest “Transparency Report,” part of the company’s ongoing commitment to disclose requests by individuals, corporations, and governments to change what users see in search results and other Google properties such as YouTube.

The press coverage of Google’s report was copious – far more than the prior two years, and for good reason. This week’s disclosure included Google’s bi-annual report of government takedown requests (corporate and individual requests are updated in near real time). The news was not comforting.

As the Atlantic wrote:

The stories Google tells to accompany the broad-brush numbers (found in the “annotations” section and its blog) paint a picture to accompany those numbers that Google calls “alarming” — noting, in particular, that some of the requests for removal of political speech come from “Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”

The number of takedown requests from governments is on the rise – up about 100% year to year for the US alone. Part of this, perhaps, can be explained by what might be called a “catchup effect” – governments are coming to terms with the pervasive power of digital information, and finally getting their heads around trying to control it, much as governments have attempted to control more analog forms of information like newspapers, television stations, and books.

But as we know, digital information is very, very different. It’s one thing to try to control the press, it’s quite another to do the same with the blog postings, YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, and emails of an entire citizenry. Given the explosion of arguably illegal or simply embarrassing information available to Google’s crawlers (cough, cough, Wikileaks), I’m rather surprised that worldwide government takedown requests haven’t grown at an exponential rate.

But to me, the rise of government takedown requests isn’t nearly as interesting as the role Google and other companies play in all of this. As I’ve written elsewhere, it seems that as we move our public selves into the digital sphere, we seem to be also moving our trust from the institutions of government to the institution of the corporation. For example, our offline identity is established by a government ID like a driver’s license. Online, many of us view Facebook as our identity service. Prior to email, our private correspondance was secured by a government institution called the postal service. Today, we trust AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, or Gmail with our private utterances. When documents were analog, they were protected by government laws against unreasonable search and seizure. When they live in the cloud….the ground is shifting. I could go on, but I think you get my point.

As we move ourselves into the realm of digital information, a realm mediated by private corporations, those corporations naturally become the focus of government attention. I find Google’s Transparency Report to be a refreshing response to this government embrace – but it’s an exercise that almost no other corporation completes (Twitter has a record of disclosing, but on a case by case basis). Where is Amazon’s Transparency Report? Yahoo’s? Microsoft’s? And of course, the biggest question in terms of scale and personal information – where is Facebook’s? Oh, and of course, where is Apple’s?

Put another way: If we are shifting our trust from the government to the corporation, who’s watching the corporations? With government, we’ve at least got clear legal recourse – in the United States, we’ve got the Constitution, the Freedom of Information Act, and a deep legal history protecting the role of the press – what Jefferson called the Fourth Estate. With corporations, we’re on far less comforting ground – most of us have agreed to Terms of Services we’ve never read, much less studied in sixth grade civics class.

As the Atlantic concludes:

Google is trying to make these decisions responsibly, and the outcome, as detailed in the report, is reason to have confidence in Google as an arbiter of these things if, as is the case, Google is going to be the arbiter of these issues. But unlike a US Court, we don’t see the transcripts of oral arguments, or the detailed reasoning of a judge. …The Transparency Report sheds more light on the governments Google deals with than with its own internal processes for making judgments about compliance….Google’s Transparency Report is the work of a company that is grappling with its power and trying to show its work.

I applaud Google’s efforts here, but I’m wary of placing such an important public trust in the hands of private corporations alone. Google is a powerful company, with access to a wide swath of the world’s information. But with the rise of walled gardens like iOS and Facebook, an increasing amount of our information doesn’t touch Google’s servers. We literally are in the dark about how this data is being accessed by governments around the world.

Google is setting an example I hope all corporations with access to our data will follow. So far, however, most companies don’t. And that should give all of us pause, and it should be the basis of an ongoing conversation about the role of government in our digital lives.

Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat

By - June 10, 2012

This past week’s industry tempest centered around Microsoft’s decision to implement “Do Not Track” (known as “DNT”) as a default on Internet Explorer 10, a browser update timed to roll out with the company’s long-anticipated Windows 8 release.

Microsoft’s decision caught much of the marketing and media industry by surprise – after all, Microsoft itself is a major player in the advertising business, and in that role has been a strong proponent of the current self-regulatory regime, which includes, at least until Microsoft tossed its grenade into the marketplace, a commitment to implementation of DNT as an opt-in technology, rather than as a default.*

For most readers I don’t need to explain why this matters, but in case you’re new to the debate, when enabled, DNT sets a “flag” telling websites that you don’t want data about your visit to be used for purposes of creating a profile of your browsing history (or for any other reason). Whether we like it or not, such profiles have driven a very large business in display advertising over the past 15 years. Were a majority of consumers to implement DNT, the infrastructure that currently drives wide swathes of the web’s  monetization ecosystem would crumble, taking a lot of quality content along with it.

Once released, it’s estimated that IE 10 could quickly grab as much as 25-30% of browser market share. The idea that the online advertising industry could lose almost a third of its value due to the actions of one rogue player is certainly cause for alarm. Last week’s press were full of conspiracy theories about why Microsoft was making such a move. The company claims it just wants to protect users’ privacy, which strikes me as disingenuous – it’s far more likely that Microsoft is willing to spike its relatively small advertising business in exchange for striking a lethal blow to Google’s core business model, both in advertising and in browser share.

I’m quite certain the Windows 8 team is preparing to market IE 10 – and by extension, Windows 8 – as the safe, privacy-enhancing choice, capitalizing on Google’s many government woes and consumers’ overall unease with the search giant’s power. I’m also quite certain that Microsoft, like many others, suffers from a case of extreme Apple envy, and wishes it had a pristine, closed-loop environment like iOS that it could completely control. In order to create such an environment, Microsoft needs to gain consumer’s trust. Seen from that point of view, implementing DNT as a default just makes sense.

But the more I think through it, the more I’m somewhat unperturbed by the whole affair. In fact, I’m rather excited by it.

First off, it’s not clear that IE10′s approach to DNT will matter. When it comes to whether or not a site has to comply with browser flags such as DNT, websites and third party look to the standard settings body knows as the WC3. That organization’s proposed draft specification on DNT is quite clear: It says no company may enforce a default DNT setting for a user, one way or the other. In other words, this whole thing could be a tempest in a teapot. Wired recently argued that Microsoft will be forced to back down and change its policy.

But I’m kind of hoping Microsoft will keep DNT in place. I know, that’s a pretty crazy thing for a guy who started an advertising-run business to say, but in this supposed threat I see a major opportunity.

Imagine a scenario, beginning sometime next year, when website owners start noticing significant numbers of visitors with IE10 browsers swinging by their sites. Imagine further that Microsoft has stuck to its guns, an all those IE10 browsers have their flags set to “DNT.”

To me, this presents a huge opportunity for the owner of a site to engage with its readers, and explain quite clearly the fact that good content on the Internet is paid for by good marketing on the Internet. And good marketing often needs to use “tracking” data so as to present quality advertising in context. (The same really can and should be said of content on the web – but I’ll just stick to advertising for now).

Advertising and content have always been bound together – in print, on television, and on the web. Sure, you can skip the ad – just flip the page, or press “ffwd” on your DVR. But great advertising, as I’ve long argued, adds value to the content ecosystem, and has as much a right to be in the conversation as does the publisher and the consumer.

Do Not Track provides our industry with a rare opportunity to speak out and explain this fact, and while the dialog box I’ve ginned up at the top of this post is fake, I’d love to see a day when they are popping up all over the web, reminding consumers that not only does quality content need to be supported, in fact, the marketers supporting it actually deserve our attention as well.

At present, the conversation between content creator, content consumer, and marketer is poorly instrumented and rife with mistrust. Our industry’s “ad choices” self regulatory regime – those little triangle icons you see all over display ads these days – is a good start. But we’ve a long way to go. Perhaps unwittingly, Microsoft may be pushing us that much faster toward a better future.

*I am on the board of the IAB, one of the major industry trade groups which promotes self-regulation. The opinions here are my own, as usual. 

The Audacity of Diaspora

By - May 13, 2012

Last Friday Businessweek ran a story on Diaspora, a social platform built from what might be called Facebook anti-matter. It’s a great read that chronicles the project’s extraordinary highs and lows, from Pebble-like Kickstarter success to the loss of a founder to suicide. Given the overwhelming hype around Facebook’s IPO this week, it’s worth remembering such a thing exists – and even though it’s in private beta, Diaspora is one of the largest open source projects going right now, and boasts around 600,000 beta testers.

I’ve watched Diaspora from the sidelines, but anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I’m rooting for it. I was surprised – and pleased – to find out that Diaspora is executing something of a “pivot” – retaining its core philosophy of being a federated platform where “you own your own data” while at the same time adding new Tumblr and Pinterest-like content management features, as well as integration with – gasp! – Facebook.  And this summer, the core team behind the service is joining Y Combinator in the Valley – a move that is sure to accelerate its service from private beta to public platform.

I like Diaspora because it’s audacious, it’s driven by passion, and it’s very, very hard to do. After all, who in their right mind would set as a goal taking on Facebook? That’s sort of like deciding to build a better search engine – very expensive, with a high likelihood of failure. But what’s really audacious is the vision that drives Diaspora – that everyone owns their own data, and everyone has the right to do with it what they want. The vision is supported by a federated technology platform – and once you federate, you lose central control as a business. Then, business models get very, very hard. So you’re not only competing against Facebook, you’re also competing against the reality of the marketplace – centralized domains are winning right now (as I pointed out here).

It seems what Diaspora is attempting to do is take the functionality and delight of the dependent web, and mix it with the freedom and choice offered by the independent web. Of course, that sounds pretty darm good to me.

Given the timing of Facebook’s public debut, the move to Y Combinator, and perhaps just my own gut feel, I think Diaspora is one to watch in coming months. As of two days ago, the site is taking registrations for its public debut. Sign up here.

Larry Lessig on Facebook, Apple, and the Future of “Code”

By - May 09, 2012

Larry Lessig is an accomplished author, lawyer, and professor, and until recently, was one of the leading active public intellectuals in the Internet space. But as I wrote in my review of his last book (Is Our Republic Lost?), in the past few years Lessig has changed his focus from Internet law to reforming our federal government.

But that doesn’t mean Lessig has stopped thinking about our industry, as the dialog below will attest. Our conversation came about last month after I finished reading Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2. The original book, written in 1999, is still considered an authoritative text on how the code of computing platforms interacts with our legal and social codes. In 2006, Lessig “crowdsourced” an update to his book, and released it as “Version 2.0.” I’d never read the updated work (and honestly didn’t remember the details of the first book), so finally, six years later, I dove in again.

It’s a worthy dive, but not an easy one. Lessig is a lawyer by nature, and his argument is laid out like proofs in a case. Narrative is sparse, and structure sometimes trumps writing style. But his essential point – that the Internet is not some open “wild west” destined to always be free of regulation, is soundly made. In fact, Lessig argues, the Internet is quite possibly the most regulable technology ever invented, and if we don’t realize that fact, and protect ourselves from it, we’re in for some serious pain down the road. And for Lessig, the government isn’t the only potential regulator. Instead, Lessig argues, commercial interests may become the most pervasive regulators on the Internet.

Indeed, during the seven years between Code’s first version and its second, much had occurred to prove Lessig’s point. But even as Lessig was putting the finishing touches on the second version of his manuscript, a new force was erupting from the open web: Facebook. And a year after that, the iPhone redefined the Internet once again.

In Code, Lessig enumerates several examples of how online services create explicit codes of control – including the early AOL, Second Life, and many others. He takes the reader though important lessons in understanding regulation as more than just governmental – explaining normative (social), market (commercial), and code-based (technological) regulation. He warns that once we commit our lives to commercial services that hold our identity, a major breach of security will most likely force the government into enacting overzealous and anti-constitutional measures (think 9/11 and the Patriot Act). He makes a case for the proactive creation of an intelligent identity layer for the Internet, one that might offer just the right amount of information for the task at hand. In 2006, such an identity layer was a controversial idea – no one wanted the government, for example, to control identity on the web.

But for reasons we’re still parsing as a culture, in the six years since the publication of Code v2, nearly 1 billion of us have become comfortable with Facebook as our defacto identity, and hundreds of millions of us have become inhabitants of Apple’s iOS.

Instead of going into more detail on the book (as I have in many other reviews), I thought I’d reach out to Lessig and ask him about this turn of events. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our dialog. I think you’ll find it provocative.

As to the book: If you consider yourself active in the core issues of the Internet industry, do yourself a favor and read it. It’s worth your time.

Q: After reading your updated Code v2, which among many other things discusses how easily the Internet might become far more regulated than it once was, I found myself scribbling one word in the margins over and over again. That word was “Facebook.”

You and your community updated your 1999 classic in 2006, a year or two before Facebook broke out, and several years before it became the force it is now. In Code you cover the regulatory architectures of places where people gather online, including MUDS, AOL, and the then-hot darling known as Second Life. But the word Facebook isn’t in the text.

What do you make of Facebook, given the framework of Code v2?

Lessig: If I were writing Code v3, there’d be a chapter — right after I explained the way (1) code regulates, and (2) commerce will use code to regulate — titled: “See, e.g., Facebook.” For it strikes me that no phenomena since 2006 better demonstrates precisely the dynamic I was trying to describe. The platform is dominant, and built into the platform are a million ways in which behavior is regulated. And among those million ways are 10 million instances of code being use to give to Facebook a kind of value that without code couldn’t be realized. Hundreds of millions from across the world live “in” Facebook. It more directly (regulating behavior) than any government structures and regulates their lives while there. There are of course limits to what Facebook can do. But the limits depend upon what users see. And Facebook has not yet committed itself to the kind of transparency that should give people confidence. Nor has it tied itself to the earlier and enabling values of the internet, whether open source or free culture.

Q: Jonathan Zittrain wrote his book two years after Code v2, and warned of non-generative systems that might destroy the original values of the Internet. Since then, Apple iOS (the “iWorld”) and Facebook have blossomed, and show no signs of slowing down. Do you believe we’re in a pendulum swing, or are you more pessimistic – that consumers are voting with their dollars, devices, and data for a more closed ecosystem?

Lessig: The trend JZ identified is profound and accelerating, and most of us who celebrate the “free and open” net are simply in denial. Facebook now lives oblivious to the values of open source software, or free culture. Apple has fully normalized the iNannyState. And unless Google’s Android demonstrates how open can coexist with secure, I fear the push away from our past will only continue. And then when our i9/11 event happens — meaning simply a significant and destructive cyber event, not necessarily tied to any particular terrorist group — the political will to return to control will be almost irresistible.

The tragedy in all this is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we could push to a better identity layer in the net, we could get both better privacy and better security. But neither side in this extremist’s battle is willing to take the first step towards this obvious solution. And so in the end I fear the extremists I like least will win.

Q: You seem profoundly disappointed in our industry. What can folks who want to make a change do?

Lessig: Not at all. The industry is doing what industry does best — doing well, given the rules as they are. What industry is never good at (and is sometimes quite evil at) is identifying the best mix of rules. Government is supposed to do something with that. Our problem is that we have today such a fundamentally dysfunctional government that we don’t even recognize the idea that it might have a useful role here. So we get stuck in these policy-dead-ends, with enormous gains to both sides left on the table.

And that’s only to speak about the hard problems — which security in the Net is. Much worse (and more frustrating) are the easy problems which the government also can’t solve, not because the answer isn’t clear (again, these are the easy problems) but because the incumbents are so effective at blocking the answer that makes more sense so as to preserve the answer that makes them more dollars. Think about the “copyright wars” — practically every sane soul is now focused on a resolution of that war that is almost precisely what the disinterested souls were arguing a dozen years ago (editor’s note: abolishing DRM). Yet the short-termism of the industry wouldn’t allow those answers a dozen years ago, so we have had an completely useless war which has benefited no one (save the lawyers-as-soldiers in that war). We’ve lost a decade of competitive innovation in ways to spur and spread content in ways that would ultimately benefit creators, because the dinosaurs owned the lobbyists.

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I could have gone on for some time with Lessig, but I wanted to stop there, and invite your questions in the comments section. Lessig is pretty busy with his current work, which focuses on those lobbyists and the culture of money in Congress, but if he can find the time, he’ll respond to your questions in the comments below, or to me in email, and I’ll update the post.

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Other works I’ve reviewed: 

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier (review)

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency  by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Jaron Lanier: Something Doesn’t Smell Right

By - May 08, 2012

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget has been on my reading list for nearly two years, and if nothing else comes of this damn book I’m trying to write, it’ll be satisfying to say that I’ve made my way through any number of important works that for one reason or another, I failed to read up till now.

I met Jaron in the Wired days (that’d be 20 years ago) but I don’t know him well – as with Sherry Turkle and many others, I encountered him through my role as an editor, then followed his career with interest as he veered from fame as a virtual reality pioneer into his current role as chief critic of all things “Web 2.0.” Given my role in that “movement” – I co-founded the Web 2 conferences with Tim O’Reilly in 2004 – it’d be safe to assume that I disagree with most of what Lanier has to say.

I don’t. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, I came away, as I did with Turkle’s work, feeling a strange kinship with Lanier. But more on that in a moment.

In essence, You Are Not A Gadget is a series of arguments, some concise, others a bit shapeless, centering on one theme: Individual human beings are special, and always will be, and digital technology is not a replacement for our humanity. In particular, Lanier is deeply skeptical of any kind of machine-based mechanism that might be seen as replacing or diminishing our specialness, which over the past decade, Lanier sees happening everywhere.

Lanier is most eloquent when he describes, late in the book, what he believes humans to be: the result of a very long, very complicated interaction with reality (sure, irony alert given Lanier’s VR fame, but it makes sense when you read the book):

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.

Lanier worries we’re losing that sense of reality. From crowdsourcing and Wikipedia to the Singularity movement, he argues that we’re starting to embrace a technological philosophy that can only lead to loss. Early in the book, he writes:

“…certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment…tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain….(this) leads to all sorts of maladies….”

Lanier goes on to specific examples, including the online tracking associated with advertising, the concentration of power in the hands of the “lords of the clouds” such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even Goldman Sachs, the loss of analog musical notation, the rise of locked in, fragile, and impossibly complicated software programs; and ultimately, the demise of the middle class. It’s a potentially powerful argument, and one I wish Lanier had made more completely. Instead, after reading his book, I feel forewarned, but not quite forearmed.

Lanier singles out many of our shared colleagues – the leaders of the Web 2.0 movement – as hopelessly misguided, labeling them “cynernetic totalists” who believe technology will solve all problems, including that of understanding humanity and consciousness. He worries about the fragmentation of our online identity, and warns that Web 2 services – from blogs to Facebook – lead us to leave little pieces of ourselves everywhere, feeding a larger collective, but resulting in no true value to the individual.

If you read my recent piece On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, this might sound familiar, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to go as far as Lanier does in claiming all this behavior of ours will end up impoverishing our culture forever. I tend to be an optimist, Lanier, less so. He rues the fact that the web never implemented Ted Nelson’s vision of true hypertext – where the creator is remunerated via linked micro-transactions, for example. I think there were good reasons this system didn’t initially win, but there’s no reason to think it never will.

Lanier, an accomplished musician – though admittedly not a very popular one – is convinced that popular culture has been destroyed by the Internet. He writes:

Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.

As an avid music fan, I’m not convinced. But Lanier goes further:

Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence…the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.

Wow! That’s some powerful stuff. But after reading the book, I wasn’t convinced about that, either, though Lanier raises many interesting questions along the way. One of them boils down to the concept of smell – the one sense that we can’t represent digitally. In a section titled “What Makes Something Real Is That It Is Impossible to Represent It To Completion,” Lanier writes:

It’s easy to forget that the very idea of a digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image—or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much. Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.

This really resonates with me. In particular, the part about the odor. Turns out, odor is a pretty interesting subject. Our sense of smell is inherently physical – actual physical molecules of matter are required to enter our bodies and “mate” with receptors in our nervous system in order for us to experience an odor:

Olfaction, like language, is built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns. …the world’s smells can’t be broken down into just a few numbers on a gradient; there is no “smell pixel.”

Lanier suspects – and I find the theory compelling – that olfaction is deeply embedded in what it means to be human. Certainly such a link presents a compelling thought experiment as we transition to a profoundly digital world. I am very interested in what it means for our culture that we are truly “becoming digital,” that we are casting shadows of data in nearly everything we do, and that we are struggling to understand, instrument, and respond socially to this shift. I’m also fascinated by the organizations attempting to leverage that data, from the Internet Big Five to the startups and behind the scenes players (Palantir, IBM, governments, financial institutions, etc) who are profiting from and exploiting this fact.

But I don’t believe we’re in early lockdown mode, destined to digital serfdom. I still very much believe in the human spirit, and am convinced that if any company, government, or leader pushes too hard, we will “sniff them out,” and they will be routed around. Lanier is less complacent: he is warning that if we fail to wake up, we’re in for a very tough few decades, if not worse.

Lanier and I share any number of convictions, regardless. His prescriptions for how to insure we don’t become “gadgets” might well have been the inspiration for my post Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web, for example (he implores us to create, deeply, and not be lured into expressing ourselves solely in the templates of social networking sites). And he reminds readers that he loves the Internet, and pines, a bit, for the way it used to be, before Web 2 and Facebook (and one must assume, Apple), rebuilt it into forms he now decries.

I pine a bit myself, but remain (perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the best of what we’ve created together will endure, even as we journey onward to discover new ways of valuing what it means to be a person. And I feel lucky to know that I can reach out to Jaron – and I have – to continue this conversation, and report the results of our dialog on this site, and in my own book.

Next up: A review (and dialog with the author) of Larry Lessig’s Code And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency  by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Get Ready for Some Pictures, Folks

By - April 30, 2012

A wine we enjoyed last weekend.

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the “data traps” springing up all over AppWorld and the Internet, and while I’ve been pretty vocal about their downsides, I also use them quite a bit – especially for photos. That, I hope, is about to end.

However, I’m afraid it means you, dear reader, are going to be seeing a few more pictures of Mount Tamalpais and my favorite wines here on Searchblog.

Allow me to explain. I have done a pretty good job of partitioning my life digitally, posting utterances and stories that I’m happy to share with anyone on Twitter, leaving a few sparse comments and “Likes” on Facebook (I’m not a huge user of the service, I’ll be honest), and sending any number of photos to thousands of “followers” on Instagram and Tumblr.

The fact is, none of these services comprise what I call the Independent Web, as I describe it in this post: Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. And over time, it’s come to bother me that my content and my usage has been aggregated into a deal that feels out of balance. These companies are getting huge valuations (and exits) on the back of our collective usage (often with little or no revenue model). And what are we getting back? A free service. One that is constantly taking data from our interactions, and leveraging that data for ever higher valuations.

The Lobby of AT&T, where I visited last week

If you’re a professional content creator, as I am, there’s only so long you can go without feeling a bit…used.

I’d be OK with this tradeoff if these services made it easy to export my data outside of their walls, but so far, that’s not been the case. I’ve got hundreds of shots stuck on Twitpic, for example (and I know, you can runs some kind of script, but I’m not really going to figure out how to do that). And about that many on Instagram. Plus scores on Tumblr, which I used, briefly, as a kind of photo blog (the 500K image limit in email stopped that habit).

So as a way of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to start sending all photos that I care to share publicly to this site. WordPress has a new version of its app that promises to make photo uploads pretty easy from my phone (fingers are crossed, I haven’t used it yet). Consider the shots “Unicorn chasers,” if you will, respites between my half-baked predictions, long rants on identity, or musings on antiquities from the future. If the spirit moves me, I’ll then push those same photos to Tumblr or Instagram (or whatever comes next). At least this way, the photo “lives” on my site, and whatever initial pageviews and data is created stays on this site, where I can leverage it to support my work (IE, show ads next to them, and/or understand consumption in some way that helps me create a better site).

Mount Tamalpais from Bald Hill, Marin County - quite literally my backyard.

This approach, for example, will allow me to “pin” these photos to Pinterest, and any traffic from Pinterest will come back to this site, rather than Instagram or Tumblr.

Now, I can’t exactly replicate what Twitter and Facebook have created here on this blog, so I’ll continue to use those platforms as I have in the past. For me, I mostly use social services to point to things I think my “followers” may find interesting out there on the web. Going forward, that will include my public photos – on my own site.

I hope seeing the odd photo now and again – even if they’re a bit out of context – won’t turn you off as a reader. I figure I’ll only post shots that I’d be happy to send to Twitter anyway, where I have a very large and very vocal audience in any case. As always, tell me what you think….and forgive my technical lameness as I get started. I’m working out the kinks (anyone know how to make sure I get proper right margins on photos in WordPress, and stylized captions?!).