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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Advertising and the health of the internet

Alexis Madrigal’s article for the Atlantic about how many tracking companies are following us on the Web as we browse is extremely informative and raises a host of questions worth considering with regard to the practice (e.g. How many of these tracking companies are there? Does it make a difference if only machines have this information on me? Why does it seem creepy? Should creepy be appearing in academic studies as a term of art?). The most important of these, I think, derives from a claim he makes toward the end:

I am all too aware of how difficult it is for media businesses to survive in this new environment. Sure, we could all throw up paywalls and try to make a lot more money from a lot fewer readers. But that would destroy what makes the web the unique resource in human history that it is. I want to keep the Internet healthy, which really does mean keeping money flowing from advertising.

The assumption here seems to be that in order for information to circulate, it needs to be sponsored. The “health” of the internet — the vitality of its ecosystem, the level of activity of users — is contingent on how many people can make a living from using it, and the only viable way to make a living from the information trade is by making it all ultimately into marketing data. The health of the internet, then, depends on the degree to which we can turn thought into marketing through the process of circulating it. “A panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized,” Madrigal notes, but he seems at pains to defend that as an important prerequisite rather than a sign that another avenue of communication has been thoroughly subsumed by capital.

Don’t you see? Capitalism allows us to communicate, it makes the whole process worth something to somebody. Without it we would be bereft. (What would we talk about without consumer products anyway? Pinterest would be so boring!) Thank goodness the advertising industry and its skip tracers in the data-tracking field are finally learning to monetize more of our everyday life and our social being; finally sociality has some real purpose. Knowing I am being followed reassures me that I am actually going somewhere.

If we impede this process and try to restrain the conversion of all connection, interaction and thought into exploitable marketing data, we will undermine the internet as a “resource.” That is, we will make it less of an economic resource; we will inhibit its growth and its role in amplifying commerce. After all, all human interaction is just commerce in the end, right? And doesn’t that mean everyhting we hare with one another in the end is just some form of advertising, for ourselves, if not for someone else (if we are being stingy about the ways in which we commodify ourselves and allow what we are to circulate and cross-pollinate with other data beyond our conscious knowledge).

The question here is about what the internet is for, and whether it allows us to imagine alternatives to capitalism or simply serves to allow capital to co-opt the alternatives generated by technological development. Madrigal seems to be saying that if we don’t let our use of the internet be monetized by third parties, if we don’t allow our use of the internet to be governed by the logic of commercial media, then the internet will be a failure. It will cease to be a relevant space. But one might argue that the fact that it seems as though we can’t have an internet not fueled by advertising is a sign that the internet is already unhealthy, sick unto death.

And perhaps we are all sick too if we can’t imagine a way to collaborate and communicate without also commercializing it, that we need private incentives to generate and share information — meaning that all information is being created to make profitable information asymmetries. Are we so resignedly cynical about public discourse that we assume it’s always already advertising for something, so we may as well expect and invite it all to have hidden sponsors and covert agendas?

Banksy’s bit on advertising seems to me a good antidote to that line of thinking.

 

Madrigal is well aware of the stakes with data tracking:

the norms established to improve how often people click ads may end up determining who you are when viewed by a bank or a romantic partner or a retailer who sells shoes.

If our lives in public are underwritten by our value to advertisers, our public selves will end up indexed to that value for everyone, and our private sense of ourselves will be to a degree dictated by the boundaries of the sensorium marketers can create around us with increasing specificity. Our behavior is tracked and reprocessed to tell advertisers exactly who they can tell us to be and have us accept it. Or think of it this way: Our data helps them find the most profitable version of ourselves, regardless of whether that is our best self, or even a better self. (Of course, that seems to imply that there is even a “right” self that’s authentic in the first place, a whole other conceptual problem I’ll have to set aside here.)

But Madrigal’s resignation about the supposedly necessary role of advertising leaves him eager to give the industry an undeserved benefit of the doubt. He asks us “assume good faith on behalf of advertising companies” and also to “take these companies at their word” to try to ameliorate their social effects, despite the very nature of their business being to affect, if not control, the way we think and decide in service of the highest bidder. (We can never be the highest bidder; we are the product.) And this despite the lengthy section of the piece in which he explains how trackers will continue to collect data on you even after you request that they stop.

“There’s nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content,” Madrigal writes, suggesting that this sponsorship makes the whole system somehow benevolent instead of indicative of a much broader social failure. There’s nothing necessarily sinister about the companies surveilling our behavior and concealing the extent of it except pretty much everything. There’s nothing not sinister about that, including the alibi generated through its association with our access to “free” content. That we think its free is indicative of our delusion: We are paying for it with personal information that may be used against us in perpetuity. The price is not free and not negotiable. The data-tracking system that has evolved as the internet has entrenched itself in society serves an involuntary system of micropayments. Madrigal’s exposure of it is a great service. It’s just unnerving that it’s linked to these apologies for it. “I wish there were more obvious villains in this story,” he laments. I may be naive, but the villains seem very obvious to me.

 

 

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8 Responses to “Advertising and the health of the internet”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey Rob,

    Let me first say that I think it’s salutary to critique capitalism in its generalities and its specifics. In other words, this is a critique I can fully get behind, even if I am its target (or at least, foil). I *am* a part of this particular corner of the system and to deny that my own site’s tracking code or disavow that which pays me feels intellectually dishonest and too damn easy. It’s like an old Wallace Stegner line about the Western states and the Federal government that I misremember as, “Give us more money and get out.” Can’t have both and, let’s be honest, I want the money.

    I spent a couple too many years writing on the side to think that I would like to return to a life of hands-on labor paired with evenings of poetic efflorescence.

    Plus, befitting my west coast extraction, anarchist flirtations, and Whole Earth Catalog reading, I am oddly into business as business, the blocking and tackling of the enterprise. I’m not put off by it in the slightest — and if that lends me some sympathy for the people who do it, then it lends me some sympathy for the people who do it.

    If you really want to talk about an organization that functions outside capitalism that can devote resources to gathering information, compressing it through writing, and amplifying that across large groups of people, I’m all ears. Until then, I’m working with the best tools I see.

    To expand what I said on Twitter:

    I want media to be a business that can support writers in creating unwalled information. If we can do it without ad tracking, great. If not, I still want media to exist, so I’d cautiously and critically engage with ad tracking. I don’t know what the answer is on the business question, but I do know that the beginning of engagement is knowing what’s happening.

    In any case, thanks again for the thoughtful critique and I hope we get to meet up next time I’m in NY.

    • TomSlee says:

      As someone who does write on the side, and who works during the day for a big software company, I appreciate the honest wrestling you are doing with the issues around privacy, but I think there’s a little self-deception in the piece.

      The starting point of the “beautiful, free web” as something worth preserving, even if the price is “selling your digital self” is surely a step on a slippery slope. The beautiful free web is not a fixed thing; it’s different to what it was a decade ago, and in another decade it’s going to be different again – not necessarily beautiful and not necessarily free in any sense. It is tempting to invoke the greater good to justify unpleasantries, but the “beautiful, free web” doesn’t really qualify as such a thing.

      Myself, I live the contradiction: I know that the company I work for is something that I have no sympathy for politically, but I work for it because I need a job. My one saving grace, perhaps, is that I admit the contradiction, and to be honest I prefer that to insisting on that my square-peg workaday life really does fit with my personal round-hole politics.

      • Anonymous says:

        I actually do think the web is beautiful. But like I said, my biases around the Internet are clear: I came up in the 1990s in a place where information was hard to come by. Having been on the other side of that divide, I love this thing that we have now.

        And by free, I mean that information can flow around without monetary payments that prevent links. That’s a huge difference between the web — throughout its history — and other kinds of media. This piece was a look at the ugly underside of the whole thing. And there’s a real baseline problem, too: is what’s happening now worse than television?

        What I find mildly irritating about Rob’s critique is that it’s very, very, very easy to say: let’s do away with advertising! It is awful! But by going after the problem like that, you give up the empathic credibility to be able to create meaningful change among the populations that are involved in the business. They write people like Rob off immediately. So the left spins round shouting like mad and the business beat goes on and on and on.

        That said, I appreciate that it takes every kind of critique to change a massive system. You need people like Rob to keep my left flank tenderized and bleeding and you need people like me to translate these concerns for the people who are in the trenches in this business or otherwise not committed to the end of capitalism as it is.

        • Alex Steffen says:

          It’s always a difficult bind to attempt to speak within a system’s debate in an effort to change that system. I think it’s doubly tricky when it comes to advertising and journalism, which two systems with such different goals.

          A central assumption I think is worth challenging here is that being advertising-driven produces good content (or good jobs), that it doesn’t (as would be the contention of a great many talented journalists I’ve worked with over the last 20 years) inherently compromise the possible in the newsroom. (I’ll note in passing that Whole Earth took no advertising.) I definitely have never met a journalist who thinks the ads make her/his periodical/ program *better*.

          Much of what I see now seems to support the idea that the compromising effects of advertising-driven models have been if anything greatly accelerated by the eyeball-harvesting imperatives of online publication, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to think those compromising effects will be worsened still by the abilities advertisers are gaining with deep tracking (imagine needing to write to optimize not just hits, but hits from a tiny spectrum of people sharing the same extremely marketable characteristics).

          There are exceptions: excellent work that is now more possible due to Net-reachable audiences and advertising revenue they produce; at the same time, there’s far less of it than your arguments might seem to suggest. (Indeed, I see more great new work happening through direct community support and/or multiple content revenue streams, than through ad-selling success…)

          So, while I am sympathetic to your desire, Alexis, to write in a way that will be read by people in the industry actually in a position to make/influence these decisions, I think, too, that we don’t do anyone any favors by not being clear about what’s so broken in the worlds of journalism and publishing, which is not at all just about technology changes and business models, but in fact goes much deeper to sometimes profound conflicts between the interests of publishers, advertisers, writers and audiences.

        • fill says:

          “you need people like me to translate these concerns for the people who are in the trenches in this business or otherwise not committed to the end of capitalism as it is.”

          Ugh, I hate people who play the middle, fence sitting position believing that they are the “reasonable” ones rather than boring sheep without convictions.

    • Rob Horning says:

      thanks for reading! I appreciate your point here and am glad you do the sort of writing you do — glad you get paid to do it and glad that it interrogates unexamined tech-world assumptions and establishes the ground for others to mount more aggressive critiques.

      I don’t think there is any pure position from which to critique advertising, which is inescapably integral to how we all meet various social needs. I worry about the hegemony of advertising as a model of all communication, a condition that commercial media institutionally helps sustain, probably despite the wishes of many of the individuals employed by it (like me). Similarly, I think advertising as an industry can only be regulated rather than engaged with, despite the existence of some reasonable and well-meaning people who work in that business. The logic of the business transcends their ability to guide it toward practices that would be less corrosive on social relations.

      • Anonymous says:

        Regulation is a fascinating question that I dodged in my story. What I hope it did was question the whole regime of “self-regulation” that the online ad industry has been promoting. What’s crazy is that the whole thing is being worked out in these technical working groups into which few people have input. The technical realities resulting from these engagements will end up — to a large extent — determining the social realities for the web at large.

        All that to say: the next step is to attempt to bring what are essentially social critiques to the technical level at which the discussions are happening. Stay tuned for a post on the W3C working group, which is where some of these things are being hashed out.

  2. Thought-provoking review Rob and an interesting perspective. What I find fascinating is that overwhelming majority of people willingly give up their privacy without a 2nd thought, whether in the name of national security (Patriot Act) or for the privileged to view ads online or through a mobile that are relevant to our interests (Behavioural Targeting based on tracking data) and know where you are (location aware advertising). Just carrying a mobile phone allows tracking of your movements by the mobile network based on cell tower triangulation. Then there are the droves of users who provide their real birthday on Facebook for the self-actualization they receive through the happy birthday wishes from their friends and family. Then some of us as Internet marketers use tools that require use to forego some of our privacy (i.e. Google) which as you know recently consolidated its 60+ services and their corresponding privacy policy into one. What’s unprecedented is the level of data and the composition, collation and synthesis of profiles that companies like Facebook and Google have about each of its users. I probably perform well over 100 Google searches each day and am an active poster to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Pinterst and others. That says a lot about me to these companies and the advertisers that rely on them for laser targeted distribution. For instance, we have all heard of Google search data introduced as evidence in many high-profile legal cases. The key is for individuals to invest in understanding the trade-offs and make informed decisions to use or not use a service. Unfortunately, apathy on privacy seems to be in vogue these days. In some cases, the services are indispensable with no suitable alternatives, so “choice” may not be the best description. Thanks for sharing.

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