The Internet's Original Sin

Cegłowski tells us that it doesn’t matter.

The poor performance of digital ads just makes investor storytime more compelling. After showing how poor YouTube’s targeted ads are in understanding him as a consumer, he explains, “Of course, for ad sellers, the crappiness of targeted ads is a feature! It means there’s vast room for improvement. So many stories to tell the investors.”

Most investors know your company won’t grow to have a billion users, as Facebook does. So you’ve got to prove that your ads will be worth more than Facebook’s. In 1997, I argued that Tripod’s users were more valuable to advertisers than the average web user because I could use algorithms to analyze the home pages they posted and target ads to their interests and demographic data. Facebook makes a vastly more sophisticated version of that argument, and faces problems much like those we faced almost two decades ago. Targeting to intent (as Google’s search ads do) works well, while targeting to demographics, psychographics or stated interests (as Facebook does) works marginally better than not targeting at all.

Demonstrating that you’re going to target more and better than Facebook requires moving deeper into the world of surveillance—tracking users' mobile devices as they move through the physical world, assembling more complex user profiles by trading information between data brokers.

Once we’ve assumed that advertising is the default model to support the Internet, the next step is obvious: We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more effective. Cegłowski explains, “We’re addicted to ‘big data’ not because it’s effective now, but because we need it to tell better stories.” So we build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior.

* * * 

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see. Outrage over experimental manipulation of these profiles by social networks and dating companies has led to heated debates amongst the technologically savvy, but hasn’t shrunk the user bases of these services, as users now accept that this sort of manipulation is an integral part of the online experience.

Users have been so well trained to expect surveillance that even when widespread, clandestine government surveillance was revealed by a whistleblower, there has been little organized, public demand for reform and change. As a result, the Obama administration has been slightly more transparent about government surveillance requests, but has ignored most of the recommendations made by his own review panel and suffered few political consequences. Only half of Americans believe that Snowden’s leaks served the public interest and the majority of Americans favor criminal prosecution for the whistleblower. It’s unlikely that our willingness to accept online surveillance reflects our trust in the American government, which is at historic lows. More likely, we’ve been taught that this is simply how the Internet works: If we open ourselves to ever-increasing surveillance—whether from corporations or governments—the tools and content we want will remain free of cost.

At this point in the story, it’s probably worth reminding you that our intentions were good.

What I wanted to do was to build a tool that allowed everyone to have the opportunity to express themselves and be heard from anywhere from a few friends to the entire globe. In 1995, there weren’t a lot of ways to offer people free webpage hosting and make money. Charging users for the service would have blocked most of our potential customers—most of the world still doesn’t have a credit card today, and fewer did in 1995. E-payment systems like PayPal didn’t come online until 1999. But because Tripod’s services were free and ad supported, users around the world found us and began posting webpages they could not host elsewhere.

In 1996, we noticed that the majority of our users were coming from four countries: the United States, Canada, the U.K., and Malaysia. Since none of our content was in Bahasa Malay and since we’d never done any outreach to Malaysian users, this was a surprise. I started printing out heavily trafficked webpages posted by Malaysian users and brought a sheaf of them to a professor at nearby Williams College, who read them over and informed me that we had become a major vehicle for expression for Malaysia’s opposition political group, Anwar Ibrahim's Reformasi movement.

The adoption of Tripod by Malaysian activists was not directly due to our use of an ad-supported model, but it was an unintended, positive consequence. We couldn’t find a way to make money from advertising to Malaysian users, and we had internal discussions about whether we should “cut our losses” and provide services only to users in countries where we could sell advertising, conversations that Facebook and other ad-supported companies are now wrestling with as they expand in the developing world. I’m glad that we made the right decision (morally, if not fiscally) and that Facebook, thus far, has done so as well.

The great benefit of an ad supported web is that it’s a web open to everyone. It supports free riders well, which has been key in opening the web to young people and those in the developing world. Ad support makes it very easy for users to “try before they buy,” eliminating the hard parts of the sales cycle, and allowing services like Twitter, Facebook, and Weibo to scale to hundreds of millions of users at an unprecedented rate. This, in turn has powerful network effects: Once all your high school classmates are on Facebook, there’s a strong temptation to join, even if you don’t like the terms of service, as it’s an efficient way to keep in touch with that social circle.

In theory, an ad-supported system is more protective of privacy than a transactional one. Subscriptions or micropayments resolved via credit card create a strong link between online and real-world identity, while ads have traditionally been targeted to the content they appear with, not to the demo/psychographic identity of the user. In practice, part of Facebook’s relentless drive to ensure all users are personally identifiable is to improve targeting and reassure advertisers that their messages are reaching real human beings.

And while we’re considering the benefits of an ad-supported web, it’s worth exploring the idea that the adoption of advertising as a business model normalized the web much more quickly than it otherwise would have spread. Companies like Tripod worked to convince massive companies that were at least a decade from selling online, like auto manufacturers, that they needed a presence on the web to build their brand in an important new media. (Second Life unsuccessfully tried the same strategy a decade later, persuading Pontiac to open dealerships for virtual cars.) Taking a small portion of the auto industry’s vast ad budget allowed companies to persuade investors that online advertising would be huge and brought those companies online years before they had a business need to do so.

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Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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