An online advertising bubble?

The story that emerged from these conversations is about much more than just online advertising. It’s about a market of a quarter of a trillion dollars governed by irrationality. It’s about knowables, about how even the biggest data sets don’t always provide insight. It’s about organisations and why they are so hard to change. And it’s about us, and how easy we are to manipulate.

~ Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn from, https://thecorrespondent.com/100/the-new-dot-com-bubble-is-here-its-called-online-advertising/13228924500-22d5fd24

For years I’ve been beating the drum about how we individually need to take control of how we use social networks and the Internet in general. There’s still time for us to turn away from the dystopian future where everything has become an algorithm optimized for profit for profit’s sake.

I’ve long known that we are individually fighting an uneven battle. The companies running the social networks are using technology and psychology to manipulate us via our basic human instincts and our basic human cognition. (Each of us, thanks to our biology, has big, ergonomic, grab-handles enabling others to manipulate us.) I think it’s possible that we can each practice using our rational minds and make good decisions; It’s possible, but all evidence shows it is not likely. Meanwhile, I continue to fight the good fight. Those of you reading, seem to be similarly interested.

This article planted a new idea in my mind: The dystopian future is made possible only because someone is paying. We, individually, are not paying. (Reminder: We are the product being sold to the advertisers.) Every single pixel on every single social network is powered by advertising revenue.

What happens if the companies paying to advertise online realize that advertising online doesn’t work the way they think it does?

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat? …perhaps.

ɕ

If Lincoln had email

If the Internet is robbing us of our ability to sit and concentrate, without distraction, in a Lincoln log cabin style of intense focus, we must ask the obvious question: are we doomed to be a generation bereft of big ideas? Will we lose, over time, like some vestigial limb, our ability to focus on something difficult for extended stretches? As a graduate student, I’ve had to put in place what are, in essence, rigorous training programs to help pump up my attention span. It’s a huge struggle for me. Somehow, I imagine, if Lincoln was in my position, he wouldn’t be having this same problem.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/20/would-lincoln-have-become-president-if-he-had-e-mail/

I usually quote things I agree with whole-heartedly. This one is a little different. I like the topic Newport has raised and he brings up several good points, but my thinking differs a bit.

The Internet is only a tool. There’s nothing magical about how it works to change your brain, distract you, or [as I’m found of describing it] eat your face. The power of choice remains with each of us. What do we use the tool for? What things do we talk about? Whom do we associate with? What change are we creating?

The Internet is only a tool. Make what you will of that.

ɕ

Tis the season

I like paying for my software when I’m buying it from a company that’s responsive, fast and focused. I like being the customer (as opposed to a social network, where I’m the product). I spend most of my day working with tools that weren’t even in science fiction novels twenty-five years ago, and the money I spend on software is a bargain–doing this work without it is impossible.

~ Seth Godin, from https://seths.blog/2018/06/on-paying-for-software/

Tis the season… to talk about paying for the things we get value from. Last year Seth wrote that great gem about software and I whole-heartedly agree.

Here’s a short list of a few pieces of software which I gleefully pay for, without which everything I do would be vastly more difficult or outright impossible: Hover, BBEdit, Hindenburg, Overcast, Reeder, Feedbin, Tower, Transmit, OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, iaWriter, Discourse, Basecamp and Front.

As a bonus round, here’s a short list of a few online services or publications which I also gleefully contribute to, because they provide me with magnificent information that makes my world a better place: Brain Pickings, Müvmag, PodNews, Once is Never, and WikiPedia.

My challenge to you for the holiday season: Post your own lists somewhere public, and share the love for the software and services that make your life better throughout the year!

ɕ

Podcasts and good old RSS

Once I started seriously listening to podcasts, I quickly reached the point where there are more podcasts, (entire shows, not just episodes,) than I can possibly keep up with. I’m left with the choice between staying subscribed to podcasts where I want to listen to only some of the episodes, or unsubscribing and knowing that I’m missing some gems.

…and then I remember this is all just RSS.

In my podcast player, (which is Overcast,) I now keep only the shows that are my dedicated favorites; shows that I generally listen to every episode. I moved all the other podcasts into my RSS reader, (which is Reeder.) I even added a bunch of shows which I had completely given up hope of being able to even follow them looking for gems.

This had two huge benefits:

First, it improved my podcast listening experience: Not keeping all of those podcast shows subscribed in my podcast player, means less downloading and less skipping. I don’t like having to wait, so I have everything set to pre-download, and removing a lot of podcasts makes a big difference. But even more important, there’s now much less distraction. When I’m in the mood, (or the time, or the place,) to listen to podcasts, I tend to continue listening by default. I’m more likely to listen “just a bit farther” to see if this episode is going to be good, whereas if I had read the summary I might have skipped it altogether. So my podcast listening experience winds up having far more great episodes because it’s just the shows I love.

Second, it actually leads to me finding more gems: When I open my RSS reader, (as I do every day,) I’m in “skimming mode.” I’m looking for things to queue for later reading. (Pocket and Instapaper for the win.) There’s very little effort for me to skim the episode descriptions, and when I find one that looks good I add it to my podcast player. This does require me to switch apps, search, and then add a specific episode. But this small effort helps ensure that the episode is likely to be one I would really like to listen to.

There’s one detail that is a slight snag: How do you find a podcast’s feed URL? We’re all so used to searching in our podcast player apps, but you need the actual podcast feed URL to add it to your RSS reader. You’ll discover that none of the podcast player apps, and none of the directories, (Stitcher, Google, Apple, etc.,) make it easy to find the shows’ underlying podcast URL. The easiest way to do it is to use the handy search on James Cridland’s, Podnews.net (no relation/benefit to me.) It pulls the show’s information from the directories, and explains all the details about that show’s configuration including a handy RSS link icon that has the URL.

ɕ

Fifty years ago: ARPANET was born

Many realize that 50 years ago, on October 29, 1969, the first message was successfully sent over the ARPANET, which eventually evolved into the Internet. But few know the story that led up to that message.

~ Leonard Kleinrock, from https://www.icann.org/news/blog/the-first-message-transmission

The Internet as we know it today was really born in the early 90’s. I remember when web sites—”The Web”—was invented. I was a graduate student in Physics back then. There used to be a web site at UIUC where someone kept a list of all the web sites. (People would email them when they added a web site to the Internet.) I used to check that site every day—and get excited on the days when a new web site had appeared.

…at least, that’s how I remember it. ;)

Anyway, great little read about some of the people who started it all, and the very first message across the Internet v1.

ɕ

Website obesity

Let me start by saying that beautiful websites come in all sizes and page weights. I love big websites packed with images. I love high-resolution video. I love sprawling Javascript experiments or well-designed web apps.

This talk isn’t about any of those. It’s about mostly-text sites that, for unfathomable reasons, are growing bigger with every passing year.

~ Maciej Cegłowski, from https://idlewords.com/talks/website_obesity.htm

This is so true that it makes me laugh and cry at the same time. I weep. I weep for the Internet. The Internet we know today was made possible by advertising, because too many of us don’t understand how reality works. That’s a good thing—that the Internet happened and grew to be as pervasive as it is—but the current trajectory does not lead to the best possibilities.

ɕ

Factory work, Round 2

My fear—or maybe it’s better written, as “my lament”?—is that for every made-it-big tech person who represents the worst of avarice and greed, there is a sea of regular tech people who are being ground up by the works. Countless pasty faces staring at screens, drinking diet soda, trying to live in the bites of life they can grab after hours, (taking their phone so they can be summoned, of course!) stressed-out, burnt-out…

So when I hear people talk about “tech people” as if we’ve collectively done something wrong and messed up the world, I look around and all I see are people who’ve been broken and smashed. The grass is no greener on the inside-tech side of the fence. To everyone outside-tech, what gets done inside tech is magic—it’s not, it’s factory work, round two.

I don’t mean this as a repost to what people say when they lament what has happened to the world, but as a commiserating plea: “Yes! Yes! The problem is everywhere.”

ɕ

Technology in my formative years

I was exceptionally lucky to be born into this moment. I got to see what happened, to live as a child of acceleration. The mysteries of software caught my eye when I was a boy, and I still see it with the same wonder, even though I’m now an adult. Proudshamed, yes, but I still love it, the mess of it, the code and toolkits, down to the pixels and the processors, and up to the buses and bridges. I love the whole made world. But I can’t deny that the miracle is over, and that there is an unbelievable amount of work left for us to do.

~ Paul Ford, from https://www.wired.com/story/why-we-love-tech-defense-difficult-industry/

This hit me right in the feels. I think I’ve had a larger share of the upsides and a smaller share of the downsides than Ford. But this feels like a good overview of my formative years in tech.

Somewhere I read, “the messiness cannot go into the computer.” That summarizes what I believe is the cause of my neurosis; I’ve spent so many years now taking real-world problems, and real-world interactions with people, and factoring them into computers—and I’m left with the messy parts of the problem stuck in my mind. I’m not sure one can even understand what I’m talking about until you’ve spent 30 years, daily, working on refactoring the fuzzy of the real world into the binary of the computer world. Maybe I can reword it this way:

Computers and brains are very different. I’ve spent decades using my brain to understand computers, work with computers, and program computers.

What if that has fundamentally changed my brain?

How can I possibly pretend that, “what if,” is not utter bullshit…

That has fundamentally changed my brain.

ɕ

Deep dive about podcast feeds

This article got out of hand, and is 3,000 words.  I encourage you to skip around; There’s more discussion of specific tools and how-to material in the last third.

In the beginning

In the beginning, podcasts were simply audio files which people shared directly either by emailing them to each other, or by providing download links on their web sites.

RSS technology has been around for a while and provided a way for a web site to publish a “here’s what’s new” feed. It was soon realized that RSS could be used to provide a feed specifically of podcasts. Software able to retrieve and understand a podcast feed, could then automatically download the podcast files, and alert you of new episodes. Sharing a new show with friends then meant simply giving them the “feed URL” which one would “subscribe to” by adding it to your feed reader.

(more…)

Irrelevant

At the dawn of the internet, posting a commercial message was the indicator used by everyone to point and say, “that is spam.”

This was a huge mistake. Because it led to a deep rabbit-hole of requiring us to answer the question: Is this message commercial?

I think it’s commercial? …do you? Wait what is “commercial” is it any time we exchange any amount of value? That’d be two people talking! “Commercial” isn’t inherently bad… Ok, but we need to agree so we can make a decision! Is “we” a few of us in this space, or does the poster’s opinion matter? Does their “street credit” in the space affect how much we value their opinion? Maybe we can rate-limit how many border-line-commercial messages each person can… Oh, wait, I know! Let’s appoint someone to be the arbiter of this space and… deep. deep. rabbit. hole.

And we went to great length to try to place (move, cajoul, beg, etc) the commercial stuff into designated areas.

It’s not commercial that is the problem. SURPRISE is the problem. If something is unexpected, it better be perceived as desired. It’s not the content of the message (post, email, phone, whatever) that matters, it’s the recipient’s REACTION that matters.

That phone call at dinner from the caller ID you do not recognize—unexpected and undesired—spam!

The garage that fixed my car that later robo-calls me to beg me to 5-star rate them—unexpected and undesired—spam!

The web site pop-up dialog talking about…—spam!

So the first challenge is to get control of the channels. I’ve moved away from anything where random people can easily interrupt me. (Where “moved away” means everything from literally eliminate said thing, to change or reconfigure how it works, etc. My “inner circle” of people can easily surprise me, of course!) This drastically reduces surprises, and so drastically reduces spam.

Then the second challenge is to locate the channels that contain the information—including commercial information—which I want to receive. My favorite clothing retailer has learned that I like to be surprised with email from them. Commercial? …absolutely. Spam? …yes, please.

ɕ