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Good Piece on Web Advertising

There is lots to enjoy in this article by Doc Searls about what he calls “adtech”.

To give you a brief explanation, it starts with this quote:

In old-fashioned publishing, advertising was advertising; but in the digital world, advertising has been replaced by adtech, which is based on tracking and has become a cancer on both publishing and advertising.

There are many links to follow and lots to think about in his article, so I’m just going to say, go read it. All of it.

For myself, I can’t help but think this is only going to get worse. What Doc calls adtech is based on tracking. Right now that has been mostly done online, with tracking cookies and social networks, etc. As you look into the big data revolution though, you start to realize that companies are moving that same philosophy offline as well. It started with loyalty programs, tracking not only how often you shop somewhere, but everything you buy in the store. It’s starting to move beyond the actual purchases though, with location-based apps keeping track of where we are, and when we are nearby the store. Eventually, it’ll get to facial recognition, tracking not only what you purchase but what you look at in the store, and where you go in the store.

Of course, that’s not what Doc is focused on, he’s focused on publishing, which is really getting screwed by adtech, because publishers and media companies have a particular relationship with the public that requires us to have some trust in them. In the chase for eyeballs in order to satisfy the adtech algorithms, that trust has been violated in many ways. One, instead of creating great content that companies want to associate themselves with, they’ve moved into doing whatever it takes to get ads in front of readers. Two, by allowing the adtech companies to track us as thoroughly as they do, they’ve become complicit in turning us into products instead of customers.

And make no mistake, in the current online advertising market, we are the product. Google doesn’t exist to provide a great search engine, an email account, and all of the other various tools it creates. It exists to get you into those platforms so they can sell you to the adtech companies. Facebook doesn’t exist to connect people anymore. It exists to sell us and all the information it can get from us to adtech companies.

But that’s the least of our problems. We might be OK with that, but the adtech hasn’t stopped there. As Doc points out, if you read the New York Times piece Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses, when we move into the realm of political ads, this gets a little weird, because we can target certain people with information that may or may not be true, and the people who would know whether it was true, and might bring it to light, never see it.

Now, the hope, in Doc’s original point, is that something like the GDPR rules in Europe might change the game. If you can’t track people without their consent, this suddenly gets very different. Unfortunately, I have a little less optimism. I do think the new rules will simply create something very much as we see with ad-blockers on certain sites. Either you agree to the popup that says we can track you, or you don’t get to read that awesome article that your friend just shared on social media. Given that choice, I think too many people will click OK without really thinking about it, and we’ll continue down this path until the market simply implodes on itself. (That implosion will come with the realization that adtech is actually a horrible way to spend your money. For all the data and targeted ads, I think they are going to find that it doesn’t really make much difference in people’s buying habits, and more and more people are going to start being really creeped out by it.)

Of course, when that happens, the adtech companies might just try to use all that data about us to manipulate us, and that will be an interesting investigation when it happens.

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