This week there were two out-of-the-park posts by Berkman folk: Ethan Zuckerman on advertising as the Net’s original sin, and Zeynep Tufecki on the power of the open Internet as demonstrated by coverage of the riots in Ferguson. Each provides a view on whether the Net is a failed promise. Each is brilliant and brilliantly written.
Zeynep on Ferguson
Zeynep, who has written with wisdom and insight on the role of social media in the Turkish protests (e.g., here and here), looks at how Twitter brought the Ferguson police riots onto the national agenda and how well Twitter “covered” them. But those events didn’t make a dent in Facebook’s presentation of news. Why? she asks.
Twitter is an open platform where anyone can post whatever they want. It therefore reflects our interests — although no medium is a mere reflection. FB, on the other hand, uses algorithms to determine what it thinks our interests are … except that its algorithms are actually tuned to get us to click more so that FB can show us more ads. (Zeynep made that point about an early and errant draft of my CNN.com commentary on the FB mood experiment. Thanks, Zeynep!) She uses this to make an important point about the Net’s value as a medium the agenda of which is not set by commercial interests. She talks about this as “Net Neutrality,” extending it from its usual application to the access providers (Comcast, Verizon and their small handful of buddies) to those providing important platforms such as Facebook.
She concludes (but please read it all!):
How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.
And despite a lot of dismal developments, this fight is far from over, and its enemy is cynicism and dismissal of this reality.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What happens to #Ferguson affects what happens to Ferguson.
Yup yup yup. This post is required reading for all of the cynics who would impress us with their wake-up-and-smell-the-shitty-coffee pessimism.
Ethan on Ads
Ethan cites a talk by Maciej Ceglowski for the insight that “we’ve ended up with surveillance as the default, if not sole, internet business model.” Says Ethan,
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.
Since Internet ads are more effective as a business model than as an actual business, companies are driven ever more frantically to gather customer data in order to hold out the hope of making their ads more effective. And there went out privacy. (This is a very rough paraphrase of Ethan’s argument.)
Ethan pays more than lip service to the benefits — promised and delivered — of the ad-supported Web. But he points to four rather devastating drawbacks, include the distortions caused by algorithmic filtering that Zeynep warns us about. Then he discusses what we can do about it.
I’m not going to try to summarize any further. You need to read this piece. And you will enjoy it. For example, betcha can’t guess who wrote the code for the world’s first pop-up ads. Answer: Ethan .
Also recommended: Jeff Jarvis’ response and Mathew Ingram’s response to both. I myself have little hope that advertising can be made significantly better, where “better” means being unreservedly in the interests of “consumers” and sufficiently valuable to the advertisers. I’m of course not confident about this, and maybe tomorrow someone will come up with the solution, but my thinking is based on the assumption that the open Web is always going to be a better way for us to discover what we care about because the native building material of the Web is in fact what we find mutually interesting.
Read both these articles. They are important contributions to understanding the Web We Want.