I do believe that Mark and Priscilla want to have a meaningful positive impact on the world, and I am unapologetically enthusiastic about the fact they’re articulating that vision in a way that will lead others. I am also grievously concerned about the greatest threat to those intentions: The culture of Silicon Valley. Many of the loudest, most prominent voices within the tech industry, people who have Zuckerberg’s ear, are already thoughtlessly describing smart critique of the Initiative as “hating”, absurdly dismissing legitimate concerns as jealousy.
Here’s the truth: No matter how good their intentions, the net result of most such efforts has typically been neutral at best, and can sometimes be deeply destructive. The most valuable path may well be to simply invest this enormous pool of resources in the people and institutions that are already doing this work (including, yes, public institutions funded by tax dollars) and trust that they know their domains better than someone who’s already got a pretty demanding day job.
As Anil said on Twitter, “the best thing they could do is listen to critics.”
You may have heard Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has promised to donate 99% of his stock in the company “to charity.” (It’s unclear what “charity” means precisely at this point, but one might want to look in the direction of Newark.)
First, the stock could go back to the Facebook users who made it valuable in the first place. As I have noted here before, Facebook’s business model depends on gathering, mining and selling the personal information that its users post on the platform. That includes our networks of relationships, our photos, our worries, our milestones, our passions and our preferences. It’s barely understood what exactly Facebook knows about us and how, except that it’s a lot. This is part of what has made Mr. Zuckerberg so controversial, and rightly so; early on, he referred to his users as “dumb” (followed by a word even more insulting) for trusting him with such data. What if, rather than papering over that controversy, he could resolve it at the root?
Consider what it would mean if a substantial portion of Facebook stock were held in a trust that acts on behalf of the platform’s users. (This is a model I’m borrowing from the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership in the United Kingdom, explained in Marjorie Kelly’s extraordinary book Owning Our Future.) Users could then vote on what positions the trust should hold at shareholder meetings, and it could distribute dividends based on the stock’s value back to users, or reinvest them by buying more ownership in the company. The trust, therefore, would have a dual incentive: to protect user interests and privacy in Facebook’s business model, and to ensure that the company remains solvent.
The other suggestion, to sell the stocks and distribute the proceeds to every person alive, is also noteworthy, effectively saying: “Do you really know better what to do with all that money than the collective wisdom of everyone on Earth combined?”
I’m finding that it’s very important to just get up there and talk a little bit, make some dumb jokes, let people get used to you existing. A lot of times I talk about the status of the talk (“this is a new talk and I’ll be glad to hear what you think”).
I’m noticing that this style of presenting is very adaptable; when you’re in a small room you can turn it into a conversation and bring in the audience; when you’re speaking to hundreds of people, and engagement is not possible, you can just keep plowing ahead but it’s still like you’re just having a fun chat instead of holding forth. You can even do a kind of professorial “Oh! Right!” as if the deck was surprising you, and both you and the audience were just seeing this information for the first time together and you were merely riffing.
I highly recommend that you try to find some way to go see Paul give a talk.
The prognosis for publishers is grim. Repent! Find a way out of the adtech racket before it collapses around you. Ditch your tracking, show dumb ads that you sell directly (not through a thicket of intermediaries), and beg your readers for mercy. Respect their privacy, bandwidth, and intelligence, flatter their vanity, and maybe they’ll subscribe to something.
One way I could see publishers phasing in this more-respectful business model is through existing web browsers’ do-not-track differentiation. Every modern browser has privacy settings that let an individual user opt out of online tracking. That do-not-track preference gets included with each and every web request, but it’s up to the website operator to act on it. As far as I can tell, all adtech companies seem to ignore this preference completely.
Okay, so are you ready for my idea for how publishers can escape the adtech bubble? Stay with me here, because this is a crazy suggestion: if I’ve signaled through my preferences that I prefer not to be tracked, then … I dunno, maybe don’t track me.
A typical ad-driven website relies on dozens of companies to show me slow loading, poorly-customized advertising. But there’s nothing stopping the website itself from simply not letting those companies’ code onto the page.
I would say just switch to dumb (non-tracking) ads for everyone, but I know how this would play out: “it’s too extreme, we can’t afford it!” But here’s the thing, if you think this adtech spaghetti business is going to collapse, you’ll have to start switching traffic over to something else eventually. Why not start out with current and future subscribers (aka “users”) who’ve already indicated they prefer not to be tracked by the adtech industry? Just do what we’ve been asking for in the first place.
Here’s how: if a given visitor has checked the do-not-track box, you’ll be able to detect it. Adjust your ad libraries and CDNs to detect the DNT: 1 HTTP header and then show a small message congratulating yourself, and set aside those ad spots for “artisanal” ads. Once things are rolling along you can ditch the old bloated, crappy ads for everybody else.
You can already tell what proportion of visitors have do-not-track enabled, it’s there in the traffic stats if you look for it. You could pitch this to the higher ups with real numbers, and spin it as a Premium Advertising Experience, like organic fair trade traffic without all the slow bandwidth-bloat and creepy surveillance.
The big challenge, of course, is this type of effort involves cooperation between many departments that may not currently get along well. But getting the ad sales people and the ad tech people and the web developers to get along is important.
Nobody likes working on ads, and I know it’s hard to just get buy-in, let alone actually launch a new thing. But an adtech collapse might be an existential threat, better to get in front of this now rather than wait for it to happen.