Archive for the ‘The Future of Advertising and Media’ Category

Needles in a verbal haystack

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Sometime during the Bush administration, a 1970s-ish malaise settled on the country, and it hasn’t lifted yet. There’s the volatile price of oil…that cop drama about an officer who goes back in time to 1973…everyone in a bad mood about something (I was teething)…and oh yeah, the government is apparently spying on journalists!

This story has been reported widely, but not gotten much traction. In January, former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that the NSA did inded listen in on the communications of all kinds of ordinary Americans, with special attention paid to journalists (hey, who says 24-hour news networks never actually make news?)

TICE: Well, I don’t know what our former president knew or didn’t know. I’m sort of down in the weeds. But the National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications, faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. And that doesn’t — it didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, you know, in the middle of the country, and you never made a communication — foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.

One American who is sure he was spied on is the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, who writes on terrorism. He told NPR’s On The Media (full disclosure: they are work colleagues) that two federal agents actually showed up at his front door to ask him directly about the contents of his conversations:

WRIGHT: And then they began asking if the person on our end of the call, my end, was named Caroline. And that’s my daughter’s name. And they asked, you know, is her name Caroline Brown? And I said, no, she’s, you know, a student at Brown. But I said, her name’s not on any of our phones. How do you know this information? Are you listening to my calls? And they just shut their briefcases and left.

There is so much here to unpack: the question of whether monitoring Wright’s communications was legal then, whether it would be legal today, the fact that federal agents still apparently make housecalls, and the specific way in which communications are unpacked. Tice told Olbermann the NSA’s monitoring a bit like googling for keywords:

TICE: what was done was a sort of an ability to look at the meta data, the signaling data for communications, and ferret that information to determine what communications would ultimately be collected. Basically, filtering out sort of like sweeping everything with that meta data, and then cutting down ultimately what you are going to look at and what is going to be collected, and in the long run have an analyst look at, you know, needles in a haystack for what might be of interest.

It would be interesting to know whether this sort of data sweep gets better results than labor-intensive 24-hour East German surveillance operation depicted in The Lives of Others. Judging from “Caroline Brown”, I’d say maybe not – yet.

(Click here if you need primer on presidential spying on journalists from Kennedy onwards.)

Block Party!

Monday, January 26th, 2009

In the just last few minutes, I learned that near the address where I work:

  • The closest Starbucks probably has a mouse problem
  • Workers at a construction site have been leaving sheet rock and paint cans out where they can fall and injure passersby
  • A five-story building may soon go up in the backyard of an 1820s townhouse
  • Someone lost an earring

Kind of a random assortment of factoids, but that’s what’s happening in my part of Soho, according to the website Everyblock, which aggregates hyper-local information for 11 US cities. The interesting thing to me about Everyblock is that they make publicly available records truly accessible to the public, by offering an easy, intuitive pathway.

New York City’s Health Department does a pretty good job of posting restaurant inspection information online, but Everyblock conveniently filters in only the restaurants in a 1, 3, or 8-block radius of your chosen address. Ditto for buildings inspections and other records. For some cities, they post information you could otherwise only find in a records office.

This is the kind of resource that simultaneously excites me as a journalist (the stories that can be found here!) and makes me anxious about the future of my profession (if anyone can get this kind of information, who needs us hacks?) No surprise: Everyblock is funded by the Knight Foundation, which has been seeding money to projects that try to bring journalism into the digital age.

Anyway, Everyblock is exactly one year and one day old today, and you should definitely give it a whirl.

On a totally unrelated note: Caroline Kennedy‘s rollout as a potential senator was badly executed, as scores of columnists have pointed out. But it’s a pity we didn’t have the chance to find out what an attorney who’s co-written a book on privacy would have done as senator. No excerpts of the book are available online (private!) but the reviews suggest the authors collected scores of stories from ordinary Americans whose privacy was compromised. Perhaps Kennedy isn’t out-of-touch at all.

Amazon’s red and blue book-buying map

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Sorry, it’s another semi-political post!


We at the Common Data Project are definitely interested in more than politics, but this Amazon map of political book-buying state by state was too interesting not to blog about it. It illustrates so many things I believe in.

One: Information-sharing can be fun.

People love patterns, and even more, knowing where they fit into them. The Amazon customers who are most likely to be drawn to this map are those who have bought political books, books that fall into the red, blue, or purple categories. No one is likely to be outraged that his purchase of Thomas Friedman’s book in the last 60 days got counted in designing this map. Although there’s a lot of data collection that Amazon prefers to keep on the down-low, this kind of tracking is refreshingly open and explicit. We know it’s being collected, and most of all, we get something in return. We all get to enjoy the data as well.

Two: Data has limited value if there is limited context.

As pretty as this map is, it doesn’t really provide much information. Junk Charts lays out a lot of the deficiencies that limit our ability to draw any meaningful conclusions. Providing the map with just the states colored in, but without real sales numbers, doesn’t give you a real sense of which books are selling better, in the same way that the 2004 election red-blue maps with their wide swaths of red in the middle didn’t provide real information about population density and how close the election had actually been, nor how seemingly blue or red states actually contained significant pockets of people who had voted for the other guy. How many people in South Dakota bought a “red” book? Ten, twenty, or a hundred thousand?

The paucity of information on how books were rated red, blue or purple drove me crazy, too. Every place I clicked to “Learn more,” it took me to the same very short four paragraphs. It says that the categorization was based on the book’s own promotional materials and the tags readers added to them, but I still wonder who categorized these books and precisely how they did so. Would all the authors necessarily have labeled their books as blue or red?

And if they were categorizing books as purple, as neither obviously liberal or conservative, why didn’t they include them in the percentage calculations by state?

Three: Underlying data should always be available for alternative analyses.

A lot of people are wary of data; they’ve heard too many times how numbers can be twisted to serve any purpose. We at the Common Data Project make no promises that data = truth, only that when data is truly open and available, conclusions based on that data can then be prodded, tested, and possibly refuted.

In this case, I’m not quite sure if Amazon does have a conclusion to assert, but the decisions it made about which data to include and exclude have shaped the map presented. One conclusion you might draw from a cursory glance might be the same one drawn by one of the commenters to the Junk Charts post—that people only read books they’re likely to already agree with. Imagine now if we could test that conclusion, if we could count how many readers in each state bought both “red” and “blue” books, or if there were readers who would consider themselves “conservative” but bought “liberal” books. Maybe there’s a very active and large political book club in Wyoming buying books from across the spectrum!

It may very well be true that people who identify as conservative buy “red” books, while people who identify as liberal buy “blue” books, but the map as provided doesn’t provide enough information to truly test that conclusion or propose interesting hypotheses of why that’s happening.

Still, I had a good enough time playing around with the map that I was reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to read, which is probably Amazon’s ultimate goal anyway!

Freep this poll!

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Have you ever been asked to “Freep this poll”?

The word “freep” comes from the “Free Republic,” an online forum for conservatives where its members are regularly informed of online polls and told to go vote en masse.  Although they don’t necessarily admit to “cheating” the polls, they have been accused of clearing cookies or otherwise circumventing the systems set up to prevent one person from voting multiple times.

Conservatives aren’t the only ones “freeping,” though.  The term has migrated across the political spectrum, and readers of decidedly more liberal sites, like DailyKos, are regularly asked to freep a poll.  And right after a presidential debate is prime freeping time for everyone, as nearly every newspaper and cable news channel will set up online polls asking, “Who won?”

I think freeping is great.

Freeping makes obvious how ridiculously inaccurate online polls can be.  Der Spiegel, a German magazine, was shocked when a 2004 online poll asking readers to rate President Bush’s performance in office was rated “excellent” by 59% of its readers–it turned out it had been freeped.  When freeping skews results to the point that no one can believe them, well, that’s a blow for truth, not ideology.

But being an ever-so-optimistic sort of person, I think freeping also shows the potential of online polls, and online measures of public opinion in general, to be more accurate than they are today.  Online polls are popular, despite being obviously inaccurate, because they’re cheap and fun (for those who just can’t get enough of sharing their opinions).  Most of all, at least in theory, they can reach a much larger group of people than professional pollsters.

The problem is that this larger group, even before freepers get involved, is shaped by the website and the audience it tends to draw.  (And of course, the world of people online is already smaller than the world as a whole.)  It wasn’t surprising, nor particularly revealing, that the people who went to the conservative Drudge Report and voted in its poll rating the Palin-Biden VP debate overwhelmingly found that Palin had won.  But if liberal online politicos had freeped the poll, they could have made the poll more representative of our country’s mix of conservatives and liberals.  And vice versa.

My point is that freeping, as creepy as it seems, is one of those strategies that’s open to everyone, left, right, liberal, conservative, polka-dotted or striped.  Some people will always just enjoy freeping for the sake of messing up the system, to enjoy their power to clear cookies and skew polls, though as I stated above, that can easily go so far that no one believes the results.  But if freeping pushes people to participate in polls in forums where they normally wouldn’t be heard, well, that sounds kind of democratic.  Sure, we still have that problem with ensuring one vote per person, but if we thought online polling could have more than entertainment value, maybe we would try harder to come up with better systems.  (I wonder if it would be possible to set up an online poll that actually let you vote as often as you wanted, but indicated you had done so.  Sometimes it’s entertaining to see who cares the most, or maybe more accurately, has the most time on his hands.)  As Mimi stated earlier, choosing to participate in polls, surveys, and studies that shape our world and our lives is increasingly becoming as democratic a duty as voting in the election booth.

Yahoo: restoring your “sense” of privacy, not privacy itself

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Hot on the heels of the launch of Cuil and its no data collection policy, Yahoo announced recently that it would allow users to opt-out of targeted advertising on its own websites.

The new policy was announced in response to a letter sent by four members of the House of Representatives to 33 Internet and telecommunications companies. The first question of the letter was, “Has your company at any time tailored, or facilitated the tailoring of, Internet advertising based on consumers’ Internet search, surfing, or other use?” Ha!

In all fairness, I’m glad our elected officials are asking even simple questions. I just hope that they won’t be satisfied with overly simple responses. As many of the commenters to the Bits blog post pointed out, the issue is not so much whether the user is forced to view targeted ads, but what kind of data collection is done in order to send these users targeted ads. Chris Hoofnagle notes,

The problem with opt-out rights in the online advertising context is that it results in a worst case scenario for consumers: the opt out typically only applies to receiving targeted advertising, so the company still tracks the consumer’s behavior, but the consumer doesn’t enjoy the benefit of targeted ads.

This form of opt-out reflects a 20th century conception of privacy–privacy means not being contacted. In the 21st Century, we need to understand more subtle problems, such as the privacy risks from online advertisers mere collection and use of data.

Exactly. This is not about being put on the Internet equivalent of the “Do Not Call” registry. Does Yahoo think I would be okay with having data collected about me, as long as I never see the evidence they’re doing it?

P.S. Then again, there are certainly users like Commenter #8, whose vanity is hurt that Yahoo is sending her ads about reducing wrinkles. But deep down, even she seems to realize only her “sense” of privacy is being restored, not her privacy itself.

What kind of relationship do you have with “your” ads?

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Now that ads are ‘specially targeted to each one of us individually, how do you feel about the ads that are finding you?

Here’s Microsoft’s take on the situation. Not exactly news, but I just found it here.

Here are some snippets from the dialogue:

You’re not even listening are you?
We don’t talk anymore.
You do all the talking.
It’s not really a dialog.
You say you love me, but you’re not behaving like you love me.

They said you would love everything I did.

You’re not even listening are you?
If you knew me…

Know you? Sweetheart, I know everything about you. You’re 28….to 34 You’re online interests include music, moves…and laser hair removal. You have a modest, but dependable disposable income.

I’m out of here.

The problem is: How are advertisers going to listen more closely to consumers given the privacy models we have today? How closely do you want them to be listening anyway?

Not very, according to this article.

But what if advertising simply became a service that helps you find what you need and discover what you want? Like a personal shopper or interior decorator. Or a financial adviser or psycho-pharmacologist. How far would you be willing to go in this relationship? And would it still be advertising?

What exactly is Google up to?

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Even as Google has become the most coveted place to work, to the extent that even their cafeteria gets media coverage, it’s also getting increasingly negative attention as a potentially sinister force. The New Yorker recently published an article with rather vague speculation at the way Google might take over the world. Now, we hear that Microsoft is trying to buy Yahoo so they can together fight Google. (Isn’t it funny that Microsoft is seeing another company as the big, bad world-dominator?) More and more, people are starting to wonder, “What exactly is Google up to?”

But given that we can’t read the minds of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, perhaps what we should be looking at is the conflict-of-interest inherent in Google’s business model. Google’s stated mission as a company is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. But are Google’s customers really the individuals searching for information, or are they the advertisers who actually increase Google’s revenues and stock value? To be fair, Google makes a respectable effort to separate advertising from “legitimate,” as in “non-jerry-rigged” search results. But after ten years, the Google search experience is pretty much the same as it’s always been. Has Google been working really hard on tools to help people find better information faster, or has it been working really hard on tools to help advertisers better target potential customers?

Google doesn’t have to be evil to be troubling. It may have started out with the purest of intentions, but it’s hampered itself with the conflict-of-interest at the heart of its operations. Law professor Tim Wu, as quoted in the New Yorker, said it straight, “I predict that Google will end up at war with itself.”

News or Advertising? You Decide.

Friday, September 14th, 2007

Number 8 on the list of most emailed articles in the NYT Tech section is currently A Photo Printer That Promises to Do Most Everything

Could this article possibly be legit? It reads like an ad. Also notice the conveniently placed Google ads at the bottom of the page.

Idea for a new list next to “Most Emailed Articles”, “Articles that Generate the Most Ad Revenue”…

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