Programmatic advertising, a summary

Cover of the book, which looks like it's covered in text-only banner ads with little close iconsRecently I read Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang. I was hoping to find out if advertising was the reason for social media changing from chronological posts in your timeline to a grab-bag of algorithmic bullshit. I didn’t get an answer to that question, but I did get a shock about how fragile the digital advertising economy really is.

Most of the information in this post comes directly from Hwang’s book or articles I looked up from his bibliography. If this topic is relevant to your work, I strongly suggest you read the book instead! If you’re local to me, you can borrow my copy. Or if you prefer audio, there’s a great interview with Hwang on the Freakonomics podcast.

What’s the problem?

These days, most digital advertising is programmatic. This means that people with things to advertise buy slots on websites via a trading system that runs a lot like the stock market. Hwang explains how that came about, then suggests that the current programmatic ad market has a lot of similarities to how the stock market was running just before the Global Financial Crisis. The features he reckons they have in common are:

One factor that Hwang touches on a little, but I’ve seen discussed more in web developer chats, is the performance cost of all the data-gathering. Most big-name websites have dozens of advertising trackers to find out when a page is loaded, who’s loading it, what else they’ve looked at today, and what demographics they’re part of. That information then gets fed into the stock-market of advertising to help all the third-parties bundle and re-sell your attention. There’s no evidence that this improves ad targeting (PDF), either in the relevance of the ads you get shown or the likelihood of you buying the product. But it creates a lot of jobs and opportunities for fraud so hey, why not take an extra 7 seconds to load the page?

So what can we do?

Alternative 1: Get rid of online advertising

This is kind of the scorched earth option. If current advertising sucks, why not just ditch it altogether? The problem with this is that someone has to pay for content authors and design and hosting, etc. If advertising isn’t paying the bills, who will? It’s not a huge stretch to guess that a lot of sites would move to a paid subscriber model.

Given that so many sites are dependent on Facebook and Google for traffic, they have a lot of control over how this plays out. They’ve never given half a damn about democracy or equal access before, and they’re always looking for another way to make a buck. So a two-tier internet for the Haves and the Have-nots seems like a real possibility here. And as soon as that happens in any other market sector, you get predatory businesses trying to scam or take advantage of the Have-nots (see: pay-day loans, pawn shops, US health insurance, etc).

So I’m not keen on letting go of advertising altogether.

Alternative 2: let the industry sort it out

Hwang reviews the current attempts by Google, Facebook and the advertising industry to fix this. The short version is: hah! as if!

They’re all getting rich from programmatic advertising and will survive just fine even if there is a market crash. They’re just tinkering at the edges to look like they’re trying. Their efforts aren’t designed to make any real, lasting change.

I don’t think we can afford to wait for the advertising industry to grow a conscience.

Alternative 3: Gently deflate the market bubble

Hwang says that instead of waiting for the financial bubble to burst, we could attempt a controlled demolition instead. His suggestions seem pretty good to me:

  • independent research – currently all the research into programmatic advertising is done by Google, Facebook and marketing companies, usually via astroturf “industry associations” staffed with their mates and full of lobbyists. We need to fund truly independent research into the value of digital advertising, the impact of ad blockers, the amount of fraud, and so on. Without an accurate picture of the situation we can’t do much at all.
  • whistle-blowing by employees who know their bosses are committing fraud or covering up inconvenient facts. For this to have an impact, we (the general public) have to follow up on scandals and demand punishment and prevention.
  • regulation to prevent a crash. As with the stock market, large financial transactions should be monitored for fraud and have regular health-checks.

We’re seeing some efforts in the US and the EU towards regulation. Usually politicians aren’t up-to-date on technology, but with solid support by the tech industry (the parts of it who care about ethics and long-term stability, at least) they could really help. I’d certainly trust politicians like Elizabeth Warren or Katie Porter in the US, or people like Scott Ludlam and Senator John-Steele here in Australia, to do their homework on this and make some good changes.

I’d add one more suggestion: that people buying advertising space do an audit of what they’re spending on. There’s been a few examples lately of brands reducing their daily ad spend by checking conversions and blacklisting sites that aren’t brand-friendly (i.e. racist blogs, Covid disinformation, etc). And getting rid of fraudulent vendors didn’t reduce effectiveness for Uber (podcast without a transcript, but the page gives a summary). At least this way the clients aren’t contributing to the inflation of value.

Alternative 4: Get rid of the “programmatic” aspect

Hwang also suggests that the programmatic stock-market model of advertising isn’t necessary, and we could go back to category advertising. I was already persuaded of this idea. Category advertising is where you say “I have a website for people who geek out about productivity software” and so you sell ads to businesses that sell productivity software and related things like cool notebooks and pens, office furniture or all those everyday carry tools. You don’t need to know my age, gender, postcode or eye colour to know that as a productivity geek I will always be interested in buying far too many pretty notebooks.

I know that the only two ads I’ve ever clicked on deliberately were from The Deck, an advertising platform which is now sadly closed. They did the sort of category style advertising which isn’t common anymore, and the ads were always simple yet effective. Maybe they had a style guide or constraints on what their advertising partners could do? Anyway, I deliberately whitelisted sites that used The Deck so my ad-blocker would let them through. And one of those two times I clicked an ad, I bought a really great product that I’m still a customer of today.

A more significant example is NPO, a Dutch broadcaster (like the BBC or the ABC) who got rid of advertising cookies to avoid the hassle of complying with the GDPR. They still auctioned off their ad space, but buyers got information about the page being viewed instead of the person doing the viewing. Their digital revenue is up.

This also seems to be backed up by a detail that Hwang briefly mentions: when HotWired started putting banner ads on their sites in 1994, click-through rates were 44%. Nowadays clickthrough rates are more like 0.5%. Not all of this can be put down to the change in advertising techniques, but surely some of it can?

So what next?

I’m a big fan of options 3 and 4 above. But I think we have to move quickly on it, and I don’t actually have any control over any sites with advertising or products which need marketing. This makes my support a bit theoretical 🙂

I figured I’d write up a blog post though and see if I could persuade other people in the tech industry to start looking into how advertising is working for them. Is your current setup helping or harming your work?

Speaking up

I originally wrote this in my old site, and cross-posted it to Medium. But I think that writing I put a bit of time into should go here.

You’ve probably seen the #MeToo hashtag on social media, with women sharing it if they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. It was started (without a hashtag, I think, but definitely the same phrase and purpose) 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, but got a boost from Alyssa Milano after she read commentary about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse finally being revealed.

I’ve noticed that a lot of guys are surprised and disappointed to learn how many of the women they know have experienced this problem. If you’re one of those guys and you’re looking for ways to help support women with harassment, or to prevent it from happening in the future, there are a lot of articles out there with good advice. I like this one from Nicole Silverberg at The Guardian: Men, you want to treat women better? Here’s a list to start with.

One of the most frequently listed ways men can help is to speak up when a guy (or a group of guys) you know start discussing women in a sexist way. Like, if they start giving ratings on their looks, or point out which ones they would or wouldn’t have sex with. But there’s not a lot of guidance on exactly how to do that. Speaking up in front of friends or randoms isn’t as difficult as the harassment women put up with, but it isn’t easy either.

I really want more guys to speak up about this stuff with their friends, so I’ve got a few tips to share. I’m often the person in a group who speaks up about crappy things, including sexism, so I have some experience with this.

1. Understand the purpose of speaking up

Knowing why you are doing it makes it easier for you to decide in the moment what approach to take. The goal of speaking up isn’t to completely convince That Guy to become a full-time feminist ally (because ahahaha, as if). It’s to get him to realise that not all men think the way he does. He’s assuming that your silence on the topic means you agree with him.

So even the most vague comment is better than nothing. He’ll still be That Guy, but now he knows you don’t support treating women like objects. It puts an end to at least one sexist conversation, and discourages people from starting similar talk with you next time.

It also reminds other guys that this kind of talk is crappy, even though it’s so common that it happens without anyone thinking about it. They might be too intimidated to say something themselves, but now they know you’re the kind of guy who sticks up for people.

2. Prepare some stock phrases

Have a few phrases you can say without having to think about it too much. The usual suggestions are “ugh, not cool” or “dude, cut it out”. I also like “nobody cares about your boner” followed by a change of subject. I saw on Twitter the other day that someone told a guy in a restaurant “cool it, Harvey Weinstein” which gets heaps of points for being topical but might not work so well in a few weeks when the media has moved on to the latest scandal. There’s a good article for dealing with similar conversations in the workplace: “We don’t do that here” by Aja Hammerly.

Try to remember some of the conversations like this you’ve heard or been part of in the past. Imagine what you could have said to put an end to the conversation, and keep it in mind in case you’re in a similar situation in the future. It doesn’t have to be the most persuasive thing you’ve ever said. Funny is good, but not essential. Just anything to indicate that you don’t approve.

3. Be prepared for resistance

Most likely That Guy will give one of two cliched responses: he’ll say he’s just joking, or that he thinks you’re less of a man now in some way. Don’t bother responding to whatever he says as if it’s a real justification for his behaviour. It isn’t, and he doesn’t care anyway. He talks crap about women because he can, and now he’s wondering if he can’t and stalling while he figures it out.

This is another place where some stock phrases might be useful. Shrug and say “yeah whatever you reckon, dude” in the most bored voice you can do. Or just repeat that it’s not cool, or give him your most unimpressed face. It’s not a debate and you don’t have to listen to him.

If he gets more aggressive than that, or he doesn’t want to drop the topic, walk away. Yes, that might mean leaving a social event early, but more likely it just means going to talk to some other people instead. You’ve already achieved the goal of pushing back on his attitude towards women in the moment it happened; there’s no need to fight about it and no-one gains anything from that. Walking away also underlines the message that people won’t tolerate his behaviour.

However you choose to respond to the pushback, it’ll be easier if you’ve considered what you’ll do beforehand. Even a vague plan will be enough in most situations.

A final suggestion

One more idea for you: if one of your friends is the first to speak up and say “not cool”, make sure you back them up. Join in and say “yeah, I’ve had enough of this” or “why do you think we care?”. Or give him a high five, or whatever works in that group. Your friend is probably feeling awkward about it and could do with a little support.

The men who are predators and abuse their power over women are using society’s general disrespect for us as camoflage. If we can remove the camoflage, it’s easier for everyone to see who is dangerous.

Speaking up when people say sexist things is not going to fix misogyny and abuse – but it does help, and lots of people will appreciate it. I hope these tips help someone figure out how to speak up when they know it’s the right thing to do. Remember – it doesn’t have to be done perfectly, it just has to be done.

How I manage to read so much

As a kid I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could get my hands on, and spent as much time as possible in libraries. All the way through university I spent whatever spare money I had on buying books, and as much time reading them as I could manage while still having friendships, a job, and so on. It helps if you have friends who also love reading!

Nowadays it’s so very easy to spend hours at a time on social media, reading nothing much, just clicking like and leaving little friendly comments. I still buy books at the same rate, but I’m not reading them as quickly or as frequently. So I’m challenging myself to read 52 books this year, an average of one each week. To make this a fun stretch goal and not a dreadful chore, I’m being quite easy on myself: work books count, and I don’t have to actually finish 52 books, just start that many.

As with any resolution or challenge, it helps to have SMART goals and decide what habits you’ll use to work towards reaching that goal. SMART goals are:

  • Specific – 52 is pretty specific
  • Measurable – I’m making a note in my diary each time I start a new book
  • Attainable – I used to read about 70 books a year in my glory days
  • Relevant – well, it’s relevant to me and I don’t much mind if other people care
  • Time-bound – I’ve got one year, and read fast enough that the average novel takes me a few days to finish

The habits I’ll be using to make sure I do the work needed are to:

  • Always have a book with me – I have the Kindle app on my phone and many books bought using the One-Click Purchase feature on Amazon after a few glasses of wine and an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend.
  • Schedule time to read – Monday afternoons are when I usually start a new book and that’s on my calendar app

If you want to be reading more than you already do, why not do a little challenge like this? It doesn’t have to be 52 books, and honestly you’ll be more excited about it if you make the goal easy to achieve. Start with one book a month, or whatever feels right to you. If it’s more than you’re reading now, that’s perfect.

Other tips for reading more:

  • Turn off the TV or music – background noise is okay, but reading for pleasure rather than work isn’t particularly good for multitasking.
  • Make yourself a little treat when you sit down with your book – a cup of tea, a glass of wine, some biscuits or whatever. A little reward for working towards your goal is helpful and creates a pleasant association with picking up a book! Also sitting in a cozy chair is easier than reading in bed (sore neck!) or at a desk (this isn’t your job).
  • Ignore the snobs and read whatever you like. Fiction or non-fiction, trashy pulp or fine literature… it’s all good.
  • Likewise, ignore the classics lists and the must-read lists and the best-seller lists. Read a book because the plot or the characters seem interesting to you, not because lots of other people think it’s good or important. Those lists are useful when you’re looking for new-to-you things to read, but there’s no law that says you must follow them. Recommendations from people who like similar books to you are much more likely to help you find a new favourite.
  • If the book you’re reading isn’t working for you, for any reason at all, put it down and start a new book. Maybe you’re just not in the mood for it now, maybe it’s not well-written, or maybe you’re not the target audience. But forcing yourself to read a book like it’s your duty is a guaranteed way to make you wander off and hit refresh on Facebook. Move on to the next book – it will almost certainly be more fun.

I hope this is helpful for you. I’ll be posting some more about my reading throughout the year.