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July 31 2010

22:03

Cookie Madness!

I just don’t understand Julia Angwin’s scare story about cookies and ad targeting in the Wall Street Journal. That is, I don’t understand how the Journal could be so breathlessly naive, unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business. It is the Reefer Madness of the digital age: Oh my God, Mabel, they’re watching us!

If I were a conspiracy theorist — and I’m not, because I’ve found the world is rarely organized enough to conspire (and I found this to be especially true of News Corp. when I worked there, at TV Guide) — I’d imagine that the Journal ginned up this alleged exposé as a way to attack everyone else’s advertising business just as its parent company skulks behind its pay wall and surrenders its own ad business. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. That’s why I’m confused.

The story uses the ominous passive voice of newspaper scare stories: “…a Wall Street Journal investigation has found…” As if this knowledge were hiding. Cookies have been around as long as the commercial browser, since October 1994. Or was that 1984?

The piece uses lots of scare words: “surveillance technology” … “tracking technology” … “intrusive” … “no warning” … “surreptitiously re-spawn” … “rich databases” … “so powerful and ubiquitous” … and my favorite: “targeted ads can get personal” (well, yeah, that’s the damned point).

The Journal acts as if it has discovered a conspiracy of its own: “Marketers are spying on Internet users — observing and remembering people’s clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests.” Gasp! Mabel, hide the kids, the Romans Huns Krauts Commies Marketers are coming!

There is absolutely nothing new — thus nothing newsworthy — in what the Journal promises threatens to be a series.

The Journal does measure its own cookies, finding its site moderate (I count 34 Journal cookies on my new Mac and I don’t use the site often) in what it ominously calls an “exposure index.” Mabel: Bring the Geiger counter!

Well, except the Journal is unique because unlike the other sites the story writes about, the Journal has my personally identifiable information! It has my friggin’ credit card number and name and address and phone number as well as my web behavior and it allows me to be tracked by third parties. The Journal has more information about me than ANY of the sites it warns about. And the Journal is owned by a company some people don’t trust. Hmmm.

It’s a fine thing that the Journal also tells readers how to “avoid prying eyes.” And if enough people do that, then the value of the advertising-supported web falls. Without cookies, the effectiveness and price of advertising would plummet as ads everywhere turn into remnant junk (smack the money), reducing revenue for media sites and reducing their content to junk. Hmmmm….

A story like this might also affect policy as the FTC is looking at regulating online advertising and marketing; its chairman, Jon Leibowitz testified before Congress on the topic this very week. Hmmm.

I think the Journal should have told exactly how it places and uses every one of its cookies and beacons and ominous tracking surveillance spying technology. It doesn’t. The story doesn’t even link to the paper’s privacy policy, which says that cookies and beacons and all that scary surveillance/tracking/spying technologies are used at WSJ.com and its affiliates and also by third parties over which the Journal has no control. Opportunity lost.

If I were an advertising-supported site, I’d be aggressively transparent. I’d tell you exactly what we track and what impact that has on what we serve in advertising and content. I’d create an app to read the cookies placed just for you and explain them. I’d give you the chance to correct information. I’d give you the chance to select your own advertising (now that would be valuable). I’d treat this with radical openness.

Otherwise the scare mongers like those regulation-loving, anticapitalist commies at News Corp. will win the day.

: Oh, and I neglected to point out that it was the very same Journal that had the wingnutty story about privacy and RFID tags on our pants, quoting as an expert a woman who thinks that RFIDs are — and I exaggerate not — the work of the devil. What the hell is happening there? Are they going out for drinks too often with their new neighbors at the Post?

: Oh and here’s more scaremongering from the commie Telegraph in London, which equates Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Man, we are in silly season.

January 19 2010

15:49

What thoughts about metered paywalls say about journalism, the public, and The New York Times

When I was trying to come up with a conclusion to my doctoral research on local journalism, I penned these thoughts:

The internet has deeply problematized local journalism’s vision of its public…Online, all publics appear fragmentary. There is always an element of the public that cannot be networked. There is always a fraction of this uncaptured public only a mouse-click away…Insofar as journalistic authority rests on its claim to give the public flesh, such a claim is no longer tenable — if it ever was. Insofar as local journalism’s image of the public is grounded in a vision that sees the public as a unitary, structural, or even interlocking entity that journalism can either confidently speak to or call into being, the authority of journalism has become deeply problematic.

The questions about newspaper paywalls, then, are more than simply economic questions. They are more than simply questions about “will the model work?” and “can we balance the ratio between clicks and advertising dollars that maximizes our paywall’s effectiveness?” There are also questions about how journalists see themselves, and whether they can live with the answers that a paywall provides.

In its article claiming that The New York Times was “close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, [through the kind of] the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe,” New York Magazine took a trip back in time to the days of TimesSelect, the Times’ last major attempt to charge readers for content:

The Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East.

Its easy to attribute Friedman’s displeasure to vanity, and to some degree, it’s probably just that simple. But his attitude is a window into a larger newspaper mindset, one that sees the news provided by newspapers through reporting as creating the common language by which “the public” informs itself about issues of public relevance. As creating the public, as it were. It’s a world where “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is more than just an outdated slogan. It’s a world where the slogan is true.

I wrote last month that the emerging consensus about paid journalist content seems to be, “most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else.” In other words, people will pay for niche content. Any sort of paywall — even the metered kind, like the Times is said to be proposing — is ultimately making a wager on the argument that it is enough of niche product that a wealthy enough niche of readers will pay for it. Putting up a meter represents the ultimate compromise between visions of news that are “mass” (“we want everyone to read this”) and niche (“we want to be unique enough that we will get unique people to pay”), because it ultimately amounts to a tax on the heavy users. (I have a sneaking suspicion that it is this compromise between the Times’ vision of itself as the crucible of the public and a vanity product that rich people will pay for that Jay Rosen was referring to when he tweeted that the alleged NYT plan “fit the mold” of previous attempts by the paper to strike the proper balance.)

In the days of advertising-funded journalistic content, there was no contradiction between the number of readers you had, your profitability, and the degree to which you could claim to print “all the news” that mattered. (This ignores, for the moment, the fact that even in the glory days of the industry business and circulation managers targeted particular demographic slices. But that was a decision largely hidden from editors and journalists, who could continue on under the illusion that they were writing for everyone.) These days, however, there is just such a distinction. In the world of the networked public sphere, putting up walls around your content ultimately moves you out of the center of the public network, which means you’re less linked to and less read. Putting up walls around your content means you can charge the niche but must sacrifice the illusion that you speak for and to everyone.

So there’s more to the New York Times’ decisions on meters and paywalls than just the question of whether the strategy will succeed economically. There are questions about how the internet has already changed the Times, and how the dawning world of niche-reader taxation will change journalists’ ideas about what they do and who they write for. And there are questions about how we ourselves see the “public” we are a part of. We live in a world where were our “nicheness” has never been more obvious, and one of the great questions in the years ahead is whether we are still capable of seeing ourselves as a part of something more. In order to do so, I think we need to radically rethink what we mean when we say the word “public.” Down with structural notions like “public spheres,” or even phrases “networked publics!”

These topics get us away from issues directly related to The New York Times, though, and might be better addressed in a future post.

November 30 2009

15:00
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