Subprime attention and the end of your free Gmail account

Tim Hwang’s new book Subprime Attention Crisis makes the case digital advertising is a lot like America’s 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

The gist being in the lead-up to the mortgage crisis, sellers bundled up lots of mortgages into good batches and bad batches. The good ones were likely to pay out and the bad ones to default.

The problem was the people buying these investment portfolios couldn’t tell and didn’t know whether they were buying a good batch or a bad batch. Once the bad ones started to default, buyers lost confidence in the whole market, making even the good ones look bad by association.

The attention crisis, Hwang argues, is a lot like 2008’s subprime mortgage crisis. But instead of big investment banks, Facebook and Google have bundled up attention and metrics like clicks and likes, but they do a very good job of hiding which ones are good and which ones are bad. The comparisons stop there, when you consider digital advertising has ad blockers and people who just plain ignore the ads.

About halfway through the book is a big meaty section I almost want to copy entirely. But because it’s somewhat long for a blog post, a few excerpts will have to do:

When they launched in 1994, the first banner ads generated a remarkable click-through rate of 44 percent. …Today, banner ads, command far less attention. One data set drawn from Google’s ad network suggests that the average click-through rate for a comparable display in 2018 was .46 percent. For some industries, that number is as low as .39 percent. That’s about one in every two hundred people. Recent attempts to measure click-through rates on Facebook ads reveal similar rates of less than 1 percent.

…Even the sub-1-percent click-through rates may overstate the effectiveness of ads on some platforms. On mobile devices, close to fifty percent of all click-throughs are…accidental “fat finger” clicks.

(I hear from people a lot, “But we do so much better on phones!” No, you don’t.)

In 2009, one study estimated that eight percent of internet users were responsible for 85 percent of all advertisement click-throughs online.

Another “large-scale experimental study of online search ads in 2014 concluded that, “brand-keyword ads have no measurable short-term benefits.” And, “Ironically, ads generated engagement mostly among ‘loyal customers otherwise already informed about the company’s product.’ The ads, in other words, were an expensive way of attracting users who would have purchased anyway, leading to ‘average returns that are negative.’.”

He goes on to cite how internet users age 20-40 experience “little or no effect from the advertising”. And despite being just 5% of all Internet users, people age 65+ are responsible for 40 percent of the total effects observed.

All this is to say most online advertising is “vaporous”. The sort of confusing, opaque, problems we had in the mortgage failures but now in the “attention advertising market”.

Much of this is driven by poor ad placement (looking at you, Google Ad Network), putting the wrong things in the wrong places (like advertising for bananas or whatever on Facebook. Who cares?), and ad blocking that is highly prevalent in the United States and Europe and expanding fast in Asia.

And we haven’t even mentioned all that Hwang says about fraud, click-farms, bots, and other junk. He estimates enough money is wasted to fraud in all online advertising each year to equal the entire current value of Facebook. It’s as much as 20% of all online ad clicks.

I have said this a zillion times:

  • Online advertising is full of fraud.
  • If you are paying for ads on Google or Facebook, it had better be the right kind. For Facebook, that’s “awareness campaigns” (which are impossible to calculate value and lead to this vapors nature of things) and digital goods that can be handled on-device, like downloading an app. For Google, that’s narrowly defined buyer-intent searches like hiring a handyman.
  • Older people can’t discern the difference between an ad and something not an ad. On the upside for some advertisers, seniors hold just about all the world’s wealth, so it can be lucrative. If you have to advertise to teens, you’re better off with a billboard by the high school.

And now that I’ve read this book I think another thing is likely to happen: a complete collapse.

Hwang thinks we should do a “controlled demolition” so the bottom doesn’t fall out. But I think the bottom will fall out eventually as small businesses (which account for 80% of all of Facebook’s advertising revenue) wise up to the realization this doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because most of the ads are dull, boring, and just plain bad with lousy copywriting and cheesy stock photos.

Already I tell clients they need ever-more money to have any chance. $300 a month doesn’t cut it anymore. To have any hope, you need $1500 a month for AdWords or Facebook, depending on your market. Godspeed if you’re advertising insurance, financial services, or attorneys. Or to anyone under the age of 35.

If advertising online completely fails, Hwang says (and I agree) that we’ll see a lot of publications completely vanish. Ad sales won’t be enough anymore because no one will trust any of the ads, despite static ads being no more or less more effective than programmatic, text-based, or targeted ones. Paywalls will abound. No more free Google Maps or Gmail, which rely entirely on Hoovering up data for advertisers. There could be pay-to-play placement in search results (as in, to be included at all, not just as the top in the ads).

Increasingly I think publications like The NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and others that have paywalls are playing it right. And companies like Apple and Amazon will be in a good position to continue delivering maps and other “free but not free” services to their customers who pay for physical things.

One obvious downside to this pay-to-play approach is low-income people are going to be left out of a lot. Right now, the web is largely equitable. Everyone can get at the same Google or Facebook or Maps or YouTube or Wikipedia or whatever. But not if everything requires a subscription first.

At best, this could result in a lot more creativity in advertising, something that’s desperately needed.

If you must advertise, anywhere, you need to inject some creativity in the ads that make people even remotely want to look at it. Which may be impossible given most people’s aversion to being anything but bland or corporate or boring.

Think more advertising akin to Cards Against Humanity digging a big hole and less of whatever your local hospital is putting out.

Same goes for the junk most people throw at their Facebook walls every day. An appalling amount of attention is paid by marketing people and social media managers about the importance of posting at least 3x a day and other wasteful nonsense. If one more organization asks me what my hashtag goals are, I’m going to poke my eyes with rusty spoons.

Regardless, people are already so allergic to ads and this boring junk even the interesting ones are getting thrown out. Hwang notes studies of Snapchat users that the average view-time of a video ad is 1 second. It’s no better on YouTube, where it’s “whatever the minimum time required is to watch an ad”.

In the meantime, buy a subscription directly to a journalist or publication. And expect the Internet to look a lot different in the next five years.

Facebook is to community like porn is to sex

Antonio Garcia Martinez, writing for Wired:

Ultimately, nobody really cares about privacy, except media elites, under-employed Eurocrats, and zealots who’ve made it a career. Everyone else would sext you their privates for a fleeting feeling of human connection. And they do.

[Zuckerberg] very immodestly proposes that Facebook occupy the social nexus vacated by the disappearance of churches, unions, lodges, and other local associations that once served as core of American civil life. This resurrected public forum would be as abstract and mobile as a Facebook group, and would no longer be restricted by the pesky limits of distance or national origin.

Facebook is to real community as porn is to real sex: a cheap, digital knockoff for those who can’t do better. Unfortunately, in both instances use of the simulacrum fries your brain in ways that prevent you from ever experiencing the real version again. But we’ll take what we can get.

 

I don’t think anthropologists or historians will look back on western society or American culture and say, “Ah, the Internet was where people started becoming lonely, depressed, and sad”. Institutions like churches and other parts of civil society started collapsing around the time television was in every home, sometime around the 60’s and 70’s.

Was it television that drove us away from other people? Maybe. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam makes the argument television news scared the heck out of us all and made us distrustful.

I wrote in a paper recently there may be an upshot to Facebook for democracy: it serves as an antiseptic. It lets people show themselves in a way they may not have before. If they’re racist, homophobic, or genuinely a bad person, you’re likely to see it on Facebook. The medicine stings for society, but ultimately it is good for the patient.

As Martinez points out, teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma organized a teacher’s strike more effectively than unions ever have.

There are bits and pieces of the “Facebook is to porn” metaphor I agree and disagree with. I get the point, however, that Facebook serves as a weak proxy for building meaningful connections. I just think it’s unfair to blame Facebook for it. Poor community organization and construction patterns, reliance on welfare, the drug war, and a clear market demand for a moment of simple relaxation are bigger factors. If anything, Facebook (like porn) is the last thing some people have to work with.

I suspect our cultural issues surrounding health and depression come more from other cultural changes. Facebook just amplifies them a bit, letting us see what’s happening faster and close-up.

I just don’t think people can afford to be in most social organizations anymore. They cost thousands of dollars a year and require hundreds of hours of time. Ask a college graduate with a $400/mo. car payment, a government-mandated health insurance bill, hefty rents despite splitting it three ways and a car payment of $250 a month because your city is huge and you can’t plunk down $5,000 for a used car all at once to join Rotary, Kiwanis, an industry association, or go bowling for $3,000 a year and see how far that goes.

We’re so full of white there are no jobs

So Apple rounded out the big tech companies last week with a report that basically says all our stereotypes are true: white dudes run the show and Asians are really good at math.

Remember, stereotypes don’t just appear out of nowhere, they are, technically, derived from observed conventions.

This is a complicated problem. For penis-toting white people you’re born, you go to school, get a computer for Christmas, and totally geek out and get a job later on doing geeky things.

For penis-toting black people, you go to school, maybe you sit at a computer a little bit, you probably can’t afford a computer or a very good one, or Internet access, so you go do something else.

For women it’s a whole host of different issues. We know the arguments there, and frankly, I just don’t have enough information to speak about them. I’m inclined to believe that maybe women just aren’t, in mass, as interested in technology. Women also aren’t that interested in hunting, fishing, race car driving, farting, and whittling canoes from dead trees, but no one’s stopping them from doing those things. Men generally don’t like massages, perfume, or anal sex, but no one’s stopping them or trying to push them into that, either. Insert your own gay joke here. Then call yourself a bigot.

But back to the black and white dudes with computers. The difference in these two upbringings is that one kid almost certainly went to a school with things like air conditioners and computers. I kid you not, there are schools within Indianapolis that do not have air conditioning. Computers are also not high on that list. I do not know where the seemingly endless stream of grant dollars for these things are going, but they’re not getting to the kids.

So in 20 years time you do not get to scratch your head in bewilderment why there are no black people in big tech companies.

Our national response to this is to pressure these companies to find black people and hire them. Ditto for women and anyone to “dillute” that pack of white sausages.

I’m all for the diversity of things. You get better products and it’s obvious we have been since women have taken a more active roll in the workplace. We’ve all seen how much better Sterling Cooper is with Peggy. It’s good for everyone. Just as it is for getting different opinions and thoughts from different backgrounds.

Years ago when I was working for the State there was this push for digitizing court forms. Great idea, “Except it won’t work,” I said. “Too many people out in the rest of Indiana do not have access to good enough Internet for this. They don’t have computers or the ability to get to one. There are all of 6 public computers in all of Washington County. Three of them are for Workforce Development only.” You can’t just “eliminate the paper” because until a couple more generations die off and we push for broadband everywhere, we will have this problem. I was the only one to fight this battle because I was the only person who had spent more than 6 minutes outside of Indianapolis.

But we can’t get mad at Apple for this, or Google or Facebook or any other company. It’s not their fault the pool of people to hire from is lousy with white dudes. They didn’t create that world — society did. Or, more aptly, the government. And now the government and society want them to fix it.

Does anyone believe for a second that Apple, with more money than God, would hire for a position and say, “Well, that woman is really awesome, but let’s go with the guy.” I don’t believe that. I don’t believe anyone at any of the big tech companies hire based on anything but what you’ve done and what you can do.

Turns out, though, if you can’t do much, or don’t do much, you don’t get the job. This isn’t a country club where there’s some sign out front saying “No black people” or “No girls allowed”.

But like my last post, this comes down to personal responsibility. You can, in big cities, get on a bus and go to the library and take a book about HTML out and read it. It’ll cost you $1.75. I’ll even give you the money for it if you want. That’s how most everyone working in tech today got started — no degree required.

But we do have a societal responsibility to take in kids, help younger generations learn ever more complicated code and languages and techniques, and to ensure schools get real money to spend on real equipment. We have a responsbility to treat people with respect and dignity, to understand hardship, and to punish people for their racism and bias. Even in 2014 we need laws to protect people in clearly segregated places, but I don’t think Facebook is the bad guy (at least this time, anyway). We do not have a responsibility to hire to fill some peer-pressured feel-good numbers quotient.

 

How to Disable Facebook’s “Close Friends” Notifications

Facebook, in their infinite wisdom, thinks I care when people post a new picture of their baby or dinner or whatever. They are mistaken.

Luckily, unlike some things, you actually have control over this. Notifications you get for new photo uploads and “so-and-so updated their status” can be disabled by following these steps:

  1. Click “Close Friends” on the left hand menu (probably toward the bottom, under “FRIENDS”)
  2. Click “Notifications” up in the top right and switch ’em off.

Why do we all still put up with Facebook?

I’m dipping back into one of those cycles where I’m disenfranchised with Facebook again. Why? Because so many people are just that awful.

Facebook is, by and large, an entertainment platform. Instead of watching TV or reading a book, some people cut into that time with Facebook. So much so the phrase “I have to check Facebook” has entered everyone’s vernacular. But why? Why on earth do you need to check Facebook? I also need to check my bank account from time to time, but I don’t do it twenty times a day. “But Justin, your bank account doesn’t change as fast as Facebook!” Maybe, but it sure doesn’t feel that way sometimes.

Facebook brought most of us into the social networking realm. A lot of us had MySpace pages, but I think most of us gawk at Facebook more — and that’s strictly because Facebook brought good design to social networking. Remember when you had to sit through a MySpace page with a green background, yellow text, two videos playing simultaneously and some shitty pop song you never heard of playing in the background? That offended my sensibilities, so I blocked it out.

Now, Facebook’s content is offending my sensibilities. I don’t block hardly anyone, but I unsubscribe or hide a lot of people. Play Facebook games? You’re gone. Post song lyrics all the time? You’re gone. Post sappy poems and bullshit “feelings”? You’re gone. Post vague nonsense like “That was fun!” or “Can’t wait until it happens!”? You’re gone.

You have to agree with one sentiment: none of that crap matters. Why does anyone want to see that? I certainly don’t.

Then there’s the other side of the coin, when people post things of some level of substance, but it’s completely and factually wrong. Particularly when someone posts crap they heard on FOX or MSNBC. This Occupy Wall Street stuff is overrunning my stream. The other day someone posted a photo of a woman complaining the bank is making her pay $300,000+ on a house she bought even though it’s only worth $91,000 now. Really? Maybe it’s because she bought a fucking house for $300,000 and the bank loaned her that money? Signatures and contracts were traded. Deals were made. You were there! But I digress.

But why anyone would want to consume this stuff at all hours of the day is beyond me. It’s all just stuff and people I’d mostly rather forget. I have just under 400 friends on Facebook and now that I’ve hidden so many people, I see, maybe, 70 or 80 of them. And a tier of 20 or 30 generally dominate the whole place.

“But Justin, why don’t you just close your account?” I’d kinda like to, but feel I need to keep it for some reasons. It’s good for keeping my name in front of clients and potential clients, and I get a lot of traffic to sites through Facebook. That pains me to say it, because it suddenly makes me feel like some crummy marketer.

I’ve hooked my Twitter account back into Facebook so I can just tweet and get it cross-posted to Facebook. I did that once before but disabled it because I thought it redundant for people who followed me in both places. But now I’ve reached a tipping point where the duplicate followers are in the minority. I have a highly curated list of about 100 Twitter followers who say things that are actually intelligent. They don’t necessarily follow me back, but Facebook missed the boat on being able to read things from people who haven’t “friended” you. They just now introduced the whole “Subscribe” gamut.

For me, Twitter shows me things that are likely to be true, useful, relatable to me. Not just how many imaginary beans you you pretended to faux-grown in your make believe farm or pictures of your kid. (I *really* hate that  — how would you like it if I posted photos of my cat all the time?)

Plus there’s that whole slew of privacy issues Facebook keeps bumbling over.

Aside from me commenting in responses to my cross-Twitter-posts on Facebook, don’t expect me to hang around here much. Or, just follow me over on Twitter.