Mar. 29th, 2017

Adtech

Mar. 29th, 2017 08:42 am
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Here's an interesting article about "adtech" -- those automated algorithms that companies like Google and Facebook use to spy on you and serve up advertisements that they think you will respond to. The major upshots are:

  • Adtech is at best wildly ineffective, and at worst actively damaging, for brands that are trying to advertise.
  • The core precepts of adtech is going to be illegal in Europe starting next year.

I'm not sure how accurate all this is -- it sounds a tad self-serving in favor of traditional advertising, so I take it with a grain of salt -- but I suspect there's a substantial grain of truth in it. It clarifies a distinction that the tech world has been trying very hard to blur, between direct sales and branding. It appears to me that adtech works a little for direct sales, but I suspect the article is right that it's inappropriate for serious branding.

I find myself ever more glad that Querki's business plan is specifically not built on the "spy on the users for purposes of advertising" model, which is looking ever more rickety. Asking people to pay for a service is old-fashioned, but it at least makes sense...

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When I dubbed my current politics posts with the tag "wartime thoughts", that was not originally intended as a general statement about the political arena. I've wound up using it more generally, but it was originally planned (before the gush of events distracted me) to be a series of posts on a specific topic, to make a specific point: we are already at war, a propaganda war. And the enemy are way the bloody hell ahead of us.

This was inspired by a moment on the WBUR call-in show "On Point", shortly before the election. One caller started matter-of-factly talking about how the show was of course being controlled by Project Mockingbird, and Tom Ashbrook, the host, completely lost his shit -- it was the only time I've ever heard him out-of-control angry. Which made me curious, so I Googled "Project Mockingbird", and quickly found myself in this weird parallel dimension of websites parroting all sorts of insanity. It was the moment when I finally realized where the bloody hell the Trump phenomenon had come from: in this parallel universe, Trump is right. (Or at least, not so obviously crazy.)

I'm reminded of that original inspiration by this brilliant article by Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington. It's long, but you should find the time to read it in detail, because it is describing one of the primary causes of what's going right now. It outlines how her lab originally set out to do some analysis of the way that "alternative narrative" rumors spread after crises, and wound up consequently delving into the structure of what I think of as the "alt-net" -- the collection of websites and feeds that are the backbone of the alt-right movement.

This is seriously scary shit: while she keeps things carefully factual, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that what looks like an agglomeration of kooks are in fact a very principled and organized project to undermine Americans' collective sense of reality. On the surface it all appears to be authentic and independent opinion and reportage, but the cross-links are too deep to put much credence into that. There's a lot of very clever psychology at work here, focused on convincing readers that there is a gigantic conspiracy composed of the mainstream media, conventional government, the Jews, and so on, and that these plucky little websites are the good guys who are just trying to expose the truth.

(And while she never quite comes out and says it, the connections to Russia are kind of screamingly obvious. It is likely over-simplistic to say that this is just a Russian plot, but they are almost certainly deeply involved.)

This stuff is dreadfully important background, because it goes a long ways towards explaining the apparently-incomprehensible mindset of many core Trump voters. It isn't that they are stupid or insane, it's that they have been very carefully converted to a view of reality that is deliberately at odds with everything you and I know to be true. Their reality has been hand-crafted by some talented artists to be at least moderately self-consistent, and provides easy answers to many problems that, in reality, are just plain complicated. It's a reality view that is comforting, and therefore easy to believe, not least in that it provides for nice clear Enemies.

And through all of it, I'm left horribly curious about one key question: I honestly can't tell if Donald Trump is in on the joke. I mean, this is being run by a bunch of master manipulators. And I have a nasty feeling, based on his outbursts, that Trump is the Manipulatee-in-Chief...

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