Does Internet advertising work at all?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson asks a dangerous question: Does Internet advertising work at all? My gut answer is that it can’t be terribly effective. Thompson sums up my personal instinct about advertising perfectly: “We seek information, so we’re more likely to trust it; marketing seeks us, so we’re more likely to distrust it.”1

Also, online advertising is plagued with problems like misleading stats reporting and the ‘I-was-gonna-buy-it-anyway bias’:

Let’s say I want to buy a pair of glasses. I live in New York, where people like Warby Parker. I’ve shopped for glasses at Warby Parker’s website. Facebook knows both of these things. So no surprise that today I saw a Warby Parker sponsored post on my News Feed.

Now, let’s say I buy glasses from Warby Parker tomorrow. What can we logically conclude? That Facebook successfully converted a sale? Or that the many factors Facebook considered before showing me that ad—e.g.: what my friends like and my past shopping behavior—are the same factors that might persuade anybody to buy a pair of glasses long before they signed into Facebook?

Maybe Facebook has mastered the art of using advertising to convert sales. Or maybe it’s mastered the art of finding people who were going to buy certain items anyway and showing them ads after they already made their decision. My bet is that the answer is (a) somewhere in the middle and (b) devilishly hard to accurately measure.

Nothing in this article was surprising, but it did make me wonder if this might be the most effective way to fight to get our online privacy back? In other words, rather than fighting Google or Facebook et al, why not reveal how ineffective the kind of crappy advertising that has made those companies some of the biggest in the world really is? If that money falls away, so will these corporate surveillance industries.

Dat footnote

  1. However, I do think that ‘brand awareness’ is a powerful side effect of good advertising, but this is hard to achieve with text ads or even flashing banners and annoying popovers.

“In terms of user experience, Facebook is like an NYPD police van crashing into an IKEA, forever”


Paul Ford on Facebook buying Instagram:

First, to understand this deal it’s important to understand Facebook. Unfortunately everything about Facebook defies logic. In terms of user experience (insider jargon: “UX”), Facebook is like an NYPD police van crashing into an IKEA, forever — a chaotic mess of products designed to burrow into every facet of your life. The company is also technologically weird. For example, much of the code that runs the site is written in a horrible computer language called PHP, which stands for nothing you care about. Millions of websites are built with PHP, because it works and it’s cheap to run, but PHP is a programming language like scrapple is a meat. Imagine eating two pounds of scrapple every day for the rest of your life — that’s what Facebook does, programming-wise. Which is just to say that Facebook has its own way of doing things that looks very suspect from the outside world — but man, does it work.

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out –

I need to learn to write this well!


This post by Robert Scoble describes the main reason why I despise Facebook. It’s not their lack of respect for user’s privacy, it’s not their amoral founder or their virtual monopoly in social media. It’s that they have provided something that satisfies the needs of most regular users so well that they’ve critically — and perhaps fatally — injured the common web.

It’s too late to save the common web. It’s why, for the past year, I’ve given up and have put most of my blogging into Google+. I should have been spending that effort on the web commons and on RSS but it’s too late.

Normal users don’t care about the argument anymore and they are addicted to Facebook and Google+ and Twitter and apps on iPhones and Android. Heck, if you are at the Super Bowl tomorrow the official app is on iOS and Android and not other platforms.

The common web isn’t just under attack, it’s been under attack for more than four years.

Why did it take so long for people to wake up?

It’s too late for Dave Winer and John Battelle to save the common web – Turn your Facebook fan page into a proper website

Every small business that uses Facebook as their main presence online should take a look at

An example of s site created by This service builds you an attractive and useful web page for your business that pulls your news items, photo albums, status updates, videos and customer information directly from your existing Facebook fan page. At present they only have one template design (in four colours), but I imagine they’ll be quick to expand this and add some customisation features, like the ability to upload company logos and re-arrange the content.

This is a great idea for small businesses who won’t have to worry about managing another website, but will give them a presence on the open web for non-Facebook users like myself. If the day ever comes when they want leave Facebook behind, they’ll already have an established, ranking domain to build up from.

Facebook privacy fuckup reveals who has your number in their phonebook

Reason 5,395 not to use Facebook:

[…] At first I was baffled – I guessed maybe Facebook had copied something across from my previous account via a cookie or similar. But it turns out that FB used my mobile number (which they took as a security check) to match up with people who have me in their mobile phone book and have synced the Facebook app.

I fully understand why they’re doing this – it connects new users into existing networks, it’s an evolution of the ‘import your Hotmail contacts’ facility. I just didn’t like the approach at all. They demanded my mobile number under the pretence of a security check, but then used to it find people who have me in their mobile phone contacts.

This has badly violated the privacy of a friend who has, I now know, been operating a second Facebook account to hide the fact that he is gay – something which he has good and important reasons to hide. It also showed me that an ex-girlfriend of long ago still has my number saved – which is understandable because I am great.

Facebook privacy fuckup reveals who has your number in their phonebook –

Facebook, Facebook, Facebook

I just followed a link to a Guardian story about the Occupy protests going on around the world. Heading over to, I zoomed in to find a protest happening in Bristol – which is being organised on Facebook.

It’s disgusting how prevalent Facebook has become. Even among the geeky crowd at Dorkbot last night, many people were using Facebook pages in lieu of having their own website. Dorkbot itself, despite having their own site, uses Facebook to organise events and host videos. At least that’s what I hear – I am effectively denied access to this material.

Perhaps I should just come to terms with the fact that one company is going to own so much of the web, but I wish everybody else would instead.

An idea for more meaningful ‘like’ buttons

The inadequacies of the various ‘like’ buttons that appear all over the web have been noted before, but a post from Ed Walker tonight inspired me to mock up an idea I’ve had for a simple way to bring some more semantic meaning to these buttons. Ed says:

What is the recommended button there for? The equivalent of a Facebook like? A chance to show you appreciate the story, the author or the subject?

I’ve spotted a trend on WalesOnline, whenever we report the death of a young person […] we don’t get comments (very rarely) but we do get a lot of recommendations. Constantly in the most recommended lists, knocking rugby stars and political debates down a peg or two. Facebook is for posting the RIP messages and joining groups expressing your sorrow, sharing that grief with your friends, but local media sites are the way to show the wider world (outside of the Facebook login) that the death of a friend/relative is important to the community.

It seems in the case of the death of young people it’s a way of showing you care. It says to us as editors that you think this story is important, you’re showing us it should be high up the news list and it should be featured.

(via Generation grief: A modern way of letting go –

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Facebook’s Registration Tool increases sign-ups by 300%

I still refuse to use Facebook, a decision that is validated every time company hits the news, but I have to admit, if I were to build a site that required registration I would be sorely tempted to use this registration tool:

Facebook has launched a new registration tool that enables websites to offer quick and easy social options for users to sign-up.

This is a terrific alternative to using Facebook Login, (formerly known as Facebook Connect) especially when 1) You would like to provide an option for those users who don’t have Facebook account, 2) Your site requires additional information not available on Facebook, or 3) You want the flexibility of HTML, molding the login to your site in any way you see fit.

It’s ideal to minimize any sort of inconvenience for the user on your website, and traditionally, a registration page has been a big turn off for users. Often times they don’t see the value. With Facebook’s registration tool, you make it easy for people to sign up and bring their friends with them, and it’s proven that people are more likely to follow through with the sign up process, will be active on sites longer, share more content, and return more often. For example, FriendFeed beta tested the tool and their sign ups by users with Facebook increased by 300%.

(via Facebook’s Registration Tool –
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The only relationship Facebook really cares about: Your data and those who will pay them for it.

Facebook continues to use UX design for mild acts of evil. This is their latest ploy to take your information that was once private and expose it to the world

Yesterday, something I said on Twitter seems to have resonated. “It takes a court order to get your personal data from Twitter, but just anyone can get it from Facebook.”

Many people skim read (at best) or don’t read at all (at worst) messages about changes to terms of service like this. They just click the “I accept” or “Allow” button, trusting that an application or service has their best interests at heart. To make sure its users fully understand the implications of clicking “Allow”, Facebook should disable that button until a user confirms that they have read and understand what all this really means for them, their children and their privacy.

(via Hardly your grandmother’s Facebook New User Object fields –

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Could Facebook be around forever?

Douglas Rushkoff is absolutely right, Facebook will go down. It’ll be another long decline that – like AOL and Yahoo! – will still be hugely profitable and popular in the mainstream for years after its prime.

[…] These companies are being valued as if they will be our permanent means for identifying ourselves.

Yet social media is itself as temporary as any social gathering, nightclub or party. It’s the people that matter, not the venue. So when the trend leaders of one social niche or another decide the place everyone is socializing has lost its luster or, more important, its exclusivity, they move on to the next one, taking their followers with them. […]

We will move on, just as we did from the chat rooms of AOL, without even looking back. When the place is as ethereal as a website, our allegiance is much more abstract than it is to a local pub or gym. We don’t live there, we don’t know the owner, and we are all the more ready to be incensed by the latest change to a privacy policy, or to learn that every one of our social connections has been sold to the highest corporate bidder.

So it’s not that MySpace lost and Facebook won. It’s that MySpace won first, and Facebook won next. They’ll go down in the same order.

(via Facebook hype will fade –

Maybe not though… I wonder if Facebook could become the Arcadia Group of the web. Maybe the next big social networking site could be… Facebook. Sort of. Just like most of the big high street retail brands are owned by the same few companies, Facebook would be the parent company of many federated niche-networks.

Visualizing data is like photography

Visualizing data is like photography. Instead of starting with a blank canvas, you manipulate the lens used to present the data from a certain angle.

[…] After a few minutes of rendering, the new plot appeared, and I was a bit taken aback by what I saw. The blob had turned into a surprisingly detailed map of the world. Not only were continents visible, certain international borders were apparent as well. What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships. Each line might represent a friendship made while travelling, a family member abroad, or an old college friend pulled away by the various forces of life.

(via Visualizing Friendships –

It would be interesting to see if this data could show communities like the PLoS One map of Great Britain. As it stands, it’s very pretty, but I can’t see much more than areas of high Facebook use…

(via Flowing Data)

The Honest Privacy Policy Act

The following has been reproduced in full from an article in IT World By Dan Tynan: The first truly honest privacy policy –

I’ve got a better solution. Instead of a welter of new laws or regulations, how about just one: The Honest Privacy Policy Act. The HPPA would require every company to post a simple, direct, and brutally honest policy detailing what really happens to your data.

To help this proposal along I’ve come up with one of my own – and it’s 5,085 words shorter than Facebook’s. Here’s what a real privacy policy might look like:

“At COMPANY _______ we value your privacy a great deal. Almost as much as we value the ability to take the data you give us and slice, dice, julienne, mash, puree and serve it to our business partners, which may include third-party advertising networks, data brokers, networks of affiliate sites, parent companies, subsidiaries, and other entities, none of which we’ll bother to list here because they can change from week to week and, besides, we know you’re not really paying attention.

We’ll also share all of this information with the government. We’re just suckers for guys with crew cuts carrying subpoenas.

Remember, when you visit our Web site, our Web site is also visiting you. And we’ve brought a dozen or more friends with us, depending on how many ad networks and third-party data services we use. We’re not going to tell which ones, though you could probably figure this out by carefully watching the different URLs that flash across the bottom of your browser as each page loads or when you mouse over various bits. It’s not like you’ve got better things to do.

Each of these sites may leave behind a little gift known as a cookie — a text file filled with inscrutable gibberish that allows various computers around the globe to identify you, including your preferences, browser settings, which parts of the site you visited, which ads you clicked on, and whether you actually purchased something.

Those same cookies may let our advertising and data broker partners track you across every other site you visit, then dump all of your information into a huge database attached to a unique ID number, which they may sell ad infinitum without ever notifying you or asking for permission.

Also: We collect your IP address, which might change every time you log on but probably doesn’t. At the very least, your IP address tells us the name of your ISP and the city where you live; with a legal court order, it can also give us your name and billing address (see guys with crew cuts and subpoenas, above).

Besides your IP, we record some specifics about your operating system and browser. Amazingly, this information (known as your user agent string) can be enough to narrow you down to one of a few hundred people on the Webbernets, all by its lonesome. Isn’t technology wonderful?

The data we collect is strictly anonymous, unless you’ve been kind enough to give us your name, email address, or other identifying information. And even if you have been that kind, we promise we won’t sell that information to anyone else, unless of course our impossibly obtuse privacy policy says otherwise and/or we change our minds tomorrow. 

We store this information an indefinite amount of time for reasons even we don’t fully understand. And when we do eventually get around to deleting it, you can bet it’s still kicking around on some network backup drives in somebody’s closet. So once we have it, there’s really no getting it back. Hell, we can’t even find our keys half the time — how do you expect us to keep track of this stuff?

Not to worry, though, because we use the very bestest security measures to protect your data against hackers and identity thieves, though no one has actually ever bothered to verify this. You’ll pretty much just have to take our word for it.

So just to recap: Your information is extremely valuable to us. Our business model would totally collapse without it. No IPO, no stock options; all those 80-hour weeks and bupkis to show for it. So we’ll do our very best to use it in as many potentially profitable ways as we can conjure, over and over, while attempting to convince you there’s nothing to worry about.

(Hey, Did somebody hold a gun to your head and force you to visit this site? No, they did not. Did you run into a pay wall on the home page demanding your Visa number? No, you did not. You think we just give all this stuff away because we’re nice guys?  Bet you also think every roomful of manure has a pony buried inside.)

This privacy policy may change at any time. In fact, it’s changed three times since we first started typing this. Good luck figuring out how, because we’re sure as hell not going to tell you. But then, you probably stopped reading after paragraph three.”

I am hereby open sourcing this privacy policy. Feel free to use it on your own sites or suggest it to any that seem deserving (but I’d appreciate a credit and a link, if you’re so inclined).

(via Hacker News)

Vimeo present their terms in a nicely human-readable format. This should be standard practice.

Gross National Happiness

Every day, millions of people share how they feel with the people who matter the most in their lives through status updates on Facebook. These updates are tiny windows into how people are doing. They’re brief, to the point and descriptive of what’s going on this week, today or right now.

Grouped together, these updates are indicative of how we are collectively feeling. Measuring how well-off, happy or satisfied with life the citizens of a nation are is part of the Gross National Happiness movement. When people in their status updates use more positive words — or fewer negative words — then that day as a whole is counted as happier than usual. […]

(via Gross National Happiness –

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The Facebook ‘super-logoff’

Mikalah uses Facebook but when she goes to log out, she deactivates her Facebook account. She knows that this doesn’t delete the account – that’s the point. She knows that when she logs back in, she’ll be able to reactivate the account and have all of her friend connections back. But when she’s not logged in, no one can post messages on her wall or send her messages privately or browse her content. But when she’s logged in, they can do all of that. And she can delete anything that she doesn’t like. Michael Ducker calls this practice “super-logoff” when he noticed a group of gay male adults doing the exact same thing.

(via Risk Reduction Strategies on Facebook –

This would be a good trick to pull when you have a job interview coming up.

Lifehacker made a tip out of this practice: Use the “Super-Logoff” Technique to Exercise Tighter Control Over Your Facebook Profile

Should you delete your Facebook account?

This May 31st is Quit Facebook Day, but I won’t be deleting my account. No, I got rid of it a few weeks ago. As much as I’d like to claim that this was entirely some kind of ethical stance, the simple truth was that I didn’t actually make much use of the service. If I had the same negative feelings about Twitter, quitting would be a much tougher decision.

Should you leave Facebook? Maybe. It’s certainly a question that a lot of people are asking. Then, if they decide to, they ask ‘so how the hell do I delete the thing?’ Enough that this has become a Google suggested result:

There’s actually a website dedicated to helping you find the elusive ‘delete’ hidden in the unnecessarily complicated settings. You can find out how well you have protected your privacy at Profile Watch. There’s also a handy bookmarklet at Reclaim Privacy that will similarly assess your profile. For a laugh, you can also read through some posts of other Facebook users, who probably think they are talking to their friends, not the entire internet: Openbook.

Are there real reasons to be worried? Well, after Facebook held a developer conference, lots of worried Google engineers left. And Google has hardly earned any privacy gold stars. And then there’s Mark Zuckerburg, the man behind the company, with a few thoughts on privacy (taken from an IM conversation when he was creating the service, then called The Facebook):

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask. 
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it. 
Zuck: I don’t know why. 
Zuck: They “trust me” 
Zuck: Dumb fucks.

Business Insider also has a fascinating expose on Zuckerburg. Decide for yourself if it holds much water, and if you think his character is likely to have improved in the last six years. 

It’s also interesting to witness how Facebook has eroded the default privacy settings over the years, from friends and family to almost completely exposing everything.

While most users may not understand/care about these issues, there are plenty who do. Enough that when a new project to create an open-source distributed social network asked for $10,000 to get started, they were overwhelmed with donations. As I write this, they have over $170,000 pledged.

So I guess Facebook just gives me the creeps.

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The Internet is hard

Banners, logos, carefully crafted wordsmithery – this is all filler, we’ve found out. Users have been calloused by 15 or so years of surfing through bad ads and marketing babble, and they are unconsciously tuning out everything but the one thing they came to find.

For example, none of the 200 or so confused Facebook users who commented on our earlier post read the post itself, the huge logo at the top of the page, the many links to non-Facebook-related content or the huge, all-bold paragraph about how ReadWriteWeb is not, in fact, some ill-conceived redesign of Facebook. They simply searched for “Facebook login” and, upon navigating to our site, scrolled until they found the one button they wanted to click. Which brings us to our third assertion.


RRW has a post up about the confusion that was caused recently when one of their stories became a top Google result for ‘Facebook login’, and hundreds of confused Facebookers mistook the blog for a new Facebook design.

Some important lessons here.