We are quite busy writing concepts, specifications and needs assessments for Darcy. And to do that, we read everything we can that others write about these topics. Thankfully, we are not alone in thinking about these things, so interesting articles pop up on a regular basis.
Last week, this included mathew’s largely excellent take on “WWW: What Went Wrong?“. This is a very good explanation on exactly how badly advertising screwed a lot of our web experience. He connects the dots from the very first banner ad, click tracking, venture capital, news feeds, how “engagement” fosters hate-speech, and the thing that we know refer to as surveillance capitalism. It is an excellent read and I heartily recommend it.
The thing with Google Reader
But there are also a few assumptions and conclusions in there that I don’t share. Namely those that mathew makes around the death of Google Reader.
In case you never really used RSS or just don’t remember: Google Reader was a fantastic web tool to aggregate lots of RSS feeds. Such RSS readers allow you to follow the updates of nearly every web page there is. News sites, Blogs, magazines, nearly everyone used to offer the content in an easy-to-access RSS feed, and many (us for example) still do.
As mathew writes about the death of Google Reader, he implies that it was shut down because it wasn’t advertising friendly, and that Google wanted to move users over to Google+. The assumption here is that Google+ was a more ad-friendly service.
But the fact is that Google never monetized neither Google Reader nor Google+. Both services were ad-free. So the motivation to shut down Reader cannot have been to finally monetize the users on that front.
I have never worked at Google, so I cannot say this with conviction: My assumption always has been that RSS as a protocol never got quite to the point of being something mainstream. It is one of these things that smell a bit too technical to be easily accessible. When I click on an RSS link, I get something that looks at first glance like machine code, not content I want to read.
So, Google must have seen Google Reader as a rather small, unimportant niche tool. Despite the fact that Google Reader was a fantastic censorship circumvention tool, had interesting and useful functions for content curators and multipliers. Even with a few million of users, compared to the global audience, that would have been tiny.
Social feeds advertising targeting
Nonetheless, social and especially identity have been important for Googles advertising business. But since they were obviously not about ad placements (which still is an important thing for Facebook), what else is there?
The answer: User profiling.
There is one thing that Google and Facebook do so much better than basically everyone else on the advertising market: They actually can use the data they have to create meaningful target audiences. And in order to do that, they need to observe and categorize our online interactions a lot.
One way to harvest this data? Offer a service that gives insight to the shared interest graph of millions of users. On top of that, Google made a valiant effort of establishing the Google+ identity as a possible key identity for all sorts of web services. The data gathered that way (from interaction with Googles own services and by seeing which other services are connected to the account) could then be used to refine ad targeting mechanisms.
Aside: Why ads are often so bad
It is important to understand that on top of having these targeting mechanisms, one also has to understand how to apply them, and how to interpret the data. Doing so takes a lot more work and research than your average advertiser puts in. That is why you see the most ads for a new TV set, just when you’ve bought one.
Still, when people do put this effort in, the results can be frightening, swaying elections and referendums and even incite hate on a large scale.
And to make things even more frightening, normal “buy our product” advertising actually doesn’t really need this sort of micro targeting to be effective. The main reason it is done in this sector is to cut costs: Why buy expensive advertising space with a fancy high-end fashion magazine when you can find out on which other sites the very same users hang out, where the ad space could be a lot cheaper?
Breaking a lance for the semantic web
Still: The shared interest graph made possible by the semantic web is a fantastic thing though. It helps us to connect with people we would otherwise never have connected with, over shared interests and problems. This is where social media not only connects us to those we already know offline but helps us to forge new connections and to find help when our immediate circle of contacts does not suffice.
Yes, this requires a certain amount of openness. It also requires an even larger amount of trust. Trust that the data you make public won’t come back to harm you´or your network in any way. Trust that the data you chose not to make public will stay that way.