A public apology – on screwing up by not questioning assumptions – my talk at #BIF10

I spoke this morning at the tenth incarnation of BIF, Business Innovation Factory, an annual conference in Providence, RI that focuses on storytelling. It’s got a lot less product promotion and self-celebration than many conferences on innovation, and more personal stories, which is why I always enjoy attending. So I thought I’d share a personal story that I’m still digesting and the questions it raises for me. If it reads a little differently from most of my writing, the context helps explain why.


About a month ago, I wrote an article about a simple idea. I asked whether anyone really believed that advertising should be the main way we supported content and services on the internet. Given how poorly banner advertising on the web worksGiven that nobody likes banner ads, and given that the current system puts users under surveillance, which in turn seems to inure us to government surveillance, I wondered whether there might be a better way.

Initially, the piece did what I hoped for – it sparked a lively conversation about business models for the web, particularly about business models for news. My friend Jeff Jarvis, whose faith in Google inspires envy in leaders of the Catholic Church, reassured me that once advertising got a little better, I’d like the ads I was reading online, really! I heard pitches for ethical advertising, for different approaches to subscriptions and to micropayments. I’d gotten something off my chest, had sparked a good conversation and was learning from the responses. As a blogger and a media scholar, life was good.

But something unexpected happened halfway through my day in the sun. For a brief and uncomfortable time, I became the most hated man on the internet. Here’s how that happened.

In writing about advertising, I wanted to talk about mistakes we’d made collectively, as an industry, not just beat up on Mark Zuckerberg or any other individual. So I took responsibility for my own small contribution to making the world an ugly, ad-filled place. I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that almost twenty year ago, I invented the pop-up ad.

My intentions were good. (Please stop throwing things at the stage.) I was part of the team that started Tripod.com, an early webpage hosting company. My popup put an ad in a separate window from a user’s webpage, which was a way of distancing an advertiser from user generated content, reassuring advertisers that they wouldn’t actually be on the same page as a paranoid essay about government conspiracies or a collection of nude images. I thought it was a pretty good solution. I’m really, really sorry.

My editor at the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance, is a lot smarter about her readers I am. She knew that this admission, which I hid as a parenthetical comment, would be far more interesting to most readers than a 3000 word essay on advertising and a culture of surveillance. She did a brief interview with me about the process of creating the ad and wrote a 300 word story titled “The First Pop Up Ad”

And then things got weird.
Yes, that’s Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien making fun of me. And yes, that’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened tome.

Adrienne’s Atlantic piece, lightly rewritten, appeared in about forty news outlets over the next 24 hours. I got loads of interview requests and I did one of them before realizing that this was a very bad idea, and that even normally staid news outlets like the BBC would be far more interested in my “confession” than in the broader argument about advertising and surveillance. And then the emails and the tweets started to come in, first cursing me out in English, and then in Turkish, Portuguese, Chinese and Croatian as the story spread globally.

Andy Warhol predicted that, in the future, we would all be famous for 15 minutes. There’s another possibility: on the internet, we will all be intensely loathed for about 15 seconds.

Let me just pause for a moment and mention that my no good, very bad day on the internet is approximately equivalent to what many of my friends refer to as “Friday”. Which is to say, if you are an opinionated woman who writes online, you likely face ugly, misogynistic bullshit on a daily basis significantly more acute that the tongue in cheek death threats I received once this story took off. I don’t in any way mean to compare the mild abuse I faced at a moment of extreme visibility to the sorts or routine, everyday harassment many smart women face for merely expressing themselves online.

That said, I do now understand why someone would choose to go offline rather than wallow in hostility. I ended up taking a week entirely offline while things blew over, until only one in five emails was a death threat.

Of all the tweets hoping for my swift and painful demise, I was particularly struck by one written by a user in southeast Asia, whose tweet read, more or less: “@ethanz I do not accept your apology. This is your Frankenstein monster. You made it, you should kill it.”

I really liked this tweet. There’s something refreshingly simple about the idea that someone – one guy – could be responsible for things in the world that are badly broken. And once we find that guy, we can either string him up or demand that he fix it. It’s the inverse of the great man theory of history, where we declare Edison the great man who commercialized electricity and brought about the modern world, cutting out Tesla, Westinghouse and hundreds of others. This is the rat bastard theory of history, where if only that one SOB hadn’t put pop up ads on user homepages, the world would be a slightly pleasanter place.

The rat bastard theory is helpful because it gives you a single, concrete individual to hate. Back in my darkest, saddest days, when I used to use Windows, I really enjoyed hating Bill Gates, despite the fact that my anger was clearly misplaced. It’s clear that there were all sorts of design decisions that made Windows agonizing to use in the late 1990s, not an evil plan from Bill Gates, who has turned out to be a pretty terrific guy. But it’s a lot easier to see the rat bastard than to see the whole problem.

The problem with the internet in the late 1990s is that we wanted it to be available to everybody in the world. That’s partially because it seemed like the fair thing to do, and partially because we genuinely loved the web and wanted to evangelize for it globally. But most people didn’t know why the web was cool, why they’d want to build a homepage or send status updates to friends, so they weren’t about to pay us to use it. And so we ended up with the only business model we could think of – broadcast advertising. You’ll get our services for free, and we’ll demand some of your attention to sell to advertisers in exchange. Basically, we didn’t know how to pay for the internet for everyone, so we decided to make the internet work the way broadcast television worked.

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

But there are people imagining something very different. Maceij Ceglowski, whose brilliant talk got me thinking about the broken state of the web, has built a bookmarking service called pinboard that’s really cheap – about $5 – but not free. He did it because he imagined something different, not a site to sell to another company, but a service he wanted to have available to the world that’s been profitable since the day he started it. WhatsApp is a wildly popular messaging service that charges users $0.99 a year, and had over 400 million users before Facebook bought it, an amazing example that people are willing to pay for tools they need and use. I just learned about a social network called Connect Fireside that’s designed for the mobile phone and optimized for sharing photos with your family and close friends, not with the whole world. It’s not cheap – it’s $20 a month right now – and who knows if it will survive, but it’s exciting to see someone build something based on a different set of assumptions.

Once you get rid of those assumptions – everything is free, the user is the product being sold to advertisers, and the goal is to be a venture-backed billion dollar business – and lots of things are possible. My friends in Kenya got sick of losing internet connectivity every time the power went off, so they went onto Kickstarter and funded BRCK, which is a portable internet router for the developing world that relies on the mobile phone network. The people who paid for it were people who wanted and needed the device, so were willing to pay for it to be built – crowdfunding, as a model, asks that you give up the assumption that people have to instantly receive the things they buy. Turns out that sometimes we’re willing to pay for something in the hope that it might come to pass, someday.

Turns out we’re also willing to pay for things because we love them and we want them to exist. I’ve become a massive fan of a deeply strange podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which might be described as a cross between A Prairie Home Companion and the Twilight Zone. The podcast is free, but listeners are encouraged to donate $5 a month, and many do… Many more come to live shows, buy tickets and merchandise, which has allowed the creators to expand the podcast, bringing in new actors and musicians, launch a 16 city tour of Europe and write a book about the Night Vale universe. Putting something beautiful and strange out into the world and hoping people will love it is not the most reliable business model, but it sometimes turns out to be viable.

Remember my friend on Twitter who wanted me to kill Frankenstein’s monster? He got part of it wrong in assuming that I’m the rat bastard solely responsible for the situation we’re in today. But he got part of it right. He’s right that people like me can and should be trying to fix things.

The things that are broken about the internet today – and there are a lot of them – are the product of design decisions that fallible, mortal human beings have made over the past twenty years. Twenty years is not a long time. I have t-shirts older than the world wide web. The web wasn’t built by enlightened geniuses whose trains of thought we could never comprehend – it was built by idiots like me, doing the best we could at the time. It’s possible to look at every technical and design decision that’s led to where we are today and make different choices than the people who made those bad choices.

There’s a lot of things I don’t like about how the web works today. I don’t like that our attention is constantly for sale. I don’t like that public sharing is the default. I don’t like that the web never forgets. I think the always on, inescapable nature of the web is proving really exhausting for us as human beings. And I’m scared that the new public spaces, the places where we come together to debate the future, are owned and controlled by a few massive companies that have enormous potential power over what we’re able to discuss online.

But the mistake would be to assume that these shortcomings are inevitable, that they are simply natural consequences of how people interact online. The mistake is to stop questioning the assumptions about how the world worlds, to stop imagining ways things could be different and better.

I should probably mention that this is not a talk about internet business models.
Actually, it’s a talk about civics.

If you think the web is broken – and I do – you should take a look at American democracy. Here’s another case where fallible humans made design decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time and now have had some clearly disastrous consequences. Sure, having professional representatives deliberate together and govern a nation is a pretty cool hack when the dominant governance technology of the time is feudalism. One person, one vote elections – once we finally got around to fully implementing it? Cool idea. Freedom of speech for individuals as well as organizations? Seems pretty important for the rest of the system to work.

Put these things together and we’ve somehow ended up with a system where the Democratic Congressional Committee recommends to new congresspeople that they spend 4-5 hours a day raising money, and only 3-4 hours meeting with constituents or working to craft legislation. It’s a system that constituents hate – it’s part of the reason Congress has a single-digit approval rating – and Congresspeople hate, too, which is why some incumbents are choosing to leave office. But it’s not hard to figure out how it happened, to trace the decisions that brought us to a deeply undesirable place. We can invoke the rat bastard theory and blame Chief Justice John Roberts for Citizens United decision, but we’re following the same fallacy – this is a failure of imagination, not the failure of any one person (or even five supreme court justices)

It’s possible to imagine something very different. Larry Lessig is working very hard to bring a new model to life, where every voter gets $50 of government funds to give to politicians who can use the money to campaign. To imagine that model, you have to give up a bunch of assumptions: that you have a right to spend money to influence politics; that governments should try to do less, not more. And you have to be ready to cope with all the unintended consequences of the new system as well, of people selling their government funds to politicians through brokers, of social media becoming an endless campaign battle ground.

We need a ton more of this, people questioning assumptions that representation makes more sense than direct democracy, that decisions at the federal level are more important than those locally, that money is convertible into power. We need lots of Lessigs taking on these sorts of imaginative experiments, because most of them are going to fail.

Here are two really big assumptions I want to question:
– that participating in representative democracy is the core act of what it means to be a good citizen
– and that everyone is going to participate in our democracy in more or less the same way

You know what it means to be a good citizen – you’re supposed to read the newspaper and keep up on events locally and globally, and vote every two years and maybe call your congressman if something really pisses you off. And you probably know that this isn’t going to make very much of a difference. And that your congressperson is heading into a paralyzed institution that’s rarely able to pass legislation.

So let’s question the assumption that fixing Congress – or even more ambitiously, fixing politics – is the most important part of fixing citizenship. In the 50s and 60s, people figured out that, when you’re prevented from voting by law, public protests – marches, sit ins, boycotts – are a critical part of citizenship. As Congress starting passing civil rights legislation, activists learned that lawsuits were a critical tool to ensure that laws applied to everyone and enforced fairly. We rarely think of suing the government as a way to be a good citizen, but it’s been critical in building the rights-based society we have today.

There are at least three ways I think people can be civically active even if they’re frustrated with paralysis in politics. Make media. When people saw tanks in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to counter peaceful protests, they made media and started a conversation about the militarization of America’s police forces. When they saw a newspaper picture of Michael Brown looking threatening, they started tweeting #iftheyshotmedown, asking whether the media were being fair in their choice of picture to portray the victim of a police shooting. Media is how we understand the world, and we can shape our public conversation by building civic media.

Make new things. I’m deeply frustrated that my government is surveilling my communications and those of millions of others worldwide, and I’m angry that so little legislative action has been taken in the wake of Ed Snowden’s revelations. But I’m really happy that software developers like Tor, Mailpile, Redphone and Mailvelope are working to make it easy to encrypt email and phonecalls and make it harder for anyone to surveil our communications. Make businesses. I’m concerned about climate change, I want to see a carbon tax, but in the meantime, I’m excited to see Tesla making electric cars that are sexy and for people as broke as me, excited that I drove here in a diesel car that gets almost fifty miles to the gallon. Building businesses that do well while doing good is one of the most powerful ways we can engage in civics today.

Here’s what’s tricky about expanding civics to include making media, making code and making money: it’s not a level playing field. Voting is something everyone can do – right now, making code or making media is easier for some people than others. We’re going to need to think hard about how we prepare the next generation of citizens for a world where their power comes not just from voting but from making, and where someone’s civics unfolds in the marketplace while someone else’s unfolds in Congress.

If you want to overcome failures of imagination – accepting that the web or our politics are inescapably broken – you’ve got to try something new. You’re probably going to fail. And when you do, I recommend that you try again. But first I recommend that you apologize. It feels really good. I’m sorry, and thank you for listening.

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4 Responses to A public apology – on screwing up by not questioning assumptions – my talk at #BIF10

  1. Kathy says:

    Hi, Ethan — the second part of your essay brings to mind Lakoff’s contention that modern progressives and modern conservatives see the world through two very different frames: one has a “public” orientation and one has a (IMO perverted) “market” orientation where money is the only means used to determine what is “good.”

    I don’t know if the root of our country’s “conservative” moral philosophy lies with Reaganomics or if its roots extend to the post-WWII era when we decided that we would become a “Christian Nation” (“in God we trust” on currency, one nation “under God” in the pledge of allegiance). Maybe it’s a predictable and natural response to FDR’s policies that helped us begin our recovery from the Great Depression.

    But I am convinced that it is bad for democracy: 4-5 hours a day raising money and 3-4 hours “working” is not a sustainable model for democracy.

    And don’t feel too bad about the popup ad … you know the history of disruptive innovation. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been a contemporary. :-)

    The problem of funding news organizations is a fundamental one, however. We’ve not “paid” for civic news in the 20th century – we’ve paid for its delivery. Its cost has been subsidized by a plethora of other ventures: comics, classifieds, general ads, sports/fashion/home …

  2. quixote says:

    Mainly tangential comments. First: a thousand thanks for linking to Maceij Ceglowski in your earlier post. He is, indeed, a brilliant writer. And full of good ideas. I’ve been slowly going through his posts, trying to limit myself to one a day so I don’t run out so fast.

    Two, speaking of good things, about things like pinboard: a vital second clause to requesting small payments for wanted/needed services is some sort of structure that prevents them from ever falling into the hands of AppGooSoft or any of their ilk.

    At this point I don’t even consider paying for anything because it seems as soon as you do it’s been acquired by some corporation and turned into handcuffs. Some kind of bulletproof licensing such as Stallman has on GPL maybe. (I know. That’s why nobody uses it and takes more exploitable licenses instead, or ignores existing GPL with a “come up and sue me sometime.”)

    Anyway, just some minor points that occurred to me while reading. I’m very sorry to hear that you were targeted for harassment! There’s a worthwhile field for thought experiments: how to shut down toxic trolls poisoning free speech for all of us without shutting down free speech. There has *got* to be something we can do.

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