On Ghostery

With all the recent industry fuss over ad trackers, I got responsible and reinstalled Ghostery on my browser, and I activated many of its blockers. This has had several interesting effects.

One is that active tracker blocking is invasive in its own way. I’m creating hardships in my own browsing experience that privacy hard-liners don’t mention. If I block optimization schemes too aggressively, I can break essential functions once in awhile, including a site I manage at work whose navigation is mboxed for Adobe Test & Target tracking. Visiting Monoprice with Ghostery on, I discovered today, gnarls their top nav, too, and their search box disappears. And so on.

Another is the level of awareness that Ghostery creates in the end-user. I know about ad networks and trackers, of course I do, I’ve been in this industry 20 years now. But I didn’t actively think about them all that often.

Then I turned on Ghostery, and I visited copypastecharacter.com, a humble little type-geek website that allows for quick unicode character finding. And in finding my ✔, I also found 87 trackers. Eighty-seven! I no longer wonder what purpose the site serves beyond its builders’ nerdy satisfaction: it’s a robust ad engine. As are many other websites for whom users unwittingly expose their usage details.

The full list, behind the jump, for posterity’s sake.

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Why I became a Wikipedia contributor (and why you should, too)

Wikipedia is a part of everyday life for most everyone who uses the web. I personally cross-reference or poke around Wikipedia almost every day—93 times in the past 30 days alone, per my browser history. Millions of people are similar to me, if not more so.

Having become something of an institution, Wikipedia now faces a long-term struggle for its fiscal and editorial health. Most immediate is the need for cash flow. Wikipedia’s frequent pledge drives on its website do a good job of highlighting the organization’s monetary needs (and plenty of readers, thankfully, are listening).

More easily overlooked is its slowly dwindling volunteer workforce, the thousands of people who keep Wikipedia updated and objective.

Active editors on Wikipedia, from The EconomistWikipedia is only as strong as its contributors and editors, a team that peaked several years ago. The Economist did a great deep-dive into Wikipedia’s state of affairs this spring. It pointed out that the number of English-language editors on the site has dropped steadily for nearly a decade, to 30,000 volunteers this year, down from 50,000 in its heyday. That sounds like a big staff, but with nearly two billion pages to curate, and an almost entirely unpaid team, the math quickly gets sour.

Right around the time of the Economist article, I found myself disgruntled at yet another article speaking in the present tense about 2011. So, after a decade of lurking and leeching, I signed up for a Wikipedia account. And when I see a line like, “The band is slated to appear on the first week of Jimmy Fallon’s new talk show,” my annoyance now turns to utility, as I am empowered to fix that sentence, and a tiny bit responsible, too. As a longtime writer, editor and grammar hound it’s a no-brainer for me to pitch in.

I’ve only updated a handful of articles thus far, but I am quick to hit the Edit button when I see outdated or inaccurate text, most recently this morning, updating the status of a canceled program. Making updates to Wikipedia is easy, it’s satisfying, and it ensures that the site will continue to be a useful resource.

Wikipedia, of course, has been running on this model since its inception. But too many people, like me, take the labor behind the site for granted. My own contribution ultimately will be small, but it will be a contribution nonetheless.

Please consider doing the same. Even occasional edits help keep the world’s encyclopedia appropriately encyclopedic.

It happens too fast

Internet pioneer Eric Meyer and his family suffered a heartbreaking loss this weekend as Eric’s daughter Rebecca passed away of a brain tumor on her sixth birthday.

An early blogger, Eric harnessed the power of personal publishing for his catharsis, and in the process, he brought our entire community into his heart. I invite you to read about Rebecca (starting from last August, when Eric first posted about her tumor) and follow Eric on Twitter as well.

Then hug your kids, and spoil them a little, because life is too short, and surely they deserve it.

As all tragedies can have uplifting consequences, in recent weeks my world has been tinted for the better by Eric’s experiences, which serve as a reminder of the wonderfulness of childhood and a way to keep perspective as we collectively grieve for Eric’s loss.

This morning my six-year-old and I watched another parent deliver an aggressive, top-of-her-lungs rebuke to her child for a moment of forgetfulness. When she finished, she apologized—to the other adults. “That mom is really mad,” my son said to me quietly, eyes wide. I could only sigh. Life is too precious, our children too innocent, the world too cruel.

My three-year-old is off to his first “camp” experience later this month. All the children have to wear the same shirt every day. At orientation, the camp director told us, firmly and pleasantly: “If your child doesn’t want to wear the camp shirt, seriously—don’t force it. Your time with your child is too valuable to argue over what to wear. Just bring it and we’ll put it on later.”

Your time with your child is too valuable. We could append almost anything to that sentence, couldn’t we? I think about how I may chide my kids over relatively minor issues, and then I think about Rebecca Meyer, ten days younger than my own kindergartener, and it strengthens my resolve to make their lives as full of kindness and affection as my heart can find. The things we worry about pale in comparison to the issues most of us are fortunate not to confront.

Eric, my deepest condolences go out to you once more, as well as a note of thanks, for sharing your stories and a bit of your soul.

The real effect of surge pricing

While Uber is coming under a lot of fire (including from me) on its surge pricing, Wired’s latest piece on Uber’s situation clarified a point that is worth highlighting.

Surge pricing, according to Uber, is intended to stimulate supply and curb demand to ensure the two match. Otherwise, the logic goes, would-be riders are left stranded without a car. Last month, during the height of the backlash against Uber over fares reported at seven times the usual during a New York snowstorm, Kalanick told WIRED that the bad publicity his company faced over surge pricing would pale compared to the impact of Uber not being able to offer a ride at all.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is what Uber and CEO Travis Kalanick are doing with surge pricing: they’re getting the masses to back off. Anyone who’s encountered a surge pricing screen on Uber in the past few months has done so while trying to reserve a car that’s only a few minutes away, as usual. That car is available because of surge pricing—specifically, because higher prices get fewer people to grab at finite inventory, maintaining a decent supply.

Of course, Kalanick can’t say that out loud, so he talks at length about bringing more cars on the road. Yet that’s only part of the story, and he’s been challenged on whether surge pricing really aids supply. In truth, what surge pricing really accomplishes is throttling demand.

And this makes sense: if an Uber user tried to call for a car in bad weather, and the nearest vehicle was 27 minutes away rather than 6, or not available at all, what would the response be? Customers would give up on the service for lack of reliability, and return to hailing cabs and calling car services, which are equally imperfect but entrenched in society. Uber is not, at least not yet. To the company, “Uber doesn’t work” is a worse fate than “Uber is sometimes too expensive.” So premium fares continue.

Uber has decided that supply is the most important link in its chain, and is using surge pricing to maintain it. Which, while not the most satisfying thing to Uber users, is a rather logical approach.

Update: this wonderfully in-depth look at Uber’s economic and business decisions sheds additional light on the subject.

The bottom line is that the only real alternative to dynamic pricing is a ton of customers staring at screens that read “No Cars Available.” This is the fact that is least appreciated by Uber’s critics.

Creating vs. creating

Sploid, on Thomas Julien’s Instagram short film: “Seeing all these pictures in a pseudo stop animation you realize how similar all of our photos end up being. Nothing is original. We’re all just frames in someone’s next movie.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about our collective propensity to take photos, and wondering: why? Why do we need to chronicle a moment that is being captured by another? What is the intrinsic value of a photo that someone else can (probably more capably) take on one’s own behalf? It’s one thing to grab a picture of a loved one, or a sunset on an unpopulated beach, when you’re the only person that can take that picture. But when hundreds of fellow onlookers are snapping the same photograph, unless your DSLR skills trump the crowd, is there value to your taking a shot, too?

Jillian Edelstein, on the remoteness of photography: “It’s image taking rather than image making.”

What’s more, with the interconnectedness of social media, not only are those many other photos being taken, but in a matter of moments you and I can download and share them as well, rendering the multiplicity moot. Sometimes these efforts have value; last month, when a large fire raged up the block from me, I posted photos from my vantage point, then shared others’ images from different (and largely better) angles. But certainly my experience of the moment was interrupted by my fiddling with my iPhone, which, it should be noted, occurred while I helped my two young children stand on my next door neighbor’s radiator cover for a better view.

This can’t be where our future lands. Whether ubiquitous, wearable computing simplifies the media taking-and-sharing process, or whether we slowly learn to find the right moments to engage and disengage with our devices, or whether some other paradigms arise, I strongly hope that we evolve past the current heads-down phones-up phase. Because, if not, sooner or later we’re all going to miss something.

Fifteen

When I launched the Ideapad, on November 1, 1998, it was rather ugly, it cribbed off others, and it didn’t even have its own directory.* But what it was, it miraculously still is: a home online for me to publish independently, everything from mundane thoughts on shopping and puppies to important perspectives on usability, digital life, the Internet business and my own evolution.

Fifteen years on, the Ideapad is one of the world’s oldest and longest-running online blogs, which I take less with surprise or pride so much as contentedness. The good ol’ ‘Pad is still here. I’ve gone through a couple of phases where I almost stopped writing—once, I even blogged about not blogging, and promptly lost half my audience–and in retrospect the best thing about this page is its consistency.

I’ve had more than my share of reminiscences in this space over the past few months, so it’s best to look forward here, to many more years of satisfying self-publishing. Thanks for reading.

-David

* My incredulous kudos go out to Net Access, my old web host, for fighting link rot and keeping my old directory live, for more than a decade of uptime since I deactivated my account. I’m not even sure they have individual user accounts anymore, but my old pages are still live. The World Wide Web purist in me is very appreciative of this.

Digital facts of the day

There are now around 130 million smartphone users and at least 55 million tablet users in the U.S. market. Among other trends, 15% of ecommerce transactions will be completed on mobile and tablet devices this year, a number that will only continue to grow.
While this is a prime opportunity to gain market share and–still–establish first-mover advantage, 45% of marketers don’t have a mobile presence, either with apps or optimized websites.
When I was working at Ai we would annually update our stump speech for mobile. “2009 is going to be the year of mobile.” “2010 is really the year of mobile–our clients’ stats show smartphone usage on their sites tripled last year.” Now, in 2013, mobile and tablet use is starting to drive the digital economy, in a shift that is not going to turn back around. Yet many brands have not capitalized on the opportunity. If not now, when?

Parallels in Internet history

April 1999: Yahoo! buys GeoCities.

“A $3.6 billion deal that will further solidify Yahoo!’s position as a frontrunner in the online popularity contest. …

“GeoCities (GCTY) is the third most visited site on the Web behind AOL and Yahoo!, with 19 million unique visitors in December, according to Web research company Media Metrix.

“GeoCities sets up communities of people who share similar interests and allows customers to create their own home page on the Internet.

“A deal would likely propel Yahoo! to the top rated site in terms of traffic, but it’s not clear how much the two sites’ individual audience overlap. …

“Through GeoCities, Yahoo! will be able to distribute a range of editing tools and content published through personal homepages in an array of services. …”

May 2013: Will Yahoo Try to Get Its “Cool Again” by Doing a Deal for Tumblr?

“CFO Ken Goldman … said Yahoo needed to be ‘cool again.’ …

“Tumblr … focuses heavily on user-generated content, largely text and photos, although there is an increasing use of video on the site. …

“Any kind of deal with Tumblr could certainly bring Yahoo a big, young audience. Its worldwide traffic was at 117 million visitors in April, according to comScore. On its home page, Tumblr claims it has 107.8 million blogs and 50.6 billion posts.”

At the time of its acquisition, GeoCities posted a net loss for the year of $19.8 million alongside a $2.3 billion pre-Yahoo market cap. Tumblr generated $13 million in revenue last year and has a reported valuation of $800 million.

Turn on, tune in, drop out

EDUx, a new collaboration in online learning between Harvard and M.I.T., is newsy enough to receive splashy treatment in the New York Times today, including home-page link placement this morning.
But I think the Times buried the lede, for in the second paragraph is this nugget: “[M.I.T.’s first online course] began in March, enrolling about 120,000 students, some 10,000 of whom made it through the recent midterm exam.”
Or, to be more specific, the inaugural MITx class has an attrition rate of at least 91 percent.
As with all online data reporting, the truth is beyond the glossy top-line numbers. MITx claims 120,000 registrants, but it’s really 10,000 who have a level of engagement, perhaps less if we track it to the final exam; the rest are, in the old brick-and-mortar school terminology, dropouts. Twitter has 500 million users but 50 million daily active ones. Et cetera.
Perhaps MITx is on par with typical Internet usage, with 10 percent of interested users generating full engagement. I much prefer that data point to considering the 110,000 quitters MITx has on its hands. No wonder it’s hard to get into M.I.T.