Digital Media's Growing Pains

Its now about 11 and a half years since I thought it would be a good idea to work in the media industry for a year or so. (I thought) I wanted to be a web developer, didn't quite understand how everything was on the internet for free but somehow companies like Google and Facebook were worth millions of dollars - but knew that it was something to do with advertising, and wanted to understand how that business worked a bit better before I did something like set up my own business in a world where the financial model made no sense to me.

As it turns out, the first thing I learnt which pretty much shaped the next decade of my career was that communications technology might be interesting, but the impact it has on people and their behaviour is far, far more interesting.

Something else I learnt, probably a few years later, was that the world of "digital" that was massively disrupting the advertising industry is only a subset of "marketing". It was a new world that was sold on the back of all the new things that were possible, but to a world that didn't really grasp the implications of what was lost in the process. The problem is that "best practice" for digital media/advertising isn't necessarily "best practice" for advertising in general.

Digital is great for short-term results, identifying potential customers close to the point of purchase and giving them the final nudge. Which are very easy to measure - you just watch your sales numbers before, during, and after the campaign and see how much of a difference it makes.

But what "traditional" media does well is the long-term, brand-building stuff - the messages that stick in the back of your mind until they resurface when you're walking doan a supermarket aisle and make you pick up the more expensive branded product instead of the cheaper alternative. (My go-to example is always the £3 packet of Nurofen instead of the 30p supermarket-brand ibuprofen.) The kind of advertising that doesn't necessarily make you run out and buy the product, but changes the way you think about it in a way that expresses itself as brand loyalty (buying the same product again- even when the last time you bought it was purely because it was discounted), "price elasticity" (willing to pay more for the same thing) - factors that only really shift as part of a long-term, consistent marketing exercise, but are very difficult to measure, quantify, and build into a marketing model.

So, when more money is being spent on "digital advertising" than all other forms of media put together, a problem arises. But its a special kind of problem that doesn't actually look like a problem to begin with.

How Advertising Spend has Changed

Just over a decade into my "year or so" long experiment and its not unreasonable to say that the advertising industry has been completely transformed by the impact of technology.

This is what the global picture looks like, in terms of where all the advertising money is going;1

Worldwide Ad Spend by Media ($m)

What we see; Newspapers used to be the biggest advertising medium (by spend) in the world, overtaken by TV in the mid-to-late late 1990s. Then, around the year 2000, a small spike in advertising across all media2 was followed by continual and rapid growth in online spending — mainly at the expense of newspapers3. In the space of a decade, online advertising had overtaken Outdoor (ie. posters) and radio.

Then, everything took a dive around 2007 - the global financial crisis hit the media industry pretty hard - Newspapers, looking pretty flat for a few years, suddenly fell off a cliff and never recovered, while online advertising continued its growth. While TV advertising remained (and remains) fairly strong, online spending recently overtook that too, and is now the biggest medium by ad spend in the world.

Now, lets take a look at the same figures but just for the UK;

UK Ad Spend ($m)

By 2008, the internet had become the biggest media channel by spend in the UK. It now accounts for more than half of all the UK's advertising spend.

What the Big Numbers are Hiding

It is worth noting at this point that these big, broad numbers hide a few things.

The first - and probably most apparent from inside the media industry - is that "Newspapers" really covers two very different things. On one hand, there's the kind of advertising that you probably think of when you think about "advertising in newspapers" - the big, colourful, maybe even full-page adverts that are selling some sort of "brand". The other is the "classified" adverts- mostly taken up by property for sale, recruitment for jobs and second-hand cars. When spend started shifting to "digital", the first to get hit was the classified ads - adverts that worked very well online, probably better than in print. The "brand" or "display" ads weren't so much hit by the online alternative for advertisers, but the online alternative for readers - as readers migrated from print to online, the advertising model (and money) changed. As the industry cliche goes, from analogue pounds to digital pennies. In print, newspapers were competing with one another to be "the paper" that a person or household would choose to buy. Online, there's no particular reason why anyone would limit themselves to a single source of "news" - why not read the Guardian for politics, the Times for international news, the Sun for sport. Or maybe you would read the front page (now "home page") of a newspaper website for the headlines, then read a bunch of bloggers for the editorial.

The second thing that the broad numbers hide is that "internet" also covers a number of different things. About half of it in the UK is Search advertising - the search results that you see with "Ad" or "Sponsored" next to them, shown to you based on the search terms (and influenced by other data that your Google account or web browser history might be holding). About 40% of it is "display" - the banners at the endges of web pages, the pre-roll videos, the sponsored or promoted posts in your social news feed. The other ~10% or so is the "classified" ads. Clearly, Search advertising is doing a "response", rather than a "brand" job. Likewise, Classified ads are obviously "response". But of the online Display advertising, a great deal of it is also doing the "response" job - easily measured in terms of efficiency and value, but less likely to do the long-term "brand building" job.

How the Media Industry has Changed

When I joined, there were a few interesting things going on. Firstly, the agencies didn't really seem to have many people who really "got" the internet. I was 30 at the time, and when I left school I had never heard of the internet - the fact that I could walk into an interview with a smartphone/PDA in my pocket and a link to my blog (about the internet!) on my CV was enough to mark me out as an "expert" - despite no experience or understanding of the advertising industry. The industry - media owners, media agencies and advertisers - really, really wanted to be able to show that they understood the new, digital world. And the people they turned to for knowledge and understanding were (and still are, I think) mostly the salesmen.

The big story from a consumer point of view was about how broadband penetration was growing, Facebook was clearly the "next big thing", but people were still wondering whether it was going to be as big as MySpace - and if so, what was stopping something else from coming along and overtaking it. (My point at the time was that Facebook was doing something different by connecting people's real world identities - you didn't tell anyone your real name online at the time - with all of their interests, and all of their real-world friends, and that was going to be a very sticky thing to pull people away from.) It was also at the point after smartphones had started to appear, but before the iPhone had really crystallised what a mass-market smartphone/pocket computer would look like. (At the time, it was a real headache from a research point of view that everyone had a different definition of what a "smartphone" was… but thats another story.) Digital was the future - obviously - and whether or not it was a future that we wanted, it was just a race to get there first.

Today, its a slightly different world. Every media has been touched by "digital" in some way - "TV" is now part of a broader "video" marketplace, where broadcasters are making most of their content available online, and "radio" is part of a broader "audio" marketplace, where radio broadcasters are up against a world of music streaming services and podcasts, "newspapers" have become "newsbrands" and while their businesses are often still reliant on the printed copy (partly because its something that people pay for, but just as much because print advertising is an easier business than online advertising), their future is probably going to be in a world where they are balancing the value of their content with the value of their audience (who can just as easily be targeted anywhere else on the web, on an individual basis).

Which brings me to my point.

Advertising on the internet has its own set of best practices. There are things that you can do online that you can't do offline, and vice versa. But "best practice" for online advertising is not the same as "best practice" for marketing in general. However, with online advertising so massively dominant in the UK, I don't believe that there are enough people worrying about this particular conflict and the implications. (Some, sure. But not enough.)

Or, at least, not as many as there are still racing to be the first on board with the Next Big Thing - whatever it might be.

  1. I've deliberately left this data unsourced, because I'm not entirely clear whether the data is allowed to be published in public or not. Suffice to say, I'm confident enough that the figures that they illustrate a 'truth', and confident enough in the story that they tell that I don't feel a need to cite an authoritative source.

  2. I'm pretty sure that this is the dotcom boom, when a bunch of investor money got pumped into new online businesses, who pumped a lot of it into advertising their businesses, a lot of which was with other advertising businesses, which made them look good to investors who pumped more money into their businesses…

  3. Newspapers are pretty flat on the chart here; although newspapers' level of advertising spending stayed fairly steady, total advertising spend tends to be proportional to GDP- advertising spend overall kept on growing, but newspapers' share was declining - especially in the markets where internet infrastructure had been developed and online advertising was thriving.

Why I don't watch adverts

I don't watch adverts.

That isn't exactly an uncommon thing to say. I've done a bit of work into how many people say it - specifically, how many people will say that they don't watch adverts, or live TV at all, and how everything they watch is recorded on Sky + and the ads are always skipped - and then you track what they are watching and discover that actually, at least three quarters of their viewing is live and even when they watch recorded TV they still watch the adverts a significant amount of time.

But this isn't about that.

This is about the adverts that you choose to watch - the ones that you actively seek out. The Christmas advert that you search for on YouTube when you hear that it came out today.

I don't watch those adverts.

Partly its because, well, I don't really want to watch them. But for a slightly deeper reason - I work in the advertising industry (at what used to call itself a "media agency", when we judged ourselves in terms of how well we bought media - but thats another topic…), where there is a kind of expectation that you care about advertising.

Maybe its the decade (and a bit) that I've been working in the industry that has brainwashed or indoctrinated me, but I find that I do like advertising. Kind of... I mean, I like the way that it makes "free" things possible. I like the fact that it has enabled "news" as an industry to develop and exist, which in turn makes the ideal of an informed democracy at the very least, a possibility. (Although, whether that is still true is up for debate.)

I find "advertising" as a part of a wider world of "marketing" much more interesting though. And I have a theory that if you take something that is supposed to be an "advert" - that is, a thing that is supposed to communicate something from a business to its (potential) customers - and take it out of the context of the media space that it was designed to sit in, then you fundamentally change the nature of what it is.

Figure and Ground

I've written before about Marshall McLuhan, but there's an idea that he wrote and talked about that I only recently got my head around, and its about "Figure and Ground". Think of a painting - lets say, the Mona Lisa. Everyone has seen it, everyone can recognise it, everyone knows what it looks like.

Think for a moment about how you would describe it. (You don't need to look at it first — in fact, this exercise probably works better if you don't.)

All of that stuff that you're thinking about describing is the "figure". Probably the woman, her face, her smile, her hair, her clothes — the object of attention. In fact, for a painting, that is the way it is designed - something in the frame is supposed to get your attention.

But that isn't the whole painting. The rest of it - the lake, the rocks, the winding road, the bridge, the clouds, the arm of the chair, the balcony - is the "ground".

In painting, or perception, it is about the thing that jumps out at you and you pay attention to. But in McLuhan's media analysis, its about the context. And one of his central theses was that the ground is the bit that really matters.

"The medium is the message"

(or "massage" - apparently typo in an early version of a manuscript which actually illustrated the point; a twist of the original meaning that could only happen in a typeset medium.)

“For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
Marshall McLuhan in "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man"1

My view is that watching an advert out of context is like taking the label off a tin and sticking it in an art gallery. First, you fundamentally change the thing you are looking at - by removing it from its context and putting it somewhere else. But also, you fundamentally change the thing itself - can anyone look at a can of Campbell's soup and not think about Andy Warhol?

I should note that I don't really avoid adverts. I mean, I tend to skip through the adverts when I'mn watching recorded TV programmes - mainly because my wife has the remote control - but I'm not installing ad blockers and all of that. (Because I don't think most people do, and I do think it matters that I tend to see what most people see in their online experience.) And I tend not to watch much TV - just because I would prefer to do other things, like play computer games or paint or code or read or surf Reddit or... you get the idea.

So, my theory is that by avoiding looking at advertising out of context, I get a better idea of what the advertising is actually doing - how it is changing the "ground" - than someone who is taking the TV spot that millions of distracted people are going to barely notice in the background of their Facebook sessions, and watching it on the biggest and best screen that the agency can buy with a bunch of other highly paid people in expensive clothes, sitting quietly around a boardroom table, drinking coffee and taking notes.

Which is a very long winded way of saying that I don't watch adverts because I care about advertising.

  1. London, England: MIT Press,1964; p.18], reference found here, in what I think is his grandson's blog.

B-Day and Activism

Today is the day that the whole B-thing was supposed to wind up and whatever it is that nobody really understood in June 2016 when the nation agreed to it in a non-binding referendum was going to happen1...

Ho hum.

Anyway - not entirely coincidentally, what I've been putting out into my social media feeds and my website have pretty much dried up over the course of those two years, partly because of a deepening cynicism about what those platforms are doing and the influence they are having on society, and partly because I've been progressively less interested in that "public profile" stuff and increasingly concerned about the influence that it has on my state of mind and sense of happiness.

But having just got a couple of chunky pieces of work out of the way and found myself with a little bit of breathing space, I wanted to chew on an idea that I came across yesterday, while talking about a potential research project about "activism". You see, when you're writing a survey and asking people questions about a "thing", one of the first things you need to do is to make sure that you're providing a sensible definition of the thing that you're asking them about.2


When it comes to a definition of what "activism" means, one of the starting points is that you're pushing for a change in society. That is, you're setting out something about the status quo that you're not happy with, and want to push against.

I thought it was kind of interesting to consider that, right now, the status quo is that we are on our way out of the European Union one way or another. Which means that there isn't really a place for pro-Br**it activism any more - because it isn't "activism" any more. Its just flipped to "maintaining the status quo".

Which might explain why a recent petition to revoke Article 50 can manage to get 6 million signatures 3 when no other petition has come close. (There was one calling for a clearer rule on how the results of the EU referendum would be acted upon which got 4.1 million signatures, but the next closest was 1.8 million people asking for Donald Trump to be refused a State Vist. No other petition I can find has passed 1 million signitures).

But democracy doesn't - and shouldn't - work by online petitions, so onward we march towards the kind of departure from the EU that 400 MPs gave indicative votes against and only 160 were in favour of. Or to put it another way, what the democratically elected representatives of 28.4 million people - 61% of the electorate - have spoken out against.

So, you've got this weird situation where what was a relatively coherent group who was pushing for political upheaval and transformation in 2016 are now trying really hard to just keep things going the way that they are, because a whole bunch of different visions that came under the "Br**it" brand have turned out to not have any kind of majority backing at all, and any attempt to turn it into a workable course of action has completely failed to get any kind of majority backing. But they have momentum on their side, and apparently no strong leadership of any kind in a position to put forward a meaningful alternative to the current course.

Lets see how this plays out…

  1. Except its been delayed because our democratically elected representatives who we were supposed to be "giving back control" to have now taken control of the process from the arguably less democratically appointed Prime Minister (who has inherited a policy set out by the same previous leader who kick started the whole thing in the first place) who clearly didn't really have it under control, and now they have subsequently failed to demonstrate that they really have any kind of control over anything. But this isn't supposed to be a blog post about Br**it...

  2. For example, if you were to ask 45.5 million people "should the United Kingdom leave the European Union", it would be a really good idea to make sure that they are all working under the same idea of what that question actually means. For example, when you say "United Kingdom", does that actually mean ALL of the United Kingdom, or is there maybe a need to exclude Northern Ireland from the working definition because of the physical border with the Republic of Ireland with a really complicated history? And does "leave" mean "actually, totally, unconditionally leave"- as opposed to, say, "leave the Union, but only once an agreement has been properly negotiated that sets out the future relationship with that Union in terms of trade, movement of people, laws etc. because it is actually so complicated that people who spend their working lives dealing with it don't really understand it and the whole point of our political system is that we democratically appoint representatives who are supposed to understand this stuff because we have jobs to do, children to raise, friends and family to look after and lives to live.

  3. To 3 decimal places, at the time of writing

Unordered: Cmd+R

As its nearly two years since I last posted here, it feels like I should acknowledge the passage of time with some sort of summary. If this was a film, I'm imagining a shot of me hitting post, closing my laptop, and then a short montage that includes a couple of Christmases, a 40th birthday, some haircuts, some marking off of my childrens' height against a doorframe, a few shots of the woods near my house as the autumn leaves fall, turn brown, get covered in snow, then the leaves on the trees grow back and the bright sunshine shines through them onto my back garden... except it isn't a film, I'm not measuring my kids heights, and this isn't really a blog about my life so much as meandering run-on sentences about things that have caught my attention or imagination. So that whole effort will end up incomplete; a combination of footage and animatic storyboards on the cutting room floor, set to a classic soundtrack that never got copyright clearance.

So, passage of time duly acknowledged, lets move on. What did I miss?

Well, there was a kind of meme/trope in conference presentations for a while where people talked about how "last year, we didn't think Brexit would happen, or that Trump was a credible presidential candidate" and so on. Now we're oddly past the point where that covers "what happened since we last got together to look at Powerpoint slides in a large hotel room", but at the same time still talking about whether Brexit is going to happen and whether Trump was a credible (read: legal) presidential candidate.

But thats far too much for me to tackle- one of the reasons I started "unordered" was to stop myself trying to write comprehensive, everything-important-about-this-one-thing posts that ended up in a collection of terribly long and boring drafts, so I'm not going to walk that path today. Suffice to say that I've pretty much fallen off Twitter, reduced my Facebook activity to occasionally flicking through my news feed (but keeping on top of a couple of Groups that I like), and generally withdrawn from the worst of the filter-bubble data-scraping websites. (That said, I have rediscovered Reddit, which somehow feels less bad, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on - I think because you're following topics - subreddits - rather than people.)

So, I'm kicking this off again. Probably with a bit more "real life" stuff, because one thing I miss from reading old posts is being able to pinpoint what was going on in my life while I was thinking about whatever it was that drove me to write something. (I particularly like the way Dan Hon structures his excellent newsletters with a "sitrep" at the beginning, so I'm probably going to steal that). Possibly with a bit more structure around a posting schedule - if I can balance how much I like having a maintained blog that I can send links to people who might be interested in what I'm thinking without having to listen while I talk at length about something for far longer than their polite attention against all the other things I'd like to be spending my time doing. Which right now is dominated by;

  • The latest Zelda game on the Nintendo Switch, which I just got for my birthday,
  • Fortnite (everyone - especially kids - are obsessed with the free Battle Royale game, but I've been enjoying the "Save the World" fort-building PVE version of the game),
  • The Warhammer 40k hobby, which I've been getting back into after something like a 25 year break. Mainly for the painting, but also the occasional game with my son (although as I'm still struggling with the rules, its still a bit complicated for him.) So the computer/work related clutter on my desk has now been joined by model-related clutter, paint-related clutter, and needs clearing/tidying/cleaning more frequently than ever before,
  • Reading Reddit on my phone.

So, nothing that can't make way for a slightly more productive way of spending my free time.

I hope.

Unordered 8: Battery low

Here I am, back at it again with the random collection of things mashed together to try to compensate for the fact that they don't warrant posts of their own.

Isn't it weird how I can walk 10 metres across the office and my bluetooth headphones still play music from the phone sitting on my desk, but if I've got my phone in my left hand pocket and turn my head to the right, they cut out?

Anyway... You may have noticed another gap between posts, which I'm going to blame on a) summer happening, b) distracting computer games, c) a really busy couple of weeks at work 1, but it all comes down to "I had other things to attend to". Sorry about that. (I'm thinking that if I force myself to acknowledge the gap between posts every time, it will motivate me with a sense of urgency around the follow up, bit to be honest its kind of working the other way.)

On with the braindump…

Its an interesting time in the phone world. As I understand it, there have only really been two companies making any real money out of selling smartphones; Apple and Samsung. Apple makes quite a few expensive phones, while Samsung make quite a lot of cheaper phones.

And Google might be about to suck a lot of the oxygen out of Samsung's smartphone market. I haven't seen the Pixel phone they recently announced, although I have seen a pop-up Google coffee shop outside Euston station that took me a while to figure out that its purpose was apparently somehow linked to getting people to see the Pixel phone, but it sounds pretty cool. Probably not cool enough to pull me away from iPhones and the tethered collection of Apple laptops, Apple Music, Apple Photos etc. etc. but I'm sure people more loosely connected to the iOS ecosystem will see an appealing alternative in something built around Google's services. And at a time when Samsung's brand is probably taking the battering of its life (I imagine that being sued for millions for copying Apple is a happy memory now), the idea of their Google 'partner' cannibalising a bunch of their high end handset sales (ie. the most profitable ones) is probably pretty worrying for them.

But its the Google side that I find more interesting.

The thing is, Google makes something like 98% of its profits from adverts. The internet (read: "digital") has turned out to be a very successful platform for advertising, and no online advertising format has been as successful as search – which Google has the vast majority of.

But there is a problem. The future of the internet is mobile, and the future of mobile isn't typing stuff into a search box and looking through the results (which may or may not include a few adverts). The future of mobile is (probably) something like Artifical Intelligence powered assistants that get you stright from what you want to do to actually doing it - ask the AI for something, and it gives it to you. And there isn't really any convenient space in that kind of service to squeeze in some advertising.

So, Google's future might not be as an advertising company. It might be as an AI assistant company. Except, while not many people are likely to pay for an AI assistant, there are lots of people paying quite a lot of money every year or two for a new smartphone. And if Google can make that smartphone, sell it at a high price (or at least a high profit margin), then maybe there is a way for Google to stay true to its mission of organising the worlds information and making it universally accessible, while at the same time completely changing its business model from supported by 3rd parties paying for adverts, to selling features, but bundling it in with expensive hardware...

One to watch…

I got an iPhone 6s Plus last year, purely for the bigger battery. I like the big screen, but not as much as I dislike the massive thing that barely fits in my pockets. But I like running out of battery least of all, so it was really a simple decision. Thinking that a it would (should?) last me through a day of even the heaviest use.

Then I started playing Minecraft on my commute (well, the bits of it that don't involve cycling or walking) and things started getting pretty low by the evening.

Then something else happened, and I wasn't even making it to the afternoon. I've actually managed to hit 40% battery by the time I got to the office in the morning.

Why? You can probably guess. That old Google April Fools joke that weirdly turned real. Pokémon Go…

I'm pretty sure that by now, as the "craze" has died down (in that it isn't something that most people still care about - the question isn't "are you playing it", but "are you still playing it?") but that its still going to be a popular game for a more 'normal' number of people for a good while longer yet. Which means I feel safe writing about it, without feeling like either a "10 Things Your Business Can Learn From Pokémon Go!" LinkedIn piece or an overblown "this is the fall of mankind" article…

Batteries are really important

I think this is the one thing that Pokémon Go really shines a light on; if you had to name important technologies for the future, you would probably be thinking about super fast computers, super small computers, the internet, new places to put touch screens, wifi, 3G/4G/5G mobile internet and so on. But I think the really interesting stuff comes out of the technologies that are easy to overlook.

Right now, all the buzz seems to be around virtual reality - technology that requires a hardware platform consisting of dedicated 'wearable' screens, very modern, high speed processors and graphics coprocessors - at least a grand or so to spend on the computer, the headset, the controllers and the camera to get started on playing games… well, the killer games themselves haven't actually been made yet. To make a high end console title takes years of work. I've just finished playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – the credits take a 28 page PDF to list all the names of people involved, and thats a few years worth of work. The costs are in the hundreds of millions.

And that is for a console game. Sure, consoles have come on a long way in the last 20 years in terms of processing power, graphics, physics simulation and so on. But in terms of the underlying mechanics, we have gone from sitting in front of a CRT television screen in 1997 holding one of these;

To sitting in front of a (bigger, flatter, thinner, LCD) television holding one of these;

Sure; we've swapped a cable for a battery. We've added a weird touchpad thing that only ever seems to be actually used as an extra button. But the basic mechanics – the user interface between the player and the game – really hasn't seen any fundamentally new ideas for about 40 years. (Longer, if you count the joystick as the most fundamental element of the controller.)

Is that massive progress – from Elite to No Mans Sky? Well, games have got bigger, richer, deeper… the internet has made some interesting things possible (now I'm the appalingly predictable idiot getting shot on the Battlefield, instead of the guy laughing at the appallingly predictable AI soldiers.) But have we really seen advances? I'm not too sure.

But VR games have to do a couple of things;

  1. Figure out how games work best in a VR world. Is that just a new screen, but the same controller? Is it standing up and waving at a clever camera that recognises your gestures? Is it actually something that works in the home – or are we going to see a resurgence in the arcade game model?
  2. Do it really quickly, because there are a bunch of companies investing a lot of money in this space, no doubt signing up some very valuable patents along the way, who will be expecting to make money out of it. Right now, there is no "path to VR success", but if these guys don't figure it out quickly enough to build businesses out of it, whats going to be left behind them is a bunch of well-trodden paths to nowhere in particular, littered with a bunch of patent landmines.

Don't get me wrong; I think the idea of Virtual Reality is extremely compelling. I think there are going to be lots of interesting things happening in that space. I want to see Sony, and Oculus, and Steam, and whoever else is involved succeding.

But I just don't think they are going to be interesting to all that many people - people who aren't going to spend a few hundred pounds on the hardware, or even go out of their way to try it out. And without that kind of marketplace, the likelihood of the kind of software that is able to show off what it can do getting developed seems pretty slim. (And if the software can't compare to something like the LA-inspired world that took £265 million to make, then who is going to be interested?)

Virtualised Worlds

But the Pokémon game itself is doing some interesting things – and not just in terms of Nintendo's intellectual property revival. The fact that I can walk through the village with my son and he will point out a local 16th century pub – not directly because of its historical importance, but because it happens to be a Pokéstop. I'm sure that there are plenty of gamers who are used to the idea of visiting a real-world location and being familiar with it through the virtual worlds it has inspired (I found it strange visiting L.A. earlier this year and feeling like I had wandered into the Grand Theft Auto world of Los Santos) – a feeling not unlike going somewhere you're familiar with through seeing it in films.

But flipping that the other way – experiencing the real world differently because of what is happening in a purely virtual world that has been overlaid on top of it – feels like something new, if only because I don't think its really happened at this kind of scale before. When have crowds of people come together at the same time to visit an old building because of a shared belief that something special can happen there on a different plane of existence… (apart from every Sunday, obviously.)

When Foursquare launched, professional people got very excited about something that nobody was using, because of the potential that this gamified social platform driving people to participating businesses. I'm actually kind of surprised how little "professional" talk I'm hearing about something that lots of people seem to be using. (Based on anecdotal, media industry, London-centric point of view, but I spoke to a headteacher from Derbyshire who was talking about having to give an end-of-term talk telling kids to be careful when playing the game, and was also playing herself, for what thats worth...)

But the potential has certainly been spotted; smart and agile businesses were setting lures at nearby Pokéstops from the early days of its release; McDonalds were on board in time for the Japanese launch

All those mobile games before fell into a few broad categories. There were the 'casual' games, that you could play on any platform, but worked really well on mobile because of how they fit into the mobile context – for example, the game of Candy Crush that you can pause at any time because your train gets to your stop, or the person you were killing time waiting for arrived. Then there are the 'mid-core' games – not as involved as the triple-A) console games that demand a few hours of dedication at a time 1, but still requiring a few minutes of on-the-clock, uninterrupted concentration. (Example - Clash of Clans, where battles can happen at any time, but once the clock is ticking, even a few seconds distraction can be the difference between winning and losing – and something like a 20 minute wait before you can train up an army for another go.)

But Pokémon Go doesn't fit into neat categorisation – you can 'play' it just by having the app open on your phone, clocking up miles as you walk around and hatching your eggs. Or you can play it slightly more attentively, collecting virtual goods when you pass a Pokéstop. Or you can take it more seriously, going out of your way to a Gym – not just any old gym, but one where your Pokémon are the right level to make it worth spending a few minutes doing battle. (You can even coordinate your battles with team-mates – everyone has to pick one of three teams to join, no swapping after you've chosen – although this is a few steps beyond my own level of involvement at this point…)

It reminds me of a piece I read about Snapchat a while ago; like Snapchat, Pokémon isn't just a 'mobile first' application, but is something different. This isn't a game that was designed for the iOS and Android platforms (ie. pocket-sized touch screens), but a game that couldn't really have been conceived of without some important platforms already in place;

  • Ubiquitous 3G (or better) mobile internet infrastructure,
  • Cheap enough data to be able to play without worrying about the costs
  • Ubiquitous smartphone penetration,
  • GPS and compass hardware on all of those smartphones,
  • Ubiquitous familiarity with all of those technologies. (If you have to explain how to turn around in the real world to orientate yourself in a virtual world, you aren't going to understand the basics of the game).

And, of course, if you don't have good enough battery life that you can use the GPS without worrying about killing your phone for the rest of the day then you lose the ability to drop into the game's virtual world for the most casual element of the game play…

  1. Pitches are a blight of the media industry.

  1. Sometimes that long just to download and install the necessary updates to be allowed to play in the first place…

On Apple pulling the plug

This evening (UK time), Apple will do the one thing that you can expect them to do every year; have a big September event where they announce the next iPhone. All else is speculation, but it seems like a near-certainty that the new iPhone will be faster, won't have a headphone socket, and will look pretty much the same as the iPhone 6/6s (and therefore there will be a medium and "plus" size model.) There will probably also be new Apple Watch news.

The removal of the headphone socket is probably going to be the most interesting piece of news, because it isn't exactly clear why its being removed. Its unlikely that the phone will be so thin that it won't fit - there still needs to be a decent slab of lithium battery in there. A second speaker might well take its place, but thats about what is filling the space left behind – not why there is a space opening up there in the first place. About 6 months worth of controlled leaks means that the tech press has been debating it for a while now though.1 I don't buy the argument that its just a way to sell something; Apple's priority is selling more iPhones, not more accessories. So the interesting question at the moment is what its being replaced with.

Most of the commentary I've seen has been around the idea of a lightning port adapter; the idea being that the phone will come with a normal, wired pair of headphones that will plug into the only remaining socket, and if you want to use them with something else (like, for example, your Macbook) you will use a little lightning-to-3.5mm adapter. But that seems like a tiny annoyance that will be incredibly easy to lose.

My guess is that Apple's story won't be about taking away the socket, but introducing something new. And I don't think the "something new" is likely to be about a different kind of wire. A few months ago, thanks to a new interest in exercise1 and after discovering that normal headphones tend to fall out of sweaty ears while running, I bought a cheap pair of wireless headphones. I wouldn't particularly recommend them - they are a bit uncomfortable, the sound isn't great for music (but fine for podcasts), but what I would recommend is the idea of wireless headphones. Take away the cable that runs from your ears to wherever your phone happens to be — whether in your hand, in a pocket, on your desk — means taking away an annoyance.

So my bet is that the headphone-socket-less iPhone won't come with a different pair of headphones to plug into a different socket, but a pair of headphones to not plug into a socket. That is, they will probably plug into the lightning socket to top up the battery while on the go (similar to how the iPad Pencil charges through the Lightning socket), but won't need to be plugged in to use them. Charging off the phone would be a compelling feature on its own.

What I'm hoping is that they will come in at a price point significantly lower than the current £170 starting point for Beats wireless headphones. They don't have to be ultra-cheap1, but something like £60-80 feels like a good balance between adding genuine value to what comes in the iPhone box and a reasonably priced accessory to sell to people who are going to be using an older iPhone for the next few years.

But what I'm really hoping (wishing?) for is something that takes the bluetooth headphone experience of pairing and unpairing with different devices (which is a real pain in the neck) and making it simple to switch between iPhone, iPad and Macbook (and Watch). I personally wouldn't be bothered if it was an Apple-only protocol1; maybe something like a Siri button, or a way to listen to music on a Macbook while talking to Siri on an iPhone could be an interesting feature. But just a wireless system that lets me switch devices from the device that has a touchscreen/keyboard and mouse/usable UI instead of three buttons and a tiny LED. That would be very helpful.1

But if Apple are taking away a socket and expecting every iPhone user to replacing it with a different plug, I will be pretty disappointed.

For the watch, I'm hoping for something different; a new "Sport Plus" Watch "collection" that has built-in GPS (that will probably be a horrible drain on the battery), and the old Watch and Sport "collections" sticking around for a while longer. Not because of any kind of strategic vision or anything like that (although I have suspected since the parallel launch of a £259 and £5,000 with identical computers inside them that they aren't planning on any significant internal hardware shake-ups for the Watch line), but because I just got the original Sport model for a birthday present and I'd be a little bit sad if it was replaced with something I want more so soon. But thats really my problem, not Apple's…

  1. I wrote a post about it back in January, for what thats worth. I haven't seen much marketing around the wired Beats headphones since then though – but the wireless ones have had pretty prominent positioning in Apple stores.

  2. Well, an interest in not dying young that has expressed itself through trying to build a new exercise habit, which works out as more or less the same thing.

  3. My £15 bluetooth headphones are probably a false economy, but I find shopping for headphones at the best of times.

  4. Although it would be even more helpful for the wireless speaker we have in the kitchen that might be used by about 6 diffent devices in the household.

  5. Because of my employers' security policies, I seem to need to have admin rights for my work PC if I want to connect my bluetooth headphones to it for office listening, so my headphones are effectively Apple-only as I only use them with my phone and my laptop anyway.

Unordered #7: Good grief

Well, its been a while. I did have another post planned, but things got sidetracked by work, then by Brexit (which made all the other stuff going on seem like a waste of time to read through my scribbles and turn them into coherent sentences, let alone try to knock it all into a vaguely shareable shape.) Then by work again. So, thats why there was no "Unordered #6", in case you were wondering.1


  • It feels like I should at least acknowledge that the whole Brexit referendum happened. I'd quite like to ignore it, but if the point of this is "unordered thoughts", pretending that my thoughts have really revolved around much else in the last few weeks would be a bit of a lie. So, consider this one to be either a clearing of the throat before I get back to the kind of thoughts that I actually want to think about.

I think the big outpouring of emotion is over, and the grieving process seems to have come to some kind of conclusion (if thats the right word.) We've gone through the denial (how can a result that close be meaningful?), anger (stupid people, believing stupid people's stupid claims...), bargaining (lets have a petition for another referendum! Maybe the question could just be "Really? Are you sure?"), depression (I can't believe I live in a country full of stupid xenophobes...) and now some kind of acceptance (if a protracted debate about Article 50 can really be called that...)

Also, I didn't know you can embed Facebook posts. Thats fun.

(Embedding rather than just recycling simply because of the excellent first comment.)

  • There used to be a tradition of newspapers appending people's names with their agest (eg. "David Cameron (49)"). Shaun Ryder used to have a newspaper column where he parodied this by putting their height instead (eg. "David Cameron (6'1")") 1. Now, every mention of a politician on the BBC website seems to be appended by whether they backed Leave or Remain. I wonder how long its going to last.

  • I think there are two slogans that, looking back, sum up the Brexit campaign. "Take back control" is the obvious one — the 'party' line, repeated at every opportunity. Order, instead of chaos. Putting power with the UK, not with Brussels. Its a strong, simple message, very difficult to argue against in principle, but pretty meaningless when you scratch the surface and try to figure out what it actually means. ("Faceless bureocrats" is probably a close second for the meaningless rhetoric prize - more "faceless" than our home-grown bureocrats? More bureocratic than our own civil service?)
    The other one is the line that I suspect Michael Gove will be remembered for/will haunt him forever; "I think this country has had enough of experts".
    (I do also quite like "Brexit means Brexit", just for the utter meaningless of it as a phrase for a Prime Minister to say and the media to report as though it actually meant anything at all, but it doesn't quite encapsulate the emptiness of the whole campaign.)

  • I think the most surreal thing on the actual night of the count was seeing Lindsay Lohan's live tweeting along. But the most surreal thing in the aftermath must be this;

    Yes, time in parliament was being spent discussing how the town of Kettering should respond to one of Lindsay Lohan's tweets about the results being announced. Because that, apparently, is what really matters to Kettering.

  • The whole idea was a stupid one in the first place. Lets have a referendum on issues that the public are qualified to make decisions on, and have an informed point of view. Would we like the shops to be open on a Sunday — how do we, as a nation, feel about the added working hours, "special" family time (unless you work in the kind of industry where you don't get "special" time, like doctors). Or the idea that we should spend billions of pounds on nuclear warheads to be patrolling the oceans, so that if a nuclear war does start and Britain gets wiped off the face of the earth, at least we can get some kind of posthumous "fuck humanity" revenge strike in. If they are going to be used in my name, I'd quite like to have a say in the matter.

Back to normal thoughts about silly internet things like Pokémon and Playstations soon.

  1. I was trying to do a look at "why I would vote Leave (if I was going to vote Leave)", looking at the other side of the arguments; the principles of being "more democratic", "taking back control" and so on. But every argument just seemed so stupid that it felt more like a straw-man attack than an attempt to see both sides of the argument, which really wasn't the spirit of the "lets try to understand why so many people seem to feel that leaving the EU is a good idea" concept that I was trying to write. And then it became increasingly clear that it wasn't just an alarmingly large minority. All of which is now kind of academic... #sigh#

  2. That is some painful punctuation right there…

Unordered #5: Back to work

  • So, when some kind of themes or patterns started falling out of the last couple of posts, I had the incredibly stupid idea that I could decide a theme for the next Unordered. Even more stupidly, I thought I could make this next one somehow related to work, pulling this a step closer toward being some kind of work-related blog thing… If you were wondering 1 why there was a bit of a longer gap between posts, well, now you know. Its because I was foolishly trying to push it into Q2 of the procrastinators matrix, which is a very silly place for a procrastinator like me to put anything they actually intend to get done.
  • Nevertheless, lets kick off with something from the world of advertising; an advert for Bodyform that has blood in it. My cynical side immediately pulled out this article on how empowerment became something for women to buy, except I think this is about something more, in that its trying to make the brand into something that works with periods instead of pretending that the menstrual cycle is nothing more impactful than a bit of a mess in your pants once every four weeks. (I remember when I was younger finding it really weird how sanitary products adverts seemed so much like nappy adverts, but with grown women instead of babies. I'm pretty sure that had a not-insignificant impact on my understanding of how womens' bodies work, given that I think my school did the thing where the boys don't sit in the lessons where they teach girls about how their bodies work – at least, I don't recall that particular lesson…) Which seems like good work being done by advertising people. Hooray.
  • Meanwhile, the media industry is currently holding its collective breath as it awaits a report from ANA/K2/Ebiquity 2 about 'non transparency' around how agencies are spending their clients money – which seems to revolve around agencies getting rebates and not passing them back to their clients. First off3, big disclaimer;4 I do work in a media agency, but in Research. As I don't work on the buying side, I'm about three steps removed from the world of auditors, so I'm happy to talk about this precisely because I'm way out of my depth and don't really understand it. And also, the report is all about the US, where the practice around rebates is apparently completely different to Europe, and I don't really understand the practice around rebates in Europe either. BUT… it feels like an issue that is just the latest wave of "digital is changing everything and it makes me scared" to hit the industry. The way media used to work was pretty simple; advertiser wanted to put adverts in front of an audience. They defined that audience using demographics - which are a very good tool for describing a big group of people5 – and a media agency bought the spaces around the stuff that audience was looking at; the breaks around the TV they were watching, the spaces around the articles they were reading and so on. If, as a media owner, you wanted to sell advertising, you needed scale because that meant having reach and being an important part of a media plan that got the broadest reach of the target audience as cost-effectively as possible. Turns out though, in a digital world that all gets flipped upside down and inside out because a) without all the hassle of limited airwaves/pages/shelf space there isn't really a limit on how big a media owner can scale (see: Google, Facebook) so combining different publishers is less of an issue than it once was, and b) when your media doesn't involve 'broadcast' technology like radio broadcasts or printing presses, but involves creating every single page on the fly for every single reader (with a different advert on that page if you like), and technology can stop you showing the same advert to the same 'person' 6 twice, "reach" turns into a totally different kind of game.7 Because now, you don't buy "an audience" as one big clump of people who see the thing that you made (think: readers of a particular issue of a newspaper, viewers of a particular channel at a particular time, people who listen to a particular radio station in the car on the way to work) who you know are likely to be your good customers because you've done your audience research, because you can use a combination of data and technology to just pick off the people who you think are likely to be your good customers from all kinds of different places on the internet without really caring about where they happen to be when they see those adverts. (ie. those adverts you keep on seeing for the thing you were thinking about buying on a website that time.) Back then, a handful of publishers owned the audience, packaged them up and sold them as profitably as possible.
    Now, the "audience" is global, there are millions of publishers - far too many for any individual to properly keep track of, and the audience relationship (as far as advertisers are concerned) is run by the data and technology side of things. But the data costs money, the technology costs money, the people who properly understand how it all fits together and make it all work properly cost money – so while the cost of the actual media (that is, the money that goes to the publisher) is doing what you would expect it to do when supply is virtually infinite and drops like a stone, so the costs of running a profitable agency take up a bigger and bigger slice of what the advertiser is actually spending.
    Now, all of this is quite probably going to look stupid in the light of the actual report, when I have little doubt that some terrible things are going to get uncovered and spread around the media industry's trade press, and people are going to think that the worst things that are being done in the US are also being done as a matter of course in the UK, which presumably is good for business for the companies who happen to be writing the report in the first place.7
    My main point here is that in 9 years in "digital" in a big UK media agency group, I haven't seen anything that strikes me as being bad practice (silly- sure, but bad- no.) In fact, from what I've seen it looks much more like the other way around; 9 years ago, I saw my digital buying colleagues being taken out for ski trips, big parties and other kinds of media jollies that just don't seem to happen very much any more because post-recession, nobody is paying for that kind of thing. Even the little freebies (branded Moleskine notebooks, bags, memory sticks etc.) seem to have dried up these days…
    But (and this is a massive but), if you are doing a good job of measuring what your advertising is doing instead of just measuring your advertising, then this shouldn't really be an issue because you should be happy that you're getting your money's worth.
  • Sorry that was a bit long, even with all the footnotes.
  • Also, I'm kind of sorry about the footnotes. I can't figure out if they are a nice way to make things skimmable if you're in that kind of mindset while also being able to throw in the extra bits that don't really need to be in there, or just obnoxious obstacles that get in the way of reading some words. Feedback welcome...
  • Remember that point about scale? Well, it seems that Facebook is going to sell adverts to non-Facebook users. One and a half billion users – which is more than even the potential audience any publisher has ever had in the history of publishing, and they want to scale up… I don't really understand this, to be honest. Facebook have a very good business involving social, mobile and video. This feels like a distraction more than anything else.
  • Facebook video views "count" after 3 seconds. Surprised? Well, this shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, and is one of the reasons Facebook video is (or at least, can be) very cheap when compared to the kind of "view" that gets counted after a longer period of time (eg. YouTube skippable video ads, which tend not to be watched in silence the way Facebook videos are.) I'm not Facebook's biggest fan, but I don't really see a problem with this one; one point six billion people should understand the implications of a video in your newsfeed and how vastly different the context is from a video on YouTube, or a broadcaster app, or a video-centric context/environment, or a publisher site, or pretty much anything other than Facebook (or Twitter, I guess.). Also, Facebook is a biddable platform; you don't pay a penny more than you think its worth, and if advertisers are measuring the outcomes instead of just counting impressions and reach (not to mention putting decent videos on Facebook that are relevant to the context), then they should have some idea if it was worth it or not, but there is a bit of tension here between how well Facebook video works when the video is something you have already seen and the first 3 seconds refreshes it in your memory verus the idea that TV adverts should be on the internet instead of on television, which I think is much more interesting.
  • Speaking of tension around Facebook and videos, this is a good appeal to Facebook to be doing a better job of policing stolen videos. Not, I should clarify, "stolen" in the sense of celebrity sex tapes being nicked from hacked phones, but "stolen" in the far less dramatic copyright-breaking content sense of the word. This reminds me of the legal dispute over 'the dress' photo, but the story is that someone made a video that you've probably seen which got over 150 million views – which, in terms of media value must be worth something in the region of, say at a £10 CPM for the sake of a realistic round number; thats about one and a half million pounds worth of 'media' value created by someone who, not meaning any unkindness of any sort, had no idea what to do to make a popular video on the internet, but still ended up making an incredibly popular video on the internet to the extent that its knocked Buzzfeed's watermelon thing into the weeds. (I'll come back to the melon video in a minute.) As far as I can see, she is enjoying the ride and doing very well, and all the best wishes to her. But the value relationship between the Facebook platform that monetises the attention of its audience and everyone who copies the video to put on their own sites and turn it into 'content' is a bit of a funny one. YouTube did very well to get out of being "the place on the internet where you can find videos of anything" to a site doing a pretty good job of processing a massive volume of video and looking out for copyrighted stuff and then having a process of what to do about it. It would be nice if Facebook could do something similar – if thats even possible…

  • OK, thats more than enough shop talk. (I even skimmed over the big piece of Star Wars pop culture for the week to talk about advertising some more…) How about a video of an Octupus attacking a crab, which has had 150 million views on YouTube. Apparently this is the only video on this YT channel – as though someone made a cool video, decided to put it on the internet, and then sat back and watched as the view count went through the roof but never got around to making any more videos to see what happened to them. (That isn't really how it works, but I'm going to pretend that it is because the reality is far more depressing and we've all had enough about digital media for one post…)

  • Speaking of octopuses and their amazing camoflague (no, not just now, it was last time, here is a master of disguise being ambushed by a master of disguise. If you're ever wondering why fish decided it was a good idea to get out of the water they could breathe in and figure out how to breathe somewhere else, its probably because this is the kind of thing that happens in the ocean.
  • How about an octopus that made itself some armour?
  • Here's a Reddit thread where you can see more cool octopus stuff.
  • Years ago, before Rod, Jane and Freddy were a trio, Rod and Jane were married, but divorced before Freddy joined. Freddy and Jane became an item a few years later, but only just got married. I imagine that for anyone under the age of about 35 that will all be completely meaningless, while for anyone over 35, adding surnames would only be creating confusion.
  • has a great robots.txt, if you're into that kind of thing. (Again, if you need any explanation then its a thing not actually worth explaining.)
  • This is mental. Plans are being drawn up for a satellite that can chuck down fireworks for the Japanese Olympic opening ceremony that will make shooting stars. Thirty million people in the Tokyo area would be able to see one of them, and its talking about taking up between five hundred and a thousand of them. Next-level fireworks…
  • Nokia is back. Or rather, some bits of the Nokia business that didn't get bought up by Microsoft (and didn't that go well?) are getting another company (run by ex-Nokia execs) to build Android phones with a Nokia badge. It feels like there should be a word for taking an old brand and sticking it on a new product so that you can claim "heritage" ("moleskinning", maybe?) — but on the plus side, its got Tomi Ahonen busy again, which will be great news to anyone who was reading his blog around the time of "burning platforms".
  • Spotify have done a deal to allow mixtapes to use the platform. partnership with Dubset. Not sure how this will impact Soundcloud, which seems to be kind of the YouTube for these kind of things, but anything that might make it easier for the next Girl Talk to get noticed and talked about enough for me to pick up on it can only be a good thing.
  • Three UK are testing out ad blocking. There's something about this that feels somewhat parasitic. It might sound like good news for Three's customers, but I'm not so sure that cutting off the business model for the publishers they want to read on the internet is really a long-term win for anyone other than the people selling the technology to sidestep the technology that is turning the media industry inside out in all sorts of ways…
  • Also on the Ad Blocking thing; Adobe/Pagefair seem to have become the de facto source of industry ad blocking stats, so the release of their latest report should be of interest to people interested in that kind of thing. (Or alternatively, people who are likely to be asked questions about that kind of thing as a part of their jobs…) I'm slightly bothered by their metric of "blocked advertising revenue" though. The idea is that if all those blocked adverts weren't blocked, then this is what they would be worth. The problem is, if all those blockers were switched off today, it wouldn't generate any additional advertising revenue tomorrow. There would be more ad units out there, and no doubt a great deal of them would be sold. But that increase in supply wouldn't lead to an increase in demand — advertisers don't have any kind of problem with a lack of online advertising inventory for them to buy and the prices going down so that inventory gets filled really doesn't feel like a positive step for anyone. I get the idea that you want to give people numbers so they can talk about how bad the ad blocker problem is and track it over time, but I'm really not convinced that it gets to the underlying problem in any way.
  • I said I would say something about the Buzzfeed watermelon video, but this has gone on for far too long already, so just see what Gawker has to say about internet video views and check out the melon video along the way, just so that you can put the whole Chewbacca thing into context.
  • Thinkbox have a presentation in the "nickable charts" section of their website, titled "The New Video World". In a nutshell; YouTube have pissed them off, and the knives are out…

Next time: I promise a faster update, less words, less advertising talk.


  1. Or indeed, noticed

  2. Basically, people who media agency's clients hire to make sure that their media agency are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

  3. Actually, I'm going to head that off with another disclaimer; the report came out between me writing this and posting it, and I can't be bothered to edit the post before I've read the report, which I haven't yet done because its still in Q2.

  4. This feels a bit like the trope; "I'm not racist, but here's a thing I think about black people", or "I'm not xenophobic, but here are some good reasons why we shouldn't be in any kind of agreement, union or relationship with any other countries that isn't purely based on selling them shit" that you say to somehow defuse the stupid thing that you're about to say. Except I'm pretty sure that in modern society, having a go at the advertising industry is very rarely considered "saying something stupid". Except… well, I'll come back to the exception in a minute.

  5. This point about demographics is actually quite a big one, and is also another one of those posts that I keep trying and failing to write, because its sitting up there in Q2 again.

  6. By "person", I mean "unique user", which is a special term the digital media industry uses to make it sound like its talking about a person when actually its talking about a machine.

  7. Also, c) If you find a successful way get other people to make the "content" that actually fills your website, you don't need to worry about paying writers, editors, journalists etc. etc. Which is the subject of another two drafts in Q2

  8. Also in Q2 is my reaction to the "everything you need to know about video" report that doesn't talk about the cost of incremental reach, and the TV industry body's all-out offensive on YouTube. Seriously, in a couple of months when future me has actually written all those posts, this place is going to be on fire...

The Cost of Ad Blocking

To be perfectly honest, this is more an exercise in playing with Squarespace's chart plugin than anything else, but I thought the growth of the Adobe/Pagefair figures for ad blocking and their "cost" to the industry seemed pretty high. So I stuck them into Excel to see where the pattern was going (just a simple best-fit analysis, nothing clever). At their current estimates, it looks like the "blocked" revenue will be bigger than the whole online advertising industry.

Ad Blocking vs Ad Spend

All figures in $US billion, (p) = Projected figures (polynomial)

The thing is, this "blocked revenue" number is actually kind of meaningless. If all ad blockers were turned off tomorrow, there wouldn't be any more advertising money coming in. Its missing the point of the problem for the sake of creating headline-friendly numbers.

Unordered #4: Back to the Future

  • The last post was supposed to be drawing a line under the whole "looking back" theme, but… In the last week or so, we have seen Radiohead release a new album, the Stone Roses and Super Furry Animals release new singles, the Spice Girls are apparently making a record… Nothing about that sentence would have looked out of place 20 years ago. Now admittedly, plenty of the musical artists that were big 20 years before that were still going in 1996 (its actually kind of surprising how many are still going today), but it still feels like a strangely retro-flavoured week. I'm pretty sure that if someone had told me that was what was going to be happening 20 years into the future, I would have been surprised. But I guess I would also have expected there to be other things going on in the world of music that I would at least have known about… (Albeit on a news cycle dictated by the monthly magazine publications…)
  • Speaking of which, I'm still on the fence about the new Stone Roses song. I don't think that its as good as the old stuff, but I have 20+ years of the old stuff accompanying me along all the big events in my life, I know every moment of every record backwards, so nothing is every going to be that good to me, especially after one listen. I don't think its bad… But… Well, I can't figure out why it doesn't seem to have a verse. I think my issue with it is that Ian Brown went down a pretty experimental road (say what you will about Unfinished Monkey Business, it wasn't predictable), while John Squire went down a much more 'traditional' road with the Seahorses… and I think I wish the Roses reunion had been a bit more Ian Brown than John Squire. It sounds like Ian Brown singing a Seahorses song. Oh – and if someone told me that Reni wasn't actually playing drums on the record, I don't think I would be massively surprised. Still cautiously optimistic about the idea of an album - even if its only because it feels like, given the time that they have had to play around with it, it should give everyone a chance to shine rather than be driven by a single personality. (And if there is one track that gives Reni a chance to shine, it will all have been worth it. Seriously)
  • 20 years ago, Apple Computers was in near-terminal decline, had pretty much zero market presence in the UK, Steve Jobs was gone, and it looked like the business was going to be about as relevant in the future as Sinclair. In 2016, thats where I went to buy the Stone Roses single. Didn't see that one coming…
  • Oh - I've got one recent music-related story I'm aware of; Azealia Banks got kicked off Twitter, for saying racist and homophobic things to a member of a boy band who got big by being a runner-up in a TV talent contest. Thats kind of about the world of music, even if it doesn't actually involve any music… Throw in the fact that she is a bisexual hip-hop star who is very outspoken about African-American issues and you would have the kind of story that I think my 20-years-ago-self would have assumed would make sense to me in a more enlightened future. (But doesn't really.) Anyway - the linked article about the whole Twitter thing is well worth a read.
  • Anyway – there is a general point I'm circling around here, which is that its not just hard to see what the world is going to look like in the space of a generation or so; lots that you would think would change won't, and lots that you wouldn't think would change will. It isn't just a case of predicting the winners and losers, because often the whole game changes shape. John Naughton has posted the text of a speech he made recently about the evolution of the internet1 which gives some pretty good points to think about around where this technology could be heading – or more to the point, how society could be changing shape around the technology. The key point is that the internet has become a General Purpose Technology, which means that its impact on the world goes way beyond the domain of computers or telecommunications. I particularly liked the quote about how "companies that aren’t Internet companies won’t be companies at all" (although the timescale was way off…) – a few years ago, I think the idea that electric cars would be disrupting the automotive industry and a smartphone app-based business would be disrupting taxis would have seemed like a "10-20 years in the future" kind of story; Tesla and Uber seem to have snapped that into a much nearer-term kind of future. Today, it seems kind of obvious.
    But the bit that I find really interesting is the bit inbetween; what are the small decisions being made today that are going to have a big effect on the future. When the packet-switching network was being developed in the 1960s, it was definitely not obvious that it was going to be a success, let alone what the implications of its success would be on world-wide telecommunications. But looking back, history seems much more like a straight and predestined path.
    My best illustration for the idea; what would the world be like today if Google didn't exist? 2 We wouldn't have that particular search engine dominating the online landscape, obviously… but what would we have in its place? Would another company have developed a search engine that tied web crawling with using inbound links as a measure of authority? Would the front page of the internet have stayed as it was before Google, dominated by the 'manual curation' model that the likes of Yahoo were pushing, tied to 'Portals', and driven by broadcast-like media models? What would the internet have looked like if data-driven response advertising hadn't been such a massive part of the Dotcom boom? (Would there even have been a Dotcom boom?) What about the second-order effects; if we didn't have Google's search engine technology, what would it have meant for website discovery? What would website design look like if SEO was never a 'thing'? Would Tim Berners-Lee's idea of the machine-readable semantic web have taken off if Google hadn't provided an alternative solution to the problem it was addressing? And if nothing else had been different, what if nobody had been pushing a 'free'(ish) open-source mobile operating system to compete with the closed-source models?
    Does Google (or rather, Alphabet) count as a 'General Purpose Technology'? Perhaps 'General Purpose Company' is a thing now…
  • On a similar theme, Benedict Evans has a blog post up about inevitability in technology, and those kind of counter-faactual historical questions, with an interesting look at where Facebook might be today if they hadn't picked up Instagram and Whatsapp. (Spoiler: Not necessarily #1 in Active Users.) But the key point for me is China, and how different it is to the west; "We think of the portal model as a dead-end, but half a billion Chinese Internet users suggest that it could have been otherwise. The Chinese internet is a great way to challenge your thinking on what's inevitable in technology - it's a living counterfactual."
    Also, a quote from a different Ben Evans post: "Nokia and Blackberry were skating to where the puck was going to be, and felt nice and fast and in control, while Apple and Google were melting the ice rink and switching the game to water-skiing. "
  • While I'm on the subject of parallel evolution (weak link, sorry), octopuses are crazy. I mean, "8 arms" is a pretty weird thing on its own, that gets even weirder when you discover that a big part of octopus brains are in their arms 3, they can squeeze through tiny gaps, change their colour and texture in the blink of an eye in a camouflage trick that makes chameleons look about as clever as an ostrich with its head in the sand (which is a myth, obviously), or disguise themselves as rocks but time their movement along the sea bed to synchronise with the movement of the sunlight through the waves so it looks like they aren't actually moving. And they have three hearts, which beats Doctor Who by 50%. And they have really weird parenting skills that seem to involve giving birth, stopping eating and then either dying of starvation or blowing her babies away and then dying of some kind of shock/heartache, which means that they aren't really learning anything from their parents, so all their skills seem to be based on pure instinct.
    Everything about octopuses is weird. (Further reading, and some more)
    But the really weird thing; despite evolving along a completely separate pathway to humans (being invertebrates, our closest common ancestor was probably some kind of worm-like creature about 750 million years ago), they share some key features with humans; a closed circulatory system, eyes with an iris, retina and lens (our common ancestor probably had nothing more sophisticated than some light-sensitive patches of skin), a large brain (although theirs are partly surrounding their oesophagus, and a large amount of it is out it their arms), and a similar neural network that enables them to adapt and learn; they can do things like open jars, use tools and solve puzzles. Basically, if you want a thought experiment in how completely different alien life might be, octopuses are probably a good place to start looking.
  • So, back to smaller-scale, technology-type things; I'm writing this while sitting next to my wife, with a laptop each and a digital camera. She wants to get the photos off the camera and onto her laptop. Except for some reason, plugging it in via USB isn't working. So, I plug it into mine - the camera appears, then disappears. Seems that the USB cable is dodgy, which wouldn't be a problem if it was a USB mini-B (which I've got loads of from old pre-iPhone smartphones, bits of music kit and pretyt much any gadget more than about 5 years old), or USB micro-B (which I've got loads of from newer kids toys, Blackberrys and Samsung Android phones.) But no - its… well, I don't really know what it is.4 But whatever it is, it doesn't seem to work and I don't think I have an alternative cable… But it does have the ability to transfer over wifi to a smartphone with an app installed and connected to its own wifi network, which doesn't actually help get them onto a laptop… But thats fine, because my laptop has a built-in SD card reader, which isn't going to help next time she wants to get a photo off the camera, but for now its good. I can just connect to her laptop with Airdrop and wirelessly send her the pictures… Except, for some reason, she sees me in Airdrop, but I don't see her. So, I set up a shared Dropbox folder to drop the pictures in, which means a bit of back-and-forth with emails to confirm an invitation, and I've managed to get the photos on her laptop.
    This seems like pretty normal problem-solving behaviour to me, but along the way it has involved servers in at least 2 different continents and literally sending the photos all the way around the world and back again to get them onto a laptop that I can literally reach over and touch. (I just touched it, just to make the point to myself.)
    Now, rewind 30 years to when the latest innovation in my computing world was the ZX Spectrum +2 with 128k and a built-in tape player, and I'm trying to imagine what that story from 30 years in the future would sound like to me. I'm guessing it would sound boring and pointless, and I would quickly go from wondering why whoever designed my wife's computer of the future didn't include any kind of removable disk drive to wondering why sending the photos all the way around the world seemed like a quicker and easier thing to do than either getting up and getting one of the many USB drives on my desk, or reaching across and using the 2 terabyte hard drive that is literally within arms reach, but I had completely forgotten about.5
  • Google have created a new keyboard for iOS (well, for iPhone really - apparently its crap on the iPad.) Sounds like a combination of useful features with more privacy control than you might expect from something that could let Google track every single thing you type (although policies can always change…) The thing I don't understand though – why not make this available outside of the US? I'm sure it won't take long to get a wider release but… just, why?
  • The 'brands pretending to be your friend' thing might be coming to a close – replaced with brands pretending to be artisanal hipsters. The one thing I definitely disagree with in this piece is that Costa coffee is pretty good.
  • On a similar note; Service work is skilled work. Get over it. I do think that making good coffee is in a weird position right now; on one hand, its easy for those of us who used to make cups of filter coffee for a living to mock those who are now making patterns in cappucinos… but having spent a few years trying to get the most out of a home espresso machine, I think the real point of the whole latte art thing is that you can't do it unless you've managed to do a good job of making the steamed milk; its a bit like the shamrock on top of a pint of Guinness, in that its a sign that you've learnt how to pour a pint of Guinness properly and then learnt how to do a shamrock on top. But the wider point is that there is the kind of service work that you can do when you are a reasonably irresponsible teenager/young adult where you just need to achieve basic competence (like making a jug of filter coffee and pouring it into a cup), and there is the kind of service work that takes a degree of skill to do properly (like make a good cup of coffee with a properly-made espresso, properly steamed milk, and properly combined in a cup.) I guess its a shame that for all that the coffee industry has done in the UK over the last decade or so, most coffee is still served in a paper cup with a lid on the top…
    I do find it weird that the article doesn't mention "transferrable skills" at any point though. It feels like its a pretty important issue for the topic.
  • While in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I noticed the Zynga offices - a massive building in a prominent, central location, which seemed kind of weird considering that the days of Farmville seem to be some way behind us now. Turns out, if you take away the cash in the bank, the office is worth more than the company. (I don't know if that says more about the rapidly changing San Francisco property prices or the rapidly changing casual gaming industry.) Apparently they won't be there for long though. It seems that despite the amount of money you can make by making a massively successful casual game, making a massively succesful casual game isn't actually proof that you know how to make a massively succesful casual game.
  • I saw this story shared around on Facebook, about how a woman learnt about her mother's life through her laptop. Now, on one hand it reminded me of the only YouTube comment I have ever seen that was worth reading. But on the other, it made me think about the impression someone would get from going through my laptop — the unfinished work (personal and professional), the "music" I recorded that was just me trying to figure out how my USB audio interface worked, right next to the stuff I've recorded while trying to actually figure out how to write a song… As far as I can see, there are two ways to go from this; either I consider my latop to be a kind of semi-public space, and be mindful that one day it could be my wife, my parents, or my children looking through my hard drive, reading my notes, drafts, doodles etc. Or I consider it a totally throw-on-my-funeral-pyre private thing, and make an effort to put more of my "stuff" into a semi-public space (ie. shared folders, Day One journal, paper notebooks, this blog etc.)
    The thing is, this ties in with some pretty fundamental stuff going on around privacy; personally, I think this is a really important issue, and something we need to be thinking carefully about how we protect it (or whats left of it.) For example, it would be pretty straightforward to buy a thing for your wifi that lets you limit how much time your kids can spend on the internet, and give you "insight reports" to let you know what they are up to. Sounds like a useful thing for responsible parents… except, at what point do you turn it off? Because the point where your babies turn into little independant people is probably the point where you should be respecting their privacy and letting them make their own choices/mistakes/lives, but its also going to be the point where you really want to know what is going on intheir lives that they aren't telling you about any more, so I expect the point where I should switch off the thing is exactly the point where I'm not going to want to… On the other hand, there is the opinion that privacy doesn't really matter; that its something that, in the future, will look like a load of quaint and old-fashioned scare stories.
    I'm still chewing over this one, to be honest…
  • There is one thing that you can guarantee is going to happen in the future and to make plans for, and thats dying. There is an organisation called the Digital Legacy Association, who are all about advising healthcare professionals about how to deal with their online legacy. They had a news story this week about how people stay friends with people on Facebook after they die. Anyway, it led me to think about how to make my Facebook page one less thing for someone to worry about when I die; it turns out that you can set a 'legacy contact' to be the person who is responsible for your profile after you die (it is a bit hidden away in the Security settings – I won't give instructions, because that kind of thing gets moved around on a reasonably regular basis.) If you don't want your FB page to be deleted when you're gone, but you don't want to worry about sharing your password with someone (and what happens if you change it in the future – which you should probably be doing on a regular basis) then you should probably look into this.
  • The world is designed for men. Kind of stating the obvious — the world has been mainly "designed" by men for the last few centuries, but this article explains some of the consequences. (Via Azeem Azhar's Exponential View newsletter.)

  1. His book, "A brief history of the future" is my favourite book about the origins of the internet, so I would say that he is particularly well qualified to talk about the subject.

  2. If you cut off an arm, it can still figure out what it wants to touch and what it wants to avoid, to the extent that it will avoid its own arms, but grab onto a different octopus' arms.

  3. ie. a kind of 'alternate 2016', like in Back to the Future part 2, except for 2016 instead of 1985… I'm sure you get the idea.

  4. It might be a UC-E6, which technically isn't even a USB, but I've gone past caring.

  5. Well, I'm sure there would be a period of getting to understand laptops and digital photography and wifi and broadband as well… On the other hand, my 20-years-ago-self knew what the internet was, owned a mobile phone, and would also be good friends with my wife. I do wonder which one he would want to know more about first…