What We Can Do with Ad Blocking's Leverage

by Doc Searls

"Never waste a crisis," Rahm Emanuel is said to have said. And publishers — including Linux Journal — have one now. According to PageFair and Adobe, the number of people blocking ads on their browsers has passed 200 million, worldwide, increasing annually by 42% in the U.S. and 82% in the U.K. Most of the blockers also block tracking, which is a main way that ads are aimed at readers through online publishers.

It's interesting to see how closely the rise in ad blocking follows the rise in discussion of surveillance-fed advertising. Here are the years when interest in these search terms first appeared, according to Google Trends. The ones in italic and boldface are not arcane to tracking-based advertising, but rather our response to it.

  • 2005 — ad tag, mobile engagement
  • 2006 — ad-tech, search analytics
  • 2007 — behavioral targeting, retargeting, third party data, SEM tools, content analytics, microtargeting, do not track
  • 2008 — deal id, ad fraud, social marketing management
  • 2009 — real time message
  • 2010 — demand side platform, cross-device, advertising beacon, social ad network, predictive marketing
  • 2011 — in-stream, real time bidding, creative optimization, search retargeting
  • 2012 — clickstream data, data management platform, mobile reengagement, native advertising, adblock war
  • 2013 — programmatic marketing, programmatic advertising, subscription push, agency trading desk, content marketing platform
  • 2014 — supply side platform, data aggregators
  • 2015 — cross device tracking

This Google Trends graph makes clear how people reacted to all this, especially after Do Not Track failed:

Figure 1. Google Trends Graph

The titles of ad blocking research studies also tell a story. First came Ad Blocking Measured, published by ClarityRay (later acquired by Yahoo) in 2012. Then PageFair brought us The Rise of Adblocking,  Adblocking goes mainstream and The Cost of Adblocking, in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The catch-all term for tracking-based advertising is adtech, and nobody has studied or written more wisely about it than Don Marti, former Editor-in-Chief of Linux Journal. When I asked Don to define adtech, he said,

Adtech can have narrow or broad definitions.

The narrowest definition is a system that implements the Fundamental Value Proposition of Adtech (as defined by Michael Tiffany) — redirecting advertising spending from high-value sites to low-value sites by tracking users. (See Targeting Failure: legit sites lose, intermediaries win.)

An economic definition of adtech would be any system that relies on information about the user to reduce the signaling value of an advertisement.

Google has search ads that have some adtech built in to them, but could work without it and probably better. Some other Google ad products are pure adtech.

Facebook ads are pretty close to pure adtech.

He defines signaling this way:

In a market with asymmetric information, signaling is an action that sends a credible message to a potential counterparty.

Advertising spending is a form of signaling that shows that a seller has the money to advertise (which the seller presumably got from customers, or from investors who thought the product was worth investing in), and believes that the product will earn enough repeat sales to justify the ad spending.

By blocking ads and tracking, users are marking down the value of digital advertising to that of spam while also giving themselves a great deal of leverage, both individually and collectively.

How will they use that leverage? I see two ways: 1) encouraging adverting with high signal value; and 2) signaling their own intentions, which will be far more valuable than adtech's expensive guesswork could ever be.

The highest signal value is in old-fashioned brand advertising.This is the uncomplicated kind that sustained all of commercial publishing and broadcasting for centuries, never tracked anybody, and still comprises most of the world's advertising (including your monthly Linux Journal). At worst it's annoying and wasteful; at best it's useful, interesting and a form of art. (Seen any beautiful adtech lately? Or ever?),

For Madison Avenue, the mania around adtech has marginalized the creative side of advertising, but I expect that to end when the adtech bubble bursts, which it will, inevitably, given the steady growth of ad and tracking blocking. Toward that, Don sees some synergies:

IMHO, creative ad people and creative web people could have an awesome conference if we managed to exclude all surveillance marketing from it...Web people who think that "advertising" is creepy are just as mixed up as advertising people who think that "the web" is creepy. "Big Data" could be much, much more useful for everybody if people would only stop thinking of it as a way to automate the carny trick of putting chalk marks on audience members' backs, and put it to uses that people agree on and don’t have to be hidden or made confusing. (clicking "I agree" is not agreeing.)

Every set of new technologies has the obvious, "hey we could do THIS with it" application, and surveillance marketing is the one that a lot of people have come up with for the Internet. But once we can get past it — and make the net more trustworthy for more people — there are a lot better opportunities out there.

For expressing intent, we already have intentcasting. Here the user, as a prospective customer, tells the market what she is ready to buy (or, if she is already a customer, what needs service).

I see intentcasting as a cornerstone of The Intention Economy, a market development I first envisioned in 2006 and wrote up here in Linux Journal. That same year I started ProjectVRM at Harvard's Berkman Center, with the intention of making The Intention Economy happen. I wrote a book by the same title in 2012, reporting on progress thus far and forecasting what it would do for the business world. Here's the gist, from its introduction:

Over the coming years customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution...

Relationships between customers and vendors will be voluntary and genuine, with loyalty anchored in mutual respect and concern, rather than coercion. So, rather than “targeting,” “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” customers, as if they were slaves or cattle, vendors will earn the respect of customers who are now free to bring far more to the market’s table than the old vendor-based systems ever contemplated, much less allowed.

Likewise, rather than guessing what might get the attention of consumers—or what might “drive” them like cattle—vendors will respond to actual intentions of customers. Once customers’ expressions of intent become abundant and clear, the range of economic interplay between supply and demand will widen, and its sum will increase. The result we will call the Intention Economy.

This new economy will outperform the Attention Economy that has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising. Customer intentions, well-expressed and understood, will improve marketing and sales, because both will work with better information, and both will be spared the cost and effort wasted on guesses about what customers might want, and flooding media with messages that miss their marks. Advertising will also improve.

The volume, variety and relevance of information coming from customers in the Intention Economy will strip the gears of systems built for controlling customer behavior, or for limiting customer input. The quality of that information will also obsolete or re-purpose the guesswork mills of marketing, fed by crumb-trails of data shed by customers’ mobile gear and Web browsers. “Mining” of customer data will still be useful to vendors, though less so than intention-based data provided directly by customers.

In economic terms, there will be high opportunity costs for vendors that ignore useful signaling coming from customers. There will also be high opportunity gains for companies that take advantage of growing customer independence and empowerment.

Nine years after starting ProjectVRM and three years after that passage was published, we have 23 intentcasting developers listed on the ProjectVRM wiki. Here they are, with descriptions from their literature:

  • About2Buy "A Collaborative Commerce System to Align Internet Buyers & Sellers Via Multiple Channels of Social Distribution."
  • Crowdspending "… gives each of us the power of all of us."
  • GetHuman "Need to contact a company? Or have them call you? Get customer service faster and easier."
  • Greentoe "Finally…There’s a New Way to Shop! Name Your Price & We Negotiate For You."
  • HomeAdvisor "We help you find trusted home improvement pros."
  • Indie Dash Button "This … turns traditional advertising on its head, and removes the need for complicated targeting technology. Customers readily identify themselves, creating more valuable sales channels where guesswork is all but eliminated." (Open source.)
  • iNeed "Your own personal assistant."
  • Intently "Request any service anywhere with Intently.co."
  • Instacart "The best way to shop for groceries — Delivered from the stores you love in one hour"
  • Magic "Text this phone number to get whatever you want on demand with no hassle…"
  • Mesh "Connect with only the things you love… See ads from brands that matter to you. And block the ones that don’t."
  • MyTime "Book appointments for anything."
  • MyWave "‘Frank... your very own personal assistant," puts the you in control of "getting personalised experiences anytime, anywhere, on any device."
  • Nifti – "One simple place to track prices on the products you love."
  • Pikaba "Pikaba is Social Shopping Platform that captures consumer intent to purchase and connects them with the right local business."
  • PricePatrol "monitors nearby stores for what you want at the price you want"
  • RedBeacon "Trusted pros for a better home."
  • TaskRabbit "Tell us what you need, let us know what we can take off your plate, choose a Tasker, hire one of our fully vetted Taskers to get the job done."
  • Thumbtack "We help you hire experienced professionals at a price that’s right."
  • TrackIf "Track your favorite sites for sales, new items, back-in-stock, and more."
  • WebOfNeeds – "A distributed marketplace driven by customer needs." (Open source.)
  • yellCast "What you want, where you want it."
  • Zaarly "Hire local, hand-picked home services. We moderate every job and guarantee happiness at virtually any cost."

In Let's scale #intentcasting, posted on the ProjectVRM blog in November, I call for "an open source way to scale across multiple vendors with the same signaling method," while also wondering "if there is a semantic-ish approach to Intentcasting. By that I mean a vernacular of abbreviated simple statements of what one is looking for. Example: '2br 2ba apt 10019' means a two bedroom and two bath apartment in the 10019 zip code."

In the comments below, Bill Wendell of Real Estate Cafe adds this to my example above:

Intentcasting in real estate could deliver billions in consumer savings annually and open up the choke hold on inventory (small number of active listings relative to demand). There’s also an important role for a large scale "4th party" to advocate for a consumer-centric open ecosystem as the industry transitions into the future:


If you follow @CRTLabs you’ll see Realtor IoT projects, and an Om.ie-like initiative they’re calling "Rosetta Home." I’m generally a critic of the industry but http://RESO.org is an independent standards group and their own hack (PlugFest) suggests that their members might be open to FutureCommerce.

Kevin Cox of Welcomer then offers this:

Both vendors and customers want the Intention Economy: vendors have the intention to sell us goods and services and customers have the intention to buy the vendor’s goods and services.

Ad blocking frees us to communicate with whom we want. Ad blocking is better termed ad choice and ad choice is part of the intention economy.

Ad blocking is a precursor to a change in electronic communication. Ad blocking, spam filters, silent telephone numbers, 'no junk mail' signs, are what happens when we get control over who and when and with whom we communicate and connect.

The permanent web (IPFS.io) gives both vendors and customers the ability to create electronic permanent identities. Welcomer is an early permanent identity technology built on top of the permanent web. The permanent identity from Welcomer is a set of distributed connections where the connections are peer to peer. There is no central directory. There is no single identity. There are just peer to peer connections where each party has rights. This approach is likely to prevail because the connections are simple and includes all existing id systems. Putting many connections of different types together leads to complexity in the resulting emergent structures. These are the conditions under which complexity and adaptability to fit the environment evolve.

There are many ways to build a permanent web and we can expect there to be many variations on IPFS.io such as CloudOS.

Those two comments address one vertical market (real estate) and one horizontal market enabler (identity). Meanwhile, on Twitter, James Ladd of MyWave (one of the intentcasting companies listed above) pushes back against the notion that some generalized answer covering all of both (as I had hoped for) might be coming: "same protocols/src is pipe dream - just build already!" He's right, so far. (And building well.)

Yet lots of pipe dreams do come true. Back in the '80s, when I worked with Sun Microsystems and other competing UNIX makers, I despaired that there would ever be a free (as in freedom) *nix in the world. Too many giant tech companies were rolling their own, while weirdly trying to reconcile all of them to AT&T's SVR4 (System 5, Release 4). Then Linux happened. And the Web. And universal email, file transfer and the rest of it. Can we do it for intentcasting?

Don't tell me. Just point to whatever work is happening.


Ad-Blocking Measured: http://www.slideshare.net/arttoseo/clarity-ray-adblockreport

PageFair's The Rise of Adblocking: http://downloads.pagefair.com/reports/the_rise_of_adblocking.pdf

PageFair's Adblocking goes mainstream: https://blog.pagefair.com/2014/adblocking-report

PageFair's The Cost of Adblocking: https://blog.pagefair.com/2015/ad-blocking-report

Don Marti: http://zgp.org/~dmarti

Don Marti on Signaling: http://zgp.org/targeted-advertising-considered-harmful/#signaling

Doc Searls' Linux Journal article "The Intention Economy" (2006): http://www.linuxjournal.com/node/1000035

ProjectVRM: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm

Harvard's Berkman Center: https://cyber.law.harvard.edu

The Intention Economy by Doc Searls, published in 2012: http://www.amazon.com/The-Intention-Economy-Customers-Charge/dp/1422158527

ProjectVRM Wiki's List of 23 Intentcasting Developers: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/VRM_Development_Work

"Let's scale #intentcasting" by Doc Searls (November 2015): http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm/2015/11/14/lets-scale-intentcasting

Semantic Web (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_Web

Real Estate Café: http://realestatecafe.com

Bill Wendell's comments on Doc's "Let's scale #intentcasting" post: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm/2015/11/14/lets-scale-intentcasting/comment-page-1/#comment-26913

Kevin Cox: http://www.welcomer.me/welcomer/?author=55ea61f8e4b05e14ae8bc98b

Welcomer: http://www.welcomer.me

Kevin Cox's comments on Doc's "Let's scale #intentcasting" post: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm/2015/11/14/lets-scale-intentcasting/comment-page-1/#comment-26916

James Ladd: https://twitter.com/jamesladd

James Ladd's Twitter post: https://twitter.com/jamesladd/status/665695483529072640

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