Why I Work on Ads

post by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-03T21:00:05.618Z · LW · GW · 93 comments

"I work on ads at Google"
"Can I ask why? I honestly can't understand how anyone could."
Someone recently asked me why I work on ads, and I wanted to write up something more thorough than my comment. (Despite being a work topic this is a personal post and I'm speaking only for myself.)

One answer is that I'm earning to give: I give half of what I earn to the most effective charities I can find, and the more I earn the more I can give. This is not the full answer, however, since when people ask me this they're generally coming from a perspective of viewing ads (or perhaps online ads) as negative, and the question is more like "why do you choose to work on something bad?"

The thing is, I think advertising is positive, and I think my individual contribution is positive. I'm open to being convinced on this: if I'm causing harm through my work I would like to know about it.

So: why is advertising good? I mean, isn't it annoying when sites show you ads instead of whatever it is you want to read? The question is, what is the alternative? I see two main funding models:

It's also possible to fund projects through donations, or as hobbies, but producing most of what there is to read requires more money.

(I'm using the internet-specific term 'paywall' to refer to the general "pay money for access" concept: buying books, paying admission, subscribing to streaming services, etc.)

Both paywalls and ads have a range of advantages and disadvantages. Some of these vary by medium: books are expensive enough to print that they couldn't be funded by advertising; an analog radio receiver is simple enough that a paywall would require draconian legal force. On the internet, however, I think ads are generally a better fit for two reasons:

You can sort of fix friction with bundling: you subscribe to a streaming service then can watch (or listen to, or read) anything in their collection. There are advantages to this approach, but it's a bad fit for articles. Web browsing works best when people can read and share anything without a subscription ("sorry, this article is for Conglomerated Media Group subscribers only"). To meaningfully fix friction with bundling you would need to get down to a small number of subscriptions, which then gives those organizations an enormous (and dangerous!) amount of power.

Micropayments could potentially resolve this friction in a decentralized way, which I would love to see. On the other hand, this is a really hard problem: people have been working on it since at least Digital's Millicent in over 25 years ago. There have been many proposals and startups, but nothing has really worked out.

Even if we could resolve payment's friction issues, however, we would still be stuck with the basic problem that some people have much more disposable income than others. Universal basic income would help, and I'm strongly in favor of it, but I don't think that's likely to be politically feasible anytime soon.

And so: ads. Funding the open web.

Or perhaps: better ads than paywalls

I don't want to be too easy on ads, though: there's a lot wrong with internet advertising today. For example, there isn't enough incentive for advertisers to limit their use of bandwidth or publishers to avoid annoying ad experiences. But the biggest issue I see people raising is the privacy impact of targeted ads.

Most products are a much better fit for some people than others. If you tried selling bicycles to fish very few would be interested, and you'd mostly be wasting their attention. This means advertising is worth a lot more when you can put the right ad in front of the right person.

One way to do this is to advertise in places where people who are disproportionately interested are likely to be. Model railroad ads on model railroading forums, sponsored products on Amazon, a booth at a trade show. This works great if you want to write a blog about cool new credit cards, but what about all those sites that don't have a strong commercial tie-in?

A large fraction of ads on the web today are targeted based on past browsing. When I was writing all those posts about cars I visited a lot of car sites, and then I saw a lot of car ads on other sites. I didn't end up buying a car, but advertisers were correct that I was much more likely to buy a car soon then a random person.

Historically, ads like this have been built on top of third-party cookies. When I visited one of those car sites they probably put a little bit of HTML on their page like:

<img src="https://adtech.example/cars">
My browser sent a request for that image, and got back an invisible "tracking pixel" with something like:
Set-Cookie: id=6735261
The vendor probably stored a record like:
  id       interests
  -------  ---------
  6735261  cars
Later on, perhaps I visited a site about flowers, and was served:
<img src="https://adtech.example/flowers">
This time, my browser already had a cookie for adtech.example and so included it on the request:
Cookie: id=6735261
This lets the vendor update their record for me:
  id       interests
  -------  -------------
  6735261  cars, flowers
Sometime later I'm reading something unrelated on a site that contracts with adtech.example to show ads. My browser sends a request for ads, and my cookie is included. The vendor runs an auction, bidders are especially interested in paying to show me car ads (more profit than flowers) and I get an ad about cars.

This model has some major drawbacks from a privacy perspective. Typically, the vendor doesn't just get that you are interested in cars, they get the full URL of the page you are on. This lets them build up a pretty thorough picture of all the pages you have visited around the web. Then they can link their database with other vendors databases, and get even more coverage.

This started to change in 2017 when Safari announced "Intelligent Tracking Protection". The first of very many rounds of of iteration, it brought Safari to full third-party cookie blocking about a year ago. Firefox followed, and Chrome announced they would too.

Well, sort of. Chrome's announcement was a bit more nuanced:

After initial dialogue with the web community, we are confident that with continued iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete. Once these approaches have addressed the needs of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have developed the tools to mitigate workarounds, we plan to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome. Our intention is to do this within two years.

The idea is, build browser APIs that will allow this kind of well-targeted advertising without sending your browsing history to advertisers, and then get rid of third-party cookies.

One of these proposed APIs is TURTLEDOVE. It lets an advertiser tell your browser "remember that I know this user is interested in cars" and then later "show this ad to users I said were interested in cars." Because the browser stores this information, and is very careful in how it handles bidding, reporting, and showing the ad, it doesn't let the advertisers learn what sites you visit or sites learn what ads you see.

I've been figuring out how ads can use TURTLEDOVE, helping build an open-source plain-JS implementation of the API for testing and experimentation, and suggesting ways the API could be better (#119, #146, #149, #158, #161, #164). I think this is a lot of why I've been blogging less lately: writing up these ideas draws from a similar place.

Advertising is how we fund a web where you can freely browse from site to site, and my main work is helping figure out how to move ads onto less-powerful more-private APIs. While I think the vast majority of my altruistic impact is through donations, I don't think my work in advertising is something harmful to offset.

93 comments

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comment by ocdtrekkie · 2021-05-04T18:14:09.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

jefftk, you state you're open to being convinced that you're causing harm through your work. So let me take a crack:

Have you read about the "rehabs near me" incident that the Verge uncovered? https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/7/16257412/rehabs-near-me-google-search-scam-florida-treatment-centers

Yes, Google chose to act *after it became public*, but Google was operating a major market segment, where they had dedicated members of the Ads sales team working on fostering a business area that was... outright predatory. At a CPC of $230, big money was moving here. It's hard for me to credibly believe that this harm happened due to the algorithm, that no humans at Google were clearly aware of what was going on, when Googlers were being sent out to events to pitch to this market.

This business Google was involved in was targeting an incredibly at-risk segment of the population, getting wild profit off of it, and, despite being a party to fraud, gets to keep all of it's profits from having done so. The problem I see here isn't just that the Ads team gets paid for participation in criminal activity, but they have no incentive to really stop profitable illegal activity.

When Google got caught, they didn't lose a cent. So why would they be proactive about preventing harm going forwards?

I mean, I feel like at some point, I have to move into my personal anecdotes: I've done computer support for senior citizens for over a decade, and my takeaway from that has been that Google's primary business model is misleading people into clicking on ads that are indistinguishable from search results. And the reason that people call me after doing so, is because a large portion of those ads masquerading as search results are full of malware.

*Every* malware support call I've ever gotten from a senior citizen came from a search ad. Every. One. (Not all from Google Search, but every one was a "top of result page search ad" from a major search site.) And it doesn't even seem like Google's committed to making sure the ads accurately represent the destination. Google Ads are regularly hijacked, such that they present https://youtube.com or https://bestbuy.com as the destination, but lead to a fraudulent website. Here's one with a photo that hit a news site: https://www.zdnet.com/article/malicious-google-ad-pointed-millions-to-fake-windows-support-scam/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

Apparently, that's possible because marketers want to redirect URLs through shifty third party services, so Google permits ads to do something real results can't: Display a completely fake destination URL.

One of my regular examples I have pointed out before is MapQuest. A site which is still heavily used by senior citizens, who Google for it because they don't know how URLs work. Every ad served for "mapquest" on Google is a malicious scam site. And no matter how many times I report them, Google won't remove them, because nearly every dang click is a successful scam hit, so it's a wildly profitable term to sell ads on. But any time Google delivers a user to mapquest.com, they make nothing.

Ultimately, choices companies make often slide between security and profitability. And it feels to me like the Google Ads business has no meaningful commitment to security or protecting users. Scams and malware end up running rampant whenever ads are involved, that's where the money for the business segment is coming from, and ultimately, some senior citizen's lost retirement money is making it into your paycheck.

The issue here is that the advertising company's incentives are not aligned with consumers. It's in the best interests of Google for the consumer to click on an ad, not a search result. So even if Google has the best search result, it's goal is to get the consumer to click on the ad. This is a concern Sergey and Larry originally had, and expressed in their original paper. Google would rather a senior get scammed than find the right result.

Replies from: jkaufman, Zolmeister, FireStormOOO
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T00:40:33.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you're talking about ads on search results? I work on display ads and don't know very much about the search side of things.

I don't have any internal information, but some thoughts on the examples you're listing:

  • Scammers placing ads is harmful, though not unique to advertising. The article you link describes a similar issue happening in the phonebook era. It's very hard to tell from this sort of investigation how well a service is doing at avoiding abuse.

  • "Google Ads are regularly hijacked, such that they present https://youtube.com or https://bestbuy.com as the destination, but lead to a fraudulent website" Is this actually common? Looking at your link, it's hard to tell what happened in that case but I think it was probably an open redirect on amazon.com?

  • I'm not able to find any examples of ads against "MapQuest" searching on my laptop or phone in a couple different browsers; you don't happen to have screenshots?

  • "It's in the best interests of Google for the consumer to click on an ad, not a search result. So even if Google has the best search result, it's goal is to get the consumer to click on the ad." This misses that there's enormous value in giving users a good experience long-term, where they keep coming back.

But again, I know very little about this kind of advertising, since I work in a completely separate part of the industry.

Replies from: FireStormOOO
comment by FireStormOOO · 2021-05-05T06:41:21.395Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also an IT professional here.  Google is among the less unsavory players in the ad space, but it's a cesspool overall.  Malicious ads seem to be one of the easiest ways to get that crap in front of a huge number of users.  In practice I don't see "reputable" providers directly serving malware: rather it's generally a chain of redirects either implemented by the site they land on (that presumably behaves itself under indexing/due diligence), or by exploiting the ads on the landing site to cause a redirect.  Ultimately lands either on an attacker-controlled site or just a site running an ad network that gives zero fucks or outright caters to cybercrime.

That said I made up my mind on this a while ago and I've been blocking substantially all ads and analytics for 5+ years.  The game of cat and mouse may well have moved on.

I have definitely caught AdSense serving those super dishonest software download ads that pretend to be the download button on file sharing and software sites…

As far as you core concern, are you actually causing significant harm with your work, I really doubt it.  Google has a decent incentive to crush bad actors lest govt. step in and kill their cash cow, and just getting the industry at large to match the mediocere level of ethical standads Google is upholding would still be a huge win.  Ads suck as a solution and cause a fair amount of preventable harm, but harm reduction is a legitimate thing to work on.  Bonus points when you can pressure competitors to shape up and not be too evil.

comment by Zolmeister · 2021-05-05T13:56:23.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's hard for me to credibly believe that this harm happened due to the algorithm, that no humans at Google were clearly aware of what was going on, when Googlers were being sent out to events to pitch to this market

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. It sounds like the fraud involved was extremely sophisticated, as it was hiding behind state negligence. Google now requires these advertisers to be licenced by a reputable third party.

The problem I see here isn't just that the Ads team gets paid for participation in criminal activity, but they have no incentive to really stop profitable illegal activity

In 2011 Google settled a negligence case regarding illegal pharmaceutical sales for $500 million.

Scams and malware end up running rampant whenever ads are involved, that's where the money for the business segment is coming from

I find it hard to imagine this is true within reputable ad networks, though I agree that such content is endemic to online advertising.

comment by FireStormOOO · 2021-05-05T07:05:55.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

IDK how many repeats you get or if you're looking for tools, but if so, consider setting DNS to one of the public DNS providers (e.g. OpenDNS) that provide some basic web filtering of malicious websites without otherwise breaking the internet too much.  The Ghostery plugin for chrome/edge is also worth a look.  Even without setting it to block ads or analytics, it shuts down shady behavior like multiple redirects that many of those bad ads rely on.  Can be configured to do more but gets progressively higher touch.  Both lowish touch free options.

comment by aphyer · 2021-05-04T00:02:40.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I think that ads can be (and, at least in my personal case, are) positive-sum, I don't think this article expresses the reason why.  I would phrase it as follows:

  • There are many things I would buy if I knew of their existence.  Certain kinds of music, games, etc.
  • Unfortunately, I don't know of their existence.  In a world with billions of people, figuring out what products I might want takes time and effort.
  • You could let anyone who wanted to tell me 'you should buy my product'.  Unfortunately, lots of people will waste lots of my time.
  • Instead, we set up an ecosystem where:
    • A website (let's say Youtube) shows me content I want to see.
    • Rather than charging me $20/month or whatever, they make me watch brief ads.
    • Companies that think they have a product I want to buy pay Youtube to advertise on it.
  • If the companies are right:
    • I buy the product.
    • I am very happy!  I got to see content I wanted to see anyway, without having to pay for it, and I also got alerted to the existence of a product I'm interested in!  Yay!
    • Youtube is happy.  They got paid for providing content to me (albeit indirectly) and I'm happy and likely to keep coming back.
    • The company is happy.  They paid a bit for advertising, successfully reached the target market for their product, and made more money.
    • This is a large win-win where a lot of value/money/information/amusement is effectively materialized from thin air with no costs.
  • If the companies are wrong:
    • I don't buy the product.
    • I am mildly happy.  I got to see content I wanted to see, without having to pay for it, but I had to watch a silly ad for an economically illiterate insurance agency.  Meh.
    • Youtube is mildly happy.  They got paid for providing content to me (albeit indirectly) but I'm less happy and might look for other websites (EDIT: and the company is less happy and might do the same).
    • The company is unhappy.  They paid a bit for advertising, failed to reach the target market, and wasted it.
    • This isn't an amazing win-win like the scenario before.  Nevertheless, the only person who's really unhappy with this is the company...who is effectively paying for their poorly targeted ads.

 

This...seems...obviously good to me?  A couple representative things I've run into from ads:

  • The band Mono Inc. took out a Youtube ad that was just the music video for one of their songs.  I liked it, and have bought several of their songs as a direct result.
  • The game Hades got advertised to me back while it was in early access. I bought it very early, and liked it a lot.

 

When I'm upset about advertising, it's usually because it's not targeted enough.  For example, Buffalo Wild Wings has started showing me lots of ads for their new delivery service...which does not deliver to my zipcode.  This seems like a foolish waste of effort that could be avoided if only advertisers took my zipcode into account.  I assume this is the result of some sort of silly privacy law that forbids them from using that information in a moral panic over Big Data?

 

I acknowledge that my experience with ads may not be the typical one.  Nevertheless, I think that:

  • Ads can be, and frequently are, heavily positive-sum.
  • In some cases, people may harm themselves with ads by being foolish around them.
  • I still don't want positive-sum advertising banned or heavily restricted because some people are foolish about it.
Replies from: df-fd, ACrackedPot, Viliam, pktechgirl, FireStormOOO
comment by df fd (df-fd) · 2021-05-04T02:07:40.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

while I agree with most of what you said and in an ideal world ad should work in a win-win manner as you described, I have cut out as many ads from my life as possible since they are significantly net harmful in my experience.

the problem that I found, and you don't seem to address, is that ads are not just a simple showing of "I have the stuff you may want". It is usually an attempt of manipulation using primarily superstimulus or social engineer to maximize profit for the advertisers. e.g. for a car ad they show happy people living exciting lives which have no relation to the car but make you associate the buying of the car with non-existence social fulfillment.

It would be ok if advertisers' incentives are aligned with ours. But usually, they are not perfectly aligned if not horribly misaligned. And I assume that companies that use "honest" ads would fail to compete against "superstimulus" ads. So the majority of ads would be the equivalence of attempted mind control which rational agent should avoid even at the price of not knowing that there are things you may want to buy.

Replies from: clone of saturn, aphyer
comment by clone of saturn · 2021-05-05T02:03:00.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

e.g. for a car ad they show happy people living exciting lives which have no relation to the car but make you associate the buying of the car with non-existence social fulfillment.

It's actually worse than that -- the way the manipulation works is to induce you to compare the people in the ad with your own life, causing you to feel ugly, unlovable, like you're missing out on life, etc. and then to propose the product as a relief from this deliberately induced misery.

comment by aphyer · 2021-05-04T02:31:33.534Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, this viewpoint is very harsh and I don't know how fully I endorse it, but my gut reaction is something like this:

If you can't benefit from positive-sum informative advertising because you are incapable of watching a 15-second ad without succumbing to mind control, this is a problem with you rather than a problem with ads.  The correct response is for you to avoid ads personally (and in fact  many websites that use internet advertisements give you the option to pay instead, e.g. Youtube Premium), just as a child who cannot prepare food without cutting themselves should not be given a set of steak knives.   It sounds like you are doing that already, so good for you!

The correct response is not for you to try to prevent a positive-sum thing from existing for others, just as the correct response to a child getting their hands on a steak knife and cutting themselves should not be to try to ban steak knives for everyone else.

Attempts to restrict advertisements on those grounds seem isomorphic to e.g. New York Mayor Bloomberg's infamous attempted ban on large sodas.  The justification there appeared to be 'I am incapable of existing in a world with large sodas without drinking too much soda and getting fat, therefore other people should be banned from positive-sum trade to protect me from my weakness without me needing to exert any effort.'  The argument against soda seems to me a substantially stronger argument than the equivalent argument against ads: first, I think the harms of obesity are substantially larger than the harms of advertisements; and second, I think it is easier to personally avoid exposure to internet advertisements than it is to personally avoid exposure to large sodas.

Replies from: theme_arrow, hamnox, df-fd
comment by theme_arrow · 2021-05-04T03:19:43.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In defense of the position df fd [LW · GW] took, you're playing a very asymmetric game here. Advertisers are investing very large sums of money and lots of person-hours of work to figure out how to change people's preferences with those 15-second ads. There's not a comparable degree of investment in developing techniques for making sure your desires aren't manipulated. I think it's hard to be totally sure that ads aren't subtly creating new associations or preferences that are intended to benefit the advertiser (potentially at the reader's expense). 

Taking a bigger look, I think most people would agree that the average person in the United States makes at least a few irrational consumption decisions (such as buying a large expensive car, eating an unhealthy diet, or spending money on mobile games). There are lots of things one could point to in order to try and explain why that is, but I think it's potentially good evidence that people overall are susceptible to having their desires changed by advertising. 

comment by hamnox · 2021-05-04T13:25:56.828Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

this is a problem with you rather than a problem with ads

Oh, I absolutely agree that this is a problem with me rather than with ads. But the problem with me is that my brain is human. I can't totally fix the exploits in the human brain that ads target.

Given that this is a society of humans, ads seem contraindicated. I do try to avoid them, but ads are going out of my way to expose themselves to me in a way sodas mostly do not (except insofar as they are advertised).

comment by df fd (df-fd) · 2021-05-04T10:01:38.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

again, I mostly agree with you. however a few thing I want to submit for consideration:

-unrelated but I am mildly miffed at the comparison of me to a child with the seeming implication of lack of knowledge, power and agency [also did you just called me weak will lol?]. Although this may not be the intended effect.

-If I make take my point to the extreme, say on one side of the spectrum we have what you describe "win-win" situation on the other imagine a chip in your brain that stimulates your pleasure centre when you think of buying the product. I am sure we agree that there is no need to regulate the good end of the spectrum and there is an urgent need to fight against the bad end. now obviously we need to draw the line somewhere, and everyone would be affected differently and predisposed to draw the line differently. And I found the current state of advertising in general way over my line, I am glad to hear your experience is different. But to quote banksy:

People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you're not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

[...]

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It's yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don't owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don't even start asking for theirs.

this beg the question: am I entitled to live my life free of ads if I wanted to? I am not talking about space where I consent to see ads to walking into like youtube. I am asking: am I entitled to walk outside and see no banner ads, watch movies with no product placement. 

 

Anyway, my crux is that ads have at least 2 parts to them, "good" information and "bad" social manipulation. and we may disagree on whether the current ratio of them in ads is worthy of banning or not [inherently subjective I believe]. But surely we agree that if we can turbocharge the good part and minimize the bad part we should try to do that. we may disagree on how to do that though. I am partial to some kind of tax for preference. 

Replies from: philh, aphyer, Zolmeister
comment by philh · 2021-05-07T23:08:54.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

I'm very suspicious of this line of reasoning, since I could also say: "those men kissing in public didn't ask for my permission to put themselves in front of me".

This isn't a knock-down rebuttal or anything, I just wanted to note this.

comment by aphyer · 2021-05-04T14:34:01.912Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough (and apologies for the rudeness).  I do think I'd draw a pretty sharp distinction between 'ads dropped in public spaces where you cannot avoid seeing them' vs. 'ads on webpages that you watch in lieu of paying for things' - the latter seems much easier to avoid and much less likely to be harmful.

(And as I understand things OP seems to be mostly working on the latter?)

comment by Zolmeister · 2021-05-04T18:52:09.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You have not produced evidence that billboards are generally 'criminal mind control', only that they violate norms for shared spaces for people like Banksy. Ultimately this boils down to local political disagreement, rather than some clever ploy by The Advertisers to get into your brain.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don't owe them any courtesy. They owe you.

This is strictly true in the sense that advertisement is negative cost and negative value, but that is exactly why it is used as a tool for producing otherwise difficult to coordinate public goods.

To quote David Friedman:

Consider one example of the public good problem: radio and television broadcasts. By producing and broadcasting an entertaining program, I provide a benefit to everyone who listens to it. Since I cannot control who listens to it I cannot, as in the case of ordinary production, collect my share of that benefit by charging for it. The public in question is a large and disorganized one so it is clear, on theoretical grounds, that programs cannot be privately produced.

Yet they are. Some clever person thought up the idea of combining a public good with positive production cost and positive value with a public good of negative cost and negative value and giving away the package: program plus advertisements. As long as the net value is greater than zero and the net cost less than zero, people listen to the program and the broadcaster covers his costs.

comment by ACrackedPot · 2021-05-04T02:58:43.419Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're somewhat underselling the bad by saying the thing that usually annoys you is insufficiently targeted advertisements, because it's downplaying the bad, like auto-play video/audio ads, or ads that expand or move around the screen.

I'm also noticing a trend - Youtube, I'm looking at you - of making advertisements less about actually selling advertisement, and more as a punishment for using the free version of a service as an incentive to push people onto the paid version.

These two things may not be entirely unrelated.

 

Also, while I think you're correct, I don't think your experiences are universal; in particular, targeted advertising just doesn't work for me.

Years ago, I tried to sign up for Match, and was rejected because they wouldn't be able to match me to anybody.  I feel that the same kind of thing happens with targeted advertisements; I feel like they're trying really hard, but the targeted advertisements just don't ... connect with me.  I think I've seen two advertisements in all of twenty five-ish years on the Internet that actually gave me information on a new product I was actually interested in getting.

 

Nonetheless, now that I've basically disagreed with everything you've written here - I basically agree with everything you've written here.  But I think a lot of the objections to advertisements are fundamentally ideological, and the actual good or bad of advertisements tends to be, in a sense, irrelevant to conversations about the good or bad of them, as these conversations are dominated by the bad of the concept of advertising itself.

comment by Viliam · 2021-05-04T22:04:32.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is very idealistic description of advertising. The type of ad that merely informs you of an existence of a product is possible in theory, and maybe existed in 19th century, but I was born too late for that.

This model fails to explain e.g. why many ads are annoyingly loud, or what is the purpose of showing you the same ad hundred times. Also, why the ads show you attractive people, contain exaggerated claims about the product, etc.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-05-05T10:57:00.406Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The type of ad that merely informs you of an existence of a product is possible in theory, and maybe existed in 19th century, but I was born too late for that.

I have purchased clothes, plush animals, books, and games because of online advertisements that told me about their existence; I would have been unaware of the products in question if not for the ads. (I have also generally been happy with the products that I got; one of the clothes that I ordered is probably my favorite piece of clothing.)

comment by Elizabeth (pktechgirl) · 2021-05-04T19:01:40.466Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you that the best case scenario for ads is very positive sum, but I take issue with...

 

  • I am mildly happy.  I got to see content I wanted to see, without having to pay for it, but I had to watch a silly ad for an economically illiterate insurance agency.  Meh.

I would frame this as "I paid with time and attention", rather than "I didn't pay for it".  There are definitely times when trading time or attention for money is an excellent trade, but it's not guaranteed and it's not the same as not paying for something. I'm curious if you take advantage of the "get paid to watch ads" programs, and why or why not, since it's essentially the same trade but with a different default.

comment by FireStormOOO · 2021-05-05T07:33:09.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is largely discounting the third scenario, advertiser or viewer is actively hostile.  Top comment above [LW(p) · GW(p)] goes into the first of those two, but ads are frequently a gateway to all manner of scams, cons, and fraud.  A cost largely born by those far less clever and more vulnerable than those participating in this discussion.  On the other side, you've got things like click fraud.  While not huge relative to ad volume, the costs and externalities are also huge compared to the money changing hands in these transactions normally and probably tips the scale significantly.

comment by Dentin · 2021-05-03T22:36:05.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As someone who also works on Ads at Google, I have to take the opposite stance; I view advertising as a blight upon the face of humanity, something to destroy if we can at all figure out how to do so.  I comfort myself knowing that Google Ads is arguably the best of what's an awful ecosystem, and that I work in what's arguably the 'least bad part of advertising', which is fraud and abuse protection.  At least the systems I work on make things less terrible.

However, the 'least bad part of advertising' is still not 'good'.

My favorite analogy for advertising right now is weaponry; specifically, guns.  Advertising is like a handgun. Sure, it can be used for good, and sure, in the right hands it's fine, safe even.  However, the default for a handgun is that it is Unsafe, and you have to put forth effort to "use it for good" because it's entire purpose is to kill living things.  That's advertising - its entire purpose is to alter people's mental state without their permission.  Sure, you can "use it for good", and sure, you can make it 'safe'.  But it's a lot easier to use it for abuse and clockwork orange scenarios.

I'll be switching teams in the next few months to be out of Ads.  Hopefully I can find something positive to work on.

Replies from: jkaufman, JesperO
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T00:38:14.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

its entire purpose is to alter people's mental state without their permission

I think that's the core of our disagreement? Here's an example I think is about maximally sympathetic: in non-pandemic times I help organize a contra dance. There are people who would like our dance, but don't know contra dancing exists, don't know that they would like it, or don't know about our dance in particular.

If I place ads, and some people see them and decide to come to our dance, do you have a problem with that? Or is it that you think most advertising doesn't work that way?

Replies from: Dentin, Viliam, Dentin
comment by Dentin · 2021-05-06T11:22:52.143Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

> its entire purpose is to alter people's mental state without their permission

I think that's the core of our disagreement?

Yes, and I think that would be a better path to attack my position.  There's two attack vectors in that quoted line - "alter peoples mental state without their permission", and "permission".  I would recommend avoiding the first attack vector; that will be an exceedingly difficult sell to me.

Permission on the other hand is already a partially open attack vector, and you're much, much more likely to change my mind by that route.  Examples:

  • I have very little objection to the ads on the Google web search interface.  I don't notice them, but I do sometimes click on them.  The reason I have no objection is because "I was actively looking for something", and the ads are almost always topical and don't drown out real results. In other words, I gave implicit permission by searching for the thing that was being advertised to me.
  • I have very little objection to the ads within the Amazon search interface.  Again, it's because I was explicitly looking for the thing in question, and typically the ads presented are factual results that answer my query.

In both those cases, permission isn't some implicit, distant concept; I explicitly make the choice not just to navigate to the site in question, but to request specific results from the site, knowing that the ads would be there.

IMO, that's quite different from pretty much all other advertising:  I'm not giving 'implicit permission' to view dildo or BMW ads when I go to news sites, or when I click around at random places on the internet.  I don't click on an interesting link because I have an explicit, well defined target.  When I'm browsing, it's like I'm walking in a park seeing the sights, or walking around Burning Man looking at the art.  My expectation is that people won't bother me and that I won't constantly have ads shoved in my face.

Instead, I have to keep up both adblock and a hostban list just so I won't be bombarded with unrequested solicitations. I'm explicitly opting out, yet advertisers continue to try to find ways to bypass that, in spite of my explicitly stated preferences.

I think it would be possible to greatly clean up the ecosystem by effectively banning 'push mode' advertising, and strictly only allowing pull modes such as my two examples above.  Sure, it would mean a hell of a lot less advertising, and a LOT of companies would have to find new ways to survive.  But those companies (and people) will figure something out.  Some of them might even succeed because they have excellent products that people actually want, instead of due to huge propaganda budgets.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-06T12:09:55.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

banning 'push mode' advertising, and strictly only allowing pull modes

I'm not convinced I fully understand your distinction, let alone that we could codify it sufficiently to make it into law.

If you visit a model railroading site, are ads for model locomotives push or pull?

Replies from: Dentin
comment by Dentin · 2021-05-06T14:16:22.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not convinced I fully understand your distinction, let alone that we could codify it sufficiently to make it into law.

Regarding 'codify into law', that's not an excuse, and it disregards how the US legal system works.  If we can codify slander, if we can codify "harm", if current advertising companies can codify "unacceptable ad", we can codify this.

If you visit a model railroading site, are ads for model locomotives push or pull?

Firm push, but only because of the physical realities of the current system.

The fact of the matter is that by default, visiting a site isn't a directed action.  Clicking on links may take you anywhere, and links may be obfuscated.  My preference would be that any/all landing pages should be clean, and ads only shown for explicit searches requesting explicit content.  As a second best, I'd take 'only show ads on explicit navigation after page landing'.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-06T15:58:06.955Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm still confused about what you consider to be pulled. If I click on a link within the model railroading site to their page about locomotives, would locomotive ads in the response be push or pull?

Replies from: Dentin
comment by Dentin · 2021-05-06T22:30:38.727Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These extremely short responses discarding the bulk of my content feel less like you're attempting to understand, and more like you're attempting to get me to draw bright lines on a space I have repeatedly indicated is many different shades of grey.  Disconnecting from the discussion for now.

Replies from: JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2021-05-08T01:06:44.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't mean to butt in. Hopefully this interjection is not unfriendly to your relative communicative intentions... but I found the back-and-forth personally edifying and I appreciate it!

Also, I do love bright lines. (I like weighing tests better, but only if the scales are well calibrated and whoever is weighing things is careful and has high integrity and so on.)

In places, it seemed like there was a different gestalt impression of "how morality and justification even works" maybe? This bit seemed evocative in this way to me:

Your example also reads to me like a classic justification for 'everyone having guns':  "but what if I'm attacked by a rabid dog?  If I have my gun I can protect myself!  See, guns are ok to have!"  Just because it's possible to point out a positive use case, doesn't mean that the remainder of the field is also positive.

Then this bit also did:

The point is that the target gets to decide what's acceptable and what isn't, not the... publisher, [or] advertiser, the distinction does not matter.  The point is that the target does not get to decide.

For me, both of these feel like "who / whom" arguments about power, and exceptional cases, and how the powerful govern the powerless normally, and the justifications power uses, and the precedent of granting such power, and how precedents can cascade weirdly in black swan events, and how easy or difficult it is to resist seemingly-non-benevolent exercises of power, and to what degree appeals are possible, and so on.

I read Jeff as trying to break the question of "ads" down into a vast collection of cases. Some good some bad. Some fixable, some not. Some he might be personally able to change... some not?

Then he constructed at least one case that might be consistent with, and revelatory of, an essentially acceptable (and not unbenevolent?) exercise of a certain kind of power. One case could exist that was good for everyone in that one case... because it is full of puppies and roses for everyone (or whatever).

The "power" here is basically "the power to choose at the last second what some parts of a website (that in some sense 'has been asked for by the person the website copy will be sent to') might look like"?

If you object even to this one quickly constructed "best possible use" of such a website editing power, despite the puppies and roses... that would mean that it isn't "the results as such", but (groping here...) more like "who or how are the results decided"?

Which... maybe who and how any economic event is decided is more important than what the result in particular is for that event? Or not? 

But if that's the crux then it seems useful to know, and the example did suggest to me that this might be close to the crux. If the "best possible ad" is actually "bad because of who/whom structural factors", then... well... that's interesting? 

However also this makes the larger logical case less likely to be something where an answer can be found that any sane person would obviously agree to. It seems likely that humans will dispute about structural stuff "forever"?

The entire effective altruism movement is sort of (epistemically) "humble" here, and takes as a sort of premise that it is uniquely EFFECTIVE (compared to other, plausibly "lesser" ways of being altruistic) because it actually uses evidence and clear thinking to figure out specific local positive cheap ways to measurably "do the most good for others" (thereby helping many people, one life at a time, with specific local plights, despite limited resources). 

Gather data. Run numbers. Do single local "likely best" intervention. Update. Repeat.

By contrast to obviously locally improving little tragic problems in the world one case at a time... the "structural who/whom stuff" is notoriously hard to reason about in a clear and universally convincing way. 

One thing maybe to say is that I admire Jeff's seemingly very honest commitment to giving money away to help others efficiently. 

Separately, I admire his search for flaws in the way he makes the money being donated. And I upvoted Dentin's original comment early on, because it seemed central to Jeff's search for critical takes on his current professional work.

Behaviorally, if you and he both continued to work in ads at Google, I don't think I would personally judge either of you (much?) worse. If you stop with ads. If Google stops with ads... I think still "the ads will flow" in the economy by some method or other no matter what? And when I worked at Google, I worked on weirder things, and every time I met someone in ads I tried to thank them for giving me the opportunity to not hew too directly to instantaneous market signals.

Google's non-ad contribution to the lives of generic humans is plausibly sort of staggeringly positive (search, email, and maps plausibly generate almost $30k/yr/person in consumer surplus!) compared to HOW LITTLE it extracts from most people. If Martians were going to copy the Earth 1000 times and delete either "Google+Bing" or "the Fed", or both, or neither, as an experiment, I think my life would be sadder in copies without a decent search engine than in the copies without the Fed. I think?

If neither of you personally solve all of the inchoate structural problems inherent in the global information economy of earth in 2021... that's not surprising, and I don't think it makes you much worse than everyone else who is also not solving those problems. And donating a lot to actually effective charities is obviously relatively rare, and relatively great. If someone is going to Be Part Of A Structural System which causes me to sometimes see dildo ads on the internet (which might inevitable so long as the 1st amendment exists (and I don't want to give up the 1st amendment)), I'd rather it was people who can have pangs of conscience, and seek to minimize harm, and who are proud that "At least the systems I work on make things less terrible."

And (though I might be engaging in cognitive dissonance and just trying to end on a positive note) maybe people in the world can also fix "the structures" too, somehow, perhaps a bit at a time, with similar sorts of the (relatively humble) kinds of reasoning as is used to fight polio and malaria and so on?

comment by Viliam · 2021-05-04T22:18:14.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or is it that you think most advertising doesn't work that way?

Not the OP, but this seems obviously true to me, so much that I wonder how could anyone see it otherwise. I can't remember the last time I saw an ad that merely gave me facts about something.

This may be a crazy idea, but perhaps an ethical way to do ads would be if the person who wants to advertise something would provide a list of facts, and an independent editor would create the corresponding announcement. Like, you could give a description of contra dance, plus time and place, and an URL to find out more, but you wouldn't be allowed to also add images of half-naked women, flashing lights, or annoyingly loud screams. You wouldn't be able to out-scream the other advertisements, or the content the advertisements are attached to. I imagine that for a reader this would be a more pleasant experience, and the factual information would still be there; I would be even more willing to read it. (But maybe annoying people works better for the advertiser, because the readers may have a less pleasant experience, but they will be more likely to remember. Emotional things are easier remembered, even if the emotion is negative.)

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T00:42:47.011Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, what I was trying to find out was whether Dentin was opposed to even this maximally sympathetic case. Like, is their view idea that commercial persuasion is fundamentally unethical, or that it is typically unethical in practice?

comment by Dentin · 2021-05-06T11:03:16.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's another version of your example:  Some people aren't watching nearly enough snuff and torture videos. There are people who would like to watch them, but don't know it exists.  If I place ads for torture and snuff videos and some people decide to click on them while other people don't, is that a problem?

As I mentioned earlier, advertising is like weaponry.  Your example also reads to me like a classic justification for 'everyone having guns':  "but what if I'm attacked by a rabid dog?  If I have my gun I can protect myself!  See, guns are ok to have!"  Just because it's possible to point out a positive use case, doesn't mean that the remainder of the field is also positive.

And to be clear, I consider your example to be about as likely as the rabid dog example.  Sure, in a world with perfect targeting it could be done, but we're not in that perfect world, and consumers have a vested interest in keeping it that way.  The new privacy initiatives are a big part of that.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-06T12:11:54.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I place ads for torture and snuff videos and some people decide to click on them while other people don't, is that a problem?

In that case I expect users to find viewing these ads incredibly unpleasant, on average, much more so than either the example I gave, or advertising in general?

(And almost all publishers would not be willing to work with an ad network that placed this kind of ad on their page)

Replies from: Dentin
comment by Dentin · 2021-05-06T14:18:23.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might find it unpleasant, but it's it the job of Simurgh Followers to spread the Truth Of The Endbringers to everyone!  Surely if people just watch enough of it, they will be converted.

The point is that the target gets to decide what's acceptable and what isn't, not the advertiser. The current system makes the advertiser the judge, and that's not ok, even if we have managed to construct a sorta functional system that mostly takes care of the worst abuses.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-06T15:59:02.523Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The current system makes the advertiser the judge

You mean the publisher, right?

Replies from: Dentin
comment by Dentin · 2021-05-06T22:24:53.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Publisher, advertiser, the distinction does not matter.  The point is that the target does not get to decide.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-05-06T23:47:47.186Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a lot of decisions I can make to influence the ads I see. On facebook I can give quite detailed feedback. In the Google ecoystem I can tell google the interests for which I want to see ads. In many cases I can decide whether an app gets access to an identifier to give me customized ads or random ads. 

comment by JesperO · 2021-05-03T23:21:25.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At least on the internet you could argue that people give their permission by choosing to visit the sites (as opposed to avoiding them, or paying for an adfree experience). But maybe people aren't giving their permission because they underestimate the power of ads and are not making a conscious choice?

Curious what you think of JeffTk's argument about the counterfactual -  would universal paywalls be better? 

comment by Alexei · 2021-05-04T17:21:51.005Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First off, kudos for putting your view up for criticism.

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the opportunity cost. Putting the question of whether or not ads are good or bad aside, do you think you can find a job that creates more good in the world and pays about the same?

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T17:36:58.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

creates more good in the world and pays about the same

I think it's pretty unlikely that I could be paid more working for another company given my preferences (I want to stay in Boston, I want to work a reasonable number of hours, I don't like working remotely). I think my pay would be about the same if I switched within Google Cambridge, so that's possible, though I like my team a lot and there's a replaceability argument.

Did you have something specific in mind?

Replies from: Alexei
comment by Alexei · 2021-05-04T19:02:44.113Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I already tried recruiting you for our hedge fund, so not really. :D Although it's possible with covid there's a larger pool of remote jobs available.


But yeah, given all those constraints, it's quite possible you're in a relatively optimal position.

comment by cata · 2021-05-04T05:57:31.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't really see my POV represented in the comments here, so I will add my 2c.

I have two strong beliefs:

  1. Ads are net bad for people watching the ads.
  2. It's really bad to create business models that involve creating a substantial marginal price for something that has little or no marginal cost, like models where you invest a bunch of money to build something and then charge people in money or attention to have it. Ads are just a different kind of price.

1 seems extremely obvious to me and I'm sort of confused why people think differently. It's true that sometimes if I see an ad, it will communicate helpful information to me. However, this is obviously not even close to commensurate with the value of my time. If I have a problem, and I want to solve the problem, I will never, ever look for ads to help inform me about solutions to the problem, because there are much, much more efficient sources of information about solutions to all problems I ever have. This is a natural consequence of the fact that advertiser incentives are grossly misaligned with my preferences, and incidentally the fact that ads are produced by random marketing professionals who are usually not actually foremost experts on my problem. (This is also true if I want to just serendipitously learn unexpected new things.)

If the guy who writes the bottom line about the diamond in the box [LW · GW] wants to tell you five minutes of crap about why the box has a diamond, why would you listen to him for five minutes, unless you are a masochist? That's an insane way to try to learn true things. The world is filled with people who aren't specifically trying to convince you of a particular self-interested bullshit conclusion. Why not spend your time listening to them, instead?

Regarding 2, if you create a business model like this, unless it's perfect at price discrimination, it's going to produce a deadweight loss in the form of people who are not willing to pay your price, and who then will not benefit from your product, even though you could give it to them for free. Since price discrimination is hard, this is usually a gigantic loss. In addition, with digital media, you have a huge enforcement problem, so tons of resources will be burned all over to try to extract the price from thieves, and then to work around the enforcers, and so on.

We should create coordinated investment systems where people who desire a product pay in advance in accordance to how much they desire it, and the product is then given away for free to anyone. Patreon (and clones) and Kickstarter (and clones) are clearly successful examples of this, and we should try to move more and more consumer spending into that model.

Replies from: paulfchristiano
comment by paulfchristiano · 2021-05-04T06:43:50.509Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We should create coordinated investment systems where people who desire a product pay in advance in accordance to how much they desire it, and the product is then given away for free to anyone. Patreon (and clones) and Kickstarter (and clones) are clearly successful examples of this, and we should try to move more and more consumer spending into that model.

This really doesn't work at equilibrium though. Why would I pay in advance instead of free-riding? Why would the amount I'm willing to pay reflect the value I get? That only happens if I believe that my contribution is 100% responsible for bringing about the good, but it's not clear to me how to ever get more than 1/N. The whole thing seems to rely on charity (which I do like, but for stuff that's charitably supported you don't need ads anyway).

I agree that problem #2 is bad, but I don't think we really have an alternative right now. I don't really like ads but still think it's plausible that they are better than charging if you aren't good at price discrimination.

(I think this is probably the most salient problem with capitalism after distributional issues. Wei Dai and I independently proposed this scheme.)

Replies from: cata
comment by cata · 2021-05-04T07:05:44.236Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This really doesn't work at equilibrium though. Why would I pay in advance instead of free-riding? Why would the amount I'm willing to pay reflect the value I get? That only happens if I believe that my contribution is 100% responsible for bringing about the good, but it's not clear to me how to ever get more than 1/N. The whole thing seems to rely on charity (which I do like, but for stuff that's charitably supported you don't need ads anyway).

I'm sure you've thought about it more than me, and I agree that it's not clear this will work at mega-scale as a "literally everything that requires an initial investment runs on this" strategy. However, it also really looks to me like it can work for a lot of things. Some things working in its favor:

  • Humans have a lot of intuitively operating cooperation machinery. People understand the idea of pitching in. It makes them feel like they did a good deed.
  • People respond well to social prestige as a reward for pitching in, which these platforms are getting very good at providing, through mechanisms like special badges, public credits, and access to special preview content (technically this is a loss to not to provide to everyone, but it's tiny compared to the usual model.)
  • Removing so much waste creates a huge amount of slack for people to defect and still get results of the quality they are accustomed to.
  • Pay-in-advance models typically make visible the option to price-discriminate upwards, allowing people with huge amounts of money or grantmakers to pay for more warm fuzzies, more prestige, and more choice over what gets funded. This seems to happen often enough to make a substantial difference -- you can see examples of whales on Patreon if you look at higher tier rewards that have "N of M remaining" visible.

Your scheme is also interesting and is clearly in some sense a "less hacky" approach than trying to get people to altruistically do things which are economically irrational. (Although -- sometimes it's a lot easier to get humans to do things that seem like the socially acceptable thing to do than to get them to do the economically rational thing to do.) I would like to see that tried, too.

comment by Alex N (alex-n) · 2021-05-03T23:13:09.346Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"if I'm causing harm through my work I would like to know about it". Here is: sites that earn from ads effectively fight not for your attention, but your screen time. And your screen time is limited to 24h a day, minus such unwanted distractions as sleep, eating, etc. 

And that's the whole pie, it's not extendable. When Facebook wins an hour of your screen time, Twitter looses it. There is no win-win.

So the sites use every and all tech to keep you glued to the screen (and to their site). That's why we have video previews now. That's why catchy (and misleading) titles. That's why we're fed outrage. That's why news are negative. That's why a lot of things that are bad on the Net.

And the problem is, once one site figures up something, others have to adopt it, too, because the pie is limited. Or they'll lose. 

Subscription based services, on the other hand, don't have to care how much time you spend with them - as long as you keep the subscription. They don't have to be evil to survive.

Replies from: jkaufman, gworley
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T00:33:23.715Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think this is a very good model for subscription services. Consider Netflix: they don't do ads at all, subscription only. But they still optimize for watch time and other engagement metrics, because they're very good proxies for retention.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-05-04T00:10:59.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Subscription based services, on the other hand, don't have to care how much time you spend with them - as long as you keep the subscription. They don't have to be evil to survive.

If subscriptions don't have to be evil, why must ads be? You seem to be assuming advertising here means display advertising and are forgetting about things like cost-per conversion advertising where there's not necessarily any value in keeping you looking at things, only at rarely getting you to look at the right thing that results in you buying something, which is not much different than getting you to pay to look at things via a subscription.

comment by chasmani · 2021-05-03T22:29:43.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I strongly disagree with your sentiments.

Advertising is bad because it’s fundamentally about influencing people to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. That takes us all away from what’s actually important. It also drives the attention economy, which turns the process of searching for information and learning about the world into a machine for manipulating people. Advertising should really be called commercial propaganda - that reveals more clearly what it is. Privacy is only one aspect of the problem.

Your arguments are myopic in that they are all based on the current system we have now, which is built around advertising models. Of course those models don’t work well without advertising. If we reduced advertising the world would keep on turning and human ingenuity would come up with other ways for information to be delivered and funded. I don’t need to define what new system that would be to say that advertising is bad.

Replies from: gworley, gjm
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-05-04T00:09:02.608Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Advertising is bad because it’s fundamentally about influencing people to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. That takes us all away from what’s actually important.

Advice is bad because it's fundamentally about influencing people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise. Giving and receiving advice takes us all away from what's actually important.

Sorry for the snark, but I think this is too general of an argument, proves too much, and therefore fails.

Replies from: clone of saturn, Erich_Grunewald
comment by clone of saturn · 2021-05-05T01:36:14.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Advice from a person who doesn't care about you and makes money when you follow it is useless at best, and likely harmful. Advertising from a friend who wants what's best for you might be beneficial, if such a thing existed.

comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-05-04T07:52:13.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don’t think this is fair. Advice is usually given when requested. In fact, people often don’t like receiving unsolicited advice. I’m sure people would be fine with advertisement if it was opt-in.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-05-04T14:16:27.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yet we also often think unsolicited advice is net good even if the person dislikes it, e.g. an intervention to get a drug addict to clean up. People might be okay with opt-in ads, but we should leave open the possibility that the world is actually better sometimes when you're coerced, including into seeing an ad, given that it in general seems possible to coerce others for what we consider to be net good.

Replies from: Erich_Grunewald
comment by Erich_Grunewald · 2021-05-04T17:21:41.726Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn’t mean to imply that advice is always given with consent. I just meant that it is so to a far larger degree than advertisement, and that that is an important difference.

Even when advice is unsolicited (your intervention example is a good one) it is usually done with the intention of doing something good for the recipient. I think advertisement is usually carried out with the intention to benefit the advertiser. Again, I’m not saying it’s always black and white. But I think there are pretty clear differences between these two activities on average.

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-05-04T17:48:47.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think advertisement is usually carried out with the intention to benefit the advertiser. Again, I’m not saying it’s always black and white. But I think there are pretty clear differences between these two activities on average.

Sure, a great counter example might be anti-smoking ads, or pro COVID-19 vaccine ads (assuming there's general agreement that less smoking and more vaccines are net good).

comment by gjm · 2021-05-03T23:45:29.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel the same way (and viscerally detest ads, and go to very great lengths to avoid exposure to them), but I'm not sure whether I actually agree.

Having an advertiser attempt to manipulate your brain so that you do a thing you otherwise wouldn't have done is, for sure, bad for you. But so is having less money, and at present the only available ways of getting Nice Things On The Internet that no one is choosing to supply out of sheer benevolence[1] are (a) that you pay them money and (b) that someone pays them for showing you ads.

So, how do the harm of being manipulated and the harm of being charged money compare? Suppose it costs you ($1 times number of viewers) to make something nice, and you can get that back either by charging everyone $1 or by showing everyone ads that pay you $1. Presumably the people making the ads think they're getting more than $1 of value in exchange, on average; probably not much more, else the prices would be lower since I think these markets are quite competitive. Let's say it's $2. That means that they think that on average they can bamboozle me into spending enough money on their stuff to bring them $2 of profit, which at typical margins might mean that I'm spending $20. (Again, on average; it probably means that there's a small chance that I spend a lot more than that.) In the cases where the ad successfully bamboozles me, I can't have been very far from spending the money to begin with (unless advertisements have evolved to the point of outright mind control, which so far as I know they haven't). Maybe I was already going to buy whatever-it-was and the ad persuaded me to buy it from X instead of Y. Maybe I was on the fence and the ad gave me just enough of a nudge to make me buy. Maybe I'd never thought of buying whatever-it-was, but once the ad mentioned it I genuinely realised that it would be worth the money. In these cases, it's hard to see that the ad has done me much harm (again, on average, and according to my own values before I saw the ad), because in all these cases those pre-ad-exposure values had me very nearly judging the thing worth the money already. Despite the concrete numbers at the start of this paragraph, I don't know how to make any of this quantitative in a form that actually means anything, but ir seems unlikely that viewing ads on a webpage is going to do me much financial harm.

What about other kinds of harm? I can think of three. (1) Ads are distracting and therefore, in effect, cost me a little bit of time. This is definitely bad, but also definitely small per ad. If some ads are the price for reading something that gives me 5 minutes of enjoyment, or takes 5 minutes of my time but provides information I value more than that, it's hard to believe that the few seconds the ads cost me are more than a small fraction of the benefit I'm getting. In general I should be willing to pay a price of the same order of magnitude as the benefit I'm getting, so this doesn't seem like it can be enough to make ads worse than paying money. (2) Ads often don't just try to make you take a particular action (buy our cola!); rather, they try to change your attitude so that you're more likely to take such actions in the future (think of our cola as refreshing and as indicating high social status!). So they're very slightly changing who you are, and that's super-creepy. I agree that this is pretty horrifying, and that's one reason why I am fairly obsessive about avoiding ads. But, empirically, it doesn't seem that most people mind this very much. And it's not as if ads are the only things that are slightly changing who we are; for instance, when you spend time with another person you typically become a little more like them, and when you listen to a song with a catchy tune it may embed its words in your memory (as well as the tune itself, but the words are more likely to influence your mind). For me, this is enough to make ads a price I'm unwilling to pay, but I am not convinced that that's so for many other people. (3) Every time ads are used for anything, it helps to normalize a culture where ads are everywhere, and that's an ugly manipulative sort of culture. This is probably true, but I'm fairly sure the size of the effect is small in each individual case, and it also helps to normalize a culture where everyone can find tons of interesting and useful things for "free" on the internet, and maybe that counterbalances it.

[1] Or other purposes that for our purposes resemble sheer benevolence.

None of the above maunderings do much to reduce my visceral hatred of advertising. But I am not convinced that the actual harm done is enough to justify that hatred.

Replies from: ricraz
comment by Richard_Ngo (ricraz) · 2021-05-04T16:03:07.867Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

+1 for making the case for a side that's not the one your personal feelings lean towards.

comment by Viliam · 2021-05-04T23:13:22.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Advertising tries to legitimize all kinds of surveillance. Somehow we got the situation where it is considered perfectly normal that a corporation is reading my letters to my wife (she uses Gmail), tracks my every movement (I use Android), and keeps a detailed log of maybe half of the web articles I have ever looked at (depending on what ads they serve and whether I used a blocker). Me calling a spade a spade almost makes me sound paranoid. But can you imagine traveling 25 years in the past and telling everyone "this is the glorious future our 'not evil' corporation is preparing for you all"? How would the people react? It took a lot of work and research to make us accept all of this as perfectly normal.

Advertising is the driving force behind most clickbait. Yellow journalism is older than internet. But with paywalls, it would be like "you may go ahead and subscribe to your daily dose of stupidity, but I prefer not to see it and I am not going to pay for it". With advertising, if I accidentally click on the link, I already paid. So the motivation to make me accidentally click on the link is strong. Thus we get articles that contain all the keywords you are looking for, but not the information you tried to find. Or articles with multiple different, sometimes contradictory titles, where A/B testing chooses the one that makes most people click. My problem with "paying by watching ads" is that people often pay without consenting to, and even if 3 seconds after opening the page they regret having clicked on the link, the ad was already shown, the author of the page made the profit.

I don't have a full idea of how micropayments should work to make me happy, but I imagine that the micropayment company should be separate from the content providers. You would have to explicitly unlock each article by clicking a button on the page... so there is a chance to go "oops, I didn't realize this page is paid, no I don't want to pay for it". (Mere visiting of the link does not automatically imply consent with payment, not even micro.) After paying, there should be a possibility to somehow provide feedback "I regret having paid for this page". The feedback should not give you the money back (that would enable obvious abuse), but the next time you are going to unlock an article by the same content provider, the button should show you that there is e.g. a 30% probability you are going to regret this. The buttons would also show you how much money you have already spent today, this week, this year; both in general, and for this specific content provider. There are probably many problems with this vision, and the greatest would be the coordination necessary to achieve this.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T00:55:43.558Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

a corporation is reading my letters to my wife (she uses Gmail)

Gmail announced they would no longer use the contents of email to target ads in 2017: https://blog.google/products/gmail/g-suite-gains-traction-in-the-enterprise-g-suites-gmail-and-consumer-gmail-to-more-closely-align/ https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/technology/gmail-ads.html

tracks my every movement (I use Android)

You can choose whether to have location tracking enabled, though? I have it on, because I like having a record of where I've been and I trust Google to handle this information securely, but I could turn it off if I wanted.

keeps a detailed log of maybe half of the web articles I have ever looked at (depending on what ads they serve and whether I used a blocker)

That's what the second half of the post is about: a project I'm working on to serve targeted ads without letting advertisers know all the sites you visit.

With advertising, if I accidentally click on the link, I already paid. ...even if 3 seconds after opening the page they regret having clicked on the link, the ad was already shown, the author of the page made the profit

Mostly not. Advertisers know whether their ads were viewed and aren't especially interested in paying for ads no one sees. If you read the whole article the publisher will have many more "viewable" ads than if you click "back" right away. Similarly, if you go back right away you're probably not going to click on ads.

Another big force behind clickbait is that platforms like Facebook will see a click as evidence that the link is interesting, and show it to more people.

comment by tinyanon (aaron-teetor) · 2021-05-03T22:34:55.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always felt weird about my contribution to ads.  Half the projects I've worked on at Microsoft were ads and I'm currently waiting to hear back from hiring committee at Google about working on some different ads for them instead.

I guess the part I'm not sure about is, are the people who purchase something in response to an ad better off?  The only purchase that stemmed from an unsolicited ad I saw was bugging my mom for some Heelys as a kid; but every time I've let an "almost ad" like a friend talking about something convince me to buy something it has always felt like it made my life 0% better and was a waste of money.  I generally notice friends spending a lot of money on things that they grow bored of so quickly and get very little enjoyment out of.  I wonder if ads are pushing behavior that makes people less happy in the end.

Edit: I have had a coworker suggest the most moral thing I could do was stay on the team and intentionally sandbag.  I'm still not sure if she's right.

comment by RavenclawPrefect · 2021-05-04T05:49:03.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A path ads could take that seems like it would both be more ethical and more profitable, yet I don't see happening: actually get direct consumer feedback!

I like the concept of targeted ads showing me things I enjoy and am interested in, but empirically, they're not very good at it! Maybe it's because I use an adblocker most of the time, but even on my phone, ads are reliably uninteresting to me, and I think the fraction that I click on or update positively towards the company from must be far below 1%.* So why don't advertisers have an option for me to say "this ad is unappealing to me and I will never click on it, please show me ads related to the following keywords"?  This seems like useful information which many customers will be happy to provide, and should improve everyone's utility. What's stopping things?

Even if the returns from this kind of strategy were uncertain, or only worked on a few people, it still seems like it'd be worth trying, given that advertisers must know by now that I never click on the things - it's not like I can make them any less money if they screw it up. 

I don't know if this relates to the ethics of working on advertising in its current state, but it's something that would ameliorate most of my ethical concerns with ads, and which I would expect to be a net benefit to all involved. Does anyone working in advertising know why this isn't standard?

*In fact, the only times I can recall having clicked on ads are from Twitter, where I do have a limited ability to veto bad ads (by blocking the relevant account) - after a few thousand blocks of the most popular companies, I finally got to some things I found interesting and useful (but which Twitter would never have shown me normally).

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2021-05-04T19:17:16.112Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think universal paywalls would be much better. Consider how video games typically work: You pay for the game, then you can play it as much as you like. Video games sometimes try to sell you things (e.g. political ideologies, products) but there is vastly less of that then e.g. youtube or facebook, what with all the ads, propaganda, promoted content, etc. Imagine if instead all video games were free, but to make money the video game companies accepted bribes to fill their games with product placement and propaganda. I would not prefer that world, even though it would be less regressive in that poor people could play just as many games as rich people.

And that's not even including the benefits of privacy / not-Big-Data. In a different world than ours, Big Data would be used mostly for scientific research that benefits everyone. Not in our world. In our world it's mostly used to control populations, for surveillance and propaganda, and to sell stuff to people. (I agree that the "sell stuff to people" thing is partially good, but it's partially bad too, and it certainly isn't good enough to outweigh the surveillance and propaganda effects IMO).

If the internet used a universal paywalls model, it would be a lot easier for people to be private, I think. I'm not sure.

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2021-05-05T00:18:52.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Universal basic income would help, and I'm strongly in favor of it, but I don't think that's likely to be politically feasible anytime soon.

There's a solution to achieving this without going the political route: create a digital currency that regularly distributes to everybody in a UBI-like fashion, then ask for that specific currency exclusively as payment. Bonus points if several different similar fee-requiring projects do so together.

comment by hamnox · 2021-05-04T13:19:09.839Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Third funding model: You pay with contributed labor value

Consider how amazon turk employs people to work on small problems for small payments.

Google maps engages users to answer questions and write reviews for places they have been, for free. What if instead, occasional contributions to updating the map was the price for using it?

What if more online resources worked on a torrent-ish model where those accessing it contribute to hosting it for others? Wouldn't that be grand?

Replies from: jkaufman, hamnox
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T17:45:50.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You pay with contributed labor value

A small amount of non-expert labor is just not worth very much? Like, Amazon Turk pays famously poorly.

What if instead, occasional contributions to updating the map was the price for using it?

I could imagine a world in which that was part of using the map, but it's hard to imagine one in which it is a substantial portion. There are so many monetary costs to running a mapping site that you need some form of money coming in.

What if more online resources worked on a torrent-ish model where those accessing it contribute to hosting it for others?

Bandwidth is generally a small portion of the cost of running an online service. For example, the budget of this site (LW) is so overwhelmingly engineering time that they mostly don't worry about the cost of servers, let alone bandwidth.

comment by hamnox · 2021-05-04T14:02:14.444Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the vast majority of my altruistic impact is through donations, I don't think my work in advertising is something harmful to offset.

I agree, but I think what you are doing is a fairly noncentral example of "working in advertising". You are helping to add good constraints on a probably-bad process.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T17:38:42.624Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not working on adding constraints, I'm working on adapting advertising to constraints proposed by browsers (primarily Chrome). Perhaps this is the same, since if advertising could not be adapted to the constraints you might end up with weaker constraints, but I do want to clarify that I'm on the ads side not the browser side.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-05-04T09:22:53.025Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, every web page would be improved if it had no ads. Ads just get in the way of whatever my purpose was in going to that web site. How big sites like YouTube can support themselves is an important question, and maybe one must put up with ads, faute de mieux, but that does not change the fact that they are invariably a bad experience for me. The number of times I've hit mute on a particular middle-aged prat launching into his spiel about how "The funeral industry has been ripping people off for—"!

The only quasi-exception to that is when I specifically look for a thing that I already know I want. But that's stretching the meaning of "ad" to include things like a company's own web site, or a shopping site like Amazon. I only see such sites when I specifically go there. They do not come to me, interposing themselves between me and what I want to do.

comment by lejuletre · 2021-05-04T03:25:19.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see a lot of disagreement about whether ads are "manipulative" or not, and I generally agree with OP's example in another comment about a contra dance. I have also organized various clubs and activities before, and I don't really think "ads you see when using a website" and "ads you see when glancing at your university's activities wall" are all that different, ethically speaking. 

I think the "manipulation" aspect has far more to do with the content of an ad than where it's placed. Concerns of this sort are ones I would level at someone who works in marketing, not someone who works for Google. The most salient example I can think of are beauty product ads, which play a major role in perpetuating toxic beauty standards (even if they're not guilt-tripping you personally into buying more makeup to fix your face wrinkles). But again, I don't think this is something the people working for AdSense have control over (unless they do?).

My concerns about ads for someone who works for Google (or any other software or browser company), would be concerns (as OP mentions) about ads making websites unusable, especially on mobile. This includes things like YouTube increasing the number of ads you have to watch before a video starts* as well as pop-up ads and automatic videos that play on articles. If your job involves figuring out how to incorporate ads into the browsing experience without making them break or stall, that's helpful as far as I'm concerned.

There is probably also something to be said for the harm caused by Google's monopoly on the AdSense system, but I don't know enough about tech or internet management to comment on it beyond my vague suspicions. 

*ACrackedPot below also mentions the use of ads as a punishment to punish free-version users into paying for a subscription, and while I wouldn't call this "unethical" or insidious the way that makeup ads are, I think it's a dick move. 

comment by Jeff Ericson (jeff-ericson) · 2021-05-10T15:54:38.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nicely written and argued!

I don't have any interest in trying to change your mind. Given current options, there really isn't any other rational option. I know that privacy is an issue, but the danger is largely speculative to date.

I'm more interested in the relationship between people (sorry, 'consumers') and marketing/advertising in general.

In the beginning, somebody said, 'I think people would like to know about my product' and put up a sign or had somebody wander around telling people.  It worked, and more people began doing the same. Some people were better at it than others, and after a while the goal moved from 'telling people about my product' to 'spend more money to convince people to buy my inferior product.'

After some time these marketers and advertisers realized that 1) the product didn't really matter so much, if you spent enough money, and 2) you could actually convince people to make bad decisions - in other words, the power balance became asymmetrical. People became more cynical to protect themselves, and the advertisers became more cunning in order to continue convincing people to act against their own best interests. They began using science and focus groups to unlock behavior patterns. It was the perfect scenario - when the naive consumer fell for the trick, it was entirely the consumer's fault. And when a new product or service came along, they had no choice but to adopt these tools and practices in order to get any exposure to consumers at all. The marketing arms race was on!

The internet, in all fairness, has mediated some aspects and amplified others. We live in a time when there really is no non-commercial space. As consumers we must always be on guard, skeptical and wary.  My kids, voracious consumers of digital media that they are, believe that all media is fiction and therefore equal - Mr. Beast, CNN News, Doritos ads, the Marvel Universe, TikTok - all the same.  That opens up other vulnerabilities and breeds mistrust (one of many vectors here).

So yes, the internet is a valuable tool. And yes, advertising is a brilliant way to pay for it. My question: is it worth it? Can we ground ourselves in this context?

comment by briancpotter · 2021-05-07T18:15:42.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi jefftk-

My major issue with ads is that they're slowly obliterating the consumer surplus of the internet.

This is mostly anecdotal, but it seems much harder to find useful information on an internet search today than it was, say, 10 years ago. Any given search is polluted by a series of ad-laden pages with the absolute minimum information content required to get them to rank for a given search. There may be more useful information on the internet today than the 2011 internet, but it seems like it's increasingly crowded out by less useful information with better SEO.

It's gotten bad enough that I now use google image search as my default search, because that gives me a way to preview the content that will be displayed and quickly scan the results, and skip past the junk that google will feed me.

I suspect there's some sort of mechanism at work where spending more effort on SEO has a higher return than effort spent on creating useful information, so low information, highly optimized pages tend to outcompete more information heavy ones, and the modal webpage becomes one that is only barely more useful than it is annoying. I can imagine that preventing ad-based business models could lead to a better equilibrium (especially as high-value content is increasingly either created for free or put behind paywalls anyway).

Example: if I search "most reliable car", I will get a series of low-value pages, like this: https://www.topgear.com/car-news/list/here-are-17-cars-thatll-do-300000-miles#1 . Some are like this (basically useless), some are quoting snippets of a consumer reports or JD power article. Consumer Reports itself doesn't show up until the second page. And one of the most useful sources for reliability information, http://www.dashboard-light.com/, doesn't seem to show up at all.

comment by ben3536 · 2021-05-06T11:21:38.815Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Commenting just to add support for putting your worldview up for discussion and criticism, especially when you've got a lot of the latter. Always interesting to see people openly grappling with the impacts of their work/ choices and demonstrating a willingness to change their mind.

comment by Sigurd · 2021-05-05T18:31:37.258Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

better ads than paywalls

Having worked in advertising for 4 years, I am not convinced. Citation is needed. It also implies these are the only two options, but consider the very webpage you are on currently: no ads, no paywall! What's going on?!

Which is only to say that there are other options to explore. That those two models are the most prevalent does not mean they are the only viable options (think of how easy it is to go with an ad-model if users have been trained to accept it as the status-quo, which is self-enforcing, and how viable some other models might be if we all magically agreed that ads=unacceptable).

I started writing this comment with hesitation because I did not want it to just say 'This whole post reads like a rationalisation and I disagree with it', so let me try and come up with a question instead (actually just deleted a large rant on perverse incentives, which I think other commenters have done better). There was an earlier question posted by Alexei, mine are in the same vein:

  • if advertising was not an option (eg banned and enforceably so), what would the internet look like?

  • if there was a better payment model for the internet (say, magical space-aliens commit to funding it entirely, as a joke), what would advertising as a business look like in that case? How does that change your position on advertising as a whole, if it all? Would you still want to work in advertising? (The aliens allow you to keep your current salary. They have a weird sense of humour)

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T19:17:19.842Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

consider the very webpage you are on currently: no ads, no paywall

Less wrong is funded by donations [LW · GW]. So is Wikipedia. I touch on this in the post, but I think a model where donations fund the operations of most sites, let alone most journalism, is far from practical?

if advertising was not an option (eg banned and enforceably so), what would the internet look like?

I had a crack at answering this from the perspective of what this would do to products a couple years ago: Effect of Advertising [? · GW].

From the perspective of users, I think the internet would be essentially unusable unless you subscribed to a few standard services, which would then have harmful levels of leverage. This is the "You can sort of fix friction with bundling..." paragraph above.

if there was a better payment model for the internet (say, magical space-aliens commit to funding it entirely, as a joke), what would advertising as a business look like in that case?

I'm not really sure what your hypothetical is supposed to be? For example, if I start a news site and I want to employ journalists, will the magical space aliens give me as much money as I want for their salaries?

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala, Sigurd
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-05-06T07:18:54.721Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From the perspective of users, I think the internet would be essentially unusable unless you subscribed to a few standard services, which would then have harmful levels of leverage. 

I wonder about that: before third-party services started popping up, internet service providers and nonprofits used to offer more services that are now offered by third parties. E.g. your ISP used to give you an e-mail account and website space, and services such as Usenet and IRC functioned in a decentralized fashion, with servers being hosted by universities, ISPs and others. That model won't work for everything, but it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to imagine services such as social media and search shifting to a more decentralized model if advertising was banned. (Decentralized social media networks such as Diaspora already exist; I'm under the impression that the main reason they're not used more is that network effects create too much lock-in to existing, more centralized services.)

comment by Sigurd · 2021-05-06T06:11:23.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link to your earlier post, it makes your position a little more clear. I think we make different predictions, probably because (A) we are biased and (B) ads and the internet are so entangled by now that it is hard to make a predication like that. Any prediction will need to take into account a multitude of factors.

The line on aliens paying your salary was added because I wanted to preempt the response 'well if ads are no longer the payment model I'd need to find another job'. But you're right to ask that question you did, it is still a weird hypothetical. What I meant to do with it is have all the external costs covered, i.e. hosting fees. What if ads only 'had' to cover the costs of hiring those journalists? Ads could be constrained to a more commercial domain, and websites such as lesswrong.com wouldn't have to exist by grace of donations only. I think one thing I do not like about ads is how any webpage that gets big enough will add ads out of necessity just to cover their sudden spike in costs. Take that factor away and perhaps ads can be added as a precision tool rather than a blunt instrument: allow them only where they make sense / add value (if you believe in that) ?

Replies from: ChristianKl, jkaufman
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-05-06T15:11:35.927Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think one thing I do not like about ads is how any webpage that gets big enough will add ads out of necessity just to cover their sudden spike in costs.

Why do you believe that to be true? For what websites do you believe it to be true? I would expect that any content website that's big enough that hosting fees are the primary issue for raising money can fund hosting fees via Patreon. 

Replies from: Sigurd
comment by Sigurd · 2021-05-06T15:30:49.349Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because I used to work for/with companies whose business model was mostly free access covered by ads. Costs of keeping those sites running were substantial and proportional to amount of visitors.

comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-06T12:14:33.854Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The primary cost of websites like lesswrong is not hosting fees, but developer time. By a huge margin. Are the aliens paying for that too?

Replies from: Sigurd
comment by Sigurd · 2021-05-06T15:28:34.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps true in lesswrong's case (is it still under active development then?). You'll have to suffer me moving the goalposts again, because what I was getting at was websites that serve fairly static content. If lesswrong is actively developed and has taken a lot of effort to build, then take a random wordpress page instead.

No the aliens don't pay for developer time, for the same reason they don't pay the journalists.

comment by Tao Lin (tao-lin) · 2021-05-04T18:08:11.427Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I slightly disagree that "producing most of what there is to read requires money". Yes most writing is made for profit, but the very best writing I is often made because the author needs to say it, not because they expect compensation. Definitely need to look at evidence on this, though.

If bad writing is helped more than good writing by ad revenue, then it's less clear that advertising is good.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T10:58:12.776Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think journalism is a good example here? Very few people can afford to self-fund that kind of research

Replies from: tao-lin
comment by Tao Lin (tao-lin) · 2021-05-05T14:46:13.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes journalism does some useful research, but on the average newspaper frontpage you see 0 remotely useful research. The amount of money spent by newspapers isn't at all in proportion to the amount of research being done

comment by alexgieg · 2021-05-04T16:22:24.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll describe the problems I have with online advertising, both for me and in general:

a) For me personally:

  • I'm a philosopher by formation, and I work in a very technical area, so I have as my focus of interest two things: truth, and data. Modern ads have neither.

If a manufacturer wants to get me interested in anything, at all, I want specs front and first. No fluff, no emotional appeal, no aesthetic considerations. Hard data. If an ad has any of these, and none of the form, I not only ignore it, but I develop a very strong negative bias towards the brand, to the point the more ads I see for anything lacking factual rigor, the more opposed I become to ever buying it, or from it, if it's an ad to develop brand awareness. These, in particular, made me quite aware of brands not to purchase from.

  • They very, very, very rarely have anything to do with my interests.

In the past they used to be a tiny little bit more relevant, back when ads were based on the contents of the page itself, since if I was interested in reading that topic I was interested in that topic. Then it's changed to my former topics of interest, meaning not on what I'm actually interested right now, and thus became even more irrelevant than they already were.

I think that, over a period of maybe 3 years, I've seen one ad that was relevant to my interests. It was for a classic music streaming service. It got me to the point of actually opening their website. Alas, it was too expensive and I didn't subscribe. But that was it.

  • When they hit close, they're for things I already purchased.

When I decide to purchase something, my procedure is systematic. I seek reviews of things in that category, I visit technical sites with specs for the top 5 to 10 items I found that roughly match my interest to see which ones fit, I narrow down my choices to 3 items, then I compare their prices at price searching sites, and buy the one that provides the best return per dollar. Ad tracking machine learning is very dumb and, not understanding I already purchased the item (usually the same day I began searching), causes ads to start offering me the very same item, for days on end, which is useless both for me as well as for everyone else involved.

b) In general:

  • Ads exploit cognitive biases.

As a philosopher first, and a rationalist second, I strive to get rid of cognitive biases in myself, and try to elevate others out of them. Hence, ads that aren't strictly data-driven and factual exist in the opposite side to mine in this moral axis.

  • Sites showing ads exploit dark patterns.

The same thing, except from the side of those showing ads.

All of that said, there was a time I didn't mind ads. It was that narrow period of a few years in which Google distributed only textual ads, and had rules about sensible places to put them at. When they changed direction I began using ad blockers, and whenever I stop using them the end result is so obnoxious I promptly go back to using them.

Now, in regards to:

c) Alternatives:

  • Paywalls and micropayments.

Values for paywalls are, simply put, nonsensical. There's no way the ads I would have seen in a site over a period of one month would have generated $20 for the site, so trying to charge me $20/month is a no start. I could see paying $1 for the right to read a number of articles from that site, let's say, 100 articles at a $0.01 per article, which would be more than enough for several months (provided it was tied into my upvoting the article after having read it precisely so as to discourage clickbaity content-free nonsense that tried to waste my time), but that's about it.

How that would be implemented in practice is a matter for browser manufacturers to solve. I imagine they will do so eventually as adblocking becomes more and more pervasive, as this doesn't seem to be a particularly difficult problem to fix.

  • Curated ads.

There's one category of ads I don't mind: curated ads by site owners, in which they themselves evaluate every ad show in their site for truthfulness, adequacy, and taste, and they themselves host and provide them.

These are rare nowadays, but it's the one kind of ad I don't block. It's basically the kind of ad one would find in printed magazines and printed newspapers, except that online.

These are my 2 cents on the subject.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T17:48:16.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's no way the ads I would have seen in a site over a period of one month would have generated $20 for the site, so trying to charge me $20/month is a no start.

When you switch to a paywall model, you have to accept that you're going to lose a large portion of your readers, which means you need to charge the remaining ones a lot more, no?

Replies from: alexgieg
comment by alexgieg · 2021-05-04T19:35:41.534Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you switch to a paywall model, you have to accept that you're going to lose a large portion of your readers, which means you need to charge the remaining ones a lot more, no?

Yes, but no.

Technically there's no direct derivation from costs to price charged. The costs involved in you providing a good or service let's call it Vmin, determine a lower boundary, so that if you cannot charge below that you're operating at a loss and won't provide that service, instead opting to do something else. On the other extreme, your potentials customers' maximum ability to pay (in aggregate), let's call it Vmax, which in turn is bounded by their income, determine how much you can charge them. The price, V, that you're effectively going to charge, is between Vmin and Vmax.

Customers will do what they can to push V towards Vmin. You, on the contrary, will do what you can to push V towards Vmax. In the end, V ends up somewhere in the middle, so that Vmin < V < Vmax. Therefore, my prior is that a charge of $20/month for such a service is much closer to Vmax than it is to Vmin, for the sole reason this is the incentive playing on the provider's side.

Be as it may, I neither accept lying, biased, and dark-pattern exploiting ads, nor do I have a high enough income to justify paying more than a few dollars per month, in aggregate, for the sites I read. Solving this equation is something site owners, together, should work into. If there's no solution and the end result is less of those specific contents, well, I derive marginal utility from having access to that content, so if it goes missing, shrugs.

comment by Vladimir Prelovac (vladimir-prelovac) · 2021-05-05T05:55:16.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jeff, the main premise of your article "better ads than paywalls" is a weak argument. Would you prefer to drive a car, given to you for free, but you have to be exposed to ads all the time you drive it? Would you prefer to live in a home that was given to you for free but every wall, every mirror and every device is recording everything you do and playing ads non-stop? Paywalls are meaningful. The "wall" protect us, our privacy, our thoughts, our sanity and gives us guarantees via a two way contract.  

You can argue that some people would opt-in into a free ad-monetized homes, and it is probably the future the Google envisions. But I am pretty sure that is not the world you want your kids to grow up in. 

ps. Hard to argue against Larry and Sergey's note in Appendix A of https://research.google/pubs/pub334/:

we expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T11:00:39.526Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cars and houses aren't good examples: they're so expensive that the only way to plausibly fund them with ads (and it's not actually economically plausible) would be incessant ads.

Replies from: vladimir-prelovac
comment by Vladimir Prelovac (vladimir-prelovac) · 2021-05-05T14:50:17.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Trading a house for ads may seem expensive today but it is only one order of magnitude difference taking median home price,  fact that most people get it on 30 year mortgage and average ARPU for ads.  

Let's also notice that ad monetization is increasingly aggressive which I assume is what most your team collegues have as some sort of OKR - given how we came from the world of 'ads are bad' to a world where nowadays we have entire Google search results beings ads  and Youtube plays a commercial every 30 seconds. With this pace of growth ARPU will probably match average yearly mortgage payments in 5-10 years. Even if my math is off by some we are talking about ad-homes in our lifetime.

Or forget even that, you can just extend payoff period and get there today.  Google could just "gift" ad-enabled homes to 20 year olds today to have contractual ~70 year payoff period (with increased ARPU as well as adhomes would monetize better).  

So the question for you is - is this the world you want your children to grow in? 

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T16:25:12.686Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Trading a house for ads may seem expensive today but it is only one order of magnitude difference taking median home price, fact that most people get it on 30 year mortgage and average ARPU for ads.

Ad funded houses really can't work, unless we figure out how to make housing much cheaper. An upper bound on the amount it can be worth to advertise to someone is the amount of money they spend, and in practice it's much lower.

what most your team collegues have as some sort of OKR

There isn't much I can say publicly on this, except that this is a huge misunderstanding of the business?

nowadays we have entire Google search results beings ads

A small number of searches where people tend to be about to spend a lot of money have lots of ads. The majority of searches have few to no ads. My interpretation here is that Google has gotten much better at figuring out when to show ads, and when it is not worth showing ads. Again, I don't have internal numbers, but I would be very surprised if ads-per-search today were higher than it was ten years ago.

Youtube plays a commercial every 30 seconds

Since my wrists got really bad I've started watching a lot more video, including YouTube. There is no way there's a commercial every 30 seconds; where are you getting that?

Replies from: vladimir-prelovac
comment by Vladimir Prelovac (vladimir-prelovac) · 2021-05-05T22:27:58.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ad funded houses really can't work, unless we figure out how to make housing much cheaper. An upper bound on the amount it can be worth to advertise to someone is the amount of money they spend, and in practice it's much lower

 

... Or ARPU for ads grows which is the point I am making. It grew from 0 to whereever it is now in 20 years and in another 20 it may match the average mortgage cost of a USA household. This is without taking into account that a lot of people would settle for less than average home, and that ad-homes would probably monetize better.  Since average mortgage is only about $10k/year, I find it plausible to think of such ad-driven annual spend.

But lets say it takes 100 years to reach that point. My question that you still elluded to answer stands: is this the world you want your children to grow in? 

There isn't much I can say publicly on this, except that this is a huge misunderstanding of the business?

Secrecy is understandable just not an argument. I provided evidence of first hand experience of growing and aggressive monetization and it should be obvious to anyone reading from their own experience that it is indeed the case.  And since you did not produce any evidence to the contrry, I will not dig more into it and let the reader decide.

 Again, I don't have internal numbers, but I would be very surprised if ads-per-search today were higher than it was ten years ago.

Can we agree that ads-per search are certainly higher than 20 years ago when there were no ads? 

And not only that number of ads is growing, their presentation is increasingly aggressive :

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22107823

Since my wrists got really bad I've started watching a lot more video, including YouTube. There is no way there's a commercial every 30 seconds; where are you getting that?

Ads per video have definetely gone up to the intelligence insulting levels. Try watching any cartoon with your kids without an ad blocker. 

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26519707

I do commend you on standing for your employer and having the courage to write about a what has to be a difficult subject, for a good reason. 

ps. Are you using an adblocker in your browser?

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-05T23:40:23.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

ARPU for ads grows which is the point I am making. It grew from 0 to whereever it is now in 20 years

You're talking about how much one company was able to grow ad revenue, which not surprisingly went up a lot as the company learned how to do ads. At the same time, other companies saw a large decreases revenue per user: famously, newspapers used to make a huge amount of money from classified advertising. Instead, I would look at the growth pattern of total advertising spend per American.

Since average mortgage is only about $10k/year, I find it plausible to think of such ad-driven annual spend.

Someone poor enough to consider an ad-funded house their best option is not going to have a spending pattern worth $10k/y to influence.

Can we agree that ads-per search are certainly higher than 20 years ago when there were no ads?

Of course, but I don't see what point you're making?

their presentation is increasingly aggressive

Your link goes to a discussion of a change to search results which showed favicons for regular results. I again don't have any internal information on this, but from this looked to me like a change to make search results more informative. After objections, the change was rolled back.

Are you using an adblocker in your browser?

I'm not, and haven't, no.

comment by Lucas2000 · 2021-05-04T08:57:51.677Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have two different thoughts on this:

  1. I don't think ads are inherently bad. It's true that ads are a way of financing things that either would otherwise not be financed, or would be financed by (and thus exclusively available to) relatively rich people. However, I'm pretty sure that online ads actually devalue ads in general, and make it more difficult to provide these services. An ad that runs in a newspaper is much, much more valuable than an online ad on that same newspaper's website, even if the website reaches many more people. This effectively means that the way online ads currently work, they harm entities that rely on ad revenue. The more personalized and trackable ads become, the more closely they are valued by their direct revenue generation power instead of their long-term impact, and thus, the less value they have. Evidence for this is that ads where tracking is impossible (e.g. on podcasts) are valued higher than ads that allow for detailed tracking.
  2. The way online ads are currently monetized relies on personalization. This means that online ads create a strong incentive to track people, and to harm people's ability to have privacy online. This, in turn, means that it becomes much easier to use this data in more nefarious ways, and (for example) discriminate against people using data gathered for ad tracking.

The better companies get at tracking, the more data they have that will be abused, and the lower the value of ads will become. Therefore, the most good would be created if online companies stopped investing in ad tech, and online ads went back to being anonymous.

Replies from: jkaufman
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2021-05-04T12:00:57.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The way online ads are currently monetized relies on personalization. This means that online ads create a strong incentive to track people, and to harm people's ability to have privacy online.

You might be interested in the second half of the post, starting with "But the biggest issue I see people raising is the privacy impact of targeted ads..."?