Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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We Need to Stop Forgetting the Internet is Different

There’s a new controversy brewing on the web. It’s actually been going for a few days now, I’m jumping in a bit late. It’s over the latest Google Toolbar which includes a function called AutoLink. Google explains AutoLink like this:

The AutoLink feature adds links to the page you’re viewing if it recognizes certain types of information on the page. For example, AutoLink will link a U.S. street address to a map of that address or the tracking number of a package to a status page for your package. AutoLink also recognizes car VIN numbers and book ISBN numbers.

When AutoLink finds information for which it can provide a link, the icon on the ‘AutoLink’ button of your Toolbar will change to reflect the information AutoLink has found. For example, if AutoLink finds a book’s ISBN, the icon will change to a book icon. Click on the ‘AutoLink’ button to create a link on the page, or click on the arrow to the right of the ‘AutoLink’ button and choose a link from the drop-down menu.

This new feature bears a striking resemblance to a Microsoft idea called Smart Tags, which was apparently struck down by The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg. According to a May Wired article titled “The Kingmaker”, “Mossberg . . . forced Microsoft to scrap Smart Tags, which would have hijacked millions of Web sites by inserting unwanted links to advertisers’ sites.” So why in the world would Google and their “don’t be evil” motto, include a feature like this? When Microsoft considered it people screamed that it changed the web fundamentally and gave Microsoft an unfair advantage. It’s not that big a surprise, then, that lots of people are screaming at Google about their similar feature a few years later. But what’s the real issue here? It seems to me that there’s a fundamental difference between including a feature like this in a browser that ships with millions of computers and including it in a toolbar that can be downloaded by those who are interested. What is more, the feature is only enabled on pages when you click the “AutoLink” button. That means that every time you want to use it, you’ve got to make a conscious choice. So what’s the problem?

I think Steve Rubel sums it up well when he says, “the question at heart is what right does a user have to change the content of a non-editable Web page they didn’t create?” You know what? I think they do. I think as a user I have a right to do anything I want to your webpage as long as all changes happen on my side of the web. I’m not changing your content for anyone else, just for myself. Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing says it well: “it’s my screen, and I should be able to control it; companies like Google and individuals should be able to provide tools and services to let me control it.”

Boy did that comment upset Scoble over at Microsoft. He asks, “if Microsoft were building the proxies you are asking about would you feel the same way?” Scoble continues, “where is the line? Be very careful about what you ask for. You just might get it.” He finally ends with this word of warning:

This is such a slippery slope. Do you really want to go down this slope? If you allow Google to do this, you are opening a pandora’s box that you’ll never close.

Do you really want to open it?

My problem with this argument is very similar to my argument against the people who got all pissy about the idea of Bloglines adding advertising. Scoble and Rubel are arguing for the producers, not the users. This is actually something Scoble addresses in his response to Doctorow, saying, “as a user I’d love all sorts of things. But don’t you see that the rights of the end-user are in conflict with the rights of the content producer? Will you ALWAYS settle the argument in favor of the user?”

Before I continue, let me say that I do get it. I understand his point completely. It’s a dangerous situation, without a doubt. As soon as you start allowing companies to alter or add content without the publishers knowledge all sorts of issues arise.

Tom Coates over at plasticbag.org has explained the danger quite clearly:

So here’s the bit that worries me. We’re talking about plugins at the moment, right? Places where there is no reason why anyone should feel forced to use the device concerned. Now move back to the browser market and lets posit a world where browser market share for Internet Explorer has fallen back to some semi-reasonable level – let’s say 40%. Now in Cory’s model, I can see no reason why Microsoft shouldn’t decide one day to replace every single Google Adword (or similar advertising structure) with its own advertising on each and every web page that you visit. I mean – this could be the way that you finance a new browser, you remove advertising from the page and replace it with advertising that makes you money instead of the content creator.

The eventual danger of this is that sites that rely on advertising won’t be able to afford to exist anymore.

Now, here’s my real issue. All of this is assuming that the only way to make money on the web is with advertising. After all, that’s how media works right? But what if there’s another way? People are using lots of old-media analogies to describe the dangers of AutoLink, like imagine if Tivo allowed CBS to advertise on Fox programs as you fastforwarded.

But I’d like to remind everyone of something: the web is different. It’s not TV. It’s not radio. It’s not even a digital newspaper (no matter what The New York Times and the rest of them think). It’s not even Tivo. It’s different. Jason Kottke understands this, that’s why he’s asking for micropatons to support him (which I urge you to do). He’s trying to find a new way. Jason explains:

With decreasingly few exceptions, media is supported by advertising. Content on the web in particular is heavily ad supported. I’m interested in exploring other avenues with a special interest in discovering sustainable ways for other folks to do things like this as well.

He doesn’t want to write a book. He doesn’t want to have advertising. He just wants to blog and he wants to figure out how to make enough money to support himself doing it. You know what? There’s got to be a way. We just have to put our brains into this new medium. We need to remember it’s different. The old analogies just don’t work anymore.

In a recent paper by Terry Heaton titled “The Devaluation of Information”, he discusses the disintegrating value of information in a digital society. Because the web offers us near complete access to any information, how can publishers justify charging? Heaton explains:

The Internet with its Postmodern, deconstructionist architechture makes it seem that all knowledge is “public” knowledge and all information is “public” information. It was built without a centralized command and control mechanism, and, therefore, the ability to tap unlimited databases is available to everybody. This is what makes Google so powerful. Absent any top-down structure, Google (anybody) is able to search and retrieve from those databases at any level, which, among other things, renders the portal Website concept irrelevant. It also makes attempts to block it appear odd and out-of-place.

Later in the article Heaton discusses the rise and fall of Britannica online, which boomed during the bubble days and declined when it the bubble popped. Now, Wikipedia poses a whole new threat to Britannica. Heaton writes:

The Britannica has weathered many storms in the last 15 years, as technology has rewritten their business. Even now, the online “Wikipedia” — which is written and edited by the public — poses a new threat, but the company has faith in its model. “This stuff is constantly changing,” Panelas admits, “and the way customers understand this is changing all the time.”

He’s quick to add, however, that “we live in a society that’s too sophisticated to completely abandon empirical and rational thinking.”

Whoa! Is that true? Or was it true? I think that’s a fairly dangerous statement to make in an increasingly digital society. And so does Heaton, who responds:

In a Postmodern world, such assumptions can be dangerous, and this is what’s at the heart of the free-versus-paid argument. The rational Modernist world is the one with the institutional doorways and permission gates, but that world is fading, and our culture is rapidly moving in a different direction. It’s a “new wine” thing, and it requires new wineskins.

Advertising is an old wineskin that has been used in our “new wine” because there wasn’t anything better to use. It doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there, though. We just need some more time to find it.

March 1, 2005