Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want his online empire slapped with a new regime of regulations, especially regulations written by people who think that “deleting cookies” is a euphemism for throwing up.
So he was willing to sit there for two days, listening to old people who have no clue about what he has built and what parts of it might have escaped from his lab to wreak havoc among the ignorant villagers, promising to get back to them on technical questions and patiently explaining that just about all of the privacy bells and whistles the members of Congress suggested are already on there, somewhere, if you just keep clicking through.
In amongst all that, Utah’s extremely senior Sen. Orrin Hatch had — or stumbled upon — a moment of clarity. Either he was really paying attention during all those high-tech seminars we were laughing at him for sponsoring. Or he was assisted by that function of old age that causes you to forget what you had for lunch that day but clearly remember the lyrics of a song you learned in second grade.
Facebook, Hatch observed, is free to its users. So how, he asked Zuckerberg, does it make money?
“Senator, we run ads,” was the answer.
How incredibly 20th century.
That is, basically, the business model that made most newspapers a license to print money for so long. We sold ads, delivering the eyeballs of our audience of news readers, sports fans, comics gigglers and puzzle doers to those whose purchase of column-inches flogging cars, dresses, pork chops and movies paid the freight.
Oh, sure, there was a cost to readers, to have it delivered or to pick up a copy at the gas station. But that was never enough revenue to keep the doors open. It maybe covered the cost of gas for the delivery vans. And it gave those who paid for their copies a feeling that they had something of value in their hands, not just a throwaway bit of paper.
Honorable publishers and journalists were serious about the wall separating editorial from advertising, a metaphor knowingly borrowed from Jefferson’s separation of church and state formulation. But the greatest financial threat looming over so many newspapers was not that we would lose readers but that we would somehow tick off one or another of our big advertisers.
I’ve worked at newspapers that suffered through advertiser boycotts, in at least one case a painful move by a group of auto dealers mad about the newspaper’s editorial support for a local sales tax, and avoided a few more.
One reader was so offended by my editorial support for same-sex marriage that he implored our biggest advertiser, a supermarket chain, to withdraw their ads in protest. The grocer politely demurred, explaining that the purpose of advertising was to reach customers, not to step into a never-ending mire of making, or avoiding, political statements of one kind or another.
That’s why some of us are deciding to be pleased with the idea of charging readers to read our news online, making us less dependent on advertisers. That way, we really work for the people we’ve always said we are here to serve.
The discovery that the data that Facebook, Twitter, Google and other internet giants gather about their users is the coin of the online realm does seem to have surprised many of us and caused some to wonder if they should delete one or more apps from their virtual lives or demand some kind of regulatory crackdown.
In most cases, all that data mining does is tell our computers which of us might be in the market for tires, or ski vacations or college scholarships. It’s what you see when you have done a Google search for, say, a used iPhone, and ads for smartphone deals pop up on just about every web site you visit.
Or when a look at the Miami Herald website includes an ad for a business that only exists down the street from your house in Orem. Because the web knows where you live.
The value of whatever data Cambridge Analytica filched from Facebook was not that they used your personal information to blackmail you. It was that they were able to tell, just like the marketers of cars and contact lenses, which of us might be most interested in, and influenced by, messages for or against Black Lives Matter, the NRA, Dreamers or wall-builders.
Targeting messages to carefully selected slices of audience allows people to float snake oil, political or commercial, that will be gleefully swallowed by certain people, while avoiding the gaze of either the other side or of journalists and fact-checkers who won’t know to debunk the junk.
Two ways out of that problem. One, leaving the advertiser-supported model to Facebook and moving toward a reader-funded plan for real news. Two, readers who don’t believe all the junk that pops up online.
The first is, slowly, happening. The second, well, things are not looking too good.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, is still waiting to hear back from that nice Nigerian oil minister about all the money that is coming his way. firstname.lastname@example.org