privacy is God

Is God Dead?In April 1966, Time Magazine published the most controversial magazine cover of all time.  This was back when magazines really mattered, they were our national interpreters of news and culture.  As the most popular news weekly in America, Time mattered most of all.  The cover story asked, “Is God Dead?

The question had already been asked and answered for thousands of years.  But Time’s report came in the middle of America’s cultural revolution, when many social norms were being revisited and overthrown.  The new theologians claimed, “ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead.”

Four months later, the controversy rose to another level on John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”  Lennon later explained that he meant that the Beatles had more influence on young people than religion.  He was certainly right in the one measure that matters most to media observers:  the Beatles sold more music than anybody.

Is privacy like God? Not in the sense of blasphemous comparison, but in the similarly unending debate, which seems to be reaching a crescendo during today’s Internet revolution.  It has become fashionable to proclaim that “privacy is dead.”  Apparently, Facebook’s CEO doesn’t believe in privacy.  Maybe Facebook is actually quite similar to the Beatles, in terms of holding a pivotal place in a cultural revolution to new social norms.

But before we go too far with this comparison, let’s look at what the answer Time’s question turned out to be.  Decades after the countercultural peak, God is as alive as he ever was – which is only to say that there are believers and nonbelievers, and declarations by either side don’t end the argument.  Even death doesn’t end the argument, as Nietzsche, Lennon, or the guy who wrote the Time story would agree, if they were alive to do so.

Facebook’s 400 million users is pretty impressive, but the Bible has that beat by a few billion.  Lennon’s statement may have heralded the cultural primacy of popular music, but it didn’t come close to marking the death of God.  All the “smart money” in Hollywood can think that God is dead, but it didn’t stop Mel Gibson from making $300 million on his belief otherwise. Similarly, I think the phrase “privacy is dead” simply declares the ascendancy of a certain kind of media, and it doesn’t mean that the old desires and expectations will ever die.

why doesn't everyone use AdBlock?

AdBlock allows people to surf the web without seeing advertising, and in doing so transforms the Web from a noisy, neon-lit advertising hell into a serene, minimalist content paradise.  It works so well, and has become so popular, that I’ve started to wonder why everyone doesn’t already use it.  What are the reasons AdBlock isn’t universally popular?  Here are the potential reasons I’ve considered:

1)  It’s too complicated. AdBlock is a bit of software that works with web browsers, variously called an extension, add-on, or plug-in.  Until Chrome launched its extensions system, AdBlock was only available for Firefox.  So “it’s complicated” means that AdBlock is a scary software installation on a non-mainstream web browser.

That might have been a good argument in 2007, when Firefox had less than 15% market share and Chrome didn’t exist.  AdBlock claimed around 2.5 million users that year.  But now Firefox and Chrome have 30% market share.  AdBlock for Firefox has had over 75 million downloads, with 10 million daily users.  A similar AdBlock is already the most popular extension in Chrome’s much newer extensions list.  With those kinds of numbers, it’s hard to claim AdBlock is too complicated to use.

2)  It’s not fair. Websites that run on advertising make less money in a world with AdBlock.  If everyone used AdBlock, these websites would be financially devastated.  Using AdBlock makes sense in the short run, but is a long-term loser for users who want free content.

Could it be that people’s innate sense of economic fairness prevents AdBlock adoption?  I’d like to think that’s true, but we don’t have to look very far to find evidence otherwise.  The use of online file sharing certainly hasn’t been impeded much by “fairness” arguments, and users don’t seem to give much regard to the consequences.

3)  Banner blindness is better. People are remarkably effective at simply not seeing ads.  This “banner blindness” requires no installation and is absolutely free.

No doubt banner blindness is the best current alternative to AdBlock.  The price is the same (free), and no particular browser or installation is required.  But how long will this status remain?  Will all mainstream browsers support extensions, and make installation as easy as visiting a web page?  Those who follow browser development regard the answers as obvious:  it’s only going to get easier to use AdBlock, and that will make banner blindness comparatively less attractive.

4)  People actually want ads. Advertisers would like this to be true, so fervently that it sometimes seems they have convinced themselves that it is.

Here’s the part that’s true:  people want to find out about things they like, people like getting discounts and early access to good products and services, people like to save time as well as money.  Does this mean that people actually want ads so much that they won’t use AdBlock?  Probably not.  Is there anyone who won’t use TiVo because they’d rather be forced to watch commercials on TV?

5)  No one knows about it yet. Sure, some people use AdBlock, but it’s no Twitter, is it?  Actually, in terms of actual usage, AdBlock and Twitter are pretty close.  But I’ll bet you’ve heard about Twitter about a hundred times more in the past couple of years than you’ve heard of AdBlock.  Why is that?

Well, the Twitter story is good for just about everyone who touches it:  Good for Twitter, its investors, the press, marketers, advertisers, and users.  The AdBlock story, in contrast, is bad for everybody.  It’s an open source project, so there’s no company to invest in or promote.  The press doesn’t like the story, it seems at once too techie (“add-ons”?) and too simple (“no one likes ads, duh”).  Marketers and advertisers have absolutely no interest in letting anyone hear about it.  And even users don’t benefit from the spread of AdBlock – it’s a non-viral, non-social product that works great for users, but also carries a slight taint of being bad for websites.

So AdBlock might be the most popular product that no one wants to talk about.  Still, you have to wonder if there will come a day when everyone is using AdBlock, or something like it.