Friday, September 21, 2007

A Theology of Advertising?

Seeing as how I make my living off of advertising (something I would never have predicted), and also do my best to live as a confessing Christian, I periodically wonder how those two sides of my life connect. If the point of theology is, as one of my profs indicated, "to think God's thoughts after Him," a "theology of advertising", then, would be an attempt to understand advertising from God's point of view: to hear God's thoughts on what advertising is, what it should be, and how a Christian should (or should not be) connected with it.

There's clearly more here than I can do justice in one post – and I'm not going to try. But at random intervals over the next several weeks, I'm planning to offer up thoughts on different aspects of advertising, considered from the divine perspective. Some questions that I'd like to consider include: Is advertising inherently problematic, or is there a legitimate role for advertising in Christian economic theory? Are some kinds of advertising better than others, and if so, what makes them better? What guidelines should a Christian who makes his living in the advertising industry follow?

To some extent, all of these questions presuppose the idea that I hold to reasonably coherent and systematic views on theology and ethics – which is a fairly large supposition, and probably inaccurate. Even just "educated" views is probably too much to hope for: I don't have nearly enough time to do the research that I'd like. But my paycheck has had its origin in advertising dollars for the last seven years, so I've had the opportunity to see the industry from the inside, and during that time I've participated in numerous detailed debates over what constitutes ethical behavior. And despite the fact that advertising makes up a significant and growing percentage of the world's economy – approaching $300 billion annually in the US alone – I'm not aware of anyone else doing this. (Let me know if I'm wrong.) So I thought I'd give it a shot.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Finishing off the Summer

Galena and I (and Caedmon, and two of Galena's friends) spent the weekend up at Keith's cabin, near Lake Kachess. We mostly just relaxed, read and ate too much, but on Saturday, Keith and my cousin Brian (recently back from Everest) and I took off for a motorcycle ride on the roads and trails around the cabin. It was a gorgeous day, with some great views of the Lake Kachess/Lake Kachellis/I90 valley. A great way to finish off the summer.

The Mainstreaming of Desktop Advertising

Part of me would really like to highlight Microsoft's recent filing of a second adware patent (after the first, here) as evidence that desktop advertising is going mainstream. But honestly, I would be several years too late. AOL's IM client has shown popup ads for years now, and every other serious IM client makes money from embedded banner ads. IAC's Fun Web Products division (aka SmileyCentral) accounts for a very large chunk of the $700MM annually that IAC's "Media & Advertising" brings in. The industry number that gets tossed around is that Google makes about $12 on each install of their toolbar. Miva's Direct division (owner of accounts for more than a third of Miva's $120MM in annual revenues.

The only frustrating thing about this is the ongoing double-standard across the industry. Everybody in the world would hate it, but it would prove my point exceedingly well, if the scanning apps suddenly started removing every piece of advertising-supported software that didn't abide by the same level of opt-in and consent that Zango does. Just so we're clear, this would include every single company and application that I mention above. It would drive home to a whole bunch of folks, very quickly, just how hard Zango has worked to make sure that users who get our software really want it.

This goes back to what I said in my last post, about the need for all "socially generated knowledge" to eventually bump up against reality. It will, eventually. But it sure takes a long time, sometimes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Limitations of Socially Generated Knowledge

For some years, I've been interested in studying "how we know things". In philosophical circles this is known as epistemology, though it has a somewhat more practical cousin called cognitive science. The whole discipline is wonderfully circular, since nearly the first question you have to ask yourself is, "How do I know that I know how we know?"

Over the last half century or so, there's been a growing consensus (though certainly not unchallenged) that most knowledge has a social or communal dimension to it. Some people even say that all knowledge-claims are socially constructed, or that any claim to knowledge is really just a disguised claim to power. But you don't have to go that far to recognize that most questions humans are interested in presuppose a plurality of humans asking the question. Still, while acts of knowledge must always take place against a backdrop of community, if knowledge is to be counted as real knowledge, in the end it must bump up against real things. Knowledge that is accessible only to a special community (whether that community be Marxists or Mormons or bloggers) will not last. Lasting knowledge both forms and is formed by a given community, but it must also reach out beyond the original bounds of that community.

One of the interesting ways in which this epistemological consensus has taken form is on the Internet. It's variously called "web 2.0", or "wikinomics" or "the wisdom of crowds," but the phenomenon described is roughly the same: using a widespread community and mass collaboration to generate knowledge. Wikipedia is probably the best-known example, but the same process takes place on thousands of forums, hundreds of thousands of blogs, and millions of email exchanges each day. People contribute what they know to a vast pool of information, and eventually, out of that sometimes maddening cacophony, consensus arises, conclusions are drawn, and very occasionally, work gets done.

I should state for the record that as a blogger and Wikipedia junky, I'm a huge fan of this, what I'll call "socially generated knowledge." It's wonderfully astonishing how well it often works. When I want to research a company, or need to understand an algorithm or mathematical concept better, my first stop is always Wikipedia; and I spend more time than my wife would like either reading blogs or contributing my own postings.

But my experience over the last several years has also brought home, quite clearly, some of the problems inherent with using mass collaboration to generate knowledge. In particular, one debate to which I've had a front-row seat illustrates quite clearly some of its limitations.

A great deal has been written about Zango in various online forums. Over time, a consensus has emerged about what Zango's software does, the value that it adds (or doesn't add), how it is generally installed on your machine, and how it is best uninstalled. In other words, this Consensus (it deserves the capital letter) can reasonably be claimed to represent the result of a wide-ranging, "web 2.0," communal search for understanding: socially generated knowledge at its most robust.

Here's the part that's interesting to me. When it comes to these issues, I sit in a rather privileged position, having supervised, designed or written a great deal of Zango's software myself. I actually know first-hand what Zango's software does, how it's installed, and how best to uninstall it. When it comes to knowing how Zango's software works, it's not a matter of community knowledge: I was there, elbow-deep in code, strategic decisions, debugging and implementation. And thus I happen to know from direct experience that much of the Consensus is simply wrong. And that's worrisome.

To put what I'm going to say into context, you have to understand that you've always been able to uninstall any of Zango's software by going to Add/Remove Programs. The steps you follow once you get to Add/Remove Programs have changed over the years, and we've simplified and standardized the process – but it has always been the case that if you go to Add/Remove Programs and you follow your nose, Zango will uninstall cleanly. (I encourage you to try it yourself, if you're so persuaded.) Furthermore, this is not only one possible way to uninstall Zango: it's without a doubt the easiest, and by a long, long shot, the safest. If you try to uninstall any modern application manually (by deleting files, registry keys, etc.), you run a fairly reasonable risk of screwing up your PC; and while a $30 scanning application is probably more thorough than doing it by hand, even they often fail to uninstall Zango completely or cleanly. They just don't know Zango's software as well as Zango's own engineers do. So that's the undeniable state of affairs: if you want to uninstall Zango, go to Add/Remove Programs. Period.

But to put it gently, that's not the impression you would get from a Google search on, say, "delete Zango". To show you what I mean, let's do just that, and take a look at the information out there about uninstalling Zango. This thread is typical of what you'll see:

Zango. What is it?

by Y4 - 7/8/04 9:30 AM


None of my spyware programs detected Zango.exe on my PC. This program loaded on my PC covertly. Completely unwanted....Desktop short-cut, and all. However, when I ran a McAfee scan it detected Zango as a potentially unwanted application, and listed it as a variant of "180solutions", known spyware! It even comes with an installer, that will reload the program onto your computer if deleted from "Add/Remove programs". The only program that detected it, and removed it successfully was McAfee. Has anyone else ever had the "Zango experience"? What the heck is it?

I suppose you'll have to take my word that much of what the posting describes is simply not true. Yet the contention that Zango reinstalls itself is posted as fact on numerous public forums, where it becomes the source for much additional "knowledge", and with the help of Google is referenced explicitly or implicitly by many subsequent posters.

This posting, from the same thread, similarly contains a great deal of misinformation:

Re: Zango. What is it?

by Y4 - 7/8/04 10:04 AM
In reply to: Re: Zango. What is it? by Marianna Schmudlach

Marianna, I ran Adaware, and spybot on my PC. Adaware recognised the Zango.exe, but could not remove it. I tried removing it at start-up, but to no avail. I then ran spybotS&D, it too recognised the 180solutions variant Zango.exe., and removed it successfully, however, it failed to recognise the Zango installer, and at next boot-up, BAM! There it was again! That's when I ran McAfee8, and it detected, and removed both Zango.exe, and the Zango installer. My PC is now free of the pest. This pest is a tricky one. I've done a little research on it, and from what I've tries to HiJack your explore.exe, and iexplore.exe applications. If the HiJack is successful, you would in turn delete your browser application if you delete Zango from "Add/Remove programs". This, in my opinion, is spyware nearing virus potential! BEWARE!!Thank you for your attention in this matter.

I can't swear that the scanning apps referenced didn't behave that way, because I didn't design them and I can't tell you for a fact what they can or can't do. (Though I do know that once they start messing around with a Zango installation, all bets are off as to whether Zango will still be able to uninstall itself correctly. We can write all the uninstall code we want, but if a scanning app removes that code, we have precious few options left.) But the post is most interesting to me in an epistemological sense for a different reason. The writer claims to have done "a little research", i.e., has drunk at the well of socially generated knowledge. I'm in a position to know that it's precisely this received knowledge which is most baldly inaccurate, and leads finally to the amusing (and completely untrue) claim that uninstalling Zango will delete your browser.

And so it goes. Forum postings like these are to be found everywere, but blog postings that encourage painfully manual uninstalls are common as well. Most egregious are the official-looking postings from various online security companies which insist (explicitly or implicitly) that Zango can only be safely uninstalled by shelling out $30 for their product.

To be fair, over the last year or so, some postings (here, here and here, for instance) do recognize that the best way to uninstall Zango is to go to Add/Remove Programs. Given that the process these posts describe is not only the right process, but also the cheapest and easiest by several orders of magnitude, it's rather astonishing how few and far between those posts are, and how long it's taken them to start showing up. And perhaps most troubling, despite quite a bit of searching, I have yet to find any post that explicitly corrects the Consensus. Nobody ever says, "Nah, you don't have to spend all that money, and you don't have to spend an hour mucking about with your registry. Just find Add/Remove Programs and follow your nose." Even those contributors who apparently know better don't seem to mind that the Consensus is quite wrong, and that's quite puzzling.

At some level, this rather shocking discord between reality and the Consensus calls into question the reliability of the entire "web 2.0" project. (Though please note that I explain "web 2.0" with a reference to the archetypal web 2.0 site – who said irony is dead?) In further postings, I'd like to explore the reasons why so much that is said about Zango is so inaccurate – and see if that can help us to understand better the strengths and limitations of socially generated knowledge.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

H.R. 1908: The Patent Reform Act of 2007

I'm no patent lawyer (or lawyer of any sort), and I admit that I quickly feel out of my depth when it comes to discussing patent law. But as an interested participant (at minimum) on technical matters at a fast-moving Internet company for almost a decade now, and as an interested observer for much longer, I remain quite frustrated with what I (and others) think are obvious flaws in our patent system. Let me repeat the disclaimer: patent law is quite complex and I'm no authority. Nevertheless, I have opinions and this happens to be my blog, so I'm going to share them.

My starting point is the idea that patent law is based on utility, not morality (or its close cousin, natural law). This, it seems to me, is different than most laws. Lots of folks like to say, "You can't legislate morality," but that's nearly the opposite of the truth. In fact, it's quite difficult to legislate anything besides morality. The law says "You can't kill someone" because, well, we all agree that it's immoral to do so. But morality doesn't really enter into patent law. You can't own an idea the same way you can own a car or a laptop or a wallet; similarly, you can't steal an idea the way you can steal somebody's wallet. If I have a wallet, by definition you can't have that wallet, and any attempt to split the wallet between us destroys that wallet or, at least, lessens its value. In contrast, if I have an idea, that has zero bearing on whether you can have the same idea; indeed, my idea becomes more powerful if I share it with others. Thomas Jefferson noted this as far back as 1813:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

His conclusion, then, is that patent law is not based on inherent ideas of ownership, but on whether it improves society:

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body.

So that's the first thing about patents: their point is not to ensure ownership, but rather to improve society by encouraging innovation: utility, not morality. It's a mistake to argue for strong patent laws by saying, "This idea is my property and by rights it should remain mine." Ownership of ideas doesn't work that way. Patent law should encourage innovation and precious little else; and if it doesn't do that, it should be changed.

This leads me to my second point: in many situations, our current patent system does not in fact encourage innovation; and it should be changed.

As the co-founder of a medium-sized Internet company, I've had the opportunity to observe first-hand how patents are used. And at least in this field, my impression is that if it were to become more difficult to obtain a patent, more difficult to enforce one, and rather less profitable to do either, these changes would foster innovation and not discourage it. The reason is simple: at least in the Internet space, I've seen patents used far more often to bully other companies than to protect legitimate innovation. Zango has often fought-off competition and, judging by the fate of our chief competitors, has fought it off fairly well. But although we've done much that is patentable, we've yet to feel the need to aggressively use patents to bully our competitors: our business moves too quickly, and we're innovating too fast, to make such a slow, expensive and blunt weapon particularly useful. The converse, however, is not true, and the patent challenges we've spent time and resources rebuffing have distracted us from our efforts to provide value to consumers.

I'm excited, therefore, to see that the House has just passed a reasonable patent reform measure (H.R. 1908) and that the bill is on its way to the Senate. As it turns out, I don't think that the bill goes quite far enough. As one of the comments on Google's blog posting pointed out, the real problem with our patent system is screwed up is excessively broad patentable subject matter: stuff gets patented these days that simply shouldn't be patentable. The bar for "non-obviousness" is set too low and the scope of potential subject matter is expanded too broadly. Unfortunately, HR 1908 doesn't address either of those two problems.

That said, the 2007 Patent Reform Act is better than nothing. It makes some technical changes to the law that all seem to point (perhaps somewhat vaguely) in the right direction. It makes it a little easier for people to challenge stupid patents. It makes it a little harder to claim absurd, astronomical damages. It makes it more difficult to shop for a favorable venue. In short, it's limited. It won't fix the problem. But it will make it somewhat better. And even that's enough to give me hope. At least we recognize there's a problem.

Oh, and Caedmon just peed on me. Apparently he's not a fan of patent law either.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Skunk Works Projects

Typically, Zango's product development lifecycle starts with Product Managers who help to specify the product and prioritize work around it; and then the actual programming and feature creation happens in Development. This is fairly typical – nothing particularly interesting here. However, it's a fact of life – and a fact worth celebrating – that not all great ideas need to get their start in Product Management. Sometimes, folks in Dev (or who have development skills) have ideas for products that they like to play around with. We call those projects "Skunk Works Projects", after the famous Lockheed Martin Advanced Development group.

We like skunk works projects, and want to encourage developers to work on them, as they see fit, without a great deal of centralized control. It's a great way to foster innovation, and shortcut the bureaucracy that's inherent in developing products in a large, distributed organization (that is nevertheless consistently short on resources). However, before a developer spends his next six weekends working out his latest bright idea, we've instituted these guidelines for them to consider – and I thought the guidelines were worth sharing.

  • It's a little flexible how much regular work time you can/should spend on skunk works projects. But the hard-and-fast rule is that skunk works projects can't delay regular SDLC'd projects. If existing, project-managed, product-managed work requires overtime to meet the date you've committed to, your skunk works project has to go on hold.
  • If you're smart, you'll check with your friendly neighborhood product manager before spending a bunch of time on an idea. You don't have to – we're talking about skunk works projects here – but product managers generally have a good feel for what sort of ideas are perfect, which ones are interesting but just won't fit into our schedule anytime soon, and which just don't make sense. So why not spend time brainstorming and building trust with your key allies?
  • Before you introduce your idea to folks beyond the initial developers/brainstormers, show it to Product first. You don't want your idea shot down in a room full of twenty people: give Product the chance to give feedback on it first, in a smaller setting.
  • Be ready for disappointment. For a variety of different reasons, most skunk works ideas don't make it all the way through to a released product. They can still be valuable, whether as a learning experience for yourself, or to get people thinking, or what-have-you: but just because you really like the idea doesn't mean that it's the right thing for the company to spend the resources required to turn it into a production-ready system or a market-ready product.
  • No skunkworks project gets rolled out without eventually getting turned over to Product Management. And once that happens, you become a stakeholder just like everyone else. Eventually your babies grow up and move out on their own.
  • Your vision for your project might not be what Product Management eventually does with it. Feel free to whine and complain about this – but also be ready to suck it up and deal with it.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


I don't have any particularly profound thoughts tonight (it's coming onto midnight, and Caedmon is promising to outlast me) – but I wanted to share my gratitude to all the friends and family and church members who have helped to welcome Caedmon into the world. No man is an island, Donne said, and Caedmon is less so than most. Since he was born some 22 days ago, not a day has gone by without a present – arriving in the mail, sitting at our doorstep, or delivered by hand. He is far more popular than I had ever dreamed of being. Lots of people love this little guy, and that bodes extremely well for his parents' sanity and his own well being.

So: to everyone out there who's had a chance to meet him and show your support, this is my huge thanks. Thank you.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Bad Habits

I'm worried about Caedmon. Oh, I mean, he's growing, he's eating, he's sleeping. But alongside that, he's also learning all sorts of things that won't play well out in the real world.

He clearly believes that he's the center of the world. And my wife and I – and the dozens of visitors who show up every day to ooh and ahh over him – are doing precious little to disabuse him of that notion.

He thinks that he's badly malnourished. About eight times a day he thinks this, and lets us know quite loudly what he thinks of our obvious lack of concern for his nutritional state.

He thinks that everyone in the house needs to hear just how hard he's working at his latest bowel movement.

His idea of a schedule is to sleep all day and party all night.

He thinks it's perfectly appropriate to vomit the contents of his stomach onto whoever is holding him.

He believes that rubbing his butt around in a diaper full of yellow-mustard crap is the zenith of bliss, and that any attempt to remedy this situation is a fundamental threat to his life, liberty and happiness.

He believes that personal hygiene is an affair beneath his notice.

I get the impression we're going to be working on these bad habits of his for some time.