Sarah Jeong, Journalist/Writer – XOXO Festival (2016)


>>>That’s my name up there. Hi, I’m Sarah Jeong, and I’m a journalist
by trade. But I wasn’t always a journalist. I actually started out as a human infant. [Laughter] And from there, I went on to become a small child and eventually I pivoted to surly teenager. And from surly teenager, I transitioned to
an asshole college student and long story short, like many asshole college students
who do really well in school and are euphemistically labeled as argumentative, I went to law school. This was not my first choice in life. I had always wanted to be a writer. To learn things I’d never known. To tell stories. To show people new ways of thinking about
the world. But I didn’t think I could hack it as a writer. So I decided to become a lawyer instead. As you can see I’m smiling in this photo. That’s because I’m skipping class. [Laughter]
There aren’t a lot of photos of me smiling during this period of my life. I really — I hated it. And as I grew to know the legal profession
better, I hated the idea of going into the legal profession. And meanwhile, a funny thing happened. I wrote something while I was in law school. It did really well. People really liked it. People I liked and respected, my role models
told me to keep on writing. Said I was good at it. Editors started contacting me and commissioned
me and seemed to want to pay me. I had never connected with any kind of work
the way I connected with writing. So I fled the slowly collapsing market for
legal jobs and instead entered the much more swiftly collapsing market for journalism jobs. [Laughter]
Because of my legal background, I write a lot about law. Specifically law and technology. I write about copyright. I write about the First Amendment, the Fourth
Amendment, the Federal Trade Commission, and how these things affect software, music, security,
encryption, and robots. In a way, it’s really — it’s kind of similar
to the academic work I was doing before. You take a question, you answer it as best
as you can, and then you turn around and you try to explain it to other people. So it’s really similar to what I was doing
in law school. Really similar. [Laughter]
Anyways, this is a talk about about ads and ad blocking. And right off the bat, I’m going to say that
I don’t work the business side of things. This isn’t a talk about my experience dealing
with ad networks or running a publishing business. When it comes to my personal experience with
journalism as a business, this is the totality of how I interact with the advertising side
of things. I publish a piece and then the publication
pays me. And somewhere between these two steps, people
are clicking on links to my articles, ad networks are serving them ads. I guess this happens. And maybe these ads are running next to my
2,000 word report on the troubling legal precedent that will affect the future of encryption
on smartphones. But more realistically, it’s my article about
sexting. When people see the ads, they pay the publication,
the publication then pays me. And when people use ad blockers, those clicks
mean less, the ad networks pay less, the publication has less of a budget to pay me, and your ad
blocker takes food out of my mouth. Please don’t turn off your ad blocker. Outside of the media industry, the position
that ad blockers are good is very uncontroversial. But inside the media, I think I have some
compelling arguments as to why ad blockers are a good thing. But it makes me nervous to stand here and
make that statement in a place where editors I work with are going to find out I said this. And the thing is that the effect that ad blocking
has on the industry is real, palpable, you can see it. This is a chart of the revenues of The New
York Times. You know, people read that. People actually read “The New York Times.” But look at what’s happening to their revenue. Just as a show of hands, who was here at the
last XOXO and saw Mallory Otrtberg’s talk? Yeah, she’s an amazing writer, lots of people
read her. Lots of people loved her site that she cofounded
with Nicole Cliffe, The Toast, and the epilogue to that is The Toast shut down this year and
part of that was declining ad revenues. The Toast is no longer in business. And this is by Nicole Cliffe. “Adblock is killing us. Everyone has a secret stash of money or doesn’t
pay their bills, and it is not getting better.” The Toast was really important. I am really sad that it’s gone. The writing they gave a home to was diverse,
funny, engaging, bookish, interesting. And often from new and emerging writers who
couldn’t be published elsewhere. When ad revenue drops, there’s less and less
possibility for good writing, and we’re never going to know what didn’t get written because
The Toast is no longer with us. And it might be because I didn’t turn off
my goddamn adblocker. But like I said, I cover tech and law as a
beat. And one of my beats is computer security and
privacy. And I don’t have personal experience working
with the advertising side of things. But this is something I know. Ads endanger you. For the most part, ads aren’t inert images. They interact with your browser in a much
more active way, often times putting tracking cookies on your machine. For those of you who don’t know, a cookie
is a file that tags you like you’re an endangered rhinoceros or microchipped cat. Cookies will betray where you’ve been, what
you’ve looked at. Advertisers are using cookies to identify
you, your location, your interests. It’s not like they’re the NSA or anything,
they’re just trying to sell you stuff. Although as a digression, the NSA has been
known to piggyback off of tracking cookies to spy on their targets. But even if you aren’t Laura Poitras or Glenn
Greenwald or Edward Snowden, surveillance is surveillance and it’s completely natural
to object to it whether it’s being performed by nation-state actors or commercial entities
for profit motives. And it’s not just that. The next step is targeting women in abortion
clinic lobbies to serve them anti-choice ads. Targeted advertising online is intrinsically
a matter of surveillance and where there’s surveillance, power and balances will be exploited
in unethical ways. And, to me, this here isn’t just the vague
tingling sensation of “wow, these tracking cookies are a creepy violation of privacy.” This is morally reprehensible, and it doesn’t
stop there. So I’ve written for Forbes. They’ve treated me really well. They actually published my first book. And this isn’t meant to bash on anyone there. This is just something that happened to them
and happened to their readers. They accidentally hit their readers with malvertising,
which is malware served up through an ad. A lot of media sites are using third-party
services that act as intermediaries between the site and someone who wants to buy an ad,
and some of those ads are designed to be malicious. I don’t think that the service or Forbes are
malicious people. I mean there’s definitely a malicious person
somewhere designing the ads so that they can infect you. But, you know, the media industry is unwittingly
allowing evil to befall their readers. And as someone who does security journalism,
as someone who wants my readers to practice better security, for industry and government
to promote a consumer-friendly technological ecosystem, I just can’t tell people to turn
off their ad blockers. I can’t. And I’m not even going to get into how gross
ads are a lot of the time. Okay. I’m going to get into it a little bit. [laughter]
This is my favorite ad that ran on The Toast. This may really surprise you, but I’m not
looking for Asian beauties right now. [laughter] Okay, but that’s just poor targeting;
right? But the good targeting isn’t much better. The moment an ad network finds out that I’m
a woman, I’m barraged with ads for diet pills, tooth whitening, plastic surgery, and there’s
nothing wrong with any of those things. I just don’t like being flooded with messages
aimed to exploit culturally-conditioned feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. [Applause]
It’s not something I want to experience. And it turns out it’s not something my readers
want to experience, and it’s horrible for me to demand that they do so. And I should add The Toast worked to immediately
remove this ad from their pages as soon as a reader pointed them out. So, good actors. The ad blocking crisis is a problem that the
entire industry is grappling with, and it’s not as though the whole biz is just flailing
around, slowly sinking into the ocean. It does sometimes feel like that, but that’s
not the case. Everyone’s trying different things. They’re trying paywalls and subscription models
that hold 20 free articles a month thing that forces you to open an incognito window towards
the end of your month. The “donate and you won’t see any ads”
model. And then of course the ad-blocker-blocker,
which I think is an intrinisically doomed effort, but I’m not going to get that because
I’m supposed to give a 20 minute talk. Anyways, I want to talk a little bit about
the Brave browser. I’m not associated with Brave in any way,
I don’t have a stake in them. The reason why I’m talking about them will
be clear in a moment. It’s a browser with a built-in ad blocker. And that’s not very interesting by itself. What it does is instead of disappearing the
ads, it superimposes whitelisted ads on top of the ads you normally see and these are
ads, according to Brave, that are “safe.” No tracking. No malvertising. “Good” ads instead of “bad” ads. And Brave makes money off of these good ads
and then sets aside the revenue for the publishers of those websites. So the money that comes from a “good”
ad that’s slapped on top of the New York Times website is set aside for The New York Times. The catch, though, is Brave is of course getting
a percentage off the take. Duh. That’s how capitalism work. But the publishers hate this. I mean they hate what Brave is doing, not
that they hate capitalism. [Laughter]
So in April of this year, the Newspaper Association of America sent this cease and desist to Brave. I love have this letter. It’s one of the most hilarious things I’ve
ever read, but my sense of humor is considered to be fairly eccentric. But since I get the stage, I’m going to read
my favorite paragraph aloud to you guys, and you have to listen. [Laughter]
Sorry, I’m going to do a Marco Rubio here. [Laughter]
“Your plan to use our content to sell your advertising is indistinguishable from a plan
to steal our content to publish on your own website. Your public statements demonstrate clearly
that you intend to harness and exploit the content of all the publishers on the Web to
sell your own advertising.” Yada, yada. Let’s get to the good part. “There’s a simple reason no one else is
purporting to provide all the content on the Web in one place for its own profit without
investing a penny in creating that content. Everyone else has recognized that it would
be blatantly illegal for one company to hijack all the content on the Web for its own benefit.” [cheers and applause]
I’m sorry I don’t know how that got here. [Laughter]
[Applause] I’m really bad at computers, but let’s move
on with this talk. So, to me, this paragraph is an implicit restatement
of how the industry feels about ad blocking. That removing advertising is stealing content. And in a way, that makes sense, right? Like, if ad blocking is forcing down revenue,
then yeah, it’s stealing money from us. But I don’t know, I find it kind of weird
to equate theft with fast-forwarding through the ads at the beginning of a VHS rental or
muting the television during the advertisements. I don’t know if just because I wrote something
that someone wants to click, I now have a property interest in their eyeballs. I mean, actually I do know. I don’t. Legally speaking. [laughter]
But to that point, I want to shift from talking about Brave, this brand-new browser, to talking
about a browser plugin from the late ’90s. It was called AllAdvantage. Are there people here who used it? Wow! I was a baby. [Laughter]
The idea was that AllAdvantage would serve you advertisements, track your activity online,
and gather valuable marketing data that they could monetize. So in a way, it sounds like the entirety of
the web in 2016. But there’s a key difference. AllAdvantage sent a check to their users every
month. AllAdvantage shut down during the first dot-com
bust, which means I don’t think that it wasn’t a viable business model. Like, asking people, hey, do you want to look
at ads? And then they look ads, and then they all
right, thank you. Here’s a check. I think that they failed because it was just
the network effect of the bubble bursting. Of course, how would I know? How would any of us know? But with that said, I don’t think we’re going
to see AllAdvantage in this era. We’re not going to see that replicated just
because, you know, look at this letter that got sent to Brave. This is the predominant attitude now. Pay me for what you’re looking at. The assumption of digital journalism is that
eyeballs are an encroachment, a trespass that has to be paid for, usually by looking at
advertisements. The assumption is that because you clicked
through and read, we have a right to your eyeballs. AllAdvantage assumed the opposite. That a users’ attention is valuable rather
than costly. That users can be paid for their willingness
to look at something. And you might say, no, actually they’re the
same. They’re just monetizing users through advertisements. It’s just that in one case, the check goes
to the user, and in the other case, the check bypasses the user and goes straight to the
publisher with the assumption that the user has earned the advertising dollar and automatically
passed it on. And, yeah, you’re kind of right. The underlying economic premise is the same. But I still think that these are opposite
attitudes because one model gives users autonomy, agency, and choice, and the other treats users
like a metric. Like a token that you can trade in for a paycheck. And when these tokens, these inert numbers,
these faceless clicks start installing ad blockers, my industry becomes utterly enraged. And I think that’s awful. I don’t want to accept the system. I want to respect my audience. I want my readers to be safe and secure and
in full possession of their agency and choice. I want to treat my readers like people. So earlier this year, Oracle and Google faced
off in a second trial over software copyright on the Android platform, and you have no idea
how excited I was about this. [laughter]
This trial was, like — this is very revealing about myself and how hard I find it to connect
with people —but it was like, this was the big ultimate super collision of all my interests. Eric Schmidt testified, Larry Page testified,
they got Larry Ellison playing on tape in front of the jury, I was over the moon. These two megacorporations had hired some
really top-notch high billing lawyers and watching two really good lawyers face off
against each other in court is my favorite thing in the world. My favorite thing after software copyright. [laughter] So I wanted very badly to witness
this trial from start to finish. The problem was that this two- or three-week
long trial would produce three or four articles tops. And from a jobs standpoint, I couldn’t afford
to sit in a courtroom all day. It’s really tiring, and I had to go outside
and report other stories because that’s what the job demanded. There’s only been two instances in my life
where I’ve been paid to sit through an entire trial. The first besides Oracle v. Google was a package
deal that I struck with Forbes about a year ago, so I went through an institution. And this was to cover the Silk Road trial
in New York. I don’t know if you guys followed that, but
the government was prosecuting an internet drug kingpin so that trial had everything. It had drugs, encryption, the Dark Web, a
kingpin, chat logs, a diary, a murder, it was amazing, right? [laughter] But, you know, I could sell that
and in contrast, Oracle V Google is a case about software copyright. Yeah, I’m going to tell my editor, yeah, these
37 Java APIs are definitely going to produce a lot of courtroom drama. [laughter] No, I wasn’t going to sell that. So I resigned myself to being able to see
the trial at the start and the finish and also to losing a few thousand Twitter followers
for constantly tweeting about the copyright ability of Java application programming interfaces. But a ridiculous thing actually happened. I didn’t lose any followers. I actually started picking up followers. And people were hanging onto every tweet,
freaking out about every twist and turn that I documented via Twitter. And when I joked about eating Chipotle, people
started sending me a bunch of Chipotle gift certificates, thanking me for my work. And for some reason I still do not comprehend,
there were a lot of people who were really interested in a software copyright case about
the copyrightability of 37 Java APIs and the Android platform. I don’t know what your guys’ problem is. [Laughter]
And the response was — I did something kind of weird. I decided, you know, why don’t I put up a
PayPal link and see how long I can sit here and cover this trial? It’s not something that I would normally do,
and it’s something that I felt really weird about. But the response was really staggering. People thought that me sitting there tweeting
a running commentary on what was happening was a valuable service, and they were willing
to tip me for it. There were some small donations, but there
were also people who were giving me, like, $50, $100, and people were even turning it
into a game. Just, like, one-upping each other. [Laughter] [Applause]
I was just trying to make up for the lost time I had spent sitting inside a federal
courthouse and also the BART fare going back and forth. But what ended up happening was I actually
made enough money to take a short vacation and start writing a book proposal. [Applause]
So if you helped make that happen, it actually meant a lot to me. And I ended up reporting the entirety of the
trial via Twitter, and I broke the news of the verdict as it was read aloud in court. Spoiler. Google wins. [laughter]
The point of me telling you about this isn’t that I think that this is the future of journalism. Like, this is not. The circumstances around me reporting Oracle
v. Google are deeply unusual. For one thing, the Northern District of California
where this trial took place is one of the few jurisdictions in the entire country that
allows devices into the courtroom, let alone also have an open wifi network. [laughter] And, yeah, they love freedom of
the press over there. And the niche audience of developers that
care about software copyright is much more likely to be on Twitter and have disposable
income and to feel kindly towards giving it to someone who’s tweeting about software copyright,
and these are a lot of variables I have no control over. So I am not prophesying a future of radically-deaggregated
journalism stripped of institutions and publications and advertising. I actually think institutions are really important
in bringing up and bringing together journalists. And I have a great fondness for the institutions
that I work with and have worked with. And I also find it very hard to imagine an
internet that doesn’t run on, in some shape or form, advertising. I mean it’s not limited to journalism, right? It’s almost all of the web we know today. And I I’d like the situation to be better
than what we have right now. But I don’t envision a revolution, and I just
don’t have any answers. I am telling you this story at XOXO about
covering Oracle v. Google not because I think this is the future of my work. I’m telling you this because even if live-tweeting
Oracle v. Google isn’t the future of journalism, it’s something that gave me hope in the future
of journalism. My readers aren’t out to bilk me for my content
or rob me of advertising dollars. They don’t want a free ride off my work. My readers want me to live and to thrive and
to eat Chipotle burritos and to keep doing the things that I love doing. And as long as that’s the case, I know that
I’m not doomed and we’re not doomed and that I am going to keep on doing what I’m doing. So thank you. [cheers and applause]

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