The finale of the National Football League season comes next Sunday with the Super Bowl contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, and it marks the end of a season when relatively few fans attended games in person due to coronavirus social distancing restrictions observed by the league’s teams. Attendance at this Super Bowl will be limited to 22,000 fans, in a stadium that can seat over 65,000. For hard core fans used to watching the games in person rather than on television, it must have been a peculiar season.
Crowd in the Polo Grounds grandstand for the final game of the 1908 baseball season, watching the visiting Chicago Cubs play the New York Giants. Library of Congress photo from Bain News Service.
To be at a stadium or ballpark for a game is to experience something beyond the game alone, which really can be viewed more intelligibly on a television screen or computer monitor from the comfort of home. The sports fanatic can spend hundreds of dollars for the experience, counting ticket price, parking, concessions, and other sundry expenses, and still the sports fan prefers bearing those costs instead of staying home to watch the game for free or at very little cost. One hundred years ago, there were no such contrasting choices.
At the beginning of 1921, there was no broadcast medium at all involved in bringing sporting events to the masses. In the United States, radio broadcasts of sports began later that year, with the airing of a boxing match on April 11 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a baseball game on August 21 from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. In both cases, the broadcasting station was KDKA in Pittsburgh. On October 8, KDKA broadcast a college football game. The first American television broadcast of sports didn’t occur until May 17, 1939, when NBC covered a college baseball game in New York City. Hard core sports fans didn’t get to listen to a sports talk radio show until New York’s WNBC started airing one in March 1964.
One hundred years ago, people either bought tickets to see sporting events or read about them the next day in a newspaper. Talking about sports was a first hand endeavor limited to friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Now there are several options besides buying tickets for vicariously experiencing athletic contests, and with sports talk radio and television shows and social media, there are many options for sports fans to gab on and on about their obsessions to familiars and strangers alike, both near and far.
One of the subplots from a 1995 episode of Seinfeld involving Patrick Warburton as David Puddy, the boyfriend of Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Michael Richards played Cosmo Kramer, and Jerry Seinfeld played a fictional version of himself.
Social norms of public appearance and behavior loosened after World War II and particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in sports fans changing over the 50 years from the ’30s to the ’80s from men (they were overwhelmingly men in the stands) who attended the games largely in suits and ties, to people who wore casual clothing, often comprised of the merchandised parts of their favorite team’s uniform. Some went shirtless and painted themselves in their team’s colors. In the 1950s, only little boys and some working class adults wore baseball caps regularly. Now, almost everyone wears one at least occasionally, and many of the caps bear team logos at a price. No one has to grow up anymore (or wants to), and sports merchandisers, who had very little business at all before the 1970s, are counting money in the billions each year now, even without sports fans filling the stands.
Website headline writers like to insert the word “just” in their copy for the sense of immediacy it conveys. They have room to insert the word because website headlines are usually sentence length descriptions rather than the terse summations newspaper copy editors used. Longer descriptions can be good teasers and also boost the rank of a website post in search engine results because that’s the way Google has decided sites and posts should be ranked, and Google sets the bar for search engines and for the internet generally. Ask them why.
Search engines don’t like the short headlines common in newspapers. The reason many headlines on the internet read the way they do is because writers are responding as much to what search engines like as they are to what they believe their readers like. It’s not easy keeping up with the Kardashians, and the only way websites can do it is to couch everything in terms of immediacy, as if it were all breaking news worthy of readers’ attention. To generate clicks on their posts and get them ranked highly in search engine results, website writers must tease about the content using descriptive headlines, and then make sure to give whatever they’re describing a sense of happening moments ago by tossing in “just” at least once.
Residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, fill Jackson Square on August 14, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan. Oak Ridge was one of three main sites of the Manhattan Project, and was responsible (though those working there did not know it) for refining uranium to be shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be fashioned into atomic bombs. Photo by Ed Westcott, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The newspaper headline “War Ends” might not fly with today’s internet and social media news headline writers, who would be tempted to write “War Just Ends”, even though it would be open to multiple interpretations.
The tendency is to hype everything, even inconsequential matters. Add news sharing on social media, and the hype gets amplified to 11, as a member of the fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap observed. Trust and references build credibility on social media, even if common sense and a little digging into sources reveals there are no grounds for credibility. Google hones search results based on what they know about users, and Facebook and Twitter follow Google’s lead while juicing results further by adding the finer details they know about their users. Facebook and Twitter set the bar in social media for how posts get pushed to the front for sharing on their platforms, and as long as readers keep clicking the wheels keep rolling, no matter how worthless are the posts everyone shares.
This clip from Sesame Street could serve as a metaphor for what the internet and social media have become.
A word such as “just” is a fine, serviceable word in most cases. Unfortunately, once some influential writers, platform arbiters, and readers on the world wide web and in social media adopt it as a manipulative expression it gets overused, abused, and misused on its way to becoming trite and tiresome. Just sayin’.
With the full moon coming on Monday, September 24, it’s fair to wonder how much influence the moon, the planets, and the stars have on earthly lives and events. This full moon is known as the Harvest Moon for obvious reasons, at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the agricultural harvest begins in September. Linking the moon to telling time is sensible considering that through most of history people did not have or require time pieces accurate to minutes and seconds. That would await the Industrial Revolution. Before then, knowing the months by the phases of the moon and the hours by the daily movements (as it appeared from Earth) of the sun and the stars was good enough.
Where things got fuzzy and slipped from astronomy to astrology was the attribution by some people of powerful influences to the celestial bodies. Those influences went beyond gravity and tides to the extent of determining the character and fate of people. What an extraordinary hypothesis! Until the Renaissance, when Copernicus and Galileo disabused humanity of the notion that the Earth, and specifically its Homosapiens inhabitants, were the center of the universe, people could indulge a belief in astrology and not be out of step with mainstream scientific thought. Now the idea that the moon, the planets, and the stars have any influence on people’s lives beyond the purely physical is magical thinking along the lines of palmistry and Tarot.
A Harvest Moon rises over Washington, D.C., on September 19, 2013. Photo by Bill Ingalls for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Most people now believe astrology’s rightful place is in the same pages of their daily newspaper as the comics and the crossword puzzle, and certainly not in the science section. The trouble begins when people in authority ascribe credence to magical thinking, and by extension astrology and other pseudo sciences. The determinism of astrology appeals to people with an authoritarian mindset because it restores a kind of certainty to a life that has become, for them, uncertain and therefore frightening.
“Moon Dreams”, performed by Glenn Miller leading the Army Air Force Band in 1944, was written by Miller’s long time pianist Chummy MacGregor, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
Feeling in control is comforting to them, even though oddly enough they are ceding control to an impassive universe. This is where the all powerful leader comes in, to reassure them that they are indeed still at the center of the universe and endowed by it with special qualities, rights, and privileges. The more thoughtful among them might reflect that special rights are accompanied by special responsibilities, but most are not troubled by such an uncomfortable thought, nor by the exclusion of The Other from the universe’s benevolence, as interpreted for them by their leader. What for most people is a harmless diversion in the funny papers becomes for a few true believers another reality, with its own truth they are determined to foist on everyone else. Ordinary people don’t take the true believers seriously at first, and then too late the decent, ordinary folks realize their fanatic neighbors weren’t kidding with their foolish, dangerous nonsense.
Recently the news and commentary website Saloninstituted a policy of not allowing visitors using advertisement blockers to access their website without either or turning the blockers off or allowing Salon to use the visitors’ computers to mine the cryptocurrency Monero. In other words, when a visitor with an active ad blocker arrives at the Salon website, Salon detects the ad blocker and immediately pops up a notice about its new policy, giving the visitor the options of turning off the ad blocker and continuing to the rest of the site and viewing it for free, but with ads, or, for a visitor who chooses not to turn off the ad blocker, then that visitor must grant Salon permission to use their computer to mine Monero, which replaces the revenue Salon would otherwise lose to that visitor who wants to read articles without viewing any ads. The third option for the visitor is to leave the website.
It remains to be seen how well visitors to the Salon website will accept the new policy and whether Salon will see a return to revenue levels they had before ad blockers became much more widely used in the past few years. It’s commendable that the owner of Salon is being open about taking this step and giving visitors options. Some websites use the computers of visitors to mine cryptocurrency without notifying them, a practice known as cryptojacking. Sometimes the website owner is not aware this is happening because their website has been hacked, and in that case it is the hacker who gets the revenue, and both the website owner and the visitor lose out. What the owner of Salon is doing is not cryptojacking, a sneaky and disreputable practice.
Image of television personality Garry Moore and Kellogg’s cereal character Tony the Tiger taken from a 1955 Kellogg’s advertisement. There have always been tacky ads for products of dubious worth.
There are other ways for website owners to cope with replacing revenue lost to ad blockers. The website for The Atlantic magazine stops a visitor at the door when it detects an ad blocker and advises the visitor to turn it off, or whitelist The Atlantic in the ad blocker, or leave. Simple and straightforward. Other websites, such as the one for The New York Times, give a visitor a certain number of free articles each month before the visitor reaches a paywall that requires the visitor buy a subscription to read more articles. More lenient on the front end, but with a harder line on the back end. These models work reasonably well for very popular websites that can afford to lose a small percentage of visitors who absolutely refuse either to not use an ad blocker or to pay for content on the internet. The owners of less well known websites would have a harder time adopting those models without alienating visitors they can ill afford to lose.
Long before Joe DiMaggio plugged coffee makers, he did advertisements for cigarettes, as did many celebrities, including athletes like him.
The shame of it all is that ad blockers have increased in popularity because of the bad behavior of a few bad actors on the internet who push out ads that hide malware and trackers, or video ads that use autoplay, or ads with Flash Player code that makes them highly distracting, and because of that kind of activity internet users have quite reasonably installed ad blockers to avoid all that, and the effect has been to punish the good along with the bad. Unfortunately there are also too many internet users who think everything on the internet should be free, conveniently ignoring the obvious point that the producers of internet content have to eat and pay the rent just like anybody else.
Imagine picking up a newspaper from a kiosk, a newspaper from which someone has helpfully cut out every single advertisement, leaving only the articles. This would be a great boon to the reader, obviously, but how is the publisher supposed to pay the bills? The reader picked up the newspaper without paying for it, which is not a big deal because the selling price of a newspaper typically takes care of a small percentage of the cost of publishing it. Print newspapers, and now internet newspapers and other publications have always relied on the selling of advertising space for the greater part of their revenue. If readers can’t see the ads, why would advertisers continue to buy ad space?
In this early scene from the 1963 Stanley Kramer filmIt’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Jonathan Winters as Lennie Pike, third from the left, has some choice words for those who want something for free.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the state of internet advertising, from publishers and ad producers who put out obnoxious ads that distract from the visitor’s experience, to visitors who seem to think that internet publishers should make their content available free, and even better as far as they are concerned would be free without any visible means of support in the form of advertisements. That’s the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” pipe dream. More reasonable would be a compromise among publishers, advertisers, and visitors that would ask advertisers and publishers to show respect to visitors by not pushing obnoxious ads on them, and visitors to acknowledge the need for publishers to eat and pay the rent like anybody else, and to satisfy those needs by showing ads to visitors. Simple really, particularly considering the alternatives of working in the mines or paying for what you get.
In a surprising development, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ), recently introduced a bill, called the Honest Ads Act, that would impose the same types of regulations on internet political advertising that have long held sway over political ads in print, radio, and television. What’s surprising about it is why it took this long to regulate online political advertising, and that until now there hasn’t been regulation of the same sort as in other media. A reader of online news could be forgiven for having assumed that internet political ads were subject to regulations similar to what has existed in other media for decades, such as disclosure within the ad of who paid for it. Not so.
What took Congress this long? Congress has been behind the curve for years on technological developments, and so in this case the more relevant question is why are they acting now. The answer is presumed Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, and specifically the placement of advertisements as well as so-called news stories on social media sites that the Russians allegedly intended to influence the election results. All that has yet to be sorted out in ongoing investigations, but in the meantime it will be a positive development to have online political advertisers more openly accountable.
A demonstrator in a Trump mask at one of the March for Truth rallies that took place around the country on June 3, 2017. Photo by kellybdc.
Much has been made over the past year especially, because of the election, of the effect of “fake news” on the electorate, the majority of which now appears to get its news through social media feeds on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Those sites have made noises about doing a better job monitoring the reliability of news sources, but ultimately they cannot effect a major reduction in fake news without entangling themselves in issues of censorship, and consequently losing user trust even beyond the drop in trust they experience when another fake news story makes the rounds.
Forty and more years ago, when there were three national television news outlets and one or more print, radio, and television news outlets in every middling city or larger throughout the country, all of them reliant on a few news service gatekeepers such as the Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters, the daily news reached a consensus that most people plugged into. There were drawbacks to such centralization, of course, but in general there existed a set of generally agreed upon facts from which disputants could diverge.
Now the news has atomized to the point that someone with a large Facebook following can spread a story with no basis in fact, and those followers will spread the story some more. There are no editors sitting on the story until it is verified. The engineers at Facebook and Twitter are not interested in the job, nor do they seem to think it should be their job. Their job is to watch what their customers watch so that they can boost their company’s revenue by effectively targeting advertising based on those results.
It is as if a newspaper’s staff printed almost everything that came across their desks, with little or no editorial judgment on the contents, and focused most of their energies on the advertisements. A newspaper could not do that because of physical limitations on paper, ink, and space, but an online news feed has no such limitations. A reader can scroll on forever, if so inclined. It’s a buffet that the social media sites are serving up, and it’s in their interest to try to specifically please each person they serve, a task made possible by the interactive nature of the web, where each user click is tabulated as a vote in favor.
From the 1976 film The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau shows the foolishness of making assumptions based on limited information.
There’s only a limited amount then that the news feed providers can and should do to monitor the reliability of the content they provide. Every little bit helps, which is why it’s good news that Congress is belatedly getting around to at least subjecting political advertisements to regulations that would alert interested readers to the provenance of online political advertisements, therefore allowing the readers to judge for themselves the veracity of the ads.
Ultimately people who read news online from a multitude of sources have to exercise critical thinking more than ever before in evaluating the reliability of what they are reading. The days of passively accepting the news in predigested form from trusted sources are over, and that’s all for the good really, but it also means being on guard and skeptical more than ever, much as people want to indulge their lazy tendencies toward confirmation bias, or believing what they want to be true.
The great thing about the internet is that it is interactive; interactivity is also one of the bad things about the internet. When people read paper newspapers, way back when, they were exposed to advertisements paid for by commercial establishments in the news and features sections, and to classified advertisements paid for mostly by individuals or small businesses in a section of their own. Paper newspaper advertisements were interactive only in the sense that the reader could choose to ignore them. This was reasonably easy for the reader because the ads themselves did not hop up and down, yell and scream for attention, obfuscate the actual content of the newspaper for a period, or otherwise make a nuisance of themselves and detract from the peaceful enjoyment of the newspaper by the person who had paid a dime or a quarter for it.
When newspapers and writers of other content moved to the internet, they still needed to make a living, of course, and naturally they turned to advertisers to help fund their efforts. Since there was no pay model for the internet, such as had been the case in the days of paper newspapers when readers either subscribed for home delivery or paid directly at street corner kiosks, publishers relied even more heavily on advertisers for income. For some reason, people had gotten the notion that internet content should be free, and rightly or wrongly that’s the way things developed. Here is where the interactive part kicked in and started an internet arms race.
Bob Dylan performs his song “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan’s guitar and harmonica rig is much like the getup buskers used then and today to make a few dollars for their efforts. All that’s missing here is the hat or guitar case for collecting money tossed in by passers by. Many small websites, like this one, have to either pass the hat by posting a “Donate” button, or hope for the best from advertising revenue, or both.
Advertisers realized that since the internet was interactive and didn’t just lie there waiting to wrap fish after it was published like the old paper newspapers did, they could do things to jazz up their ads and, they thought, readers would pay closer attention and the advertisers would see higher returns. Great! Not all advertisers, just the ones who lacked any restraint, got their ads to hop up and down, to yell and scream for attention, to obfuscate for a period the content the reader was actually there to see, and to otherwise make a nuisance of themselves in order to draw attention. It turns out people did not like that, particularly the ones with slow internet connections or limited bandwidth, which the sparkly new advertisements ate into, much to the hapless reader’s dismay. Enter software engineers with a retaliatory response.
The software engineers had some experience in combating opponents in the advertising field after having worked to swat away the pop up army of advertisements that plagued internet users in the early days. One thing many advertisers have never been known for is restraint. Now here they were again, but instead of pop ups they were employing twitchy, sparkly, pushy advertisements. The software engineers working on behalf of browser makers and internet users came up with ad blockers. Now all ads were blocked. Hah hah! Internet users had the option of whitelisting – or permitting – ads on a website in the options menu of their ad blocker, but who would ever bother to do that? Publishers noticed, however, that their internet ad revenue plummeted.
An emotionally fraught rendition of “Silver Springs” in a 1997 concert by Fleetwood Mac, which demonstrates why they continued to draw large crowds well after their heyday. The song, written and sung by Stevie Nicks, who as a songwriter ranks in the top echelon of 1970s and 1980s pop and soft rock, is a deeply personal revelation. Fleetwood Mac had by 1997 long passed their peak of popularity for album sales, but concert ticket prices for such an established group with an extensive catalog of hits remained high, from $20 to $50 for the cheap seats, to over $100 for the best seats. The internet works similarly, with an enormous underclass of websites barely making it, and several well established websites with large followings dominating the market.
Enter Google in the spring of 2017 with the Funding Choices program and their own ad blocker built into their Chrome browser, which in the past year has overtaken Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the world’s most popular browser. But since Google makes the lion’s share of its revenue selling ads and marketing user information, why would Google then be against ads? Because the obnoxious ads that prompted the development of ad blockers have poisoned the well for everybody, and Google, with its dominant market position, can dictate which ads will fly and which ones won’t.
The Funding Choices program is geared toward internet users, telling them they can pay to subscribe to a publisher’s content and go ad free, or view the content free on condition they allow ads, which Google assures them they have vetted for good behavior. Google’s ad blocker built into its Chrome browser is geared toward advertisers, telling them essentially that unless they allow Google to vet their ads for good behavior, they will not see the light of day on the world’s most popular browser. All of this would seem a boon to both internet users and publishers. But that depends on how much they trust “Don’t Be Evil” Google. Rather than turn over yet more power to Google, a company which has already surpassed Microsoft in ways not only financial but morally suspect, perhaps the time has come for internet users to seek alternatives not only for search but for the multitude of other applications which Google has used to ingratiate itself as the public’s servant, the servant whose ear is always at the door. This website, for one, will seek alternatives to displaying Google ads. Oh, you weren’t even aware there were Google ads on this website?
In trying to specifically target their advertisements and therefore get a higher return per ad, companies like to know as much as possible about the consumer, and lately some of them have resorted to using ultrasonic beacons embedded in their ads. Say you are at your desktop computer reading a news story from the online version of your local newspaper, and nearby on your desk is your smartphone, which is on but currently idle, or so you would assume. Unknown to you, one of the ads on the webpage you are looking at emits an ultrasonic beacon lasting about 5 seconds through your computer’s speakers. Most likely also unknown to you (because like most people you probably don’t bother to read all the permissions you grant an application when you install it), one or more of the applications on your smartphone pick up that ultrasonic beacon through the phone’s microphone and, through various commercial agreements also done without your knowledge, relays the packet of information encapsulated in the beacon, along with information contributed from the smartphone application, back to the advertiser on the webpage as well as to anyone else who has an interest in information about you.
The more advertisers know about you, the better, as far as they are concerned. The problem here is how sneaky they are being about collecting information. It is even possible for advertisers to embed ultrasonic beacons in television advertisements, though so far there is no proof any of them have done that. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates deceptive advertising practices, nonetheless recently warned 12 smartphone application developers about deceptively implying they were not monitoring users’ television viewing habits when in fact they were capable of doing so. Researchers recently discovered that as many as 234 Android applications are capable of using beacon technology. Unfortunately, it appears the FTC is reluctant to force the developers to divulge this capability to Android smartphone users. There is even less information available from Apple application developers.
The Statue of Liberty, also known as a beacon of freedom, on Liberty Island in New York Harbor; photo by William Warby.
This cross-device tracking, as it is known, is as invasive and sneaky as it gets, yet there seems to be little political will to either outlaw it or regulate it. A warning letter? That’s all? In the 1950s and 60s there was a public outcry about subliminal messages in print and television advertising. While the effectiveness of subliminal advertising has always been dubious, people were nevertheless upset they were being manipulated in such a sneaky, underhanded way. Because of the public outcry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was moved to state it would revoke the license of any broadcaster who used subliminal messages in programming or advertising, and the FTC stated that it would prosecute advertisers under Sections 5 and 12 of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, which governs deceptive practices.
Given the remarkable similarity of ultrasonic beacons in electronic devices to subliminal messaging, in practice if not in usage, it’s difficult to understand why the FCC and FTC have not come down harder on the commercial use of this technology. The practice is the same because both seek to take advantage of consumers without their knowledge, and certainly not with their explicit approval; the usage is different because subliminal advertisers cast a wide net to boost sales, while companies employing beacons gather information about users in order to more specifically target them, like fish in a barrel. Until federal regulators take stronger action against the use of ultrasonic beacons, people upset by the practice will apparently have to rely on the more acute hearing of their dogs to alert them.
His Master’s Voice, an 1898 painting by English artist Francis Barraud (1856-1924) of his brother’s dog, Nipper. The Victor Talking Machine Company began using the painting in 1900, and in 1929 the painting became the symbol of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), aka RCA Victor.