May 15

white space as unused advertising space

I picked up Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head this weekend. The introduction, subtitled “Attention as a Cultural Problem”, opens with these words:

The idea of writing this book gained strength one day when I swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I watched the screen intently, waiting for it to prompt me to do the next step. During the following seconds it became clear that some genius had realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience. During those intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount, and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. The intervals themselves, which I had previously assumed were a mere artifact of the communication technology, now seemed to be something more deliberately calibrated. These haltings now served somebody’s interest.

I have had a similar experience: the gas station down the road from me has begun playing loud “news media” clips on the digital display of the gas pump while your car is being refueled, cleverly exploiting the driver as a captive audience. Despite this gas station being somewhat closer to my house and cheaper than the alternatives, I have not been back since I discovered this practice.

Crawford continues, describing how a recent airline trip bombarded him with advertisements in “unused” (“unmonetized”?) spaces: on the fold-down tray table in his airplane seat, the moving handrail on the escalator in the airport, on the key card (!) for his hotel room. The logic of filling up unused space reaches even to airport security:

But in the last few years, I have found I have to be careful at the far end of [going through airport security], because the bottoms of the gray trays that you place your items in for X-ray screening are now papered with advertisements, and their visual clutter makes it very easy to miss a pinky-sized flash memory stick against a picture of fanned-out L’Oréal lipstick colors…

Somehow L’Oréal has the Transportation Security Administration on its side. Who made the decision to pimp out the security trays with these advertisements? The answer, of course, is that Nobody decided on behalf of the public. Someone made a suggestion, and Nobody responded in the only way that seemed reasonable: here is an “inefficient” use of space that could instead be used to “inform” the public of “opportunities.” Justifications of this flavor are so much a part of the taken-for-granted field of public discourse that they may override our immediate experience and render it unintelligible to us. Our annoyance dissipates into vague impotence because we have no public language in which to articulate it, and we search instead for a diagnosis of ourselves: Why am I so angry? It may be time to adjust the meds.

Reading the introduction seemed especially pertinent to me in light of last week’s announcement about Suggested Tiles. The snippets in about:home featuring Mozilla properties or efforts, or even co-opting tiles on about:newtab for similar purposes feels qualitatively different than using those same tiles for advertisements from third parties bound only to Mozilla through the exchange of money. I have at least consented to the former, I think, by downloading Firefox and participating in that ecosystem, similar to how Chrome might ask you to sign into your Google account when the browser opens. The same logic is decidedly not true in the advertising case.

People’s attention is a scarce resource. We should be treating it as such in Firefox, not by “informing” them of “opportunities” from third parties unrelated to Mozilla’s mission, even if we act with the utmost concern for their privacy. Like the gas station near my house, people are not going to come to Firefox because it shows them advertisements in “inefficiently” used space. At best, they will tolerate the advertisements (maybe even taking steps to turn them off); at worst, they’ll use a different web browser and they won’t come back.