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The Online Ad Bubble

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The ox that drives the wagon of social media monetization is a “a legible system of fixed identities” that tracks attention and—in a major step beyond radio and television—individual preferences. This seems like an advertiser’s dream, but is it? Tim Hwang explores:

The advertising industry has long struggled with a simply stated but complex question: Does advertising work? In other words, how does one really know that the messages being broadcast actually influence the browsers, readers, and listeners out in the world? Traditionally, this struggle has been summed up by a pithy adage often attributed to John Wanamaker, an early advertising pioneer: ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.’

Today, a complicated ecosystem of data brokers, cookies, and surveillance allows advertising to be precisely targeted. But while consumer behavior is exposed in fine detail, the wealth of tracking data doesn’t help advertisers determine a fair going price for reaching a particular kind of person.

This degree of opacity in the marketplace creates a smoke screen behind which an economic situation can deteriorate significantly without broader market awareness. And there are strong indicators that the real value of online ads is steadily decreasing.

Advertising relies on attention: it is not the attention itself. All an advertiser purchases is the right to display its content on a web page. When a demand-side platform is programmed to seek out opportunities to reach a demographic such as ‘males aged eighteen to twenty-four living in the United States,’ it tells us whom the advertising will ideally reach, but not whether the people who actually see the ad will be persuaded, or even interested . . . This divergence between the asset being bought—ad inventory—and the asset underlying it that defines its value—attention—parallels what happened to collateralized debt obligations during the 2007–08 crisis . . . Eventually, the bubble will pop. And there is good reason to think that this will happen sooner than we expect.

In other news: Mary Wollstonecraft gets a statue of herself as an anonymous nude woman to commemorate her fight against the sexual objectification of women.

How COVID19 is changing jazz: “One of the strongest elements of the much-reported jazz revival is that it has taken the genre in new digital directions. Listeners under 30 make up 40 percent of jazz listeners on Spotify, and the audience has grown every year since 2016. But the rising stars of this revival—artists like Makaya McCraven, Ashley Henry, Esperanza Spalding, Fabiano do Nascimento, and Kamasi Washington—have built their careers by fusing jazz with everything from Brazilian and Latin Pop to House and R&B. Beyond the jazz world, the artists who have brought jazz rhythms to a mainstream audience—Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar, for example—are embedded in the world of hip hop and rap. In Leahy’s words, ‘Jazz is increasingly becoming a flavor that artists are using in other kinds of music.’ Though that brings new people to jazz, it also tempts artists to forgo its traditional live form, especially with the Internet. What does this mean for the future of New York’s live jazz scene?”

Jane Greer says Marly Youmans’ Charis in the World of Wonders is the best-kept literary secret of 2020: “Every year, a hundred thousand or so new English-language novels are published. Even a superb novel from an eminent Catholic publisher can easily drown in this ocean of books. Throw in a pandemic, quarantines, a plummeting economy, riots, and a vicious national political race, and the chance of getting noticed dwindles to nothing. This seems to have happened to Charis, and it’s a crying shame, because it is superb.”

David Stromberg introduces a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer—“The Pass”—that was never published in English and appears for the first time in Literary Maters: “The provenance of this story is as mysterious as its subject matter. Unlike almost every other entry in the Singer papers at the Ransom Center, this translation appears without an original Yiddish-language handwritten manuscript, typescript, or clippings from its Yiddish publication. Other than the name of the translator on the English-language typescript, Martha Glicklich – the daughter of a man Singer knew in his youth in Bilgoraj, and with whom he later boarded – there is no information about where this story came from or when it was written. It is possible that it was published under a different title, but a search of the Singer’s bibliographies, which includes thousands of entries, has not yet led to the Yiddish original.”

The Vatican uses bots to protect its digital archive from cyber-attacks: “Ancient intellects are now being guarded by artificial intelligence following moves to protect one of the most extraordinary collections of historical manuscripts and documents in the world from cyber-attacks. The Vatican Apostolic Library, which holds 80,000 documents of immense importance and immeasurable value, including the oldest surviving copy of the Bible and drawings and writings from Michelangelo and Galileo, has partnered with a cyber-security firm to defend its ambitious digitisation project against criminals . . . The library, founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V, is one of the world’s most important research institutions, containing one of the finest collections of manuscripts, books, images, coins and medals in the world. The digitisation of 41 million pages is intended to ‘preserve the content of historical treasures without causing damage to the fragile originals’, said Miceli. But he added: ‘This project is about a lot more than just physical preservation. Swaths of history, previously explored only by white-gloved historians, are now made available to anyone with a internet connection. This is a huge step for educational equality.’ So far, about 25% of the library’s documents have been digitised.”

The incoherence of identity politics: Richard Reinsch revisits Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds:Gender, Race, and Identity. “As Murray notes, religion and the grand ideologies of the twentieth century have been emptied of narrative meaning. But those of us in ‘wealthy western democracies today could not simply remain the first people in recorded history to have absolutely no explanation for what we are doing here.’ Race and gender are not merely political categories but a proposed answer to this existential crisis.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities begins work on restoring toppled statues: “Following on the heels of an executive order signed in July to found a ‘National Garden of American Heroes’ by 2026 for the nation’s 250th birthday, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that it would spend $120,000 to fix or replace a number of felled statues to drum up support for the National Garden. The money is coming in the form of Chairman’s Grants, the NEH’s method of providing emergency funding to safeguard cultural heritage in the face of (what are typically natural) disasters. Instead of courting controversy by re-erecting downed Confederate leaders, however, the NEH will use the money to restore a selection of mostly neutral choices. That includes allocating $30,000 for the repair of a statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, a Union abolitionist, that has stood in front of the Wisconsin Capitol building since 1925 and was torn down by protestors in June, and ‘allegory of devotion and progress,’ Forward. While both might seem like recognitions of honorable ideals, the two were toppled because, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the statues both promoted a ‘false sense of equality’ in a state still divided along deep racial and economic lines.”

Toni Morrison’s 1,200-volume library is available for sale. “The family is willing to negotiate on price.”

Photo: Queenstown

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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