Podcast Episode 7: Web sins #1—tracking

By Paul Ford

Rich and Paul talk about the original sins of the web. Sin #1: Web pages track you everywhere, all over your life, and it’s frankly hurtful.

Paul Ford: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Paul Ford, and I’m the CEO of Aboard.

Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade, president and co-founder of Aboard.

Paul Ford: We gave each other titles because we’re starting to talk to the world more, and that’s really important when you talk to the world.

Rich Ziade: So what do you guys do again?

Paul Ford: I’m the CEO and you’re the president. Let’s get to titles in a future episode, I, I don’t, I don’t think that that’s where my brain’s at right now. I think what we should talk about, because we have a product that is about making the internet better for people as they manage their own data.

Rich Ziade: Uh-huh.

Paul Ford: Okay? Uh, we should talk about where we’re coming from in a broad way, what’s wrong with the internet today as we see it.

Rich Ziade: A lot of people have written a lot of things, articles, books, 60 minutes talking about internet’s turning your brain into mush, blah, blah, blah. We’re gonna take a little more-

Paul Ford: [laughter] That voice, that the voice of the 60 minute, and they’re not gonna gotta do it-

Rich Ziade: 60 minutes from 40 years ago [chuckles].

Paul Ford: I’m Marley Scher.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Yeah, okay.

Rich Ziade: We’re not gonna get into like, [00:01:00] you know misinformation, and the social media stuff. We’re gonna talk a little bit about that, but we’re, it’s kind of gonna be a little different in terms of what frustrates us about the internet.

Paul Ford: Let me frame it for this conversation, right? So there are these subjects that the media comes back to, and because it’s, we spend so much time on social media collectively, and Facebook and so on.

Rich Ziade: Sure.

Paul Ford: But those are not really the web, they use web technologies and they’re, they, they are often experienced as apps or web pages-

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: But they’re kind of often their own little world.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: They’re not designed as information, they’re not designed for sharing. They want you to bring everything in and not let anything come out again-

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm, yes.

Paul Ford: And so put all that stuff to the side. That’s its own world. Everybody talks about-

Rich Ziade: We’ll touch on it, but it’s not the core of what we’re gonna talk about.

Paul Ford: Let’s talk, just like we were talking about Wikipedia and Wikidata, let’s talk about the web that is still out there, everybody’s like, “nah, there’s none, the web’s gone, man, It’s just social media. It’s just, just apps now”, the web is still out there, I’ll give you an example– real estate, you want to go find a place to live in.[00:02:00]

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Zillow, Trulia, you go to all those sites.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Those are web pages, they have data on them, they have pictures.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hmm, mm-hm.

Paul Ford: They get their data from other places, et cetera, et cetera. So that web is still out there. That is still, I’m gonna, I’m gonna say one thing and then I want to throw it back to you, which is, I remember once having a conversation with somebody who worked at Google and we were, I was, I was in the media and I was talking about like, you know, kind of, “how do you all see the media?”.

Rich Ziade: Okay..

Paul Ford: And they, um, the answer ultimately came down to something like, it’s about 9%.

Rich Ziade: It’s tiny. When you say media, you mean like, mass media.

Paul Ford: The new, the New York Times and CNN and all the, so that when you are in the media, you think that the web exists to publish pages that you create.

Rich Ziade: It’s a tiny sliver.

Paul Ford: It’s a distribution platform for news and information, right?

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: So obviously the media is the most important thing.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, you didn’t even get, you didn’t even crack 10%.

Paul Ford: Now you’re talking about this little tiny baby. When, when real estate though, [00:03:00] whooo doggies-

Rich Ziade: That’s right.

Paul Ford: Because that is trillions and trillions of dollars get transacted every year around real estate. Whereas Covid media industry fits into like one quarter of Google’s profits. So, so this is, so, it’s a very difficult way to look at the world cause we’re so used to kind of a certain bias in, in like, well obviously people go on there to get the news every day. Dad’s looking at the, looking at the Fox News.

Rich Ziade: Which we are. Um, but there’s a few things worth noting. First off, you’re, you’re not making a big transaction to get the news.

Paul Ford: No, in fact, you’re making tons of micro-transactions against ad networks.

Rich Ziade: Correct, correct.

Paul Ford: Or you paid for one subscription.

Rich Ziade: Or you subscribe to something, which by the way, you’re still, you’re, there’s still a bunch of microtransactions. Even if you subscribe to something, it’s the same. It’s the same way.

Paul Ford: Explain that because I think that’s a way that you and I see the world as old we hams. That doesn’t get out to the world very much. When, when you say transaction, what do you mean?

Rich Ziade: So there is value in observing [00:04:00] my behavior and drawing a profile of what, who I am, what I’m interested in, what my income, pro- income profile is where I live. That’s incredibly valuable.

Paul Ford: Rich is somebody who, you know, he bought a car two years ago, he is somebody who probably in the next like three years might start looking for another car.

Rich Ziade: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. So that the actions I take on the internet are, uh, observed, packaged up, and then sold on markets.

Paul Ford: There are 36 trillion tiny elves with tiny notebooks watching us.

Rich Ziade: Watching us.

Paul Ford: And they write down the, they write it down and then they send it in a letter and it gets saved in a database. Like just think about like gremlins everywhere.

Rich Ziade: Collected and then that data, because what would you pay for a mortgage, potential future mortgage customer?

Paul Ford: And this is the thing, when you [00:05:00] actually get to these numbers, I don’t have a real number, but it could be like $5,000.

Rich Ziade: Yeah. I mean the total acquisition cost from the beginning of the journey all the way to like we landed it, is hundreds or thousands of dollars, why? Because I’m gonna pay an interest on that loan. Hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on how much, how expensive the house is.

Paul Ford: That’s right, and everything has been sort of modeled out and every margin is well understood enough in these businesses that they’re like, we’re gonna spend a hundred thousand dollars to make $105,000.

Rich Ziade: And so-

Paul Ford: But we’ll do it a million times.

Rich Ziade: And so this is the first of a series– I wanna bring this back to Aboard.

Paul Ford: Okay, We’re gonna, we’re gonna-

Rich Ziade: It’s the first of a series of podcasts.

Paul Ford: How many?

Rich Ziade: So this is the first of three podcasts where we complain to you and share with you what we think is tough, and difficult, and often kind of just demoralizing about using the internet and how it can be better. Um, and so the first is, and this isn’t about ads by the way, because all of the stuff we just described [00:06:00] all, all that transactional data that gets passed along on markets, in markets where they sell your behaviors to others doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cluttered experience where there’s a lot of ads on it. In fact, it’s very invisible, but people know, and they know, and what it leads to is a terrible sense of not really being in control of your experience. Uh, that every step you’re taking is kind of, will my foot go through the floor this time or will I keep walking forward?

Paul Ford: Well, and the experiences are really bad, right? So you go on, you do a Google search, you buy, let’s say you buy, um, oh, you buy an end table on Wayfair?

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: Right, now the internet has decided, “oh, you had one end table. Oh, they’re like heroine. You’re gonna need like 50 more end tables”. 

Rich Ziade: Or if they’re smarter, they’re like, “Okay, you got an end table. There’s probably a 30% chance you need a [00:07:00] mattress”.

Paul Ford: Yeah, and then, and then these ad show up and they have that little tiny X on the top, right? And it’s like, learn about your ad choices.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: It’s just, it’s the smuggest guy, it’s the smu, “Hey, do you know about your ad choices? I’d love to share them with you”. And you click on it and you’re like, “this is horrible”.

Rich Ziade: This is what’s interesting about the, the, the general internet experience today is that it’s, you know, they’ve tried giving you sort of these speed bumps that tell you that this is happening. No one is everyone ignores them. I think GDPR is kind of this bizarre speed bump in your experience. Nobody cares anymore. Also, what better way to summarize just the total submission to the experience than accept all?

Paul Ford: Accept all, right.

Rich Ziade: I mean, that’s where we are, and so, and, and I think people have come to terms with the lack of power.

Paul Ford: You know the greatest bit about unintentional branding on Earth is the word cookie. [00:08:00] 

Rich Ziade: I mean it’s insane.

Paul Ford: It sounds nice, “Oh, hey, you’re giving me a cookie, uh oh, okay, okay”.

Rich Ziade: I like cookies.

Paul Ford: Well, Yeah, it should be called like face licker.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: “Hey, we’re gonna give you some, would you accept five or six face licks?”.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: From Zillow? 

Rich Ziade: Yeah. And look, there are tools out there, you do some research, how do I, you know, actually Apple is pretty proactive. They made, they’ve made moves that have pissed off Facebook and others.

Paul Ford: You know what’s funny though? There’s certain sites I’m noticing just don’t work on Safari anymore because I’ve turned on to like, block my X, Y, Z.

Rich Ziade: You can really be aggressive with it, yeah.

Paul Ford: And, and they’re like, I don’t know who you are.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And I’m like, I just wanna see the information. They’re like, no, no.

Rich Ziade: Yup, it just breaks.

Paul Ford: Oh yeah. They don’t, they don’t, Apple is a little bit at war with the web, sometimes good, often, uh, often really good and sometimes a little bit like, “Hey Apple, what, what you doing?”.

Rich Ziade: And, and people who are tech savvy, there are other tools that you can just sort of kick in that really aggressively anonymizes you, makes it hard to track you. 

Paul Ford: So talk about something near and [00:09:00] dear to your heart, your pie hole.

Rich Ziade: Oh dear.

Paul Ford: Most people won’t know what I said and they’ll think it’s kind of dirty. So why don’t you explain what that is.

Rich Ziade: So, Pie Hole is a, is a, uh, piece of software. It’s essentially, it’s a DNS server that you could set up on a raspberry pie.

Paul Ford: So a little $35 computer, little baby computer, but it’s actually pretty powerful.

Rich Ziade: Pretty, powerful.

Paul Ford: Yeah, Nothing.

Rich Ziade: Plug it into your network, and then what you do is you tell your router, this is the DNS server, not the typical one that you usually use. And what it does is when your computer asks for a website, it hits the pie hole first and says, can I come in? And pie hole has, I think about a hundred thousand domains blocking.

Paul Ford: Okay? So beep boop, that’s all robot talk. But when I look at the webpage, what do I see?

Rich Ziade: Uh, a lot less ads, but this is what you really see. There’s plenty of ad blockers out there, it is blazing fast.

Paul Ford: Right, cause it doesn’t even let the ads get near your computer. It’s like “you guys wait outside”. 

Rich Ziade: Nor does it [00:10:00] let the trackers, which are invisible but are very, very heavy on the payload that’s coming in. They don’t even make it.

Paul Ford: Okay, so when you have a pie hole installed on your network outside your front door, 90 million tiny gremlins are sitting there knocking.

Rich Ziade: Scratching at the door.

Paul Ford: And you’re like, I don’t care, I’m reading the New York Times, best of luck to you.

Rich Ziade: It’s a hell of an experience.

Paul Ford: Okay, why doesn’t everybody have one of these?

Rich Ziade: The technical overhead is annoying.

Paul Ford: Okay, cause this seems like it would solve the broader problem you’re-

Rich Ziade: Yeah, nobody wants to install little boxes on their networks.

Paul Ford: I think, I think this real, I think this is a nerd only solution.

Rich Ziade: But, there’s another issue though, it like you, you often run into stuff you don’t want to break that breaks.

Paul Ford: Yeah, it can be hard to like buy a product.

Rich Ziade: It can be, you could just hit weird walls.

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: Like I like, yeah, Google search is kind of onerous these days, but sometimes I want to click on the search result and I can’t even do that, right?

Paul Ford: No, the, the web is built on an infrastructure of spyware and nasty gremlins, it just is.

Rich Ziade: It just is, and so it can be overly aggressive. It’s just not [00:11:00] the right solution, right?

Paul Ford: Okay, so not, okay, so we can’t solve it there.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: Okay, what do you do?

Rich Ziade: Well, let’s look around the web and are there some good places where it doesn’t feel so icky?

Paul Ford: uh, Wikipedia.

Rich Ziade: I mean, Wikipedia is the shining light on the internet.

Paul Ford: It’s a lot of, I mean, it’s, it’s the most sometimes, challenging and difficult human beings came together and wrote really good encyclopedia pages.

Rich Ziade: It serves the world every second of every day.

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: And with good information that is not colored by self-interest or other biases by design.

Paul Ford: By well, and by vigorous community policing.

Rich Ziade: Vigorous community policing. So it is effectively this canonical information source that’s free, that’s ad free. Let’s not get into the donation box that literally pummels the rest of the page, but that’s temporary.

Paul Ford: Remember when they used to show Jimmy Whales’ big [00:12:00] face?

Rich Ziade: I used to get emails. 

Paul Ford: Yeah. Okay, so wait, wait, wait.

Rich Ziade: That’s a glorious place.

Paul Ford: Why do you think I, I have a theory about why Wikipedia works.

Rich Ziade: I’d love to hear it.

Paul Ford: It’s not, it’s, first of all, there’s merit in making something of value for the world, et cetera, et cetera. But if you look at it, it’s a community. It’s people who like to work together on this thing.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: And a lot of them, I think when you look at it, some people it’s just like, ah, this is a great way to blow a couple hours. I have a little extra time in my brain. For some people, it’s like, this is where I can function the best as a human being, for real.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Like I, I’m, I’m gonna do all these pages about-

Rich Ziade: Feels really good to be helpful to others, too.

Paul Ford: That’s, that’s right. And so like, and then somebody comes in and is like, this Pokemon is non notable and it a war erupts, right?

Rich Ziade: And that’s okay, that’s the process.

Paul Ford: That’s society.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, that’s society. But there is, the byproduct here is, uh, this place that is always additive and [00:13:00] free from hidden agendas, right? There is-

Paul Ford: The agendas are right there on the talk page.

Rich Ziade: They’re right there on the page, right? So what you have here is a great example of you know, walking that fine line of something positive in the world. 

Paul Ford: Are we building a .org?

Rich Ziade: We are not, and I don’t, can you have a great experience that-

Paul Ford: It would be a hell of a, be hell of a reveal after that, we bought the domain name [chuckles].

Rich Ziade: Yes, that’s right. We, Aboard.com is in our hands.

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: I’m gonna give you an example though, of one that also makes money and is totally commercial.

Paul Ford: Okay.

Rich Ziade: Cause we’ve been talking kind of do-gooder so far that um, is a nice counter example, but I think speaks volumes about people’s hum people’s behavior.

Paul Ford: I have genuine trepidation. I’m curious what you’re gonna come up with.

Rich Ziade: Pinterest.

Paul Ford: Oh, alright. Okay.

Rich Ziade: Pinterest makes money.

Rich Ziade: If I put a lot of drapes on a mood board.

Paul Ford: How does, how does Pinterest make money?

Rich Ziade: Oh, they inject stuff that I didn’t pin from the internet.

Paul Ford: “Oh hey, you like watches?”.

Rich Ziade: I like watches and I get watch ads alongside my [00:14:00] board that has, uh, watches that I’ve saved on the-

Paul Ford: Hey curtains.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: Sneakers.

Rich Ziade: And so again, why, why does this work? And why isn’t it a sloppy mess and toxic? Uh, again, it is a tool that lets you effectively lift what you value in the internet and put it someplace else so you can have your own experience.

Paul Ford: Less about community, though.

Rich Ziade: There’s a little bit of community. You can share boards with other people, but it’s less about community, it’s more about personal control.

Paul Ford: Alright, so what you’re-

Rich Ziade: Above all else.

Paul Ford: So what you’re saying, what are you saying, you’re saying that the web can be kind of toxic and that websites that are focused on tracking your behavior and getting value out of it aren’t good.

Rich Ziade: I’m gonna end this.

Paul Ford: What are you saying?

Rich Ziade: What I’m saying is, the relentless march of automation and AI and algorithms, right? Uh, has led us to push the humans to the side. And the truth [00:15:00] is we’ve solved a lot of technical challenges, but we have not solved the challenge of community and human empathy. I wanna coin a phrase for you, Paul, we might use it in the Aboard marketing, we might not. I just came up with it, you ready?

Paul Ford: Okay, what’s the phrase? Coin it away, coin.

Rich Ziade: Hi.

Paul Ford: Hi?

Rich Ziade: H I not AI– h i, human intelligence.

Paul Ford: Oh, Jesus Christ.

Rich Ziade: Do you see what I did?

Paul Ford: No I don’t

Rich Ziade: It also is a synonym for Hello.

Paul Ford: I’m looking away– Silicon Valley craves getting that human out of the loop. And I, I don’t actually find that, that exciting or interesting when I’m building something. I am very curious as to what people make of things and how they use them.

Rich Ziade: Absolutely.

Paul Ford: So that’s, that is, okay so, we’re making big points about how the web is broken. How is the web broken?

Rich Ziade: The experience is, has crowded out your own motivations and intentions and let in [00:16:00] everyone else’s such that it’s a minefield.

Paul Ford: It’s not for you anymore.

Rich Ziade: It’s not for you anymore, and you have no control. And these examples that we just shared represent places where clear lines have been drawn and humans were given control back.

Paul Ford: It is true, Wikipedia is about a group of individuals asserting control compared to the rest of the web.

Rich Ziade: Correct.

Paul Ford: Alright, so there we go, that’s problem number one. 

Rich Ziade: Yes. 

Paul Ford: Let’s be clear, this is website about Aboard, we have an approach we’re gonna be addressing these problems with the software we’re building.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: We were excited to show it to you, but as we’re getting ready for that big, big day.

Rich Ziade: Yep.

Paul Ford: We’re gonna talk about the problems a little bit.

Rich Ziade: Next time Paul, we’re gonna talk about good or bad, we talked about a lot of the bad and the bad intentions on the internet. Good or bad, the internet can be very overwhelming.

Paul Ford: Boy can it.

Rich Ziade: And how do you carve out the stuff that you value? And make it a calmer [00:17:00] place for you?

Paul Ford: Sounds great.

Rich Ziade: Check us out @aboard.com. But don’t read the website too carefully cause we’re changing it.

Paul Ford: We really are, but the design will kind of stay the same. So you can just-

Rich Ziade: Yeah, we love the happy people on the page.

Paul Ford: Just bring it in visually and send us an email to hello@aboard.com. We’re glad to hear from you.

Rich Ziade: Have a lovely day.

Paul Ford: Bye.