Boiling Frogs: Mass Network tackles the flaws of online advertising

Image: wikicommons

The project will combine ad blockers with a blockchain wallet to reward users for their personal data — but only if they consent to participate.

There is a story — quite possibly apocryphal, but a great story nevertheless — about what happens when you place a frog in cold water and gradually turn up the heat. Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B records this version: ‘If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.’

Whilst scientific research is divided on how difficult it is to secure a frog’s tacit collusion in its own death-by-stewpot, the metaphor of Boiling Frogs has passed into common use as an analogy for the way we tend to put up with gradual, incremental change that ultimately leads to an outcome that would shock us if it were suggested to us outright. It’s one such example of Boiling Frogs that the Mass Network seeks to address.

Online advertising

The idea of hosting ads on websites is almost as old as the internet itself. It raises enormous revenues and is still a high-growth area. Without it, web hosts and companies would not be able to provides their users with the free content and services they do. Adverts have become the de facto way of paying for an online business; take Facebook, for example, or the majority of news and media sites. Some still cling to paywalls as a way of generating revenues, but most recognise that tech-savvy visitors can find the content they want in other ways, so they might as well accept it and make sure they get what they want from their site. And that means ads.

But its not just the web users that are becoming more savvy. There is a hidden and increasingly sinister side to the online ad business. In an effort to maximise revenues, ad companies are conducting data mining on an almost unbelievable scale. Tracking software records the sites you visit, your behaviour there, and much else besides — any and every information that can be gleaned to improve their targeting and serve you ads that are more likely to lead to conversions.

The frogs fight back

There has always been a kind of tacit agreement between those who use and those who fund websites. Instead of money for content and services, the deal has been that we pay with information — personal data that has value to the ad companies. Mass argues — quite reasonably — that this implicit contract has long since been broken by the advertisers. The level of data harvesting is now invasive at best. It is frequently conducted without our overt consent. Moreover, we have no say over how that data is used — over 90 percent of Americans acknowledge they have lost control over their personal data.

The irony is that it doesn’t even work that well. We’ve all had the experience of being served irrelevant ads. (Moreover, we’ve also all had the slightly disconcerting experience of being served an ad for a product on a site we’ve just visited — perhaps even a product we’ve just bought and therefore are definitely unlikely to buy again in the short term.) Online advertising is sophisticated, but it’s sophisticated in the same way that ‘enhanced interrogation’ is sophisticated. It’s effective for extracting information, but what you then do with that information is another matter. More and more people are catching on to the realities of online advertising, and taking a variety of measures to avoid it. Some install ad blockers — pieces of software that prevent ads from being displayed and from harvesting data. These are becoming more and more popular and cost publishers an estimated $22 billion in revenues in 2015 alone. Others simply filter them mentally and automatically, consciously or unconsciously ignoring whatever ads are shown on their screens. The result is an arms race between ad companies and users — the former to attract attention, the latter to be left alone and browse in peace.

Changing the paradigm

Thus there is an inherent tension in current models of online advertising. Advertisers extract data from users, with the intent of serving highly targeted adverts and inducing them to part with money — having already unwittingly parted with personal information that has commercial value, for no up-front reward.

Mass Network proposes to flip the advertising model around. Personal data is valuable but it is also personal. Thus advertisers should pay for it, and users should part with it only if they are willing. Mass are creating a blockchain wallet that combines efficient micropayments with ad blocking software. If users are happy to be served ads, then the Mass-enabled browser will do so; the users can set the amount and type of information they give up to the advertising companies, and receive a fair market rate for it.

To fund development, Mass Network is holding a crowdfund. At the end of the initial coin offering (ICO), a total of 700 billion Mass coins will be distributed to ICO participants — the remaining 300 billion from the one trillion fixed supply are reserved for team and partnerships. The future value of Mass coins will be driven by demand from advertisers, in conjunction with their limited supply. You can find out more by reading the ICO prospectus or join the ICO at https://ico.mass.network/.