There’s a Click Bubble, and it’s about to burst. Ready?

Mario Vasilescu
Mar 7, 2018 · 16 min read

/// THE BAD NEWS ///

Bubbles seem large and solid, but are fragile and hollow. It’s the perfect term for markets that grow through unchecked hype, and inevitably burst.

  • The Dot Com Bubble (internet speculation of late 90’s early 00's)
  • The 2007 Financial Crisis (U.S. subprime mortgage speculation bubble)
Charlie Chaplin stands on Douglas Fairbanks’ shoulders during a rally at Wall Street in 1918.

“The Click Bubble”

Let’s start with an important primer of how we got here. All bubbles follow the same fundamental recipe. It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3.

Ingredient #1: something theoretically very valuable … but poorly understood and poorly measured

In this case, it’s not just the Internet, but attention on the Internet. It was the fundamental idea that attention online would be 1) equal to TV and print attention, but even bigger, much cheaper and 2) much more measurable.

A TV campaign was like the Air Force. You wanted to get your message out, you did carpet bombing. But TV wasn’t cheap, nor did it solve that age-old question: “Half of my marketing is working, half of it is not, and I don’t know which half.” Digital search and display ads had the potential to reach TV-size audiences at a fraction of the price. People thought it was going to change everything.

Ron Amram, Media Director @ Sprint in the 2000's

I think that building an internet where … our attention was going to be the commodity that was traded, is one of the most destructive and shortsighted decisions that we could have made.

- Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media at MIT

Ingredient #2: speculation-driven mainstream adoption, both consumer and corporate

Despite the internet evolving closer to its current form — overwhelming choice and substantially more discerning users — the original flawed assumptions were only doubled-down on. What if you could set up entire networks to scale and automate all these click-based slices of “attention”? Imagine the revenue potential!

The euphoria escalated again around 2010 with the arrival of programmatic advertising, a typically banal industry term for what is, essentially, automation. The ideal programmatic transaction works like this: A user clicks on a website and suddenly her Internet address and browsing history are packaged and whisked off to an auction site, where software, on behalf of advertisers, scrutinizes her profile (or an anonymized version of it) and determines whether to bid to place an ad next to that article.

Which sounds a lot more efficient and effective than the system actually is. In reality, because it’s based on the same fundamentally flawed standard of attention, programmatic networks only helped massively scale inefficiency and false value. Or, put another way, it added countless layers of complexity to a rotten core, making it virtually impossible to trace or fix.

Ingredient #3: disillusionment (founding speculators exit + mainstream revolt + regulatory crackdown)

The story goes like this…

Sensing the market has gotten out of hand, the original speculators move on.

Billionaire ex-Facebook president Sean Parker admits he helped build a monster, worrying it’s rotting children’s brains. Meanwhile, early Google and Facebook investor Roger McNamee compares the effects of both to nicotine, alcohol or heroin, and the Co-Founder of Twitter declares “The internet is broken”.

The followers, now including the mainstream market, begin pushing back.

Nearly half of millennials are using ad-blockers, and 3/4 of all users refuse to use sites that limit their ad blocking. The effects are predictable: using an analysis of 700+ projects worth $18B+, the Australian Association for National Advertisers doesn’t mince words:

So the key players who were propping up the market from the industry side begin pulling out.

Procter & Gamble’s Chief Marketer, the world’s highest-spending advertiser sounds off, threatening to pull his budget:

The rising public displeasure invites regulatory intervention and mass media scrutiny.

This May, a new law from the European Commission will make 3rd-party cookies extinct and significantly affect the ability of companies everywhere to collect and leverage user data in general. Various world leaders speak up, as well, about additional regulation, and the media is relentless, with every major outlet weighing in.

While evidence rapidly mounts that there literally is no defensible value.

Finally, the behemoths themselves — the bedrock of the system - start reacting.

After shifting to much more specific campaign tracking, Facebook also makes a dramatic change to the heart of its system, announcing its algorithm will now punish content that doesn’t generate meaningful connections between users. Then Google — arguably the creator of modern online advertising — implements a built-in ad blocker to its own popular Chrome web browser.

All of the above has taken place over the last 12 months.

We’re approaching the point where this pressure reaches critical mass and…


The Click Bubble: Overdue

If any of this surprises you, it shouldn’t. The internet ecosystem has been due for a correction for a very long time.


This is a crime that works, by definition, by evading detection. When the smartest bad guys figure out how to fool you, they don’t tell you you’re beaten. […] If the fraud operators making big money today were defeatable with data science, scale and performance optimization — offerings of approximately everyone in all of ad tech — this problem would have been solved years ago.”

The breaking point is now upon us, and major players are already making their moves. The good news is that you can, too. Alternatives are already available, and the path to getting ahead is being spelled out clearly. So let’s lay out your battle plan…


/// THE GOOD NEWS ///

In a nutshell, the current system is a perfect storm of fraud, poor delivery (unhappy users), and ineffectiveness (unreliable data, unreliable performance, and now stifling regulations).

1. User Experience: Audience-centric Engagement & Data

Advertising and creepily targeting users is not the future. If you were at the World Publishing Expo in October, you would have heard the following:

Michael Golden, Chairman, NYTimes:

“Audience revenue is the future. Advertising is not the future. There is not enough, not enough quality, not enough access. […] Consumers rely on advice and guidance, especially with younger and younger audiences. […] getting them to read long stories. That takes innovation, but it’s valuable. […] Advertising is declining. 15–16%/year. The safe assumption is that that will continue to happen.”

Mathias Döpfner, CEO, Axel Springer SE:

“In the long run, if you take advantage of user data and consumer profiles just to drive immediate profitability, you’re destroying long term potential and customer relationships. If the consumer knows exactly what you do with the data — if they agree, and they see the immediate benefit, and the product is getting better for them… [only then does] this becomes a big competitive advantage.”

This may run counter to everything you’ve come to expect. After all, as the inimitable Matthew Inman reminded us, this is the Internet we’ve been brought up with:

NYTimes 2018 edition of 52 Places To Go
The Quartz Daily Brief, image via Journalism.co.uk

2. Real, Measurable Value: Accuracy and Transparency as a Premium

So the internet is a dubious, overwhelming cesspool? Great, you just need to be a bit better, and you’ll already stand out like a veritable hero. In Marty Neumeier’s business strategy book, ZAG, he puts it simply: “If everyone else is zigging, you zag.” Right now, everyone is complaining about garbage data, because of dubious traffic, all through systems they have zero visibility into. So go in the opposite direction.

  • More credible traffic: it’s no longer enough to depend on a few metrics, in isolation. They are hard to assign value to and are easy to game with bots. In our case, we created technology which looks at human behaviour patterns to understand how intensely the visitor was actually paying attention to your content in the first place (and what you can do about it).
A sample of Readefined’s audience-based Article Analysis
A sample of Readefined’s shareable stats.

3. Beyond the Duopoly: Community Building

Part of the post-Click Bubble future is about a redistribution of power. Facebook and Google do not produce the content on their platforms, but until now have owned virtually all of the upside. This was never a sustainable model, and Facebook, for its part — now returning its focus to interactions among its users —recently said so itself:


The Internet is shifting. Which side of history will you be on?

Whether you believe there is a Click Bubble or not, it is irrefutable that the Internet is not well, and market expectations are rapidly changing. Play your cards right, and you can guide that change while saving your business. In the bigger scheme of things, however, this is bigger than just profits and losses, it’s about the impact on society. How will we choose to value the information backbone of our modern world? What part will you play?


The Content Zeitgeist

The why and how of content #qualityoverquantity

Mario Vasilescu

Written by

Building quality filters for the internet with Rewordly, brainstorming the future with CatalystLabCo.

The Content Zeitgeist

The why and how of content #qualityoverquantity