NSFW: Give me ad-free conversations, or give me death (please RT)

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sliimyYesterday I spent the day at TechCrunch’s ‘Real Time Crunch-up’. This despite having no idea what a ‘Crunch-up’ actually is.

The important thing is that Erick had asked me to help moderate his panel about marketing within ‘real-time streams’, which is a subject close to my heart. So close in fact, that had he asked me to help moderate a panel about child rape and its place in the public school system I couldn’t have been keener to weigh in.

I’ll get back to my own contribution in a moment, but first, as a courtesy to my paymasters, I should probably relate a few of my  ‘key learnings’ from the event.

1) There is such a thing as a ‘key learning’, a phrase which I heard at least three times during the day, and which I gather is what an ‘opinion’ becomes when spoken by an idiot.

2) Gabe Rivera from TechMeme loves bookmarks. How else to explain his glee when he discovered that each of the four million free copies of Marc Benioff’s ‘Salesforce.com Playbook‘ scattered about the conference contained a little strip of cardboard sponsored by Amazon. “Cool. I can use these for my other books,” he exclaimed, removing each bookmark and pocketing it before carefully placing the books back on the table.

3) Even with a back-cover quote from Neil Young, you apparently can’t give away Marc Benioff’s ‘Salesforce.com Playbook‘. At the start of the day, there were towering piles of the thing on every surface – one free for every attendee. By the end of the day: towering piles of the thing on every surface, ready to be returned to the publisher. Perhaps Benioff should have taken a leaf out of his own playbook: Play #42 reads “Don’t Dis Your Product With A Discount”, with Benioff explaining that “I wouldn’t even give my own grandmother a discount.”  Yet apparently he wouldn’t think twice about giving the whole book away to a room full of the only people who are likely to actually buy the thing. (My book didn’t win its Congressional Medal Of Honor by being given away free).

4) At TechCrunch conferences, even the food is patriotic. After the American flag next to the judges table debacle at TechCrunch50, I was worried that Arrington might shy away from overt displays of Americanness at future events. Not so – inside the meal box provided to each attendee was a disposable handwipe, packaged inside a little stars and stripes pouch. To reaffirm my love of this country, I stuck one of the pouches to the front of the podium on the stage.

5) Dogs frighten room service waiters, but love Gabe Rivera from Techmeme.

And so to my panel – and to be honest, I was a little anxious at the thought of it given that my fellow participants were Erick and five marketing experts – Sean Rad of Ad.ly, Ryan Amos of DailyBooth, Jesse Engle of CoTweet, Philip Nelson of NewTek and Robin Bechtel who acts as ‘digital agent’ to Britney Spears amongst others.

Erick was on my side, of course, but even he and I have a checkered history, due in large part to the fact that I keep finding excuses to bring up his Last.fm story. Keen to smooth things over beforehand, I went via CBS’s San Francisco HQ on my way to the conference and picked up a Last.fm tshirt for him. You know, as a peace offering. He didn’t wear it, but I know he appreciated the gesture. (“You fucker,” he said, which I gather is New York for “thank you.”)

Even with Erick placated, I was still terrified by the marketers. I’m an editorial person and so these are not My People – in fact I’m obliged to close my ears whenever the subject of monetizing my words is raised. What I do is Good and Pure; what they do is Bad and Dirty.

Worse still, these weren’t even the usual kind of marketers – people who sell banners and display ads and the like – but rather a new breed who made their living by trying to slip commercial messages into our every day interactions. Take Bechtel – her most recent professional triumph was convincing a gaggle of Perez’ Hilton’s celebrity friends – Lady Gaga, Katy Perry et al – to promote a new Warner recording artist by Tweeting the words “Who is Sliimy?” to their armies of followers. Sure enough, within a few hours, the question made it to the top of the trending topics list, presumably resulting in a whole load of record sales for Sliimy. To Bechtel this is a great result, whereas to my mind the idea of one Warner artist whoring and shilling for another that they hadn’t even heard of is just about the most hideous abuse of fandom since Jordy Chandler.

(Sliimy, by the way, is pronounced ‘Slimmy’ rather than the more appropriate ‘Slimy’. Also, he’s French, famous, and entirely irrelevant to the wider digital conversation. I expect he’ll be at Le Web.)

And then there was Ad.ly’s Sean Rad. If you’re not familiar with Ad.ly’s product, then put a pencil between your teeth and read this profile of them by the NYT’s Brad Stone. I quote… “Tuesday was another typical day for John Chow, blogger and Internet entrepreneur in Vancouver, British Columbia. Mr. Chow treated his 50,000 Twitter followers to a photograph of his lunch (barbecued chicken and French fries), discussed the weather in Vancouver and linked to a new post on his Internet business blog. Then he earned $200 by telling his fans where they could buy M&M’s with customized faces, messages and colors.”

Get thee behind me, Ad.ly.

During the panel, Rad explained more about his business and his view that Twitter streams should be seen as ‘real pieces of content’ that should therefore be ‘monetized’. In response to Erick’s suggestion that people might not welcome this ‘monetization’ of their conversations, he responded that many of the company’s advertitweets included an appeal for followers to ‘please retweet’ the ads posted in their friends’ streams. According to Rad, thousands of people did precisely that, proving that people were embracing the ads. I politely disagreed, pointing out that people – by and large – are fucking idiots who will retweet anything if you tell them to. A couple of weeks ago, as a comment against the ridiculousness of those who beg their followers to ‘please RT’ the most mundane of messages, I twittered the message “I’m going for lunch. Please RT!

People did.

And yet, despite the jovial back-and-forth – at one point I accidentally called Rad a dick – we actually managed to end the session with something approaching a consensus. The trigger for this consensus was Erick inviting Robert Scoble to come on stage and explain his vision of the future of monetized twittering.

Scooby’s vision is the ‘Super Tweet‘, a taggable, more contextual tweet that would enable advertisers to serve commercial messages based on what people were already talking about. Critically, these messages would appear in a separate panel in the Twitter client, rather than invading the stream itself. It’s a vision that seemed at odds with that of Twitter’s COO Dick Costollo who, speaking earlier in the conference, hinted that the company’s upcoming ad strategy might blur the old church and state lines. “We want to do something that’s organic and in the flow of the way people already use Twitter” he said, “and not Here’s the tweets and here are the ads.’”

Scoble argued that “you can display ads in the Twitter client but you don’t fuck with editorial” – and as such his idea seemed totally fine to me – why shouldn’t Starbucks deliver ads to people who tweet about going for coffee, as long as those ads appear in a clearly demarked window? And, hell, why not go one stage further: perhaps some of that revenue could get kicked back to the people making the tweets – the “content creators”? That would certainly be better than sponsored tweets.

It’s a testament to Scoble’s vision, and the marketers’ passion that I left the stage agreeing that, even if we disagree on format – there was nothing inherently wrong with monetizing the Twitter stream through targeted advertising. To his credit, Rad even offered to share with me some of their raw numbers so I could see how people interacted with the various commercial messages generated through Ad.ly.

I’d say my feeling of agreement lasted about ten minutes before it was replaced with one of searing outrage.

What the hell was I thinking? Nothing wrong with monetizing the Twitter stream through targeted advertising? There’s everything wrong with it. And here’s why…

A tweet isn’t a “piece of content”. It isn’t editorial. No matter whether we’re talking about what we’re having for lunch or suggesting a new movie or sharing a piece of news, what we’re really doing is having a good old-fashioned conversation. Following people on Twitter is like organising the world’s largest cocktail party – we’ve decided whose opinions we trust, and we’ve invited them to come into our homes and talk to us about things they are genuinely interested in. The moment people start screwing around with that principle, the whole system collapses.

Just look at the conceptual abortion that is the new retweet functionality: everyone in their right mind hates it, but few of us can quite explain why. Let me try. When someone retweeted under the old system, it was the equivalent of standing at the cocktail party and saying to our friends “oh, Dave said something interesting the other day…” and then going on to quote Dave, along with our own comments on what Dave had to say. The quoting of Dave was contextual and appropriate.

By contrast, the new retweet function is the equivalent of us snapping our fingers and making Dave himself suddenly appear in the middle of the party. And, then, without so much as an introduction, Dave starts talking. No context, no invitation – just some crazy dude called Dave talking at us, at our own party.

Adding sponsored tweets will have an even more poisonous effect on the party. There we are, listening to a friend talking about the weather or sports and suddenly – boom – he’s trying to sell us a personalised pack of M&Ms. It doesn’t matter if he explains that he’s been paid by the company to promote their products – the fact is, there’s some dickhead at a party trying to sell us M&Ms. He’s even more unwelcome than Dave.

One of the most popular ideas amongst social marketers is the idea that we will listen to commercial endorsements from our friends because we trust them. Thus, by putting brands into our friends’ mouths, we will somehow trust those brands more by extension. Not for the first time, the marketers have got it backwards. The reason we trust our friends so strongly is precisely because we know that their opinions are not commercially motivated. The moment that ceases to be the case – or we even suspect that it has ceased to be the case – the bond of trust between friends is destroyed. The cocktail party is ruined, society crumbles, the apes take over the world.

Separating the ads from the conversation might be a less egregious solution but it doesn’t alter the fact that our words are triggering the appearance of commercial messages on the walls of a party. Inevitably marketers will try to further affect these messages by paying commission to popular tweeters, and the less principled of our friends will sign up to whichever ad networks provide the best incentives for monetizing their updates. From then on they’ll be constantly wondering if there’s a way to wedge in a brand, or a product that could bring them a few cents into their tweets. Even if they think they’re just making pocket money from the things they’d talk about anyway, their conversations will become inevitably altered by the presence of commercial influences.

Meantime, the anti-commercial-minded amongst us will resist this new development by avoiding using certain brand names in our conversations, knowing that they are simply giving an excuse for those brands to make money from our friends. Instead of Starbucks and McDonalds, we’ll be sure to criticize S*arbucks and McD%nalds so as to deprive them of the click-throughs. And yet by the simple conscious act of avoiding commercial pressures, we’re forced to consider them – and so the spontaneity and purity of the conversation is destroyed. Either way, the cocktail party is ruined, society crumbles, the apes take over the world.

Our blogs are already affiliated-linked up to the eyeballs, our TV shows are product-placed to hell, radio has succumbed to payola, even our schools are brought to you by the letters COCA COL and A. Human conversation is the last area of communication to hold out against the relentless march of commercialisation and it’s our duty, as humans, to make sure it stays that way. So, screw consensus. And shame on me for starting to lean towards it yesterday. Give me ad-free conversation, or give me death.

(Please retweet.)

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