Monetize your eyeballz
The economy of the modern internet runs on one thing and one thing only: your precious time and attention in exchange for entertainment, information, and access to goods and services.
It's no secret that everything you do on the web is being monetized by somebody, somewhere.
Whether it's the Facebook Pixel tracking your every click, or the paywall between you and the hot takes in Medium's members only articles, there are implicit and explicit schemes always running in the background of your browsing behavior to convert your clicks into cash.
Today in MONTAG we'll cover some of the ways the attention economy is evolving: from a cryptocurrency created explicitly to monetize browsing, the future of ad-blocking, and where those two threads meet – you could be mining the cryptocoin Monero for MONTAG just by reading this article (if you'd like to, please go ahead and click "START MINING" below - you may need to adjust your ad blocker settings).
The louder your CPU fan is, the more you ❤️ MONTAG
You may be wondering how people actually make money off of serving all the ads you see (or don't see, if you use ad blockers, but we'll get to those later) in the margins of your web pages, or, god forbid, popping up to demand attention on top of your browser.
Ethan Zuckerman, an early engineer at Tripod, one of Web 2.0's original free hosting services, takes the blame for inventing the pop-up ad in his fascinating investigation of how the internet advertising economy evolved for The Atlantic, entitled The Internet's Original Sin.
The short version is that websites make money from ads primarily by a method Zuckerman calls "investor storytime," telling the people who will give them millions of dollars in funding how well they can grow and know the audience for their web platform or service, so that those millions of dollars will turn into millions of buyers for the investors' products, once they start running ads. This model, of creating a targeted captive audience of consumers, is how most social networks thrive: sharing information about your lifestyle is advertisers' bread and butter.
And according to the third of Newton's laws, alongside the expanding behemoth of ad-serving platforms, ad blockers have grown apace. Netscape and Opera were the first browsers to offer pop-up ad blockers, and almost every modern web browser allows for the installation of ad blocking browser extensions, if ad blocking isn't already baked in.
Indie software like Better goes a step further than commonly used ad blockers like AdBlock Plus and Ghostery, who still often record and sell information about what ads you've blocked. You can get even more technical, if you're comfortable re-configuring your router settings, by blocking ads on the network level using Pi-hole.
Even Google, one of the largest distributors of online advertising, has joined the ranks of the anti-ad, by blocking ads that violate the Coalition for Better Ads standards by default as of an update to Chrome in February 2018.
As Zuckerman theorized in 2014, the subscription content model is becoming the norm. Sites like The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Wired, and Medium are increasingly throwing up hard and soft paywalls over their content to guarantee that the revenue they lose thanks to ad blockers is recouped.
The subscribe modal is the new pop-up ad, and no less annoying for all of its manipulative microcopy. But of course, there are plenty of tricks to circumvent paywalls as well, most of which you don't need to write a single line of code to execute.
Zuckerman's other prediction, that cryptocurrencies would be used as an alternative to the ad-surveillance structure, is also coming true, in more ways than one.
Coins for clicks
BAT, also known as the Basic Attention Token, is an Ethereum-based utility token that works inside an ad-blocking browser. The Brave browser records and anonymizes your browsing activity, and rewards both you and web publishers who participate with BAT. While BAT isn't a currency in itself, it can be exchanged for other cryptocurrencies.
While this does seem like a cool way to subvert the eyeballs-for-dollar-bills advertising ecosystem, the fact of the matter is that very few people will A. switch browsers, or B. want to see advertisements even if they do get a quick fix of cryptocurrency in exchange for opting in to curated ads.
In November of 2013, MIT student Jeremy Rubin and a group of classmates created a program during a hackathon that they called Tidbit, which uses a client's computer to mine for Bitcoins as an alternative to website advertising; in exchange for removing ads from a website, some of the client's computer's CPU cycles are used to generate cryptocurrency. The EFF defended Rubin in a case brought against him by the New Jersey Attorney General demanding that the code and 27 other interrogatory documents be provided about its use, implying that this technology could and would be used unlawfully (i.e., on users' computers who hadn't consented to contribute to Bitcoin mining, a process now known as cryptojacking). The case was settled by a consent order in May of 2015.
While it may have been possible to mine Bitcoin using a pool of web browsers' CPU power in 2013, the current block size is far too large for non-specialized computers to make much of a difference, which is why most browser-based miners have switched to Monero, an even more private and fungible cryptocurrency.
In a bold move, Salon.com now requests if you are using an ad-blocker that you consent to running a Monero mining script. They liken it to the myth that we only use 10% of our brains, and outline the following policies in their FAQ: if you opt in, your computer will only be donating its spare processing power for the duration that you browse Salon.com, and your consent to mine is good for 24 hours (i.e. if you return to the site within a day, the mining will resume).
If you've pushed the processing power of your computer to the limit before, say running Final Cut and rendering large video files, you'll notice your fans turning on and your computer making noises like it's going to take flight when it's using its full capacity. But if you're already used to your computer chugging a little harder when you watch multiple hours of YouTube videos, you may not notice that ads embedded in those YouTube videos are cryptojacking you.
With the value of cryptocurrencies rising across the board at the end of 2017, cryptojacking cases have exploded. Just since the beginning of 2018, hackers have embedding mining scripts in YouTube ads, the LA Times website (where the hacker also left a helpful note about tightening their servers' security), Tesla's AWS cloud, Australian and Dutch government websites, and even Word Documents.
So it doesn't seem so ludicrous that Salon and others should request explicit permission to use your CPUs, since there are so many people trying to get at them without your knowledge.
Scared you might have been cryptojacked already? Opera provides a free in-browser cryptojacking test.
Another way to check, if you are using a Mac or a Linux operating system, is to use the command "top" in your command line. If you clicked "Start Mining" at the beginning of this article and have been whirring away hashing Monero for MONTAG you'll probably see your browser of choice using something like 400% of your CPU power.
So is the coinz for clickz model another harbinger of the death of journalism? Or of the ruination of every possible web platform by overeager cryptocurrency enthusiasts?
Maybe, but it's not all hackers and jackers and money-hungry advertisers. UNICEF'S Game Chaingers program encourages gamers to mine Ethereum in support of their humanitarian efforts in Syria. At the time of publication, there's a little over a month remaining in the effort and they've raised €12,000.
As the technology to spin money out of thin air (or as close to thin air as you can get with computer power) gets better and faster, it makes us question the state of the whole ad industry online.
Is it worth your attention, your electricity, your privacy? In the future, will we be mining with our brainpower, or having ads beamed directly into our eyes? At MONTAG, we promise to never hijack your brain with advertising for any company except Grover. And if you mine enough Monero for us, we may be able to break free entirely...