The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:


The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.

Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

I happen to be a new fan of Alva Noto, whose minimalist bleeps and hisses may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (My wife thinks we have mice.) Anyway, I’m also testing headphones so I’m sitting outside by the communal pool taking in his second album with Ryuichi Sakamoto (my hero; I once interviewed him in such a grovelling fashion I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recording of it afterwards. I think my toughest question was “What do you think makes you so talented?”) with a pair of Logitech noise-cancellers (I’d have to take them off to tell you which make, and I’m not going to do that.)

But all this reminded me of an interview I read recently between Alva Noto (real name: Carsten Nicolai) and Robin Rimbaud, in which they discussed, among other things, how music is listened to, and treated, differently in the age of MP3. Rimbaud, himself a performing artist, asks Nicolai about the influence of “mobile listening” on him and his audience:

I listen to music more in a mobile situation because there isn’t much time to just sit down and listen anymore. I now have this obsession for headphones, which is probably born from this way of listening! I have a set for every situation!

Kind of interesting, I reckon. Reduced time available, and technology, has made music much more of a mobile activity now. I personally love listening to music or speech when I’m walking, hiking or jogging because I love the subliminal associations the mind makes between what one sees and what one is hearing. Views become associated with songs, or ideas expressed, with whatever you were listening to when you saw that view for the first time.

But there is a downside: Do we ever sit still and listen to music? Do we ever give it our full attention? Worse, perhaps, is that fact that the emphasis on portability has reduced the emphasis on quality — when was the last time sometime stressed the quality of a music device over its storage? As Rimbaud points out:

For digital cameras we are sold a machine that exploits quality — it’s sold on the strength of how many mega pixels each camera offers, whereas with MP3 players it’s never on the actual quality of the music but the quantity.

Nicolai agrees:

I think this shows a problem for our time — compression has taken over the quality in sound. Transmitting and distribution of the sound file is more important than the quality and I wonder if next year the industry will pick up on this and tell us “listen, last year you bought compressed audio, now you need to buy the real thing”. We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. Now quality will come back as a marketing strategy.

Could be. Perhaps as storage becomes meaningless — when your iPod can store your music collection many times over –  we’ll be told that 128 kbps is not enough and we need to buy all our MP3 files all over again. And so the circus continues.

Buzz Spam

Anyone else getting spammed by craigslist, or rather its PR company? This in my blog mail inbox:

hi there Jeremy,
quick note to let you in on all the chitchat happening on the electronics forum over on
it’s the new year and in the spirit of giving and resolutions, people are helping people…with their electronic needs.
what’s up for discussion today??
“When is HCTV going to kick in? No more bunny ears?” “What’s the best cellphone provider for my city?” “What”s the average battery life of the Nano??” “Best deals on digital cameras??” “LCD, Plasma, Rear-projection, DLP projection – what’s your favorite?” “I’m upset. I can’t get reception to hear Howard!!”
and lots more…
want to test out some new ideas with consumers at hand? hear what the people think about the latest gadget? or simply tech chat?
craigslist is in 190 cities and 35 countries so people everywhere will enjoy this one.
let me know what you think! cheers, [name deleted]
[line deleted]
Publicists for Astro Studios, Citizen Cake, *craigslist, Diabetes Adventure Tours, Esurance, and Smugmug

I’m deleting the name of the agency because I got some poor trainee flack into trouble some time back for getting hot under the collar about being spammed in this way. But I have a feeling this is not just a rookie mistake: The same agency sent me an email two hours later trumpeting the Blooker Prize, sponsored by another client of the same agency. I’m not going to say who, because I don’t want to give either of them unnecessary publicity.

Why is this spam, and not just a savvy approach (or two) by a PR company? Well, let me count the ways:

  • it’s clearly from a database harvested from blogs (the second one, more obviously so, since it doesn’t even bother addressing me by name — ‘Blogging folks, Take note!’ it begins).
  • I’ve not heard from these people before — or at least I have no record of it. No introduction, no effort to establish a dialog, except a rather naff and insincere-sounding ‘let me know what you think!’.
  • There’s no real pitch, or even story, involved. No information to work with, other than an invitation to come on over and build some traffic and Google rank. It manages to both assume I know all the background about craigslist, and yet know nothing at the same time. It manages, in short, to both insult my intelligence and assume too much simultaneously.
  • Why are they doing this anyway? It’s not as if craigslist is some backwater of a website. Three billion pageviews per month, Craig himself says. Why hire a PR agency?
  • The subject fields of both emails are naff and faux personal (craigslist and electronics. the first one, with the period included. The second is ‘you blogger, you!’) How more spammy can you get?
  • The second email does include a press release, but it’s three months old. This might make some sense as background for the new development being cited in the email, but without any real new information beyond some poorly phrased faux-familiarity (‘2006 is here, get that book published. And so early on in the year, your friends and cohorts will find your smugness a tad much.‘) I’m left wondering, simply, huh?

I suppose a better term for this is buzz-spam. It’s an effort to create a bit of buzz, without actually doing the hard work a PR agency should be doing, which is to check out the background of the bloggers it’s spamming and see whether they could actually build a relationship with them. Laziness, dumbness or trying to stretch a meager budget? Clearly, from the PR company’s website, they’re happy to trumpet their achievements in the mainstream media, when one of the companies they work with gets a mention. Ten seconds to read my About page would reveal they could have scored a bigger splash had they pitched me rather than spammed me.

And if I wasn’t a mainstream journalist, there’s still a way to pitch bloggers without spamming them. Explain why you’re contacting them, show them you know a little about them, suggest it may be of interest to them, make yourself available for more information if they need it. It’s a conversation, and a real one. Not a fake one.

More if I hear back from them.

The Excellent Archives

Just got back from a day at London’s Public Record Office which now seems to call itself the National Archives. It’s an amazing place, and I have to say very well organised and run. And it’s all free.

I was digging around for stuff for my alleged book on Indonesian politics, but from a technology point of view it’s interesting to see how all this kind of archive-digging has gotten easier. I haven’t been in an archive for a decade, so I was intrigued to see how, on one hand, you’re only allowed a pencil and paper to write with (as pens might damage the documents), but if you’re smart you bring in a laptop and/or a camera.

Luckily I had both, and when I noticed folks using their digital cameras to photograph documents, I grabbed mine from my locker. The results are quite acceptable, and save a lot of time, though I’m wondering if there’s any way of ensuring a) the pictures are the best for printing or turning into PDFs and b) there’s any way of ensuring there’s no damage to documents? No one used a flash that I could see, and the guidelines (PDF) expressly forbid that.

Anyway, excellent place, great way of ordering documents (you can do over the Net, and while you’re in the building you can check on the status of your requests for more by swiping your reader card at any of the terminals dotted throughout the complex). Meanwhile you can wander around the cafe or shop, or just look at all the wonderful eccentrics dashing about, conducting their own obsessive sleuthing. I was awed.

This week’s column – Flash Drives Aren’t Flash

This week’s Loose Wire column is about Flash drives:

 I LEFT YOU last week in the capable hands of Ethel Girdle, the fictitious octogenarian who took her accusations of built-in obsolescence to the technology giants. One of her beefs was about so-called flash drives–small devices that store data, for example as memory cards for MP3 players, digital cameras or personal-digital assistants, or as ultra-portable drives which can plug directly into your computer’s USB port. These little things have taken off in a big way. Nowadays it’s hard to find a gadget that doesn’t use them–even your cellphone uses the same technology–or a keychain that doesn’t have a thumb drive dangling off it. But Ethel (OK, it’s really me) found that two out of five memory cards in my possession have given up the ghost within a year or so of buying them. So what gives? Are flash drives the future or, if you’ll excuse the phrase, just a flash in the pan?

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at (subscription required). Old columns at here.

Info: More Memory For That Old Machine In The Attic

 From the Obscure Info But Store It Away Because You’re Bound To Need It Someday Dept comes an interesting service: new and legacy memory for desktop computers, notebooks, servers, workstations, laser printers, digital cameras and palm-top computers.
Memory4Less uses a state-of-the-art user-friendly website featuring the “Ultimate Configurator” and “Advanced Search Tools”, which sound exciting in their own right, to help you find your memory.

Update: Why We Are So Confused, Part II

From the Thank God Someone Has Figured It Out Dept AMD have released the second installment of their report on customer confusion over terms, which I looked at a few weeks back.

This bit caught my eye:

Our study results also showed that mobile phones are perceived to be one of the least confusing technology products. We hypothesize this may be because cell phones are largely an extension of an existing technology ingrained in everyday life – the regular telephone.

While I agree 100% that phones have managed to keep folk not confused, I’m not sure it’s because they’re an extension of existing technology. It’s because they’re relatively simple. Maximum ten features, ten menus, that’s it. Green button to call or receive calls; red button to hang up. I’ve seen people of all sorts — and I really mean that — using them and exploring their features. When a guy who never went to high school can change a ring tone, you know you have a technology that’s up his street.

Anyway, the report goes on:

However, given what we’ve seen of consumer reticence to adopt complicated high-tech products such as digital cameras and PDAs, consider what might happen as mobile phone manufacturers incorporate these potentially confusing functionalities into their phones.

Once again, right on the money. I’m not convinced a Smart Phone is a great idea if you can’t answer it easily, or make an emergency call with it without some fiddly stylus, or earpiece, or if the software reboots. If you add features to something that’s successful because it’s simple, is it successful anymore?

Update: No Dead Horses Around Here

  Further to my mention of Phlogging/moblogging, whatever you want to call it, just received an interesting email from Elan Dekel, founder of Fotopages. Elan reckons “we are experiencing a watershed moment. First of all the Internet is so accessible, even in dictatorships (we even have a fair number of Fotopages from Iran!), and digital cameras are so cheap, that (a) mass media has really become democratized – ie. everyone can get their message out to the world – and build relationships via the web with supporters and readers all over the world, and (b) it will be really hard for a dictatorship to keep its atrocities secret. Quite amazing in my humble opinion. In any case its fun to be a part of it.”
Interesting stuff. And if you thought all this sending photos to a website was phlogging a dead horse (sorry, couldn’t resist that), here are some sites that show something of what Elan is talking about (and his comments): (an american soldier in iraq, who uploads photos from the “front line”. I find it amazing – this is the first time that soldiers on the front line can broadcast their day to day experiences and their personal view of the situation, in real time). (this is Salam Pax’s Fotopage - the blogger from baghdad) (Gee – an Iraqi photographer).