Why Flexibility in Ad Networks Must Be Part of the Conversation

Advertising billboards in Times Square.Advertising billboards in Times Square.Ad billboardAdvertising billboards in Times Square.

Vintage hat advertisement.

A vintage advertisement, presumably targeting an appropriate audience.

Running a site reliant upon ad networks can be full of surprises. At a previous position, one of my duties was to assure that the site, a food publication, was not serving inappropriate advertisements that would turn off our audience and clientele. If someone came to read an article on wine pairings for the holidays, it was almost certain that one of our spots earmarked for the ad server would slot in an ad for addiction treatment centers. It was then my job to root out the source of the ad, which wasn’t always easy to find. Flash ads were pretty good at hiding their origins at times. If I was able to find the source, I would manually block it. That would never be the end of it, and the cycle would require repeating whenever we published any content involving alcohol.

The Guardian is having trouble with ads being served in support of the National Rifle Association (NRA). These ads sneak in due to both insufficient blocking tools, and the ads themselves being designed to show items like membership duffel bags instead of guns, thereby passing initial filters. Yet these demonstrate how hard it can be to have control over the advertising your site displays. Having someone be on top of this is one way to do it, but it can be tedious work, and you can’t endlessly refresh your own site’s pages, serving more ads, so you have to check in measured amounts, making these inappropriate ads easy to miss for a while.

For our food website, things we didn’t want to serve to our readers were rehab ads, diet ads (including those “one weird trick” scams), weight loss programs, political ads, medical advertisements, and other things that didn’t veer into the unappetizing or assumptions about someone’s ability to drink responsibly. In order to make us more attractive to other, outside ad clients, pairing rehab ads with wine articles wasn’t going to cut it.

When an ad server gives minimal customization options (as is my experience handling ad placement split between networked ads and independent ones), these slips are going to be common. Networked ads are cheap and, unfortunately, that puts the power in the hands of the advertisers, not the site management or the audience.

There is constant discussion about the present and future of web advertising, ad blocking, and the migration of many to mobile devices. Yet, as the trouble even The Guardian has keeping gun ads off of its site, shows, the power continues to sit in the hands of the advertisers. Greater web media is still figuring out ways to adapt to various aspects of the modern web, but this lack of control over how we can serve our audiences has not changed in some time. Ways to let ad networks serve both advertisers and media should be an integral part of the conversation.

Yes, Closing Comment Sections is a Loss

A person typing on a laptop.

Internet comments seem to be the subject of criticism that won’t go away. Hell, even Reddit is launching a new news site that won’t allow commenting.With comments often loaded with harassment, trolling, highly offensive language, and sometimes threats, it’s clear why some see comment sections to be a failure and offering little value to a site to continue. One of the latest sites to remove comment sections from its content is Motherboard, a publication of Vice. Motherboard’s Editor-in-Chief, Derek Mead, announced the removal of comments with the headline “We’re Replacing Comments With Something Better”. I clicked, curious to see what this “something better” was, and to find out whether or not it would turn out to be better.

Good moderation is valuable, and it requires companies treat moderators as more than simple comment police. Moderators are integral to the growth of communities, especially when moderators may be the first line of contact in the community team chain, depending on the side of your company or site. To get that quality, it has to be built into your operating costs. Many companies don’t cultivate community teams and invest in community development, backed up with sufficient funding to have good moderation and allow community managers and team members to spend a larger part of their days within the community instead of being marketing evangelists.

What Motherboard is doing is taking the comments section and instead of letting people comment as before, they have an open email address and other methods of communication for those who feel compelled to submit feedback. Making some effort a requirement on the behalf of the heretofore commenter in order to submit feedback is but one step that will probably reduce feedback, but might increase its quality.

The announcement noted that Motherboard’s staff had been contemplating the move for a year, and noted that those who justify comment sections note that when they are well-moderated, the cream can be filtered to the top and much of the harassment and noise can be eliminated. In other words, well-moderated comment sections provide value.

However, the announcement also included one important acknowledgment. Motherboard wants to devote its resources to content, meaning that it’s a direct admission that good moderation takes resources.

The argument for comments has long been that a well-moderated section lowers the barrier to entry for readers to share their thoughts, positive or otherwise. In a vacuum, that sounds like a dream, but the key there is “well-moderated.” Good comment sections exist, and social media can be just as abrasive an alternative.

Good moderation is an investment in people in your comments sections and in your communities who know your community members well, and can anticipate their needs, know their methods of expression, and serve their usage patterns.

Motherboard will select from received feedback once a week, the site will publish some of what the staff deems the most insightful comments. On the one hand, that is a form of moderation, but it’s after the fact, time has passed, the comment may no longer be topical, and it cuts off something very important when it comes to communities: interaction between people. This is, in effect, a version of the old “Letters to the Editor” segment of the newspaper. Letters to the Editor sections still exist, but the format that arose and, arguably took over, were internet comment sections. What Motherboard’s decision feels like is a potential step backward.

The people most in favor of closing comments seem to be those who will say you have a blog, a Facebook or Twitter account, so you can respond however you’d like, on your own spaces. These decentralized methods of responding to the same source material are still needed, but one hopes such decentralization is not the result of passing the buck.

By cutting off the immediacy of response and by dragging a wedge between users, a screen, between your audience members, you leave no room for a community to grow. Motherboard, in acknowledging the importance of good moderation and still dumping comments with a statement about redirecting its resources into content, is openly declaring quality moderation something not worth investing in for the site. Direct community building may not be ideal for some companies after all. Yet many sites do not want to make the investment in a good moderation and community team, instead preferring to pass the responsibility over to social media and blogging platforms. In other words: not our problem, but have fun when your users make it yours.


Why Cool For the Summer Bothers Me

Demi Lovato - Cool For the Summer artwork

Another summer, another banging pop song winds up inescapable. Over the past month, Demi Lovato released and went on promotional appearances for her latest single, “Cool For the Summer”. I think Demi Lovato is a talented young singer, and enjoy some of her past work. I own two of her albums, Demi and Unbroken, so I expected a fun little song suitable for summer dancing or workouts.

After a few listens, however, “Cool For the Summer” doesn’t sit well, and I can’t shake it. Written by a team of five, including Lovato, Max Martin, Ali Payami, Alexander Erik Kronlund, and Savan Kotecha, the lyrics aren’t pronoun-specific, but suggest a bi-curious summer fling. While there’s nothing wrong with exploring your sexuality, the tone of the lyrics point to tired old beliefs that might also be among some of the reasons more bisexual people haven’t come out, despite making up the largest slice of the LGBTQIA+ population.

The lyrics include such lines as:

I’m a little curious, too

Tell me if it’s wrong

If it’s right

I don’t care

I can keep a secret, can you?

Sure, some people might consider a fling in general as something adventurous and maybe not talk about it as much, but the other implication here is that exploring sexuality in this manner, or a bicurious experience, is something that is potentially wrong or needs to be kept secret. These sentiments simply feel stale. Our culture is far from perfect when it comes to acceptance, but I’d like to think we’ve come at least a little further than wink wink I’ve got a secret bisexual exploration. The implication continues in the rest of the song.

Don’t tell your mother

Kiss one another

Die for each other

We’re cool for the summer

Again with the whole hush hush down low thing. The rest of the song is a hooky pop craft of fun, no-strings attraction, which is a fine choice if that’s what you’re into. But I simply can’t get past the bad taste these lyrics leave in my mouth.

On Fangirling, Social Media, and Positivity

Recently, a writer seemed to conflate fangirling with praising other women and pegged these gestures, especially if made in public spaces, especially online, as disingenuous. Later, she adds that in the past, when contact information or an address for celebrities and other known individuals was harder to find, sending a letter of praise actually took some work, so it meant more. This is the old “I walked three miles to school in the snow, up seven hills, and barefoot” cliché. Just because something took longer or was more difficult to achieve doesn’t automatically give it more worth. Social media isn’t a throwaway for most people. The argument comes off as a dismissal of the modern instead of realizing that people often simply find new ways of doing the same things. We’re social animals, and just because we can reach out to those we admire more easily and openly, it doesn’t devalue the statements within.

An example cited in the piece was a tweet by actress Anna Kendrick talking about shaking at the unforgettable moment of meeting Beyonce. Now, putting myself in that position, I would also be shaking at meeting Beyonce. None of this effusive praise is new; it’s just the format has changed, grown, and widened.

I was sixteen when I attended a reading featuring Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez, whose work I devoured, related to, found traces of my own family within, and from her work, even drew inspiration. I was a poor girl and didn’t have the money to buy a copy of her latest book, but I joined the line at the public event in the hope I could just get a moment with her. My turn arrived, so I approached the table, probably stumbled over some words or spoke too rapidly, forgot to inhale, communicating just what her work meant to me. She took my hands, a kind, steadying gesture, and one I won’t forget. She thanked me, and I told her I was also a writer, that I loved her work, and she asked about me too. Finally, she wished me luck and even signed notebook with “Suerte” and a heart.

This was before social media, but fangirling has been around far longer than widespread internet, if by other names. These moments may pass unregarded, sentiments tweeted or expressed in comments on Instagram or in a Tumblr reblog, may be ephemeral. Yet, being interested in someone’s work or having shared interests, especially if those interests elicit similar emotional responses, these are the types of connections that, with some degree of luck and circumstance, may last long term. For an artist, a show of support may be more meaningful than a fan will ever know directly, and there’s nothing lost in expressing it.

There’s nothing like meeting someone else who was a total stranger to you yesterday, then discussing a shared interest, fandom you both follow, your tears over a death or development in the series that made an impression on both of you. Sometimes that ends in a hug and staying in touch. Sometimes these very interactions expand your whole universe. Devaluing the rich variety of channels we have these days to connect with one another comes across as extremely shortsighted. Criticizing positivity and happy messages, even simple supportive posts and tweets of approval, which can be very gratifying, just seems like sour conduct. This isn’t a case of sycophants, but mostly seems like harmless positive expression and declaring someone or something they have done is valuable.

It’s certainly better than a slew of articles suggesting women hate one another. We’re individuals, and some of us like to express our positivity. Would I still be a writer had Julia Alvarez not been so kind to the awkward teenager before her? Yes, I think so, but that memory, the positivity of that experience stays with me. So does the support I received from some friends I met who, shortly after I joined a shared online group, listened to and helped me through an issue that took months of frustration to resolve. It was an unexpectedly strong treasure to find at that time in my life, and these friendships have lasted.

So, yes, I’m on the positivity train. If someone is hurting or going through something, I try to offer words, at minimum, but sometimes gushing openly about how awesome someone is could lift both of your days. Even tweeting to someone you respect, engaging with them, might lead somewhere. You never know. Being excited about things, feeling joy, gratitude, and inspiration, these are some of life’s finest moments. Should receiving them intersect with moments of despair, loneliness, or loss, there’s a special kind of hope in these connections that is likely as old as humanity.

Sometimes it feels like joy is looked down upon, shamed, or discouraged. When something is clearly meant to be enjoyable, it’s often disparaged as being of poor quality or not meaningful. Down with that. Meaningful doesn’t have to take huge effort and because of that, tell someone she’s awesome today. And tomorrow. And so on. It will feel great.

We Have Always Been Here

This anonymous Ask over on the Why I Need Diverse Games Tumblr has already received strong responses from many, but I felt strongly enough to add a short one of my own.

“Geekdom is the only place where socially shunned males can be save and be themselves [sic]”, it begins. Then, the asker attempts to utilize concepts like “safe space” in order to, ultimately, justify attacks and harassment with language that takes a militaristic tone. Couching the defensiveness of a growing mainstream audience in such language is a glimpse of how some folks feel – that broadening the reach of certain types of media belongs to some finite pool of attention that will be bestowed upon those who share their taste. “So when women,” the asker continues, “who exclude them outside geek culture, invade those save spaces and force the scene to conform to their wants and rules they leave the men with nowhere to go. Where can they flee?”

First of all, women have always been a part of geek spaces. A woman is considered the inventor of computer programming. A woman wrote what is regarded as the first sci-fi novel (Frankenstein). Women have been gaming and creating games for decades. One year, a comics shop opened next to my local movie theater. An afternoon matinee and time in the comics shop, especially if I had a few bucks from babysitting in my pocket, was a wonderful way to spend the day. Star Trek movies were even on the marquee at times. I attended dressed in a Starfleet Academy shirt as yes, a socially awkward teenage girl. I liked other awkward geeks, for friendship and romance. We had shared interests, just enough to make it interesting, and just different enough to learn from one another.

After a couple of decades playing video games, growing up with sci-fi and fantasy, and counting Star Trek as an influence on my life, I’m not seeking to ‘qualify’ or gain any sort of geek cred, but others in my life who also enjoyed many of these things were other girls. We have always been here. We’re not invaders, anonymous, and I understand the perception and socialization that leads to ostracism and feeling alone as a geeky person, but try stepping out and defining yourself outside of products you consume.

But anyone, regardless of gender, should have safe spaces, real ones, and using the idea of gatekeeping to attempt to justify harassment just falls apart in the doing. Gatekeeping is simply never okay. It’s a much richer experience to have broader, more inclusive, and more diverse options.You might discover something unexpected or even meet some good, kind, and talented folks with a more open mind. Might even surprise yourself.

There is also no limit on how much art can be created. Only so much of it is commercial. Seek out new experiences, enjoy the art, games, and writing created by other fans whose creative energy presses against their mind, fingers, or very selves, and must simply get out into the world and be born, shared, and lived.  Put down your weapons, including your pride.Art isn’t finite. No one is invading anything. The more variety and more choice we have is a good thing.

Salma Hayek, Sci-Fi, and Diversity: Still More Promise Than Reality

México en el ❤️! Felicidades #Sub20 @miseleccionmx

A photo posted by Salma Hayek Pinault (@salmahayek) on

Salma Hayek appeared at the Cannes Film Festival recently, promoting her new fantasy-horror film, Tale of Tales. However, she made another important appearance at a panel at the Women in Motion talks in France, where she spoke about Hollywood’s double standards not just for women, but for minorities as well. One thing she said, about an unnamed director who really wanted her for a part (which sounds like Sandra Bullock’s role in Gravity), but caved to the studio in order to get the film made, resonated with me. The studio’s repeated rejections were a hurdle because executives expressed  incredulity at the concept of “A Mexican in space?”

Rodolfo Neri Vela, the first Mexican in space, blasted off 30 years ago this year. A Cuban named Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez was the first Latino and the first black person ever in space. An astronaut from California, Ellen Ochoa, was not only the first Latina in space, but she is the current director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Franklin Chang-Diaz, Sidney Gutierrez, Joseph Acaba, John Olivas, Jose Hernández. Those are just some of the astronauts of Latin American origin or descent, including, yes, of Mexican heritage. The studios could’ve easily looked to reality to see that not only have Latinos been to space, but so have non-whites from other countries. Whoever the studio executives were,  their inability to see a Mexican as someone who could convincingly play the part of a woman who, under some circumstances, traveled into space, that says a lot about the work that still needs to be done in both Hollywood and in our society, given who we picture in certain roles.

A report from USC released last year says that Latinos had just 4.9% of the speaking parts in the top 100 films of 2013. Latinos do, however, make up around 16% of the US population, and about 25% of movie ticket buyers. In fact, audiences heading to Furious 7, a film with a very diverse cast, were 75% POC and half women, which was named as reason for that film’s great box office success. In the US, the percentage of high school graduates going on to enroll in college is now greater than the percentage of white students. With Latinos and demonstrated buying power, as well as growing population and educational attainment, the idea of a Mexican in space shouldn’t be so far-fetched.

In fact, Hayek also emphasized women’s spending at the talks as a way for the industry to start paying attention. “The minute they see money, things will be instantaneously different,” she said at the talk. Given that women already buy over half of movie tickets and are still treated like a niche group in an industry where top executives are still mostly white men, making our mark with financial backing of films and TV is sending a message, but more needs to happen. Like the old adage about women ourselves, we have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition. Maybe our support of creative works has to be twice as loud or as financially successful to impact future decisions. Yet, even if women are being hired into prominent roles more openly, that doesn’t mean people of color are too.  Salma Hayek isn’t an unknown in Hollywood, and so the argument couldn’t be made about a lack of name recognition, even internationally. Not casting Salma Hayek because she’s not right for the  role is something I can understand, but if the director wanted her and believed she fit the part, but the dismissal came down to her ethnicity, that is a huge disappointment, especially since the film was sci-fi.

Genre fiction, especially sci-fi, through imaginative analogues, explore some of the toughest issues and difficult questions we face. Sci-fi can reflect a future where understanding and tolerance grow and reign, or bleakness and harsh treatment are the norm. Sci-fi can explore the strange, the weird, and the difficult, filtered through characters to identify with, empathize with, root for, hope alongside, be scared with, and even grow to feel almost like a real friend might. Sci-fi is a genre of potential, and for many of us, especially those of us who grew up as nerdy kids, especially nerdy minority kids, searching faces and names for people like us on our screens, in our books, or even in our games, it was one of the few genres to feature them. Although, even sci-fi and fantasy films aren’t always as diverse as we might have hoped, throughout the years, and often especially on television, there were opportunities for nerdy girls growing up between cultures and languages could see others who might bear resemblance to us or our family names.

Sci-fi, for many of us who don’t always see ourselves or anyone like us, represented in movies or on TV, or even in books or comics, was always a place of hope. Maybe that future someday will include someone like me. Maybe we’ll have those leadership positions in our own future. For geeks like me who grew up with well-meaning parents who taught us “You can be whatever you want to be”, to see stats like 4.9% of speaking roles in the top 100 films when we’re all adults now is disheartening. That’s not even saying anything about the quality of those roles or their adherence, or not, to stereotypes. Casting women and people of color in visible roles, including those of scientists, doctors, politicians, and yes, astronauts, helps show kids growing up, those kids who still search in our ever-connected, screens everywhere age, for people with names like theirs, heritage like theirs, and who look like themselves. Sci-fi still has the potential to break new ground, and casting a Latina in space would be a great step forward, and—a reminder—one that already reflects reality.

New York Made History Last Night

I think, no matter where you stand on the political or religious spectrum, it’s likely that most us have loved ones–family and friends–who are LGBT. The way I see it, by accident of birth, I have legal rights when it comes to love (that basic of tricky, wonderful, painful, enlightening, maddening things) that some of my fellow New Yorkers were denied until last night. Religious groups got extra protections to make sure that they may still run their organizations according to their faiths, and New Yorkers became more equal. There will be more jobs here due to this legislation. We will welcome more tourists. All New Yorkers will benefit somehow. And all it took was bipartisan leadership, state senators listening to what constituents wanted in the state, and careful deliberation. It’s easy to be jaded with the political system sometimes. And other times, it actually works.

On the Pulled Yoplait Ad

General Mills pulled a commercial for Yoplait yogurt because it was potentially triggering to those with eating disorders

The ad in question:

I felt it was reflective of a bad relationship with food, but unfortunately one that many women are familiar with. Eating, that very thing involved in our sustenance, becomes something that we judge our worth on because of social pressures. We bargain with ourselves like the woman in the commercial, and for some people, that can lead into dangerous territory. The thing is, there is no “bad” food if it fits into an overall healthy eating plan. So if she wanted the cheesecake, she should’ve eaten a reasonable sized slice and enjoyed it. No matter how many chemical flavoring agents you dump into an artificially sweetened yogurt, it will never be cheesecake. It may taste vaguely of cheesecake, but when you are craving cheesecake, flavor is but one element to consider.

Now, I say “women” here, but I am aware of the men who are also dealing with disordered eating (often more secretly). This ad, however, is squarely aimed at women (as is almost all yogurt marketing). Promoting lower calorie and healthier food choices is a good thing, but doing it like this is not. Just a bad message for some (obsessive thinking) and  it’s responsible of the company to pull it.

Sony’s Marketing Dept. Gets it Right in PS3 Ad

At the gym last night, I settled onto the elliptical with a magazine from the community rack. I’m not a regular People Magazine reader, but as I was flipping through this issue from late September, I saw a PS3 ad. The ad features a teen boy who looks to be enjoying himself and a middle-aged woman as his mother next to him, also looking to be enjoying herself. Both had controllers in their hands and looked to be having fun playing.

The tagline that accompanied the ad referred to the recent price drop but also served to be really inclusive. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the exact content, but I believe it was something about the PS3 being at a price that suits everyone.

People‘s demographics skew very female, and range through various age groups, so this was a pleasant surprise. To see gaming not only marketed as something women of any age do, but without the usual attention being called to her as a female playing games. (See the PSP’s recent lavender release with its ill-considered “Girlz Play Too!” tagline and obvious lineup of Hannah Montana and other similar games). Surely there would be some sort of division in the games, right?

Nope. The game selection at the bottom wasn’t even divided into obvious gender targets like so many other ads are. The games were titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum and others. Not a puzzle game or fitness coaching game in sight.

Even though that lavender PSP stuff is still fresh in our minds, kudos to Sony’s marketing department for this great ad!