Proposal: replace online advertising with microformats for ads

Here’s a tiny proposal, albeit VERY likely NOT original, to solve a big digital issue of our time.

(actually, I would be surprised if nobody has ever proposed this before. I am sure somebody must have)

Online advertising, and all the other ways to sell personal data of one’s users, is a big plague of our time. It is not even a “first world problem”, considering how many people worldwide confuse the Web with this or that for-profit social network.

The tragic irony of this is that, very often, personalized online advertising doesn’t even work decently. We all know what happens if our washer, smartphone or any other product we depend on on a daily basis suddenly breaks, and needs to be replaced as soon as possible:

Proposal: replace online advertising with microformats for ads /img/corporations-spying.jpg
  1. we start frantically searching online for specs, reviews and special offers for that product, say a washer
  2. we waste hours trying to make sense of non-easily-comparable offers and data-sheets on different website and/or
  3. we go through booring and error-prone forms to get that great deal, just for you, hurry, offer ends tonight!!!! Only to find at the 5th or 6th form that either the product is not available in our neighborhood, or it will arrive in 6 weeks, or costs more than the others once you DO add taxes, installation cost and other hidden voices
  4. we buy whatever doesn’t cost too much and is available NOW, to stop wasting time. Maybe at the closest PHYSICAL shopping center
  5. but then, for at least two months, wherever we go online we are harassed by ads for washers we don’t need anymore
  6. while all the data we more or less voluntarily provided while searching for a washer are being collected and used for totally unrelated purposes…
  7. including discrimination, e.g. NOT being shown the best possible deals, only because we’ve got the wrong age, skin color or residence ZIP code

what if, instead…

What if EVERY website that wants to sell some product…

  • could publish and update every time they want, possibly automatically, one catalog of everything they want to sell in a standard format (think one spreadsheet file per website/online shop)
  • those catalogs could be found and indexed by any search engines
  • and then when, and only when, we actually want a washer, or a weekend vacation, or a gym subscription…
  • we could tell our computer or smartphone to:
    • find all those catalogs via search engines
    • download them
    • present the results as ONE table, that may be sorted for every column (remember: the catalogs would be in the same, standard format!)
    • repeat the process once a day, but only until we do find what we need

If things worked this way, we could figure out what deal is the best for us without being profiled, without wasting time and without being annoyed with information we don’t need anymore because we already purchased what we need.

The problem? As always, it is NOT technology

The basic idea here is simple: moving from corporations profiling users to users profiling corporations, or more exactly their offers, on their own terms and devices. The technology to do this is even simpler and already exists. It would be some variant of microformats. Limiting searches to certain geographic areas, or time periods, would be easy too.

The real obstacle, of course, is the will to make this happen. But as they say, until they can keep you making the wrong questions, e.g. “why we don’t regulate Facebook”, the answers don’t matter. So let’s discuss seriously alternatives like this, shall we?

(Image source: “Corporations are using social media to spy on us”)