Episode One Hundred and Eighty Seven: Snow Crashing (10); How The Web Works Now

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

4:18pm, Central Standard Time on 29 November on the way to London Heathrow, from Kansas City via Mineapolis St-Paul, leading a Code for America expedition to the UK’s Government Digital Service. I’ll be meeting up in London with five of my colleagues trying not so much to find out what makes GDS tick as to see how we can translate what they do into something that makes sense in the mirror-world.

1.0 Snow Crashing (10)

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. (Snow Crashing (9) was in episode 127, back on 23 July[1]).

We’re at chapter eight of our trip through Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash – we’ve just had infodump on Juanita, and now things are about to kick off.

Whilst in the metaverse – more specifically, the Black Sun – Hiro’s forgotten to tend to his physical body and his tongue stings: he’s forgotten to swallow his beer in one of the first (and only?) signs we see of someone neglecting their real-world body in favour of the one that they inhabit in the metaverse.

Juanita, we’re reminded, was the one who figured out how to make “avatars show something close to real emotion”, so it’s ironic that she’s turned up in a black-and-white, low-resolution, low-fidelity avatar. Or, you know, it could be A Sign. In any event, this is an opportunity for us to learn more about Juanita and Hiro’s relationship: from his point of view, at least, she did most of her work when they were together, and “whenever an avatar looks surprised or angry or passionate” in the metaverse, he sees an echo of their former selves. Which, it has to be said, raises a question as to exactly what Juanita did when she was bringing emotion and facial expressions to avatars: if they’re all modeled on a base-set that she rigged based on her and Hiro, or if every so often they strapped on the mo-cap suits and ping-pong balls and had an argument with each other.

Whatever: Hiro can’t escape Juanita, because she’s wherever he looks in the metaverse. He can’t even hide in virtual reality.

The Black Sun turns out to be your typical software success, and there’s a curious phrase in here about “marketing the spinoffs” which at least for me sounds distinctly 80s and 90s: spinning-off, not franchising, not licensing, but suggesting instead something like a successful entertainment property that spun off into Black Sun: The Next Generation and Black Sun: Voyager and Black Sun Into Darkness. Stephenson takes this history of the Black Sun to remind us that it wasn’t the collision-avoidance algorithms that made the “place” a success (which makes more sense if you read “collision-avoidance algorithms” instead as “physics middleware” and remember that Havok got bought by Intel a while back[2]) or the bouncer daemons (which makes even less sense) but instead the frighteningly realistic, non-uncanny-valley effectiveness of “Juanita’s faces”. See, the Nipponese businessmen do business here in the Black Sun: paying attention to facial expressions and body language and there’s that phrase again: condensing fact from the vapour of nuance, synthesist style.

There’s two camps here: the one that believes that you can quantise and digitize everything and literally condense fact form the vapour of nuance, and there’s the one that believes that you can’t, that “something ineffable” is going on, something that you can’t explain with words. And, most likely, something that you can’t reproduce with a convolutional neural network running on Google’s data centers. Juanita’s in the latter camp, an “irrational mystic”, who ends up quitting the Valley (well, it’s *implied* it’s the Valley, if you ask me), taking a job with a Nipponese company (Stephenson taking the view here that even if you write stupendously popular and successful software, you still don’t get to retire for life) and reinforces her stance that the metaverse introduces distortion in relationships, never mind the fact that she’s (apparently) the one who made the experience real-enough for most people.

And then here’s a thing: whilst Hiro scans the room with Bigboard, Da5id notices him and “indicates with a flick of his eyes that this is not a good time.” We’re told that normally such subtle gestures are lost in the noise, but not this time: not only does Da5id have a “very good personal computer”, but Juanita also helped design his avatar, so his message is received “like a shot fired into the ceiling”.

How does this work? Does a Very Good Personal Computer mean something that’s got a high-rez, high-fps 3D LIDAR-type scanner that can detect Da5ids real-world facial microexpressions? That part is easier to buy: high fidelity scanning equipment and a prodigious pipe through which to send the information, but the part about Juanita designing his avatar to make it *even clearer*? Does it mean that Juanita’s a combined modeler/rigger in the Pixar tradition, someone who can both put together a high-polygon avatar for Da5id, but also rig it to such an extent that what in the real world would be a microexpression but somehow in the metaverse, in the Black Sun, comes across even more clearly?

Anyway. There’s a boring bit where Stephenson makes fun of Hollywood and gets to show how Hiro makes a living (trading gossip and tips on the writer and director involved in a movie in development in a somewhat naive way because it’s actually much more useful industrial intelligence for a rival studio to know that a director is basely interested in bazooka-blowing-things-up scripts than it is for screenwriters to know to include a bazooka in their submissions).

When Stephenson describes the Movie Star quadrant, he says that actors “love to come here because in The Black Sun, they always look as good as they do in the movies. They can strut their stuff and visit with their friends without any exposure to kidnappers, paparazzi” and so on. Which, with hindsight, kind of misses (at least some of) the success of things like Reddit AMAs and Twitter: that it’s closeness-in-general, not physical closeness that is valued. Sure, now we have people lining up for selfies with One Direction. But the appetite for contact is insatiable whatever the medium.

And then we have our first introduction to L. Bob Rife who at the time of Snow Crash is a cable-television monopolist and these days would invariably not be someone like Rupert Murdoch or Disney but instead a different information monopolist and it’s really, really hard to come up with a viable suggestion other than someone who’s running Google.

Then we learn three things in a conversation between Juanita and Hiro.

One: Hiro’s sword-fighting reflexes (seeing something coming and instinctively deflecting it) are Important and are going to be valuable.

Two: Juanita warns Hiro off Snow Crash, and Hiro points out: of course, it’s catnip to him.

Three: Juanita has a Thing for Hiro, and at the very least, they share a Special Connection.

Four: Hiro is sufficiently stereotypically male and egocentric to think that the reason why Juanita is guarded is because she *does* have a Thing for him, and that she’s got to be Careful around him.

Five: The VR system in Snow Crash – specifically for undetermined and potentially impractical reasons *only* in The Black Sun – is so good that Juanita can *literally* read *every* expression on Hiro’s face.

And then, and *then*, we get to hypercard bit. More on that next chapter.

(That said, I can’t resist: Stephenson is obviously a fan of skeuomorphism. The BABEL (Infopocalypse) hypercard turns into a “realistic, cream-colored, finely textured piece of stationary”.

[1] Episode One Hundred and Twenty Seven: Belong; Snow Crashing (9); Humans
[2] Havok (Software)

2.0 How The Web Works Now

This is a story of how the web works now.

On 26 November, I got an email from “Vodafone Outreach”, a Gmail address (vodafoneoutreach@gmail.com) purporting to come from the MEC Outreach Team at MEC Global, a media agency owned by WPP. The email was as follows:

Hi,

I am contacting you on behalf of my client Vodafone.co.uk. I am trying to remove some links pointing to their website. While I understand that you have linked to them in good faith, I would really appreciate your help in the removal of the link(s) highlighted on the page(s) below to enable them to comply with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This is at the request of the marketing team at Vodafone.co.uk.

danhon.com/ec/v3-archive-feb2001.html

Can I ask that you remove as stated above?

Thanks in advance!

I hope to hear from you soon,

Best wishes,
MEC Outreach Team
vodafoneoutreach@gmail.com

1 Paris Garden, London, SE1 8NU, United Kingdom
http://www.mecglobal.com
A GroupM Company

I get link removal emails like this every so often. I don’t think I’ve ever replied to them. So I ignored this one. The only thing that was different about this one, that I noted at the time, was that it came from an agency that I’d met with before: in my Six to Start days, I’d had meeting with MEC at their Paris Garden office in London. I filed that away.

5 days later, I got another email. It didn’t say much more, but did offer “formal documentation”. This one said:

Hi,

I am just following up my previous email. Have you had a chance to look at the request to remove the links to Vodafone.co.uk from your site? We are carrying out ongoing removal work and would very much appreciate your help on this.

Please get in touch if you need any further assistance or require formal documentation from my client if this is preventing you from removing the link.

Best wishes and speak soon,

MEC Outreach Team
vodafoneoutreach@gmail.com

1 Paris Garden, London, SE1 8NU, United Kingdom
http://www.mecglobal.com
A GroupM Company

This one was also just something I’d normally ignore. So I ignored it.

4 days later, I got another email. This one said:

Hi there,

I hope this email finds you well.  I’ve contacted you twice previously to request the remove of links from your website to Vodafone.co.uk . I know you may have missed our earlier emails or may have been busy and unable to reply.

However I’d be very grateful if you could help me by removing the links. If not, we may need to include your website in a disavow request to Google. I’d like to avoid this as it could affect your website’s standing with Google and result in a reduction in its authority.

Below are the pages on your site which contain links to Vodafone.co.uk:

danhon.com/ec/v3-archive-feb2001.html

Your help on this would be greatly appreciated and I hope to hear from you soon!

Best wishes,

MEC Outreach Team
vodafoneoutreach@gmail.com

Bass Warehouse4 Castle St, Castlefield, Manchester, United Kingdom
http://www.mecglobal.com
A GroupM Company

This one, I paid attention to. See, the thing is, it’s a bit embarrassing. The link I’m being asked about is the February 2001 archive from my blog. 2001 me (who comes across as a thoroughly arrogant, naive and precocious individual) is being quite impressed by the Nokia 8210 candybar phone and is writing about switching from Vodafone, his current but contract-expired network, to Orange, where most of his friends were. This was a time without cross-network minutes, and I think at that time, I switched to Orange Everyday 50. Anyway, being the good web citizen that I was, the words “Orange” and “Vodafone” were linked to their respective homepages.

There was no other link to vodafone.co.uk on that archive page. Could this really be what Vodafone (and their agency) were objecting to? And could they really be implying — threatening me, really – that they would use a Google tool to “disavow”[1] that page, my domain that might result “in a reduction in its authority”?

At this point, I start to get a bit snotty. This isn’t how the web works: you link to thinks! This is, as the Vodafone/MEC Outreach Team said in the first email, a “good faith” link.

But this is where we are now. A commercial web. Pagerank. Linkfarms. And after getting increasingly outraged on Twitter and sending two somewhat politely irate replies (asking first for the particular part of the Google Webmaster Guidelines that MEC, on behalf of Vodafone, were attempting to “comply” with and secondly pointing out that I’d be quite happy to get in touch with Google if the MEC Vodafone Outreach Team were doing anything dodgy), I decided that, well, it might be “fun” to call up the front desk at MEC Global and ask to speak to an account manager working on the Vodafone account.

Like a lot of companies these days, MEC Global have a full name policy on their front desk. This feels like the kind of rule that Russell Davies describes as — and I can’t find the blog post — the kind that was called forth into being because a particular event happened that must Never Happen Again. You know: you see a sign and you think yourself: this sign is only here because someone did that thing before and now we should not do those things anymore. But the person I spoke to on the front desk – whilst pointing out the rule – was pretty helpful and in the end tried to put me in touch with someone, and gave me their name in case I had any trouble. There’s no reason to say who I was put through to, suffice to say that I left a voicemail.

My wife – and friends of mine who’ve heard it whenever they’ve seen me in a work context – make fun of something I have that’s a bit like my Professional Telephone Voice. It only gets turned on when I need to turn it on and when I want something to happen, and is most likely the kind of thing that results in a whole bunch of different factors: like growing up in a middle class family, going to a selective grammar school, going to Oxbridge, reading law and training as a lawyer. It is, bluntly, a Do You Know Who I Am voice, and in writing, it’s the tone of voice that understands the escalating use of the phrase “with respect” and “with due respect” and “with the utmost respect”, and comes about entirely from a whole bunch of intersecting privileges – and something that in parts was certainly learned, if not taught. What I’m saying is: it’s easy for me to call up the front desk of an international media agency and to sound like I know what I want and that someone should give it to me. I understand it’s not easy for everyone and furthermore, that it doesn’t result in, well, results, for everyone.

Anyway. I emailed, left a voicemail and was, as people are these days, Irate On Twitter.

In the meantime, there was a bit of back and forth between myself and my friends on Twitter because one thing that was just *weird* or unexplainable was the fact that all of this correspondence was being done through a Gmail email address, which is an instant signal that something fishy is up, when combined with the inclusion of overly bloated corporatese signatures. Why would a WPP-owned global media agency be sending official emails from Gmail? Was this a phishing attempt? All of the links – such as there were any – checked out, so probably not. Was this email from a sub-sapient artificial intelligence running on EC2, evolved out of a sophisticated online marketing management suite, desperately trying to make contact with the outside world? (Unlikely) Or, as someone pointed out: was this because what MEC Global were doing was dodgy – requesting the removal of valid, good-faith links that were undesirable to the client, threatening the downgrade of the linking site’s pagerank – and they wanted some sense of (ineffective) plausible deniability? Or – even further down the rabbithole – was this an attack by some other sub-sapient online marketing agency to discredit MEC Global or to make their client, Vodafone, look stupendously ham-fisted?

Who knows?! It’s marketing and advertising! Or, you know, the occam’s razor explanation: it *was* from MEC Global and it was just shit software and they didn’t know any better.

And then I got this email, from the Director of Organic Performance at MEC:

Hello Dan

I have been made aware of communication to you regarding link removal. I apologise if there has been any confusion on this and would you be free for a call to talk it through? If so please let me know the best number to call you on.

Thank you

Richard George
MEC
Director Organic Performance

Richard.George@mecglobal.com
Office : +44 161 930 9000
Fax: +44 161 930 9030
4 Bass Warehouse, Castlefield, Manchester M3 4LZ, United Kingdom
http://www.mecglobal.com

Description: Description: Description: MEC logo
A GroupM Company
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You know this is an Official Email because the signature is longer than the actual content of the email.

And I let Richard George have my phone number and we had a short call on the phone.

George was incredibly apologetic, apologising for mainly two things: confusion and distress. He had reviewed the link in question and had admitted that it was easy – and quick – for him to determine that it was a valid link and should not have triggered the removal request. So I asked him exactly what the process was that resulted in the request being issued, given that it was so clear to him that the link didn’t qualify.

It turns out that there’s a bad-link-identifying software-as-a-service that MEC Global (and doubtless other organic and SEO optimisation agencies) use. You can kind of tell this from the headers because the emails originate from EC2, Amazon’s cloud web service.

This software crawls the web and I can only imagine if they’re trying to do their job well, some sort of semantic analysis and web-of-trust algorithms, produces candidate “bad links”. Pretty much the same kind of thing as the various automated DRM takedown systems like Content-ID used on networks like YouTube that – as we know – consistently result in false positives.

Unlike those Content-ID systems, there’s (ostensibly) a human used in MEC Global’s link removal request process. I was told that in all cases, a (junior) employee is required to eyeball the link before sending out the correspondence. So we were going to pin it on a junior employee, then. I asked exactly what the state of their training must be when an employee was not able to identify a good-faith link seeing as this was something the person I was speaking to could do it pretty quickly. I was told that this would be “passed on to the team”, and it was repeated that I could of course imagine a situation where a (junior, inexperienced) employee would be approving such link removal requests.

Which pretty much means: this is a numbers game. There is money to be made employing people to look (or not look, as the case may be) at links proffered up by an identification system, to initiate a manual request for removal process, that if not, can be escalated to the usage of Google’s Disavow Tool.

As an aside: one of my friends got in touch with someone at Google who was pretty adamant that if the Disavow Tool was used on a page with good pagerank – or where presumably it was being used to disavow a link that “shouldn’t” be disavowed, the requestors pagerank would instead be affected. So, you know. Karma.

Too long, didn’t read: I subscribe to the principle of mediocrity. If something’s happening to me, it’s not because I’m a special and unique snowflake. If MEC Global and Vodafone have the time and inclination to run a programme that identifies archived good-faith blog links from February 2001, then imagine what else they’re finding. And imagine how many times they’re using the Disavow Tool.

Well, bullshit.

This is another example of people getting caught in a shitty crossfire thanks to the direction we’ve collectively (intentionally or not) pushed the internet in for the last fifteen years. Where it’s so important, and presumably offers enough return on investment that it’s OK to go after what made the web one of the most important inventions of the last hundred years. The fact that *anyone* can publish to it. The fact that good things on the web can come from anywhere – Vodafone *or* a precocious 21 year old blogger at the beginning of the century. But one where the traditional power asymmetry is attempting to reassert itself. Vodafone – and through them, their agency – are bigger and more resourced than I am.

Congratulations, Vodafone Marketing and MEC Global. You’ve made yourselves look stupid.

[1] https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main

11:04 GMT, Monday December 8 on VS19 on the way back to San Francisco – only 320 miles away, at an air speed of 510 miles an hour, an altitude of 40,000 feet and probably the first time I’ve been in a 747 in a long, long time. I’m headed straight to the Code for America office after the London/GDS field trip: a very full week of work and a weekend of catching up with friends I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

And now, 4:43pm PST, Wednesday December 10, waiting for a flight back to Portland. Waiting to go back home.

Best,

Dan