ads’ intents and obsolescence

Having spent the last week or so attending to less demanding electronic devices — the Xbox, the DS and the iPhone chief among them — I’m now hopelessly late with this post. But I still find the intersection of technology and advertising to be very interesting, and hope you’ll bear with me even if the holidays have played havoc with the bloggy news cycle.

As soon as I read myself described as “always-interesting” I had a feeling that Tim might not wholeheartedly agree with my predictions about the fate of the advertising industry. That’s perfectly understandable: I am, at heart, a crackpot — one who’s taken the institution of advertising as a personal affront since he was sixteen or so. I’ve mellowed a bit since then, but it’s fair to say that my perspective on the matter is abnormal. I still feel motivated to explain it, though, so let me take a crack at it.

Before that, there’s Jeff‘s in-comments query to respond to. I think that answering it may provide some useful context:

Could you maybe elaborate on your claim that “It’s easy to forget how quickly advertising has evolved…”, because I just don’t see it. TV ads today are pretty similar to TV ads 50 years ago, and print ads look a lot like they did 100 years ago. The technology has improved, but the fundamentals seem pretty similar. Aside from a few horrible attempts at viral advertising in recent years and college bowl sponsorship, what’s really changed?

I should clarify: the old forms aren’t wholly supplanted by the new. You’re less likely to see a 100-word black and white full-page testimonial for a product in Life magazine than in days past, of course. But in general the old techniques persist in one way or another: the billboard; the artless car commercial; the couple yammering on the radio about something or other. Variants of these have and seem likely to continue to remain with us.

But novelty goes a long way toward making an impression, because it’s interesting and can conceal the mercenary underpinnings of the message. Jeff mentions viral marketing as a relatively recent innovation, and I think it’s a great example. There are plenty of others, though: product placement in sitcoms. Infomercials. Scientific papers paid for with industry grants. Some types of service journalism. Exclusivity agreements between college sports teams and apparel manufacturers. There have, and will continue to be, innovations in the field of product-selling, even if they aren’t always self-evident.

But novelty necessarily comes with an expiration date, so it’s an endless battle. We have continually-evolving defenses that let us tune these distractions out. A decade ago I might not have noticed the subtly-placed Aquafina bottle in the medical examiner’s office in The Spirit; now, trained by decades of carefully turned-toward-the-camera product labels on network sitcoms, I couldn’t help but see it. Although I’m sure that its presence still made some small, brand-reinforcing impression, it’s a minute one compared to the success that this technique must have first enjoyed. And, in this case, it was coupled with a healthy dose of resentment at Aquafina for its commercial intrusion into entertainment I’d already paid for.

I think advertising serves basically two functions, which I will, in a grossly unfair act of framing, refer to as its informative and manipulative aspects. First, there’s the informational side: educating consumers about products and services that they might be interested in purchasing, but about which they might remain ignorant if intervention isn’t pursued. That’s pretty straightforward, I think. Not every worthwhile commercial service is interesting enough to prompt unsubsidized media coverage, so informing interested parties of these services’ availability is a useful function that advertising can provide. A listing for a plumber in the yellow pages fits this description pretty well.

On the other hand, there are the manipulative aspects of advertising. These aren’t necessarily bad — they may compel behavior that’s desirable from one standpoint or another — but they’re essentially cynical attempts to affect consumers’ decisions on the basis of criteria other than the fundamental value of the good or service being purchased and its utility to the consumer (in the absence of the commercial message). Coca-cola’s Santa ads are a decent example: they really have nothing to do with the soda’s quality, and are therefore basically an attempt to distort the market for it by using unrelated appeals.

Most ads reflect both of these aspects to some extent, of course. And I don’t mean to imply that this is the only way to classify advertising. But I think it’s a useful way to approach it, so bear with me for a moment.

This brings us to Tim’s response to my assertion that the advertising industry is likely to shrink:

Digital media allows advertisers to be a lot more specific about the users they want to target and to collect a lot more data about their effectiveness. Tom suggests that this is a bad thing because once companies discover their ads aren’t working well, they’ll stop spending money on them. But the flip side is that advertisers can measure when a particular ad is working, and that ad inventory becomes correspondingly more valuable. Even better, better measurement means that the average ad should improve over time. Ads that don’t work can get dropped more quickly, and the ones that perform well can be put on heavy rotation, emulated by other advertisers, and so forth. That can only be good for ad revenues.

Tom also suggests that advertising is doomed because the Internet makes it a lot easier to avoid it. But peoples’ hatred for advertising isn’t inevitable. It’s a consequence of the limitations of 20th century media technologies that required advertisers to adopt “scattershot” approaches to advertising. There was no way to target car ads at the 5 percent of the population that’s in the market for a car at any given time, so the other 95 percent of us had to sit through endless car commercials. But online there are lots of ways to more narrowly target ads at people who are likely to be interested in them. In the long run, as we’ve said before, advertisers are going to have to realize that content is advertising. If you can make ads relevant, interesting, or entertaining, people aren’t going to try as hard to avoid them. Search engines do this by only showing ads relevant to the particular keyword a user entered. Other advertisers have figured out that if they make their commercials fun to watch, people will be more willing to watch them. Of course, it’s hard to predict whether the total amount of advertising revenue will go up or down over the next decade. But as long as people buy stuff, companies will be willing to spend significant amounts of money to influence their decisions.

I think Tim is seriously overstating advertisers’ enthusiasm for being non-annoying — it’s not as if they’ve only now figured out that people don’t like being intruded upon in irritating ways, and are resolving to turn over a new leaf. My understanding is that the efficacy and reported consumer enjoyment of an ad are inversely correlated. Much better to make an infuriating jingle that will force the consumer to mentally recite the word “Garmin” ad infinitum than to, say, cast Tina Fey in a funny credit card commercial for… uh… Amex? Or was it Mastercard? Anyway the ending with the fire extinguisher was funny.

But I agree with Tim, too: I think that the localization functionality he refers to will indeed continue to evolve, and I’m sure it will be a boon. But it’s hard for me to believe that it will really be the savior of the ad industry. Anecdotally, it seems like online ads already target me pretty well, yet almost never earn my clicks. More generally, the role Tim is describing is entirely within the benevolent, information-providing aspect of advertising that I outlined above. But this is also the most straightforwardly-doomed aspect of the industry. It’s now much easier to get more and better information about products and services than it used to be; from Yelp to Amazon reviews to the simple act of searching Google, the utility of deliberately-placed informational advertisements has been seriously diminished. We should consequently expect that aspect of the industry to shrink. If people want information about a product, they can get it. That pretty much leaves the narrow case wherein the consumer has a material need, yet doesn’t know what they want before being told how to get it. But it seems to me that the industry is pinning a huge amount of hope on this relatively minor class of purchases.

To me, this whole argument sounds eerily similar to the one that maintained that the MP3 revolution would ultimately benefit the recording industry because of all the promotional power provided by giving people free access to music. There’s something to this, but the positive effects will almost certainly not be enough to reverse the contraction of a now-unnecessary industry. In a very broad sense, information has gotten much cheaper, and all information vendors should therefore expect the size of their markets to shrink. That includes advertisers hoping to “educate” the public about the availability of their clients’ products.

That leaves the burden of making money to the manipulative aspect of advertising. And I admit, this is more open to debate. But I really do think that when you and I tell ourselves we can filter out commercial appeals, it’s not entirely self-flattery. Sure, we’re subtly affected by that billboard or radio spot or iPod commercial. But we’re less affected than we were the first time, and far less affected than would be someone who hadn’t grown up in an ad-saturated environment. Sure, ads can still warp our opinions. But we’re being constantly trained to ignore them. And I stand by my basic contention that advertising’s set of novel permutations is limited in a way that will ultimately let the consumer gain ground on the manipulations leveled against her. To return to the last post‘s metaphor, we consumers are like increasingly antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Perhaps the ad industry will develop a miraculous new class of techniques. If not, I think that the importance of that sort of artificial intervention into our natural — and by and large perfectly-adequate — system will continue to decline.

So yeah, I still think that ads will continue to get less effective. The informational function they serve is vastly less relevant in the internet age; the opinion-manipulating function of the industry is a never-ending struggle, but one that, with each passing season, has fewer novel weapons at its disposal. In the face of those facts, how can the industry do anything but contract?

so this was Christmas

Hi there! Christmas obligations have ceased, and we’re on to the “lying around” phase of the holidays (my favorite part). The Christmas celebrations themselves… well, they went pretty well. I got a tent! Also a Nintendo DS, and a ton of candy, and who knows what delights from Emily (we’re still slowly exchanging presents, but I’ve already gotten a copy of Dune from her, which is pretty awesome).

Exchanging presents with my family was awfully pleasant, too, as was the Grays’ Christmas party (now with heated tent!) and having a chance to see old friends. Really, there’s only one constituency that inexplicably dropped the ball in its Christmas celebrations: the Jews.

Well, alright, they didn’t fall so far short. Black Cat Christmas Eve was unacceptably cheerful, but that’s hardly their fault. It was the Christmas movie-watching where the true outrage occurred. Yes, Spencer and Matt joined me to watch The Spirit. But was there subsequent Chinese food to be had? No! They were too full from their preceding visit to a Christmas party to get noodles. For shame, gentlemen. That is not what Jewish Christmas is all about.

Spencer made amends a few days later, though (Matt had left for New York), as we discussed Valkyrie and my flailing bok choy accidentally sent broth spattering all over the restaurant. So I don’t think I’ll have to report anybody to their childhood rabbi just yet.

Actually, it turns out that I’ve seen a ton of movies over this break:

  • The Spirit: Pretty bad, and not in a good way.
  • Valkyrie: Not bad! But (SPOILER ALERT) it turns out the good guys lose in the end.
  • No Country For Old Men: Remains awesome.
  • Gilda: Sommer tells me that this is Rita Hayworth’s most famous role, and I guess it’s the one featured in The Shawshank Redemption. The plot concerns the titular character, who’s kind of cruel sociopath, but less so than the two men who form the other points of the movie’s love triangle, one of whom owns a cane-sword. Everybody is constantly smoking and being mean and answering questions with questions, which conveys an air of sophistication, apparently. And it all happens against the exotic backdrop of an illegal casino in Buenos Aires, possibly, and the intrigue and excitement that necessarily surround an illicit tungsten cartel. Frankly, that was my biggest complain with the movie: there wasn’t nearly enough in it about tungsten. It’s a fascinating element! Anyway, I’m not sure that this was a good movie, exactly, but it was fun to watch, and available to stream from Netflix. Drink every time someone says “Johnny”.
  • Die Hard 2: A perennially-underrated (by me) entry in the Die Hard franchise. It’s actually pretty good! But it’s also now bittersweet, thanks to the failed Fred Thompson candidacy. He’s an even better pretend airport administrator than he is a pretend district attorney! It’s hard to watch it and avoid thinking about what a fine pretend commander in chief he would’ve made.

Only one other disjointed Christmas occurrence to share: the cleaning of my dad’s basement, which comprised his major Christmas gift from his children. A quarter-century of water-damaged crap lay in wait. There were childhood treasures to rescue, dead rats to locate, and huge amounts of toxic dust to inhale. It took some professional help, but we did it. Here’s the truck — it isn’t yet full in this picture, but it was brimming by the time we called it a day.

Gettin' there

Tonight: new year’s! If you’re still looking for a place to celebrate, you ought to come on by.


I think Charles has this just about right:

I am predicting that in a year the New York Times will write one of those irritating “look, things sometimes happen outside of our city” articles about DC theater/art scene. They will attribute the increase in quality to Obama.

Christmas Eve in the drunk tank

It has to be said: Black Cat Christmas Eve has fallen off in a pretty serious way. I just got back from it, and yeah, I had a nice time. My friends were there, and beer was there, and unexpected friendly acquaintances were there, and it was pretty good. But the atmosphere was terrible. This was, I think, the fourth installment of this tradition, but right now I’m worried that we may have to find a new venue for the fifth.

Here’s what Black Cat Christmas Eve is supposed to be. First: the only open bar in town. Second: filled with put-upon Jews and self-pitying Christians. Third: silent, except for paid-for instances of “Fairytale of New York” played via the jukebox. Fourth: characterized by furtive smoking — or, if legislation precludes smoking, plenty of uncomfortable introspective pauses.

STRONGLY CONTRAINDICATED: DJs, crowds, and merriment — yet all were in abundance tonight. Extraneous DJ aside, it was like any other night in the Red Room. This probably sounds like it shouldn’t be a problem — after all, I like the Red Room! But it felt wrong. I enjoy this tradition because of the atmosphere and the carefully-cultivated and variably-meta sense of self-pity that it fosters. Having a bunch of drunk Irish guys making boisterous toasts undercuts that decisively.

But I suppose I can’t really complain. Having a good time while being surrounded by people enjoying themselves is a strange thing to bitch about. It’s just that this is the one night every year that I have set aside specifically for the romanticization of lonesomeness. I feel like that’s not too much to ask.

Of course, it always comes back to that goddamn Pogues song — that’s the whole premise. And if you want an illustration of what the Red Room Christmas Eve is supposed to be versus what it presently is, all you have to do is listen to the original version back-to-back with Stars’ horrible cover:

The Pogues – Fairytale of New York

Stars – Fairytale of New York

A BIT TANGENTIAL: Having just listened to it (after being forced to listen to uptempo non-Pogues songs at the Cat), I feel compelled to point out that by far the most (and arguably only) devastating couplet in “Fairytale of New York” is “I could have been someone / well so could anyone”. The rest is mostly melodrama, to be honest. Still, that’s a hell of a sentiment.

ALSO: Make fun all you want, but Sufjan really brings it when it comes to Christmas music. “What Child Is This Anyway” may be irony-free, but it’s also pretty awesome.

news you can lose

For the last week or so, I’ve had this post of Matt’s flagged in my RSS reader, waiting for a response. In it, he castigates the advertising market for failing to competently embrace the web. Today the conversation continues: Ezra responds to Clay Shirky, and says that, contrary to what Shirky implies, the newspaper’s death became inevitable the instant digital technology was invented. Matt responds, noting, among other things, that newspaper brands will survive (which seems right — if Nuprin can do it, so can the New York Times), and that the papers’ failure to hang on to their classifieds business was a major mistake. I think that brings us up to date (whew!).

I’m with Ezra on this one, and apologize for the amount of overlap that this post will likely have with his own. But I think Matt is seriously understating the crisis facing the advertising industry. Narrowly, there’s the question of Craigslist. It’s a weird one, in that its creators have quite obviously avoided implementing features that would maximize revenue, or even just reported user satisfaction. They could have a slick-looking site, and a huge staff, and a big office in the Mission with polished concrete floors and free snacks in the break room. But they’ve decided not to, and that’s their genius: they realized that classifieds were going to be a race to the bottom, so they decided to get to the bottom first. This is a crucial realization — one that a lot of people involved in similar races just can’t accept.

I don’t think Matt’s right that this could have been stopped, but it probably could have been slowed. Competing on the basis of having fewer features rarely works, and it probably wouldn’t have for Craigslist, either, had the newspapers rolled out competent online options quickly. CL was allowed to build marketshare in an unusual and, in hindsight, inexcusable way. Also, we haven’t collectively reached that proverbial bottom, making CL’s success seem that much stranger. But we’ll get there; if the papers had responded quickly, we just would’ve gotten there at a more languid pace.

But classifieds aren’t the only doomed form of advertising. I think there are reasons to doubt advertising’s viability in a broader sense, too. More of it will inevitably have to be done online as people continue to spend more of their time on the net, but so far that hasn’t been working out very well. For one thing, there are technological ways to avoid online advertising. For another, although various form factors have been tried, the online medium still hasn’t been figured out how to capture viewers’ attention in the way that print and broadcast have — personally, I think the media may simply be innately immune to commoditization, thanks to the aforementioned ability of computers to avoid displaying unwanted information. Third, and probably most troublingly for the industry, online advertisers seem to have made a serious mistake when they offered concrete metrics to their customers. This action was perfectly understandable — the web makes it simple to collect objective data, and it’s easy to see why an advertising client might find the prospect of better stats alluring. The problem is that doing this reveals that advertising just doesn’t work very well.

In retrospect, it should be obvious: to whatever extent the advertising industry is capable of shaping the public’s sense of how to gauge value, naturally they will apply that talent to their own products first. The other advertising media smartly developed captive metrics agencies like Nielsen and Arbitron. But online advertising charlatanism is still in its infancy, and continues to be dominated by primitively objective concepts like “page views”, “click throughs” and “purchases”.

Right now the practitioners of online advertising have not yet succeeded in artificially inflating the perceived value of their product in the way that advertisers working in other media have. Perhaps this will change. I think it might not. It’s easy to forget how quickly advertising has evolved, and how quickly the public has evolved along with it. Although I admit that it’s probably an overly antagonistic framing, I tend to think of the relationship between the public and advertising as being analogous to the one that exists between humans and bacterial pathogens. In both cases the pace of evolution is staggering, but I’m left optimistic that humanity will come out on top.

For one thing, we’re awfully plucky. For another, there are fewer constraints on us. As viewers of advertising, we’re subject to various hindrances that seem to be biologically determined — among others, we’re susceptible to the concept of brands, and we’re keen to see sexy dames, and plenty of em (so to speak). But we’re free to come up with whatever compensatory intellectual constructs we need to help us maintain our senses of iconoclasm and connoisseurship, and our ability to maximize the value we receive for our money. Advertisers face many more restrictions: time, space, cost, reproducibility, risk aversion, various regulations, and, last but by no means least, the simple necessity of crafting messages that are both interesting and at least somewhat coherent from a commercial perspective.

I admit it: I’ve always been an advertising millenarianist. But I still feel a bit bad for them. None of this is to say that advertising will ever go away, but as the pool of novel advertising techniques shrinks and purchasers become more aware of its limited utility, the industry will naturally contract. And that brings us back to newspapers.

Ezra lays it out pretty well; let me do the same with a tedious half-analogy. Once upon a time the cost of distributing information was high. Then technology improved, and if you were able to make a big up-front investment, economies of scale allowed you to drastically lower the cost of getting data out. If you sold information-distribution services at a price in between the old one and your own, newly-discovered cost, you could make a lot of money. Firms flourished, and added premium features to differentiate themselves from their competitors, just like those little sticks of gum that come with baseball cards. The paid information distribution business continued to be lucrative — to get more lucrative, even! — to the point where the quality of the gum could be drastically upgraded. Sometimes even non-gum ingredients were bought up and converted into gum (it just seemed like the most efficient way to distribute them, frankly — look how much gum people were buying!).

But technology kept getting better, and that up-front investment kept getting smaller, and although by now everyone had pretty well fooled themselves into thinking it was the high-quality gum that moved units, that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, a lot of that gum was downright revolting1.

These days distributing information costs very little, and there’s no minimum order. And people still chew gum, but not nearly so much of it. Hopefully the quality of gum available to them is better than it was, but I think the jury’s still out on that one.

ALSO: I hadn’t read Tim’s post before I wrote this, but he makes a number of excellent points. One thing that’s maybe worth adding: when he says “…the only way to avoid this grim fate is to spin off an independent subsidiary that can pursue new markets without worrying about fat profit margins or cannibalization of existing product lines… I’m not aware of any high-profile newspaper firms that attempted this”, I think the Washington Post may be a counterexample — the Post and their online operations are entirely distinct, and separated by a river. Typically they’re castigated for this decision, and to be fair I’m not sure to what extent the decision (which is now being undone) was made with Christensen’s principles in mind versus more immediate concerns (there wasn’t any more space in their downtown building). Either way, I don’t think was sufficiently independent to really embody Christensen’s model (as I understand it based on Tim’s account — I haven’t read the man’s work), but it’s the closest noteworthy example I’m aware of. Doubtless there were other, truly-independent ventures backed by major news organizations, which are now lost to memory thanks to “making money on the internet” being a very tough proposition in general.

1 Bazooka Joe Scarborough (discarded gag for alternate metaphor: Kristol Pepsi)

christmas music!

Prompted by Stanley, it’s suddenly occurred to me that this is the last day that many of you will spend at your desks, staring at your computer screens. That means it’s also the last good opportunity to capture your attention with Christmas MP3s. I haven’t got anything original to offer, but it never hurts to re-share some personal favorites:

The Pogues – Fairytale of New York

Frightened Rabbit – It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop

I suppose I’m willing to admit debate regarding the Frightened Rabbit song — I’m a big fan of it, and typically find myself listening to it for months after the holiday season. I even like the all-choral b-side version, and have gone so far as to buy the new 2008 version from iTunes (which, thanks to some ludicrous overproduction, isn’t nearly good as the version linked here). But it’s a newcomer, and so I’m willing to accept dissenting opinions.

The same can’t be said for “Fairytale of New York”, which is pretty clearly the greatest Christmas pop song of all time. Temporary waivers allowing dissenting opinions may be granted for “So This Is Christmas”, I suppose, but only if you’re feeling too depressed and dissolute to listen to the Pogues — which, unless you’re presently stumbling through the trash-strewn streets, cold, alone and wearing a Santa beard caked with sick, you’re probably not.

Also, hey, here’s last year’s equivalent post, which includes that Christmas Dismemberment Plan song.

iron pour!

Hey! I went there!

iron pour!

Kriston was nice enough to invite me along to the UMD iron pour. If you get a chance to attend a similar gathering, I strongly recommend that you do. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t exactly linger. But the sulfurous stink of burning coal, the sight of underqualified undergrads poking at the fiery slag hole, and the general atmosphere of nervous excitement all combined to satisfyingly deadly effect.

treating stupidity with the seriousness it deserves

The Onion AV Club on The Wrestler:

WWE devotees now have their own Passion Of The Christ

To which I say: it’s about time. Hell, make it in Aramaic for all I care. I’ll just be glad to see the industry exposed to a larger audience.

My throwaway holiday entertainment will be The Spirit, but there is no movie that I’m more excited about than Darren Aronofsky’s take on those who live their lives in and around the squared circle. The combination of idiotic childhood nostalgia and its underpinning layers of genuine, lately-discovered pathos is incredibly heady. Go ahead, look me in the eye and try to tell me that you wouldn’t want to read a novel about Optimus Prime’s painful divorce.

At any rate, here’s some related media to tide you over:

Metro and Google

Let’s talk about Metro’s recent decision to eschew Google Transit. This is a topic about which I have a small amount of inside knowledge, actually. At the end of August I wrote to WMATA’s CTO, Suzanne Peck. I talked about some of the projects I’d done with WMATA data and expressed my affection for the agency. I explained that I was frustrated by the limits of the data available on, and I requested a meeting. I received a response almost immediately (even though it was 11pm or so — a good sign in a CTO!). She thanked me for my interest, complimented me on my projects and directed me to Victor Grimes, her deputy, whom she instructed to meet with me.

I met with Mr. Grimes a week or two later. He was cordial but not too interested in what I had to say about opening up WMATA’s data: according to him, the situation was well in hand. WMATA was already on its way to integrating with Google Transit. There were just a few lingering problems.

To discuss those properly, we first need to talk briefly about Google Transit. The heart of Google’s system is their GTFS format — this stands for Google Transit Feed Specification, and it’s quickly become an industry standard. It’s not too complicated: basically a GTFS feed consists of a bunch of comma-delimited files with names like “routes.txt” and “stops.txt”, which all get zipped up into one file and placed on the transit agency’s website. You could open these up in Excel if you wanted. Google sucks this data down once a week or so, processes it and displays it within their own systems — but a transit agency doesn’t have to worry about all that. They just need to make sure they get their GTFS file right, and that Google knows where to find it. Many other systems have adopted GTFS, and a lot of them make the data available to the public, not just to Google.

The frequency with which Google picks up the GTFS data was an issue, according to Mr. Grimes. Google wanted to do it about once a week; that wouldn’t cut it for Metro, he said. WMATA updates its data daily with bus detours, route changes and the like. It sounded like this had been worked out, though, and Google would simply arrange to pull the data every day.

The second objection involved the display of fare information. Google Transit couldn’t manage this, apparently. The format does make allowances for transferring fare information, but for whatever reason it wasn’t up to the task of handling WMATA fares. That was fine, though; users could just be directed to the RideGuide website if they wanted to know fare information.

The final hurdle was bureaucratic. The various jurisdictions that make up Metro had to sign off on the release of the (already public) data. Last I heard, Maryland was the holdup. But Mr. Grimes thought this would be resolved soon. The GTFS dataset and Google Transit functionality would be released around September 23, he said.

Well, that didn’t happen. I gave it a week, then wrote to ask what had happened. Here’s the last I’ve heard, received on October 10:

Anyway, the Google/WMATA transit integration project has come to a stand still for reasons I can’t explain, but I expect things to get back on track in the near future. We are having a meeting to discuss our participation in the Google transit initiative next week and I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Presumably that meeting didn’t go very well. We Love DC spots WMATA’s explanation — it comes in the form of a FAQ page put online yesterday, seemingly in effort to control the fallout surrounding their decision to ditch Google. Here’s the meat of it:

  1. Google could not guarantee accurate and up-to-date Metro trip information and could not provide Metro fare information. Metro’s own Web site provides near real-time travel and fare information to viewers.
  2. Many transit providers in the region are not part of Google Transit so Google’s Web site viewers could not get a complete and accurate picture of their transit travel options in the Washington Metropolitan area when they use Google Transit. Metro has partnered with all the local transit providers in the Washington region to provide up-to-date and accurate information for Metro’s Trip Planner. The Trip Planner factors in other area bus and rail providers, such as Fairfax Connector, DASH, ART and Ride On, and their schedules and fare information when giving customers travel options.
  3. Metro and Google have not yet come to acceptable terms regarding licensing agreements, which put Metro at a greater legal liability. Google is a for-profit company while Metro is a taxpayer subsidized public agency. Google wanted Metro’s transit data at no cost and wanted the transit agency to open itself up to greater legal liability. Given financial constraints, Metro officials are exploring whether there is a way for the transit agency to generate revenue in such a partnership.

I think we can safely dismiss the second point — hearing about the ART bus might be nice, but it’s hardly a sufficient reason for scrapping this project. Based on my conversation with Mr. Grimes, I also think point one is probably a red herring. Those limitations were known in August, and they weren’t considered show-stoppers then. I suppose Google may have ultimately decided that they couldn’t support a daily GTFS update, but this seems very unlikely to me — the Metro system is big, this technical problem is small, and enough people would find this integration useful that I’m sure they’d find a way to support it. I suppose point one could also be interpreted to mean that WMATA was insisting on some sort of service level/data accuracy guarantee that Google couldn’t or wouldn’t provide, but insisting on such a point seems a bit unreasonable.

So that leaves us with point three, which basically boils down to: Google needs to cough up some dough. I’m actually a bit more sympathetic to this idea than you might expect. “Google Transit Feed Specification” sure sounds like a proprietary format. It’s easy to imagine a bureaucrat with sign-off powers seeing that and saying, “Wait a minute. We’re doing all this work for a private enterprise and they’re not even paying us for it?” Google is an awfully helpful company, but presumably it’s offering transit information because it makes them money (or at least supports their brand). WMATA’s in perpetual need of cash; there’s no reason it should be giving Google freebies.

But this misses the larger point. GTFS may be unfortunately eponymous, but it’s an open format. Exposing schedule data in useful ways should be part of WMATA’s mandate — the current system of bulky PDFs used for bus schedules is downright inexcusable. I don’t particularly care whether WMATA lets private firms like Google use its data for commercial ends, but it should certainly grant noncommercial rights to the public.

THIS JUST IN: More from Mr. Grimes:

Yes, there is still an issue between WMATA and Google regarding the licensing agreement. However, we are in continuing discussions with Google and looking at other options for making the data available in GTFS format not only to Google but to others who have requested the information. You are correct in that much consideration has been given to this effort and it is not over. I will let you know as soon as a decision has been made regarding the direction WMATA will take to provide the transit data in GTFS format.

Also, via DCist the Examiner confirms that this is really about money. Well, good. WMATA should put the GTFS dataset online under a Creative Commons noncommercial license, and Google should cough up the $68k of online ad revenue that WMATA’s afraid of losing. Lord knows they’ve got the money.

FURTHER: One of Ezra’s commenters points out that Google Transit isn’t actually all that great. I’m not that familiar with it, but I’m not too surprised — it’s a hard problem. But even if Google can’t do it, someone else can.

Also: it’s worth mentioning that the real payoff here is for buses. Figuring out how to ride the train is dead simple; the bus, not so much. Right now it’s easy for people to read the PDF bus schedules, but hard for them to figure out what the schedule means (or which schedule is the correct one); these difficulties are reversed for computers. If WMATA releases the GTFS dataset, riding the bus could become much easier for a lot of people.


For those interested, here’s the announcement site for the project I’m working on. There’s not much there yet besides a description of the project, and sadly I can’t take credit for the site as it currently exists — my coworkers Jeremy and Kerry deserve the credit for that slick JQuery slider thingy — but it does explain what we’re trying to do. The whole project officially launched yesterday.