Log All The Things!

Recently on Hacker News, a new product called Heap was linked and quickly rose to the front page. Heap is an analytics tool that captures everything that happens on your web site. I mean everything: clicks, submissions, even perhaps mouse movements, and it’s all dumped to a database that you can analyze later for marketing etc…

It’s a UI firehose

I’m not knocking the product since they’ve obviously spent a lot of time and energy and I can respect that. I hope they’re successful. But anyone using things like these have to keep one thing in mind…

Data is like a plucked flower; it starts to die and go stale the moment it’s captured. How soon it goes stale depends on the type of data, but you then need to make sure it’s shifted (another firehose) to analytics ASAP. It needs to be looked at for actual usable information and interpreted somehow to monetize, if that’s your intention, or feed further research.

By simply capturing everything, you’re effectively creating a very large feed of data that you may or may not use. You’re facing a similar conundrum as the U.S. intelligence agencies who (we’re told) collect and log virtually every cell transmission and, allegedly, every email passing through computers within and, also allegedly, outside our borders.

Who said or did what, and more importantly, why? Are they really interested? Curious? Can be driven to become interested? Marketed to? Can they get their friends, family and colleagues interested? Can they give me money? These are more important questions to answer first before you go about Logging All The Things. I have a criticism about this further below.

Which brings us to those users who don’t fall under the umbrella of “marketable” for technical reasons.

The problem of backward compatibility

Is it just me or IE8 is just not considered by web startups anymore ? Sorry to deviate a little but every time I try to look at a “Show HN” in IE8 (work computer), it fails for about 85% of the time. I could understand that some startups heavily depend on latest browsers but what about others ? – codegeek

No it’s not your imagination.

The web doesn’t all flock to Firefox or Chrome or Webkit or, the soon to be former independent, Opera. By limiting themselves to a relatively smaller subset of web users, Heap and similar products have effectively decided not to bother with the rest. To be fair to them: they’re probably not wrong.

The vast majority of analytics, web apps, shiny new HTML5 things are all geared toward the tech-savvy crowd who are connected to everything all the time and, for better or for worse, are geared toward the browser as an OS substitute. Those interested in these things in the first place will likely be running a browser capable of those very things, but this now takes away the potential consumption of the web.

The web is a product delivery network

It used to be a means of just communication, then trade, then sharing and now it’s all about content delivery. “Content” as in data is now a product itself so along with your shoes, fishing rods/reels, computers etc… you now have data being sold as well.

To sell data, you must first gather it, and then you bring yourself back full circle to the aforementioned stagnation problem. Captured data is useless if it cannot be applied in a meaningful way and it becomes harder to apply to anything useful if you have too much of it.

As DevOps Borat put so eloquently :

I don’t want to be marketed to

This isn’t really a secret, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here before. When generally I browse for leisure (which I sadly don’t get to do as often these days) and it doesn’t involve me watching YouTube videos or playing a game or some form of interaction, I browse with JavaScript and all plugins disabled in Firefox.

I realise this involves killing advertising on sites I enjoy and I don’t completely feel comfortable doing it, but the alternative is more intrusive and objectionable to me and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

As the old addage goes: If you’re using a service for free, you’re the product.

This holds true of YouTube, Facebook, Google+, Gmail and yes, even WordPress. Advertising and value added features are how these services stay afloat and I can appreciate that. I also hope that they can appreciate the sheer volume of crap constantly targeted at me through the use of cookies, JavaScript and of course my IP (I’m sure) no matter where I go and what I do.

I’m old fasioned

I remember a time when web pages were hastily constructed bits of content consisting of tables, poorly contrasting background images, tags and barely functioning CSS that broke in any browser other than IE5 or Netscape. It looks like we may be returning to these bad old days with newer technology.

Governments and universities controlled most of the internet connectivity — for better or for worse — and the few companies that did let you build a site for free on the newly emerging “web” were Tripod, Geocities, AOL Hompages et al… and they too made sure there was ample advertising (or value added as in the case of AOL).

But you know what?

Aside from the odd virus or two, since those are also ubiquitus (and antivirus was/is Snake Oil), the blistering popup storm that can be managed if you knew how to tweak Netscape or installed the latest popup blocker, It was still managable.

I could actually consume the web without being consumed

I didn’t mind the ads that sold me dates to college students, mostly cause I was still in junior high, but also cause they didn’t know which site I visited before or where I was looking or what I liked to buy (eBay started in 1995 and I thought it was the best idea since sliced bread).

But these days suddenly web sites that have nothing to do with what I was looking at before, know which ads to show me.

I’m visiting a site on chemistry books that’s showing me ads to fishing reels. How did they know I was looking for fishing reels before?

I’m visitng a site on telescopes and they’re showing me ads on test tubes and beakers.

I’m visiting a site on printing and homemade paper and there’s an ad on star tracking scopes and GPS.

What is this madness?

Now as for the folks at Heap who may be getting, an undeserved, flogging from me for contributing to this tracking malarkey, I apologize for coming off as somewhat irascible. It’s not your fault since you’re only contributing to the demand.

What worries me is that there is demand.

5 thoughts on “Log All The Things!

  1. I couldn’t agree more. What a relief to see I am not a total luddite in my response to this stuff, which comes in as constant bombardment since there IS that, er, online business/website/whatnot we have. Much appreciated POV, anyway. Cheers!

    • Thank you! Oh yes, you’d think this barrage would be enough to turn most awake people into luddites (we’ll have fewer of these then) alas, not the case.

      I do still feel guilty about completely turning off the things, but I try to leave ads alone on sites that I know for a fact aren’t using providers that aren’t keen on stalking visitors. Sadly that’s a precious few.

  2. I turn’em all off – I don’t care. If it ever came down to having to pay (or, ideally, for those with less ‘choices’, an option to pay) for usage without ads and marketing, I’d jump on it. [But, of course, until then, I’m quite happy to browse for free with all ads off.]

    • This is why I wish more people would just dump ads altogether and just put a donate button. I feel they’re far more likely to benefit than the measly few cents going to a click and at least that kind of “support” is more direct and genuine than “support us by clicking on our sponsor’s ad”.

      Even if they sell merchandise or something, it’s still a better option than sending people elsewhere. At least this way, when they buy junk it’s actually helping someone.

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