Writing website copy is all about planning and purpose

coffee for closers

Beyond the challenge of actually building a website (it’s really easy these days), the biggest hangup I see by far is writing the content. And I get it — writing is hard. But unlike the magic that goes into web design or development, writing is something you’ve been doing since grade school. Nearly everyone can write. You can write.

I don’t want this to be a writing lesson though. Instead, what most people need is a better way to think about how people consume content on the web. And I’ll get to the point — most people start here:

  • What do I need to say to get people to like me?

When they should start here:

  • What, exactly, are people supposed to do here?

To clarify what that means, let’s pretend you’re a financial planner looking to start a website. Instead of diving in with the equivalent of a LinkedIn profile (I see this all too often), what you should be doing is creating a pathway for people to go from random visitor to customer.

Step one, before you put a single word on a page, is to identify the action you want people to take. Is your goal to have people call you? Email you? Register for something? Sign up for a newsletter?

Once you’ve identified that desired action, step two is to think of yourself as a customer. What sorts of information would you need to get you to perform that action in a single page? A long bio and some boring supporting content wouldn’t sell you, would it? There are a million financial planners out there, all generally offering the same thing — what you need is for your specific problem to be identified and solved. Or even better, what you need is for a problem to be identified for you, with a solution in plain view.

  • Headline: Saving for retirement is great, but that IRA isn’t going to buy you a beach house.
  • Subhead: I believe in retirements with a view.
  • Button: Call me.

See, any financial planner will help you plan for retirement, but a statement like that makes something mostly-automated like an IRA seem inadequate… because who doesn’t want to retire with a beach house? We’ve all see the beachfront property show on HGTV. We know it’s not out of reach — we just need some help. And that’s where you come in. Using X, Y, Z, you can get anyone a beach house. But you have to start saving now. Like, today. Call me.

Get it?

If you want something tangible to look at, I think Wealthfront nails it. Here’s their homepage:

  • Headline: Live the life you want. We’ve got your back.
  • Copy: Imagine being confident about the financial decisions you make. Sounds crazy, we know.

Then they have a brilliantly laid out section further down (the entire page is made of easily digestible content — no long paragraphs or endless lists):

  • Headline: Our investment strategies may be sophisticated, but our philosophy is simple.
  • Bucket 1: reduce risk - We’ll build you a diversified portfolio that aims to maximize returns without taking you out of your risk comfort zone. And our software automatically maintains the right level of diversification for you.
  • Bucket 2: reduce taxes - We built tax intelligence into our software to help lower the taxes you pay, so you’ll have more money to invest.
  • Bucker 3: reduce fees - We don’t let higher fees eat away at your long-term returns. Our fees are simple and low, and our goal is to keep offering more value without raising costs.

But what’s best about Wealthfront’s website is that nearly every page ends with a call to action (CTA). And they do it so effortlessly:

  • Headline: It all sounds very sophisticated, because it is. But for you, it’s effortless.
  • Subhead: Wealthfront is complexity, simplified.
  • Button: Put us to work

Their secret sauce — aside from having a good content team — is that they know exactly what they want people to do.

So if step two in this content writing process was to quickly define the reason for your existence, step three is to reinforce it. If you help people save for college, what makes you unique? Why should they put their trust in you? Buying a house? What makes you so special? Obviously, your primary focus should live on your homepage, but don’t be afraid to create individual pages to reinforce more specific funnels. And always remember that each of these pages should be able to stand on its own. That means each page needs to:

  1. Be concise - Get to the point, and be compelling.
  2. Deliver the goods - If someone gets to the bottom of the page without a clear view of what makes you special, they’re probably not going to convert.
  3. Have a CTA - Convert, convert, convert. If someone gets to the bottom of a page and doesn’t know what the next step is, you’ve failed. (And by next step, I mean the next step in the sales funnel — coffee is for closers.)

Assuming you’ve clearly carved out your place in the world, all you have to do now is fill in the gaps. Do you feel like some potential clients will need content on your methodology? Make a page for that, but understand that most people aren’t going to dig that deep. If you have a secondary site navigation, put it there. Same with a blog or a newsletter — if your brand would benefit from “thought leadership” and you’re committed to maintaining a regular stream of content, go for it.

The most important thing is to nail the basics though. Don’t forget the basics:

  1. Identify the action you want customers to take.
  2. Quickly define the reason for your existence, then ask people to perform that action.
  3. Reinforce your offering. If people don’t know you offer a service or do something unique, it’s like a tree falling in a forest. No one will hear about it.

Jack White as a brand

jack white

Kevin last week sent me this message, “Jack White was so good on SNL.” Since my bedtime has moved to ~8pm since children entered my life (no joke), I hadn’t seen it yet, so I pulled it up on my big TV and took a seat.

Meh. I wrote back, “Is it bad that I just think he should do guitar solos for a living? Like, just guitar solos. That over and over song was a snoozer, except for his little guitar flurries.”

He responded, “It’s more his presence. I think he’s generally transcended “musicians/guitarists of the 2000s” to something more.”

So this is an interesting thought experiment. Jack White, in the White Stripes era, was a rocketship. He was driven, focused, and making music that was pretty innovative for the time. And he banged out hit after hit for a decade.

But then the focus shifted as he transcended the sound he spent his life perfecting. He wondered to other things like his record label, philanthropy, and other sounds (and that’s ok) — it’s just the nature of success. You fight, you fight, and you fight, but then you move from necessity to wonder. Your attention goes from laser focus to dabbling in the bigger picture.

Like, what does Jay-Z have to rap about anymore? Being rich? Rap just isn’t his laser focus — his fingers are in everything. Rivers Cuomo is so burned out he’s literally assembling songs from spreadsheets. In 2000, when Bill Gates stepped down as CEO, he was wise enough to know that Microsoft needed laser focus at the top, and he just didn’t have it anymore. George Lucas very clearly a talented director and writer, but then became more interested in movie tech. Then he lost a bazillion dollars in a divorce and yakked out some questionable films for near-guaranteed money.

If compared to a brand, Jack White almost seems like Valve. A pioneer. A smashing success. But then, you know, the art kind of gave way to the business and the classic games stopped arriving. It’s fine, but it’s different. They’re probably making more money now than ever, but I’ll always remember running around Black Mesa as Dr. Gordon Freeman.

Fortunately, brands have the gift of merging multiple minds together. Once a single person loses their laser focus, it’s hard to shift that same creative focus to something new (not many people pull off a new sound successfully). But a brand is made of many people, and as long as focus flows from the top down (and the focus is on the right thing), greatness can always be on the horizon. Instead of the focus fizzling in any particular area, the baton can just get passed.

I see this sort of thing in all walks of life. Restaurants lose their quality focus all the time and flounder under the direction of burned-out chefs. Yahoo! forgot to focus on anything and went from a search giant to a legacy brand people don’t want to own. Once upon a time Loren Brichter’s (amazing) Tweetie was bought by Twitter, then was left to rot because it wasn’t a priority.

Focus. The best things come from laser focus. As an individual, you’re only holding yourself back if you try to force it on something you don’t love anymore — and if you know you don’t have it doing what you’re doing, find it elsewhere. Instead of going through the motions with the White Stripes, go find a new sound that speaks to you. Embrace your inner Bob Dylan or Robert Plant, head to Nashville, and get weird… you know, if that’s what speaks to you.

The Blogroll: Week 7

If you’re asking “what the heck am I looking at?”, here’s a primer. Also, if you know of an article or blog I should be reading, let me know.


Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus - Who Am I Buying This For?

We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.

What a cycle.

We showcase our favorite brands in a futile effort to signify our individuality: See this shiny new thing? This is who I am! Our logos make us feel unique, just like everybody else.

The brands themselves aren’t the problem, though: we all need some stuff, so we rely on brands to create the things we need. The problem arises when we feel external pressure to acquire, as if new trinkets are a shortcut to a more complete life.

I had a conversation with my dad yesterday about Spotify. It went like this: “Why don’t you get Spotify?” “I already own all the songs I like.” “But there are millions you’ve never heard!” “If I like one, I’ll buy it. I think Apple charges 99¢.”

He clearly isn’t worried about external pressure — his party playlist will have Styx’ “Come Sail Away” forever and ever. Amen.


Marcelo Rinesi - Cyber-weapons as a form of magic, and why we can’t code our way to a safer internet

A “cyber-weapon” isn’t a thing, but a skill. It’s not an object you can blow up with a missile or send a UN team to inspect, but the technical knowledge of how to identify and exploit a set of systems, written clearly enough that a computer can do it. It’s a recipe that can make millions of copies of itself even as it bakes the cake it describes, and even if all copies were to be deleted, all it would take to recreate it is a single person with the technical knowledge writing it down again.

It’s a poem that, written down, unread by human eyes, causes havoc in the real world. You might as well apply the concepts of “deterrence” and “arms control” to a rumor. By calling them “weapons,” politicians and the military, while reflecting the uses for them they desire and fear, misunderstand their nature. People who, in other contexts and issues, claim it impossible to control the production and distribution of something as solid as an AR-15, attempt to ensure the security of their computational infrastructure by controlling the production and distribution of pure knowledge, in an era where the circuits inside a car’s door could drown out the output of any printing press.

Sometimes non-developers joke that developers seem like magicians. I guess if you can bend machines to your will with nothing but bleep-bloops, you kind of are a magician (does that make me a word magician?).


Cate Huston - How Do Teams Define Success?

I wonder if part of this is the challenge of generalising when teams are made different not just by the people in them, but in the circumstances they operate in, and the harder things get the more personal things become. When we distill to a blogpost, by necessity we leave much of the complexity out of it. So it’s a lot safer to write about how to bring in Kanban, than is it to talk about how to manage up. It’s much easier to talk about how to hire than how to fire – and hopefully we do more of the former, anyway. It’s more enticing to talk about the CI stack than the slow grind and many failures towards achieving product market fit.

But ultimately I think any experienced manager will tell you the harder topics make the biggest difference to the a team that executes on meaningful work, than a disconnected non-team that does not execute at all.

Buzzword management is so easy (the author asks Twitter, “what does a successful dev/product team look like?” and gets a ton of buzzword-y results), but it rarely tackles actual problems.

The answer that’s floating around in my head is that creating a successful team requires a clear “we do this here” culture where everyone falls in line, from top to bottom (with an emphasis on the fact that culture generally comes from the top). Teams fail when the response to “we do this here” is “do we really?”

In short, identify the behaviors you seek, then reinforce them by hiring and retaining people who share your vision. Also, don’t be a jerk. Teams fail when people are jerks.


Catherynne Valente - Five Things I Learned Writing Space Opera

Of course, when you make any attempt to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams is always in the room. He did it best, and you can’t do better. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can actually get to work. It was even worse for me, since I knew I couldn’t have my protagonists be American (it’s not called Americavision) and the only participating country I’ve lived in, and thus, felt comfortable enough to write about, is the United Kingdom. I knew there would be comparisons, and it’s a bit terrifying, because, as I said, you can’t come close to Hitchhiker’s, it’s a mathematical law, like Xeno’s Paradox.

Ultimately, I had to give myself permission to sound a little bit Adams-y from time to time, that it couldn’t be helped, and know that in the end we are very different writers, with very different concerns, and a perhaps bit of arch deadpan humor on a spaceship could be forgiven in service of rocking out as hard as possible. One of my favorite things to do is dwell in the comedy until the reader feels comfortable, and then go straight for the feelings. It’s that oh-so-American hard turn into gut-rending emotion that I feel I can bring to the genre. And you know, it’s fairly freeing to know that you just can’t reach the same heights as the master—you’re bound to mess it up in comparison, but if I can pull a bronze in the event, that’s enough for me.

We all have someone we try to emulate, but most of us fail to reach their great heights. If you can’t let those ghosts go, you’ll never be able to accomplish anything.


Kyle Chayka - Style Is an Algorithm

The threat of banality (or the lack of surprise) implicit in full machine curation reminds me of the seemingly random vocabulary meant to improve SEO on Craigslist posts. As one chair listing I encountered put it: “Goes with herman miller eames vintage mid century modern knoll Saarinen dwr design within reach danish denmark abc carpet and home arm chair desk dining slipper bedroom living room office.”

Imagine the optimized average of all of these ideas. The linguistic melange forms a taste vernacular built not on an individual brand identity or a human curator but a freeform mass of associations meant to draw the viewer in by any means necessary. If you like this, you’ll probably like that. Or, as a T-shirt I bought in Cambodia a decade ago reads, “Same same but different.” The slogan pops into my mind constantly as I scroll past so many content modules, each unique and yet unoriginal.

This article is really good. Just read it.


Jack Wellborn - The Menu Bar

The menu bar isn’t perfect. It’s not a solution for touch and even the Mac’s global menu bar can quickly become overwhelming in very sophisticated and poorly designed applications, but for now I would happily stay in a world with familiar menu bars than one without… at least until something better comes along.

I think about complex interfaces a lot — particularly responsive/small-screen interfaces — and usually come to the same conclusion: the internet is hurt, more than helped, by its lack of standards. I know, I know, the internet is all about freedom, but imagine how nice it’d be if every site had a /help page that corresponded with a Help button in a menu bar that acted like the Help button in native Mac apps. The Help button is always there. Expected. Apps can do things within that framework, but the basics are there. Always.


The actual blogroll

(Blogs are ranked in order of appearances in these Blogroll posts. Also, I’m only listing blogs that don’t act as newspapers, because those are the ones I feel need the most support.)

Be useful; not important


I’m just getting back from a long weekend and I’m experiencing that thing where you sit in front of your computer clicking on things, hoping for inspiration to strike. It’s mostly not working, but I did get this tidbit stuck in my head from a Huckberry newsletter — “Be useful; not important.”

Maybe my caffeine intake just isn’t where it needs to be yet, but I sat on this for roughly 15 silent minutes. Per The Free Dictionary:

  • Important: Strongly affecting the course of events or the nature of things; significant
  • Useful: Having a beneficial use; serviceable

The way life works, the more useful you are, the more important you become. But being important isn’t inherently bad, as the saying implies; it’s just that being important requires you to carry an additional skill to remain useful — leadership.

Leadership doesn’t take a direct path though. Here are two competing definitions of the word ‘lead’:

  • lead (a): To direct the performance or activities of
  • lead (b): To inspire the conduct of

Definition ‘a’ basically shows importance without necessarily being useful. A parent can direct a child to brush his teeth, but I’ve learned from experience that directions — even simple ones — don’t always get followed. Definition ‘b’ begins with ‘inspire’ for very good reason. As a parent, if your child sees you brushing your teeth, they’ll want to brush their teeth as well. Maybe not right away (incentives help), but eventually teeth brushing becomes more than an expectation. It becomes a culture.

It’s not, “I have to brush my teeth or dad will be mad.” It’s, “we brush our teeth here.”

“Be useful; not important.”

The best leaders aren’t simply oracles — they lead through actions. They’re important and useful. Strike that. They’re useful and important. They show the way not by pointing, but by marching at the front of the line.

Words to live by, I think.

On a side note, a guy I follow on Twitter writes these kinds of posts (only shorter, smarter, and with less meandering) all the time. Even if you don’t care for his content or style, his persistence is inspiring. Sometimes I get lost digging through his massive trove of meaning-of-life content.

The Blogroll: Week 6

If you’re asking “what the heck am I looking at?”, here’s a primer. Also, if you know of an article or blog I should be reading, let me know.


Toby Shorin - After Authenticity

Has it occurred to you that nobody talks about sellouts anymore?

Recently on my commute I passed someone wearing an Obey shirt. I was reminded of friends and internet commenters on forums I once frequented who used to gripe about Shepard Fairey leveraging his success as a street artist to create the skate clothing line. Their complaints always came down to “authenticity,” something Fairey ostensibly surrendered when he turned his classic Andre the Giant image into a saleable commodity.

But I haven’t heard about anyone selling out in a long while. Sometime between 2008 and 2018, capitalizing on your success as an artist to build a skate brand went from being reprehensible to being the thing that everyone is doing.

Whew, so this is a long read for sure, but I think it’s worth reading. As someone who “came of age” in the recession era, a lot of it hits home.

This paragraph was particularly good:

Venkat once told me that writing anything over 3000 words forces you to contend with your personal demons. I can confirm this to be true. This event kicked off a long period of reflection and embattlement with the fact that my own ethics—even my own sense of self—were based on authenticity. At the time, I was trying to change my unhealthy relationship to work. For years my anxieties around work had centered on far-flung future goals—a sort of personal teleology about what I was supposed to achieve and the type of person I was supposed to become. It struck me then that there is a deep entitlement to the idea of an authentic self.


Rob Horning - Mass Authentic

In managing our ambivalence with authenticity, we commit ourselves to the process of endlessly managing our personal brand, valorizing authentic goods, performing emotional labor, circulating tokens of “realness,” building out quasi-professional networks, generating new circuits of value. Self-realization becomes alienated at its core, as personal creativity becomes indistinguishable from an ongoing job interview. This is why Frédéric Lordon suggests that the artist — “the very emblem of free will and the unreserved commitment of the self” — has become the “avatar” of the ideal employee in neoliberal society.

Neoliberalism’s fusion with authenticity has found its full flowering in social media, where enormous quantities of labor are volunteered and harnessed, and self-presentation is foregrounded as entrepreneurial human capital development. Social media, which specialize in collapsing the generic and the particular, friends and strangers, is at once a perfect space for organizing an intimate public around authenticity and for organizing labor around an ongoing project of self-branding. We manage our ambivalence one social media post at a time, and let the decontextualized response they receive from no one in particular, serve the managerial role of impelling or redirecting our efforts.

I’m clearly trying to crush my sense of self this morning. Slightly unrelated, I had a conversation with one of my friends from high school the other day about cities. We don’t talk a whole lot, but we’re a product of the same culture — he said, “We gotta go see the country really considering a move at the end of the year. I’m tired of cities.” My response was, “Oh wow, so I said the same exact thing to Emily a few days ago. I keep telling her I want to move to Missoula, Montana.”

I’m not saying some sort of mass cultural shift is underway, but I can feel this cultural urge to get away from consumption as a requirement. I think the thinking is that you’re more likely to find your authentic self if you can remove yourself from the monoculture. But what’s going to end up happening is that a bunch of us ex-hipsters (still hipsters?) will just drive up housing prices in Missoula, then get upset when our monoculture dominates the existing culture with plywood coffee shops and back-to-basics barbers.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this. My only advice — if you’re in my headspace — is to find friends and go on adventures.


Laura Swinton - How to Mine Bitcoin While Brushing Your Teeth

A toothbrush that mines bitcoin while you brush… if the Bitbrush sounds like an agency prank, then that’s because that’s what it is. Or was. The whimsical piece of oral hygiene tech from Deutsch LA started out life as a bit of a lark for April Fool’s Day, until the agency’s tech and production got involved and figured that they could turn a joke into a working prototype.

Toothbrushing and cryptocurrency may seem like a fairly random combination – but not so for Mike Frank, SVP, Creative Director, who drew from his childhood to come up with the idea.

“We were kicking around the idea of mining for cryptocurrency because it’s a thing right now, and a lot of people are talking about it and trying to get into it. So we were like, ‘what’s the most ridiculous way someone could mine for bitcoin?’. My mother’s actually a dentist and a professor of dentistry and so when we were growing up she was always trying to motivate us to brush our teeth,” explains Mike.

At first, I rolled my eyes, but then I thought about that scene in the Matrix where it was revealed that humans were just batteries for robots that actually run the world. It’s an awful vision of the future, but if you modify it just slightly, maybe we could create a world where our basic financial needs are fulfilled by tasks that save society money in the long run. Like, if exercising is linked to lower lifetime medical bills, and lower medical bills are linked to lower government expenditures, maybe use some of that physical energy to wind up some kind of crypto dongle so “the man” could pay you for your effort?

I’m all about passive income these days.


Franklin Foer - The Era of Fake Video Begins

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that reality is one of the few words that means nothing without quotation marks. He was sardonically making a basic point about relative perceptions: When you and I look at the same object, how do you really know that we see the same thing? Still, institutions (media, government, academia) have helped people coalesce around a consensus—rooted in a faith in reason and empiricism—about how to describe the world, albeit a fragile consensus that has been unraveling in recent years. Social media have helped bring on a new era, enabling individuated encounters with the news that confirm biases and sieve out contravening facts. The current president has further hastened the arrival of a world beyond truth, providing the imprimatur of the highest office to falsehood and conspiracy.

But soon this may seem an age of innocence. We’ll shortly live in a world where our eyes routinely deceive us. Put differently, we’re not so far from the collapse of reality.

I’m having an authenticity crisis over here, and the internet is basically creating a world where not even video can be trusted. May you live in interesting times.


Om Malik - BestMade? Not Quite

I won’t be passing down that vest to future generations, and I perhaps feel guilty if even giving it to charity, lest I get cursed by its prospective owner. In case you were wondering about those $23-a-pair Japanese merino socks? Well, three washes later, they are in no better shape than woolen socks you buy from Uniqlo. I know, whose products I won’t be buying in the future.

Articulating my disappointment is difficult. Most people don’t quite understand that a brand and design are experiential and it goes beyond just a beautiful product, a great website, and a fancy name. You have to back up words and pretty pictures with real quality. As we start to see this Instagram-influenced direct-to-consumer ecosystem, it is essential for a buyer to be able to trust the brand.

Speaking of authenticity, BestMade Co. oozes authenticity. I get a BestMade catalog once a quarter or so (I’m clearly on a hipster advertising list), and it’s a beautifully designed spectacle showing people being “authentic” in gorgeous locations all over the world. You know, cutting logs for campfires in southern Argentina with $400 BestMade axes — you get the idea. It’s authenticity capitalism in its most obvious form.

On one hand, I feel like society should reject it and move to a Wirecutter mentality where you just get the thing that performs best, rather than the thing that’s prettiest. But what I really want is a middle ground — sure, I want a computer that has all the specs, but I don’t want to look like a doofus pulling an Alienware laptop out of my bag. Aesthetics matter. Aesthetics ease our minds — it’s why corner offices with windows are more appealing than basement cubes.

What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t take this article and reject vanity altogether — but there’s a lesson to be learned. Your brand needs balance. A good cover needs a good book, and a good book needs a good cover.


Charlie Owen - Dear Developer, The Web Isn’t About You

Because, sweetpea, you simply don’t know a users situation.

Oh, you can guess at it. You can assume that they’re always sitting at their desk, or always on wifi, or have time to concentrate on your task.

But knowing what their situation is? Uh uh, sorry, you don’t know that.

They could be on a borrowed device. They could be using a work computer that they have no control over. They could have suffered a temporary or permanent disability. You simply don’t know!

Look at it this way: you don’t just build cars that only work in the best conditions, do you? Imagine a car that only worked on a sunny day, on a flat road! Oh, how silly that would be. No, you build it so that it works in horrible weather, so that it works when driven over grass or a gravel dirt road. In the same way you don’t just build sites that only work in the best conditions.

You’re a web developer. Your job is to make a site work for everyone, in all conditions.


Matt Serlin - GDPR and WHOIS - Winners and Losers

In the winners category:

Privacy Advocates – GDPR is a huge win for privacy advocates. For years, these folks have stood up at ICANN meetings and eloquently spoken about the WHOIS system flying in the face of one’s right to basic privacy online. They have argued the simple act of registering a domain name should not come with the requirement to publish one’s personal contact information in a publicly-available WHOIS database. With GDPR, it becomes clear that registration of a domain name will no longer require publication of personal data in a free and open database.

In the losers category:

Brand Owners – Without a doubt, enforcement of brands and trademarks online is going to get more complex as a result of changes to WHOIS. Brand holders have relied upon open access to WHOIS for years, as a first step to enforcement on infringing domain names. This once-taken-for-granted utility will become much less speedy and create inefficiencies that simply haven’t existed previously. While there is a proposal for gated-access to WHOIS information for IP enforcement uses, it clearly will not be in place on May 25th and may take months, if not longer. Clearly, brand owners are in for some challenging times ahead.

Not taking sides, but this is an interesting look at how tricky regulating something is. There will always be winners and losers — you just have to do your best to make the positives outweigh the negatives.

I think that’s why I struggled so much watching the Senate hearings for Mark Zuckerberg. I’m definitely in the regulation camp, but I worry that our representatives don’t know enough about what’s going on to not do more harm than good.

The actual blogroll

(Blogs are ranked in order of appearances in these Blogroll posts. Also, I’m only listing blogs that don’t act as newspapers, because those are the ones I feel need the most support.)

Musings about data privacy


My dad, sometime around 1999/2000: “I don’t know how I feel about buying things with my credit card online. Seems like a good way to get your card stolen.”

Me, then: “Nah. E-commerce is the future. It’s in their best interest to keep your data safe.”

Me, yesterday, referring to the Zuckerberg Congressional hearings: “IT’S NOT A DATA BREACH. IT’S A BUSINESS MODEL.”

So the world changed a little. We all buy things online now, and it’s still true that it’s in a company’s best interest to keep your data safe, but what I’m finding is that a lot of companies don’t think it’s that critical. In fact, we’ve created an ecosystem that funds giant multinational companies by creating new and exciting ways to sell “high-performance” ads based purely on personal data. The more clicks the better. It’s their business model.

To make this clear, because not everyone seems to get it, Facebook, Google, and every other company offering you a “free” service, use your data to create targeted ads that you’re more likely to click. There’s nothing nefarious going on (probably) — Facebook just wants to sell ads, and they know from pictures of your giant Nike shoe collection that you’re more likely to click on ads featuring Nike shoes.

What’s not clear is how much information is being stored or how wide their net is. For instance, if your 12 y/o daughter, who’s not on Facebook but appeared in an image once, starts searching for Nike shoes, will you get ads featuring Nike shoes around her birthday as a gift idea? I think, by now, that you can assume they’ve linked you to her — even though she’s not a Facebook user — because her clicks are being tracked on websites that have Facebook integrations and her metadata shows that she’s using your computer.

Even if that particular collection method isn’t happening, you need to be aware that companies are tracking you and everyone you know in ways you can’t even imagine. It’s how they’ve built multi-billion-dollar businesses that charge users $0 to use their services. Brands advertise on platforms like Facebook because they have more user data points than non-tech platforms, and they have lots of money to spend. Again, that doesn’t make them evil — it’s just how advertising works.

This is what the conversation from here on should be: how much data, as a society, are we comfortable with advertisers (or anyone) having? And what happens when that data shows up in unexpected places? This goes beyond Facebook and Google. It’s a fundamental question we need to ask, because society as a whole doesn’t seem to mind openly sharing literally everything. I guess we can pretend tech companies will regulate themselves, but I can promise that doing nothing will just continue the apology tours. There’s too much money at stake, and the only punishment is a potential stock price drop.

Regulation needs to happen. Reasonable regulation that allows small players to compete while still staying compliant, but regulation still. GDPR in the EU is a start, but it needs to go further. Bigger. I know this is going to sound silly, but I really think we need some sort of global oversight committee for this, because large companies like Facebook have the resources to just stay compliant where necessary, then continue being (arguably) awful everywhere else. Perhaps a UN for the internet? We’re all connected now — there’s no reason to pretend we’re not.