it’s hard to have self-awareness, especially about yourself

Timothy B. Lee, going after Jill Lepore’s wonderful takedown of the cult of disruptive innovation:

One of the big problems with the theory of disruptive innovation is that its originator, Clay Christensen, faced a conflict of interest that we might call the “Innovator’s Dilemma” Dilemma. In the introduction to his 1997 book, Christensen wrote that “colleagues who have read my academic papers reporting the findings recounted in chapters 1 through 4 were struck by their near-fatalism.” Over and over again, the book described how businesses tried and failed to cope with the problem of disruptive innovation

Yet as a business professor at Harvard, Christensen’s job is to provide business advice to (and train future leaders of) large, incumbent businesses. Telling your clients that they’re doomed is bad for business. So Christensen has faced a strong temptation to soft-pedal his own theory.

As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Ah, but here’s Lee later in that article:

In contrast, web-native organizations like BuzzFeed and Vox Media don’t face this kind of dilemma. As web-only publications, we earn 100 percent of our revenue from our website and so are completely focused on doing a style of journalism that works well on the web. That doesn’t mean compromising our editorial integrity — we’re just as willing to trash our advertisers and owners, when doing so is merited, as our newspaper competitors. But it does mean that we’re comfortable experimenting with lists, cardstacks, colorful headlines and other innovations that help our work stand out on the web. And it means that we’ve erected the wall between editorial and advertising in a more sensible place, allowing close collaboration among writers, designers, and technologists.

In other words, Christensen’s protective attitude towards his own financial best interests make it difficult or impossible for him to be an unbiased observer, but for Lee, well…. Only human! I would be no different, I think. It just seems to me that, if the theory of disruption is sound, it’s likely that it would threaten those who assume they are immune to it most of all.

I also continue to wonder if online publishing is going to come up with some sort of broad response to ad block. Because that stuff is an existential threat.


  1. It’s less important than you think, at least right now. Most people don’t bother, though maybe they will in the future.

    1. I find I’m such a comprehensive disaster at it that I’m treating self-knowledge as a kind of religious question. Angels dancing on the head of a pin, the mind of God, etc.

        1. Hey, maybe self-knowledge is less important than you think. And it’s certainly true that most people don’t bother. 🙂

  2. I also continue to wonder if online publishing is going to come up with some sort of broad response to ad block. Because that stuff is an existential threat.

    Is it? I haven’t been on the publishing side, but my day job for the last 6 years has been in either buying or middle-manning online display inventory, and I’ve never heard ad block brought up in a professional context. I see it asserted every once in a while, but never with any data showing its impact.

    Based on my limited understanding of the technical aspects of ad serving – and feel free to trash this if I’m wrong – ad block technology works by telling the browser, “Hey, don’t display these types of files if they originate from these types of addresses.” This means I don’t see the ad. Great.

    However, the page that hosted the file doesn’t necessarily* know that. As far as is concerned, a visitor loaded the page, a call was made to to serve an ad, and an ad was delivered. So DoubleClick pays NYTimes their fraction of a penny, then charges the agency, who charges the advertiser, etc.

    Again, there are more knowledgeable people out there than me on ad tech, so I’ll take my medicine if I’m wrong. But that’s the understanding I’ve operated under for years, and no one in the industry has corrected me yet.

    * Viewability is becoming a more important metric and, per Megan above, may become more important eventually. But it’s not a widely championed metric now.

    1. Yeah, you’re right– I should say that it seems to me like it could be an existential threat. But I’m really just speculating.

      1. My speculation is adblock is already priced into the cost of digital advertisements. It should not be hard to get an understanding of the number of users and basically who they are and what they visit, and reduce the price of your ad accordingly. Would also add an additional variable in explaining the relative cheapness of online advertising.

        But we also have to consider the basic web surfing habits of people, and browser based desktops browsing accounts for slightly less than half of internet traffic. Taking into account the difficulty of blocking ads on mobile devices, it’s probably less of a problem than Freddie suggests. But as people who write on the internet do so with a device equipped with a keyboard, their perception of internet browsing habits probably differs from the browsing experience of most people.

      2. It may not be important from an American or global perspective, but in Germany there is a “debate” about the danger of adblockers. Small and big media houses participate in this debate. But they mostly express the fear that adblocker are the death of their business model.

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