Digital Baksheesh

Ten years ago almost to the day, I had the pleasure of traveling to Egypt with my daughter in celebration of her 16th birthday. Our trip took place well before the Arab Spring unrest, so we had no concerns about safety and had a really enjoyable time. Egypt is a marvelous country with incredible history and stunning natural beauty.

The only annoying aspect of the trip was that, whenever we went someplace that catered to tourists, we were constantly approached by all sorts of people who were looking for ways to make us part with our money. Everyone there wanted some baksheesh, as we learned the very first day we arrived, when two courteous gentlemen offered to show us around some old ruins — and then asked very forcefully to be given a tip.

We quickly realized that this was a common occurrence, whether it was someone asking for money to support his ailing mother, or someone asking for money in exchange for letting us take a photograph — or, in the more extreme cases, someone who made it clear that the only way to get rid of him was to give him some money.



I came to realize that, to the average Egyptian, tourists are nothing more than wallets with legs.

These days I often feel the same way when I surf the Web. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing or trying to achieve: To publishers and advertisers alike, I seem to look like a surfing digital wallet. Want to read some news? Let me serve you some ads. Want to search for information? Here is an ad to go with it. Want to look at a video? How about watching an ad first?

This dreary reality hides behind euphemisms that attempt to mask the pathetic state of our digital experience. Targeting ensures that the right ad is delivered to the right consumer at the “right time,” the definition of which seems to be “whenever someone is online.”

Retargeting ensures that the person who came to your site might really have meant to buy your product, but simply got distracted and was hoping for a reminder — or a few hundred of them.

Micro moments are supposed to help you figure out the most appropriate moment to let consumers know about your products and services.

All of this boils down to a desperate push to ensure that no small corner of our digital experience is left unexploited.

What I find most remarkable about this mindset is that all of us – whether in newsrooms, ad-tech companies, agencies – are also consumers and readers. And all of us are bothered by this constant request for our most precious currency: attention. In fact, working for a publisher or an advertiser apparently does not reduce the likelihood that you will have an ad blocker installed on your browser. And why should it?

But there are two ways in which the baksheesh analogy breaks down. First, Egyptians (and they are not the only ones) need that money to survive. Their standard of living is so low, that someone handing them a dollar or a euro can make a significant impact in their lives.

Second, the Egyptians understand that there are times and places when asking for money is inappropriate. We spent a fair amount of time in small places off the beaten path, and people were extremely respectful. If anything, it was more common to be offered something to eat or drink than to be asked for money.

Today’s publishers and advertisers have no such need, and no such restraint. As far as they are concerned, every moment we step into the digital world is an opportunity to bombard us with ads. It is a sad state of affairs, and I won’t be surprised if it, too, eventually leads to a revolution.

1 comment about "Digital Baksheesh".
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  1. Allen Milman from MGL, January 15, 2016 at 11:20 a.m.

    Right on! I thought I was overly sensitive when getting annoyed at the constant intervention and annoying delays whenever I went looking for something on the net.

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