The truth is the best bullshit

Instapaper developer Marco Arment nails three companies -- Apple, Google and Facebook -- for spreading bullshit. "Everyone has their bullshit," he writes. "You can simply decide whose you’re willing to tolerate."

Percolate's Noah Brier, however, takes issue with one of Marco's picks; namely, Facebook's claim that "users want to interact with brands." Brier believes that it's true, and offers some evidence why it is so.

It's easy to get snarled up arguing over branding, advertising and whether people like it, hate it, or just play along. But even if Brier is right, I think he's missed the point.

There's a reason Marco calls these slogans "bullshit" instead of "lies." It's because there's a subtle difference between the two. Bullshit creates a particular impression regardless of the truth, whereas lies are explicitly untrue. If you look at each of the items in his list, you'll see that all of them are just as true, literally speaking, as the one that Brier pointed out.

What makes them bullshit is the context—in this case, the economic incentives that each of the three companies have to select these literal truths as marketing messages. Marco's intention, if he'll forgive me for presuming, is surely to point out that each of these messages serve to mislead consumers, not that they are untrue in an absolute sense.

For example, Android is certainly an open-source operating system, and its success is of great value to the free and open-source software movement. Google's incentive to develop it, however, is to increase advertising revenues, a core business which benefits when users disregard their privacy. Moreover, most Android installations are mucked around with by cellular carriers, whose track record on consumer rights is appalling. To those concerned about these issues, Android is a trojan horse for privacy invasion and corporate surveillance. This makes "Android is open" bullshit when aimed, as a marketing slogan, at consumers who could not care less about the context where it's actually true.

It's also true that Apple's app-review rules are in everyone's best interests -- so long as you agree with Apple's definition of our best interests. But Apple's taste in UI convention, inoffensiveness and so on is not shared by all. It's a combination that serves its bottom line: "make good apps, devs, but not ones that make us look bad or compete with us!"

The best example (of bullshit encapsulated by a literal truth) is another of those Marco attributes to Facebook: "We value your privacy."

I can hear your outraged scoffs, but think about it. Of course Facebook values our privacy. It knows exactly how much it's worth. So it's only natural that the users it loves to talk about are the ones who love to interact with "brands".

Bullshit [Marco]
On Bullshit [Percolate]
On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt [Amazon]


  1. It’s true that there are many people who enjoy advertising and like to learn more about their favorite brands. Fortunately, for the rest of us there’s Adblock Plus.

    1. I like certain ad’s, I don’t mind ad’s from Google, I use their services loads. I don’t find them obtrusive or a problem in anyway. I do block other ad’s, because most are pop-up, pop-under HTML5, flash, etc and they are a problem, and usually for products you really don’t want to be accidentally clicking links too. The worst are those HTML5 ad’s that pop over the page, blocking access to the text behind it, and don’t always offer a close option, just a click me over the top of everything.

      1. I mind ads that don’t have adequate hosting resources. Nothing more fun than waiting two minutes for the content of a page to load because one of the advertisers was cheap.

  2. Is Android really open? Maybe to the carriers but not to handset owners, as best I can determine. Not that Apple is any better but there’s no pretense about it with them. And we could all drop our smartphones in a lake and buy a Tracfone at the Target impulse rack and opt out completely. 

    It’s not so much that Facebook’s users want to “interact with brands” but that Facebook wants them to. As someone pointed out a while back, if you’re in a transaction and can’t figure out what’s being bought and sold, it’s you. As with Google’s ad business, users are the product to be sold to advertisers. But I think Marco’s point and your amplifications/clarifications are on target: as with so many things, we can see flaws in all the available choices and pick the one with the flaws we are prepared to put up with. 

    1. Well, you can generally root your android device, and install an AOSP build, like Cyanogen ( ). Yes, they support a huge number of phones, with a consistent UI, and manage to suck less than what your phone shipped with. And then your carrier can’t spy nearly so much. 

      You cannot do that with your iphone, yes, you can root it, but no alternative builds, I believe.

      1. Maybe a nitpick but I take the view that if I have to root it, it ain’t open. 

        My assumption when I heard of the google phone was that it would be source tree like Linux, the *BSDs, etc. and a variety of hardware. It hasn’t worked out that way. Maybe some day…

        1. One thing to keep in mind is that, as far as I know, “rooting” an Android phone is not anything like jailbreaking an iPhone.  It’s typically a switch in the settings menus that says “root on/off,” and confirms that you’re willing to waive software warranties in order to have root access to your phone.  It’s not some sort of archaic hack that requires a careful following of a step by step walk-through or something.

          1.  Rooting is not typically that easy. Even on “Google experience” phones like my Nexus One – which I bought unlocked directly from Google – rooting was nowhere near so trivial as an on/off switch.

            It’s not difficult, but it would be overly intimidating to most people.

            I do believe there are “one click root” type programs available for certain – far from all – Android handsets. You have to trust that it’s not going to brick or otherwise compromise your phone, of course, and if you’re not technically-minded (and thus can read and understand the forums where these things are released) that’s a big leap to take, I would think.

        2. Android, the platform, is open source.  You can obtain the sources from, build them for a variety of devices, use them under the Apache2 license (GPL for the kernel, BSD for some bits, mostly Apache2 though), and even go off and build your own products around it without any need for approval from Google (look at Kindle Fire, B&N Nook, CyanogenMod’s custom ROM images and customized version of Android, etc, etc.

          Lead Android devices, which Google directly works with an OEM on, feature unlockable bootloaders (fastboot oem unlock), and the ability to install custom or modified OS builds without “rooting” or “jailbreaking” or whatnot.  These include: Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, original Xoom, etc.

      2. Also with Android many key components  are binary blobs and not open source at all. A prime example of this is graphics drivers from  NVIDA. This has implication when said graphics drivers cause your phone to reboot every few days, like with my g2x. Kind of defeats the whole point of my phone being open source (i.e I can fix issues and tinker with my phone). 

        1. This is a problem endemic to Linux itself, not just to Android. People seem to be satisfied with vendor-supplied binary blobs and don’t actually push for actual open drivers.

        2. Actually, very few components are binary blobs, especially in lead devices builds (Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, etc), and in those cases, they’re available here for download-and-drop-into-your-own-build use.

          We’ve never shipped a non-opensource kernel driver for a lead Android device, for example. 

  3. Your argument about Android and Google’s claim that it’s open software is off-base, I think.  All “open” means for software, is that its freely available to everyone under the GPL license terms, and any user of Android software is free to add to, or change the code, so long as they offer the changed code to others at no charge.  “Open” has nothing to do with privacy, freedom or anything else.  Accordingly, Android can probably be modified to be as invasive and Orwellian as any other system can.  For that reason, you can level the same criticism at any operating system out there.

    1. Also isn’t the linux kernel GPL and the Android software stack apache2? Isn’t that how google got away with witholding the source code for honeycomb? Also, google control all of the google services which are a large part of what make Android interesting.

      1. Google has never withheld source to my knowledge.  I have always been able to get the sources for anything I received that Google derived from open sources.

  4. He’s right. Look at how many  billions of dollars have been spent on products that are all about the brand itself? 

    This hit home for me in the early 80’s when all the “beautiful’ people in Seattle started wearing Chanel T-Shits (that’s what I called them). Just a simple white T-Shit with a large forward and backward capital C. I couldn’t believe how much they were paying for them, over $100 dollars! It got worse. Men were wearing the belt buckle, women were sporting the CC fabric in coats, purses, necklaces, earrings, glasses and much more. A number of my female friends eventually got the CC tattoos on their breasts. Oh, lets not forget the smell too, it was a fog. 

    So, you had women  with the purse, t shirt, accessories and perfume walking down the center of the sidewalk. Amazingly, they each paid about $1000 to advertise for Chanel. I call that INTERACTING. But, they’re getting something out of it too, the product. 

    The interacting they are both talking about (that I do) is simply going through the Sunday paper and gutting it of all the ads before sitting down to enjoy the real news. I’ve noticed some cable channels of late have interaction channels for cars and AXE deodorant spray; can’t figure that one out. 

    The real argument could be the definition of “interacting”.

  5. When I saw this post I was sure that Google’s bullshit line was going to be “Do No Evil”.  Now that I read the explanation for what constitutes bullshit, I understand and agree.  Google’s Do No Evil is not bullshit — it’s a flat out lie.

  6. “Google’s incentive to develop it, however, is to increase advertising revenues, a core business which benefits when users disregard their privacy.”

    False. Why would they allow ad blocking apps? They work great. 

    Google’s core belief is that users use, therefor, let them tell us how they want to use or product so we sell them more of what they want.   Other companies, like Apple, spends billions on advertising to convince us of what they’ve designed is best for us, then tell us we can’t change the product after we purchased it. 

    No. What Apple sells to you isn’t really yours. What Google sells to you, is.

    1. “What Apple sells to you isn’t really yours. What Google sells to you, is.” 


      Apple’s main business is was selling general purpose computers/operating systems with no service agreement or contract. You can run a different OS on that hardware or the OS they sell on hardware they don’t. Those *are* yours. 

      Google’s main business is selling users, ie, us. They don’t sell to us: we’re the product being sold.

      1. Actually, Apple’s iPhone and iPod revenue constitutes a majority of their income at this point, so their main business is definitely not selling “general purpose computers.”  It is their “walled garden” type systems running iOs, which you can not even run arbitrary software of your choosing on, much less a different OS.

          1. Sweet so you’re saying all I have to do is pay $99 a year and I can run anything on my idevice (but not that of a friend/client)?

            Someone give this guy the ig nobel prize.

            I also somewhat disagree with proctor’s assertion that Google sells users. How do they sell us? Google sells advertising space and commercial access to its high end products (analytics/Google Earth outputs). We may be the eyes looking at the end product, but that hardly makes us the product. Would you also assert that the owners of a highway-side billboard are selling the motorists that drive by? I don’t imagine so.

      2. Not that I dispute your overall point, but Apple is getting much, much more revenue from (locked) iOS devices than Macs.

        Also you aren’t legally permitted to run their OS on hardware they don’t sell.

      3. “Apple’s main business is selling general purpose computers […] Yu can run a different OS on that hardware or the OS they sell on hardware they don’t. ”
        Lolwut? You mean, I can run Android on an iPhone now? And Mac OS X on a generic Intel PC without fear of legal censure (tell that to Psystar)?

        1. Not sure why anyone would want to run iOS on an Android handset: who would admit to preferring an iPhone? 

          as for running OS X on white box hardware, you are referring to someone *selling* white box hardware with OS X pre-installed: not the same thing ->

          1. “who would admit to preferring an iPhone?”

            The arrogance of Android users astounds me – and this is coming from a Windows user.

    2. The fact that Google permits ad blocking doesn’t mean that it’s false to say that its incentive is its advertising business, or that the advertising business benefits when we disregard our privacy.

      It just means they don’t see any benefit in trying to force the savviest users to view ads.

    3. Google’s incentive to develop Android is to ensure that there’s an open platform for mobile out there to provide a level field for app developers to be able to develop and deploy apps in the rapidly growing mobile device space. 

      This benefits Google, as well as other app developers — it’s an alternative to tightly controlled walled gardens.  It benefits OEMs and carriers — a modern mobile platform, source available, generally more customizable than closed platforms.  It benefits end users — more choice (of devices, customized UIs, apps that might be disallowed in walled garden environments, etc).  It benefits hobbyist hackers — a bunch of code they can take and do whatever with, phones that are easier to customize, etc.

      1. It doesn’t really benefit the end user when his device isn’t supported a couple months after he buys it.

        1. Sounds like someone who got burned by a cheap handset or is just an unapologetic Apple fanboy.

          I have owned the Samsung Galaxy S and the Nexus S and both of those devices still work perfectly. I got ICS on my Nexus S before basically any other phone… what on earth are you talking about re not being supported?

          Oh and while you’re at it please point out anyone still using an early model iphone. Oh that’s right – after a couple years every iphone dies because the battery isn’t accessible. Apple definitely has the best design.. to get people coming back to their stores periodically.

          1. Hmm. Well I’m a Windows user and my last smartphone was a Palm Pre. So I don’t think I can be considered an Apple fanboy. I wouldn’t know much about iPhone batteries dying. I haven’t heard anything about it, so I’ll have to take your word on that one. We both know that most Android devices have poor support. Many phones won’t be upgraded to ICS (even while competitor phones of the same vintage from Apple and MS/Nokia) are being updated.

    4. The only reason to change a product, like Android, after you have it, is because it doesn’t do what you wanted it to do in the first place.
      I have better things to do with my time than fanny around with an OS to make it do what it should have done in the first place.
      I’ve been using iOS since I bought my 3G iPhone, and I’m now eighteen months in on a 4, and I’ve yet to find any logical reason to jailbreak it to make it do anything that it doesn’t already do. There are so many cheap apps, if one doesn’t do what I thought it would do, I bin it and try another.
      It certainly works fine for me

  7. I could’ve used like an intro paragraph on this one.  Something like:  who are these people and why are we discussing them.  Maybe I just need coffee or something.

  8. The criticism of android is particularly unfair.  Open software, by it’s very nature can be pissed about with by anyone, so you can hardly then complain that carriers do stuff to it.

    Given HTC’s moves to make rooting a one click process and the numerous android builds available I’d say the open source phone dream is about as far along as anyone could hope.  

  9. Just some errants thoughts that came to mind reading this while reading Hitch’s “Why Orwell Matters”–perhaps a dangerous combination :-)

    I think what is particularly worrisome is, on the one hand, that anything can be branded (perhaps better put as co-opted by a brand): values, principles, and so on. On the other hand, brands operate through a massive and more or less centralized (in medium and in overlapping core principles) means.
    This latter point is important, I believe, because although the internet certainly allows for contrary, and sometimes even correcting, voices it is diffuse, I would argue too diffuse. Not only because of the medium, but more importantly because of the users inability to organize in a means that results in an organization that can directly challenge the established industries. 

    A note on the use of the word ‘challenge’: If you’re an adherent of approaches like SOPA then you would see any actual organization AS a challenge and thus worthy of  more than an industry response, because such resistance has moved beyond being ‘competitive’ and it has become a ‘threat’ to ‘our’ ways of doings things; so, it quickly becomes a political reprisal. One need look no further than the response to P2P, Anonymous, or the Occupy movement (which, as a more physical movement, for lack of better word, suffers the most aggressive responses).

    There is a historical corollary (as, of course, there would be) in the labour movement of the early 20th century. There was a moment of organization that resulted initially in a kind of competitive response–that is an advertising-like response from the owners. However, once the labour movements evolved into much larger organizations (like the IWW’s attempt at the One Big Union) the ‘competitive’ became the ‘challenge’ and the branding (because it isn’t just an advertising term) of these organizations as the evil of the day: communism. 

    The rest, as they say, is history.

     The biggest examples of ‘bullshit’ is in the idea of competition between these organizations. Well, you cannot have a 1% and then be shocked if they all more or less work together to meet a similar ends: the accumulation of more wealth. And, just to be clear, I’m not anti-capitalist. Runaway free markets are not a necessary part of capitalism–in fact, they are a rather late (i.e. Strauss) addition. But, I digress.

    What does this all have to do with the article and bullshit? Well, aside from the opening paragraph, I would suggest that the concomitant problem is in you, dear reader/viewer. 

    I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, but at everyone, myself included, in general. In the cinematic version of Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’, V comments on just this phenomenon:  

    Its corrective is, as V alludes to, in audiences (aka citizens) giving words their meaning back; and, by words principles and ideas are, fo course, represented in words. This is something Orwell fought for his whole life and which is presented quite succinctly in his “Politics and the English Language.”

    If something is bullshit then it needs to more than simply exposed, it needs to be understood by the proverbial ‘great unwashed’ as such. When someone like Brier holds that we want to participate in this–as correct as he probably is–he is highlighting a kind of apathy to participate in the very thing that results in BS. We are the machine. Equally so, when we distinguish between ‘bullshit’ and a ‘lie’ (and I say this without directly criticizing Beschizza above) then we’re rationalizing, not reasoning.

    The devil, as it were, is in the details (says the atheist!?!).

    Everyone has their bullshit, just as everyone will (and does) rationalize instead of reason, but we do so at our peril. We need not be so principled as to call every proverbial spade a spade, we need only be aware of what we’re doing. To continue the devil allusions: we better know who we’re dancing with…but, how long will we accept being fed these lines? How deeply will we accept the branding; our own rationalizing? How long will we argue amongst ourselves to the benefit of that 1%..?

  10. Thanks for linking to Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, Rob.

    That, and Joseph Williams’ “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace”, are the two best guides to writing since Strunk and White’s.

    1. I wouldn’t say Android is Half-Baked.
      It just hasn’t aged well.
      It was created as a Competitive OS to BlackberryOS and Windows Mobile 5.x and was very competitive.

      iOS (nee iPhoneOS) revolutionised the industry and after a short period of languishing in Denial, Palm, RIM and Microsoft reacted with new architectures.
      Android and Symbian just slapped a Touch GUI on their old architectures.

      Now, iOS is leading the market in Tablets, Android is leading in cheap-device Market Share, Microsoft and Palm have created fantastic new OS’s with dubious market potential and RIM are still working on shoehorning their directionless corruption of QNX into underpowered hardware. Nokia have given up on not only the legacy Symbian, but also the new MeeGo.

      If RIM ever finish their new OS, Android will be left as the least developed architecture in the Mobile Market. Some may say “oldest” or “more mature”, but that title goes to NeXTOS^H^H^H^H^H^H iOS.

  11. “Brands encompass all non-people on FB” … “Shakira … Obama”  uhhhh… are they androids?

    Not only does bullshit != lie, but follow != interact.

    Those are some pretty twisted semantics to make your point.

  12. I Tweeted a few days ago about my Chef Boyardee making odd sounds in the microwave, and I got a response from the maker , which ..  that was good…   but I’m still not buying that shit again.

    I think if that interaction is positive and results in the customer thinking “Hey, that helped me figure this problem out, thanks!”  good..  but most times they just tell you to call the 1-800 number, which becomes social media re-direction.   The number is on the package, so yer not really ‘solving’ anything.

    BTW – I know this is about Facebook , but I’ve long stopped using that beast.

  13. Judging by the sheer volume of REALLY SHITTY APPS on Apple’s App Store, the idea that Apple has some kind of ill-defined notion of what apps make them look good is itself a bullshit claim.

  14. But you’re forgetting the logic of the market – companies respond to the needs of their customers! How’s that for bullshit? As always the devil is in the detail. Each company needs to know only about its own products and the fundamental components they source. We as consumers need to know about everything we buy. Somewhere we are all gonna be bullshitted at some point.

  15. Bulshytt: Speech (typically but not necessarily commercial or political) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subterfuges to create the impression that something has been said.

    –Neal Stephenson, Anathem

  16. To equate Apple and Google emphasizing convenient truths and ignoring inconvenient ones with Facebook engaging in a massive campaign of deception by using a pun and a quip is itself definitely bullshit.  You wrote:  “Of course Facebook values our privacy. It knows exactly how much it’s worth.”  Ha Ha. But you’re ouside the reality based paradigm.  That’s not a bent truth, that’s a straight out lie and a pun.

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