I recently gave a talk about my experience earning to give, and someone asked whether I saw the direct impact of my work as positive or negative. This is a good question, and a common objection to earning to give: you wouldn't want to take a job that was majorly negative for the world in order to earn a bit more money to donate. So how is the world different with me doing this job as opposed to something else?
I work in display advertising at Google, which means AdSense and Ad Manager(formerly DoubleClick for Publishers). These help people who have websites to put ads on them.
So one question, then, is whether the display ads business is overall positive or negative for the world. I think it's generally positive, despite some downsides: the majority of websites are funded through ads, and this has allowed an enormous diversity of information to flourish. I can afford to write for fun and run this site without ads on it , but many people with interesting things to say can't. The New York Times can convince some people to pay, but a subscription-only web would be much worse. Overall, ads are a very progressive and democratic way of funding things: everyone can read and everyone can write, not just people who can pay.
On the other hand, it's not ideal. Ads are often annoying, and can get in the way of what you're trying to read. They can be slow to download or execute and delay the rest of the page. Similarly, they can download large images or videos using up your metered data plan. While sometimes ads fill a beneficial function of informing you about something you'll honestly be better off from having purchased, other times they're trying to convince you to spend your money foolishly.
Many people would put ad tracking on this list of downsides: sites pass information to data brokers that build custom profiles for each user and allow personalizing ads. From my perspective, however, while having this information collected seems a bit creepy, it allows showing ads I'm more likely to be interested in. This makes publishers more money than showing untargeted ads, and I'd much rather fund them through better ad targeting (invisibly intrusive) than through more obnoxious ads (visibly intrusive).
On balance, it seems to me like the display ads business is positive, though there are ways to make it better.
My main project these days is an attempt at that, via making ads be declarative. The most well known example of a declarative environment is CSS: you give a lot of rules for how you would like your site to be displayed, and the browser makes that happen. I'm helping build something where ads will work the same way, specifying what they want to do instead of directly executing code to make that happen.
When ads do directly execute code there are a bunch of problems:
- It can slow the rest of the page down, sometimes to the point of being completely unresponsive, since the web is single-threaded.
- There's a lot of duplicate work, since all the different people involved in creating and serving the ad are trying to measure things like whether the ad ended up on screen.
This doesn't solve all the problems with ads (you can still make annoying ads that cover content or move around) but it does improve some aspects.
Determining what effect on the ads business my work actually has is very hard, but I think both the overall business and my specific work are positive. It's not beneficial enough that I see "work on display ads" as potentially one of the most beneficial things someone could do with their career, and I don't count it at all towards my altruistic impact, but I also don't think of it as a harm that the good from my donations needs to be weighed against.
 Though when I started working on ads I set up Ad Manager ads at the bottom of each post, for practice.
Epistemic status: highly speculative and somewhat humorous
I wonder if, for Google engineers specifically, the effect might be dominated by Alphabet investing some small portion of its ad revenue in AGI-relevant things.
Low confidence - I think the internet shouldn't run on ads. Making people pay for content ensures that the internet is providing real value rather than just clickbaiting, and the dependence on advertising creates controversies where corporations compel content hosts to engage in dubious censorship. The government can always shift tax and welfare policy to account for the additional financial burden on low income people. Yes in theory people could always create and use paid websites, but there is too much inertia, both economically (network effects) and socially (people now feel very entitled to the Internet). That being said, marginal ad work doesn't seem substantially bad or anything, salary is much more important. With any industry, if you imagine the hypothetical where all of its employees donate to EA causes, the total consequences would clearly be net positive.
Before the internet you still had tabloids with shocking claims on the cover that, after you bought the paper and read it you realized the claims were overblown. If we moved away from ads the specific case of "you pay, and afterwards you realize you were baited" would still exist.
The role of middlemen like Google diminishes this substantially. Since the advertisers and publishers aren't talking directly to each other we end up with censorship only on the sort of thing that advertisers generally agree on: things like "adult or mature, copyrighted, violent, or hateful content" -- AdSense policies: a beginner's guide
I'm not convinced this isn't just "people don't want to have to pay for things, and mostly don't mind ads that much". Newspapers, magazines, and cable TV both cost money and have ads. Analog radio sticks around on an ad-funded basis and people keep listening because it's incredibly low friction.
Ok, but in practice the government mostly doesn't do this. Figuring out how to get it to do this would open up a *ton* of valuable policies, but we also need to make reasonable choices in the present.
cf. Gwern's Banner Ads Considered Harmful.
This reasoning makes sense to me. I think it's difficult to measure the net impact of the global advertising industry, but that might not be relevant. Thinking counterfactually, if we assume you are purely executing a plan that others at Google created with programming skills that Google could hire other engineers to replace, the marginal impact of doing software engineering for Google Ads is essentially zero. I would be more concerned about the impact of your work if you were making high level business strategy or product decisions that could affect millions of people or the state of the ad industry and Google's role in it.
One interesting consideration is that while digital advertising might be net positive, it is net negative compared to other advertising models that could otherwise exist. For example, a hypothetical "ethical ads" business that recommends products and services that actually improve people's lives would be both profitable for advertisers and beneficial to society. The current advertising model involves things like advertising e-cigarettes to smokers and teenagers alike, which could be extremely positive for smokers to switch to to extend their lifespan but negative for teenagers to switch to. I would personally be interested in the expected value of pursing an ethical advertising venture.
I don't think this is true.
1. Headcount for teams at tech companies, including Google, regularly takes 3-6 months to get filled, if not longer. So if Jeff doesn't take his job (or alternatively, if he chooses to leave now), the projects he works on gets delayed by 3-6 engineering months, as a first approximation. 3-6 months is significant in an industry where people regularly change jobs every 2-3 years.
2. There is a lot of variance in engineering productivity both in general and in Google specifically. Perhaps the prior should be that your productivity is average for your job, however.
3. Even if Jeff has no say in high-level strategy or product, there are a lot of small, subtle, design decisions that engineers make on a daily basis that makes the product more/less usable, easier-to-maintain, etc. Though again maybe you should have a neutral prior.