June 21, 2018

#123 An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Matt’s wife died a decade ago. Now, everywhere he goes on the internet, he can’t escape advertisements for clickbait sites with her picture on it. This week, Super Tech Support tries to help out.

Further reading:
Matt's non-profit: The Liz Logelin Foundation

More Like This


ALEX: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ: And I’m PJ Vogt.



PJ: Yes.

ALEX: This week, I’ve got a story. It’s a super tech support.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: Um, you know, the segment on the show where we help people solve unsolvable computer problems.

PJ: Yup, I’ve been here.

ALEX: This one comes to us from a guy named Matt. 

ALEX: So Matt, the first thing I was wondering is if you could just tell me how you'd like to be identified.

MATT LOGELIN: Yeah, my name is Matt and then my last name is kind of–sometimes people have a difficult time pronouncing it, but it's Logelin. So it's like a–it's a long "o". I'll say it again, Logelin.

Before I can even get to Matt’s problem, I have to start the story by explaining this thing that he went through a decade ago.

ALEX: Um, so I know this stuff might be a little difficult for you to talk about, but I was wondering if it was ok if I asked you about your wife.

MATT: Yeah you can definitely ask me. I was married to my high school sweetheart, actually. Been dating her from the time we were 18 up until the day that she died, and she was the love of my life.

ALEX: Matt’s wife, her name was Liz – what happened was, in 2008 they had just had a baby girl, and the day after she was born, while they were still at the hospital, Liz tried to get out of the hospital bed and she collapsed. It turned out that she had a blot clot and within an hour she died.

PJ: Ugh.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: How old was he?

ALEX: He was 30.

And of course Matt was totally destroyed. Because this went from being the happiest moment of his life to being the worst thing imaginable.

MATT: You know, I lost my best friend, I lost the woman that I loved that I intended to spend my entire life with and on top of it I had a brand new baby. And I–you could ask anybody that I’m related to or any of my friends, they would tell you that she was going to be the better parent, no matter what. I mean- I was ill prepared to like take care of myself until I met her.

ALEX: Matt’s didn’t have any close family living near him – and he just wanted them to know that he was okay. But he didn’t want to have to make half a dozen phone calls every day. So he made what turned out to be a strangely fateful decision, which is that he decided to write a blog. Just for his extended family.

MATT: I was trying to like assure my family that, uh, that I was doing OK, you know?

ALEX: Right.

MATT: I was writing in, um, in basically like short-form poetry that– I was just like spitting words out. There was no punctuation. My family could look back at it and go, OK cool, like, he actually made it to the grocery store and got formula for this kid today. We don’t have to intervene and like, you know, take this kid away, or call CPS or something. It was literally as simple as that.

ALEX: So you just wanted to- you just wanted, A, to prove to people that you could do it and, B, you wanted like some accountability, like someone to keep tabs on you.

MATT: Exactly! That’s exactly what I wanted because after my wife died in two weeks I lost 35 pounds. And I needed these people who weren’t going to be able to just pop on over and bring me a cup of soup or something, I needed them to see that I was OK.

ALEX: So as the months go by, he’s getting better at being a dad, and he’s writing these observations about grieving, and missing his wife, and raising a child, and people start following his blog and it starts getting a lot of notices.

It just kind of became a viral story.

PJ: How?

ALEX: A local newspaper wrote about it and then other outlets started picking it up, there was a profile in People Magazine about him.

And he kept the blog up for about four years before stopping. But at a certain point, he was just starting to move on. He is raising his daughter, he is starting to date again. Like his life is just different and he doesn’t want to do that anymore. He sorta puts it all down.

PJ: It did what it was supposed to do.

ALEX: Right. So he’s done.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: Which brings us to Matt’s problem. So it’s 2018. It has been a decade since all this happened to him. And this past January, Matt’s about to get remarried, he’s really excited, and then he starts getting all of these emails from people saying like hey, I saw that ad that you’re in!

PJ: What’s the ad?

ALEX: So, you know, at the bottom of a lot of news articles there’s that box that says like, “Around the web!” that’s just a bunch of links to like listicles and articles about celebrities and stuff?

PJ: This is like the crappy like when you read a real article that you wanted to read and then at the end it’s like, “8 British Queens Who Were Secretly Spies and Dead.”

Or like “This Celebrity is Five Pounds Now and Lives on the Moon” — like that stuff.

ALEX: So, those links to click-baity articles on other websites, they’re actually paid for. Sometimes people call that little box of headlines the “chumbox.”

PJ: So he- his- his face was in the chumbox?

ALEX: It wasn’t just his face. It was a picture of him and Liz, his wife who died.

ALEX: What exactly was it advertising? What did the advertisement say?

MATT: So the one that I saw this morning on an ad on Page Six as I clicked through some shitty, like, entertainment article was: “Wife Dies and the Next Day Husband Clicks Through to Her Pregnancy Blog and dot dot dot” — it’s that kind of thing. Or “The Day After Wife Dies Husband Finds Her Secret.” Or something kind of crazy like that, which none of that was true!

ALEX: So, PJ, I can show you one. [Off mic sounds]

If you go to New York Magazine, scroll all the way down to the end of the article to find the Around the Web section. Here. 

PJ: Oh this is gross. It’s him- it’s- That’s a picture of him?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: So it’s a picture of him in the hospital with like a blue baseball cap, with his wife?

ALEX: Yes.

PJ: And it says, "After losing his wife, husband turns to pregnancy blog and it changes everything.” And it's a picture of her?

ALEX: Yeah. It's a picture of his wife, Liz.

PJ: "Wife passes away hours after giving birth. Husband logs into her pregnancy blog and finds this." Which is not even–

ALEX: It's not really an accurate representation.

PJ: It makes it sound like he's either gonna find out that she was like having an affair or like God left him a message or something. Like it's a weird curiosity bait thing and it's a picture of his wife who died.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: That sucks.

ALEX: Yeah. And so–

PJ: And what would happen- would–if you click that link, you don't go back to his blog. You go back to like–

ALEX: No, no. You go to a website called, um, DirectExpose.com, which is just a site with a bunch of clickbaity articles. And it has an article that is just sort of like this shorthand, quick-hit version of his life.

PJ: It's so horrifying. So it like- it go–it's like, sort of like, list form with all these pictures and like I don't know just imagining being in love with someone and them dying and then ending up like shitty viral content. It's horrible.

ALEX: And the other thing he said was like, you know, I dated people after this and it didn’t work out well and the people that I dated are in this thing too. It’s like–

PJ: How are they in the thing?

ALEX: It’s like: “Another chance at love.”

PJ: Oh yeah, oh my god. Yeah there’s a picture of them.

ALEX: And at this point these ads — which then link to these clickbaity articles about him and Liz — are showing up in People Magazine, the New York Daily News, his parents’ hometown newspaper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Like it’s showing up on the websites of all of these places. And Matt — he wants to turn it all off, and he can’t, and he feels like it’s all his fault.

ALEX: Why do you say it's your fault?

MATT: You know, because I put it out there, right? Like I put this shit out there, like I put this out there ten years ago as a cry for help, as a way to remember my wife, as a way to keep in touch with my family. So it's kind of my fault? But at the same time like 10 years ago, I didn't expect this to happen and I worked in Internet advertising, like I did the stuff that led to this. And I still didn't see it. You know, I didn't see it coming. And if I had done that I would have never done it. I wouldn't–I would have thrown everything that I've gained from the Internet away to erase what these stupid fucking ads are.

So Matt asked me if I could figure out how he and Liz started showing up in the chumbox like this. And, even though he knew it was a long shot, he asked me if there was any way I could try to get them taken down.

PJ: What’d you tell him?

ALEX: Um I told him that, um, nothing is too difficult for me to at least look into.

PJ: Nothing is too difficult–

ALEX: (laughing)

PJ: It started good. For me to at least look into?

ALEX: I just–I'm just trying to manage–

PJ: No problem is too large for me to think about attempting to help with!

ALEX: I'm trying to manage expectations.

PJ: [ALEX: (laughing)] It's such a weird combination of like–

ALEX: That's not what I actually said–

PJ: –overconfident boast and like mealy-mouthed little whimper. What did you actually say?

ALEX: I said, I'll–I would like to see if I can get these taken down for you, too.

PJ: That's marginally better.




ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So uh PJ, you want to know what I’ve been up to this past week

PJ: Yes I do.

ALEX: Well the question that I started with was why has Matt and Liz’s story resurfaced over past couple of months? So I started by trying to find as many of these viral clickbaity stories about Matt and Liz as I could, and just email all of the writers to see if any of them would get back to me. And one of them did. I spoke to her on Twitter and she told me she works in the UK in an office full of like, viral freelance writers. She clocks in every morning at an office with a bunch of other people. They get assignments all day and they just have to bang out viral piece after viral piece.

PJ: Oh ok.

ALEX: And I said like, “Hey what do you know about this?” And she was like, she was like, “He should expect more of these coming out. Our clients have been very interested in this story.”

PJ: Really?

ALEX: Yeah and she said, “Clients are asking for it to be rewritten for different sites. I think we’ve written about 3 or 4 versions as a company for different clients.”

PJ: Wow.

ALEX: Yeah. So, unfortunately….Matt is kind of a hot commodity right now in like the viral content circuit. And she’s just a freelancer, she has no power to make this stop.

So what I wanted to figure out was just like, OK, how many of these these sites are there running this article? And how many bosses do I need to convince to take them down?

And so, we made a spreadsheet. [PJ laughs] And so far, I found that there are at least 18 different articles about Matt and Liz on 18 different sites. And they’re all basically the same. They use a lot of the same photos. They all sort of mirror one another.

PJ: 18 and they're all websites that like you would never go to on purpose or have heard of but they're like sort of viral half-fake news websites?

ALEX: We got LifeBuzz, TheBuzzTube. We've got one called HyperActivz–

PJ: Are they all supposed to sound like BuzzFeed?

ALEX: I mean HyperActivz is hyperactive with a “z” instead of an “e.” Um, and it's all– it's all very similar. Like this is the HyperActivz one.

PJ: "After losing his wife just after she'd given birth, this man's life turned upside down." The other article they've got is, "This little girl from the film Waterworld is all grown up and gorgeous." They always want to see people grow up.

ALEX: Um, there's one called ArticlesVally, which amazingly–

PJ: (laughs) That's where articles go when they die.

ALEX: Amazingly, “vally” is spelled without an “e” so, it's just v-a-l-l-y.

PJ: Huh.

ALEX: And so, I try to get in touch with all these sites. But either they don’t respond to my messages or their numbers are dead or...


PHONE CALL: Thank you for calling Pet Flow, this is Jared, how can I help you?

...when I try to call them, the numbers just go to a completely different company. 

[MUSIC — “That Voice”]

ALEX: So I couldn’t get Matt’s articles taken down by reaching out to the clickbait sites directly.

But the thing is, I talked to this reporter, her name is Lucia Moses, she writes about digital marketing for Digiday. And she told me that those clickbait websites — like Articles Vally and Lifebuzz (or whatever they’re called) — they aren’t actually the ones putting links to their websites on places like New York Magazine.

That is actually done, almost exclusively, by just two companies. And all the clickbait websites depend on them.

LUCIA MOSES: One is Outbrain and one is Taboola, and they’re like the market leaders.

ALEX: Mhm.

LUCIA: But then there’s this long tail of companies that have less market share and they peddle in more unseemly- the more unseemly stuff that you see on some of these sites.

ALEX: Of course, these companies don’t use the term chumbox — they call themselves “content recommendation” or “content discovery” companies. They first popped up about a decade ago, when newspapers and magazines were taking a huge hit because they were making way less money than they used to with print advertising. And they were just kind of freaking out.

LUCIA: It’s really hard to make money online! And it’s particularly hard to make money on mobile sites where all the traffic is moving. So that gave birth to the rise of these content recommendation companies, where publishers realized it was very lucrative to basically rent out space on their own sites to other publishers, to advertisers, who would use that space to direct people to their own places.

ALEX: One of these companies, like Taboola, they reach out to a publisher like the New York Post or CNN or whatever and they say, “Hey, check it out! We’ve got some easy money for you! Just go ahead and put these little boxes of advertising somewhere at the bottom of your article.” They’re usually at the bottom.

“We’ll sell the ads that go in the boxes, you can tell us if there’s certain things you don’t want to have appear, but otherwise you get money, and you don’t have to worry about anything.”

And so these newspapers and magazines just sort of grudgingly agree to it. A lot of them don’t really like the ads, but they like getting checks from Taboola and Outbrain.

And then Taboola and Outbrain make money because those sites, like LifeBuzz and ArticlesVally, are paying them to put links to their site on like the website you’re reading, CNN or whatever.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: And then, the confusing thing is that those sites, like LifeBuzz and ArticlesVally, they also can make money from Taboola and Outbrain, because they also agree to have chumboxes on their own sites.

PJ: OK so like if I read an article, that little chumbox, it’s an advertisement for a bad news article on another website. And I’m supposed to go to that other website so they can serve me with advertisements for other bad news articles on other websites. But like at some point, for any of this to work, one of those articles has to have like an ad for a product on it.

ALEX: Eventually what happens is, so in addition to ads that are just ads for like clickbaity articles, brands will put stuff in the chumbox as well. So occasionally it’ll be like –

PJ: Oh like, “I tried this electric toothbrush on the internet and had amazing results.”

ALEX: Yeah, “You won’t believe how comfortable this mattress is.”

PJ: Ohhh full circle.

ALEX: Yeah. And so, over time these chumbox companies have become a strangely important part of the internet ecosystem.

LUCIA: Some publishers are getting as much as like 30% of their revenue from these, from these boxes.

ALEX: That’s a ton of money!

LUCIA: That is a ton of money. Sounds really good to a publisher!

ALEX: That really does sound good.

ALEX: And so here’s- here’s–

PJ: It never occurred to me–I think because the ads look so cheap, I always assumed that they were not–you know, I was always like, why are you–why are you putting that crap on your website? It can't make you that much money because they look bad, which doesn't make any sense.

ALEX: But I mean, you've clicked on them before, right?

PJ: No, I have never, ever–I screen grab them, like I'll take screenshots of the ones that I think are the stupidest because I think it's funny. I've never clicked on one. Never.

ALEX: I would say that I've probably made people thousands of dollars.

PJ: You click on them?

ALEX: Oh, yeah.

PJ: What are the ones that you click on?

ALEX: I am such a sucker for a top 10 list.

PJ: What type of top–like, "Top 10 Scary Summer Movies" or whatever?

ALEX: I tend to actually do this more with the, uh, YouTube version of these. Like, "Whatever happened to Julia Stiles?" I'm like, I don't know what happened to Julia Stiles. I should check out this video.

PJ: But then google Julia Stiles, like the information–they're not real. Like they just say whatever they want to say.

ALEX: This video's gonna have a narrative. Googling Julia Stiles is just gonna show me like a gap in her film career.

PJ: No. It's gonna show you a Wikipedia page, which will have like personal life or controversy Julia Stiles. Julia Stiles 2015 and 2018. Hold on.

ALEX: (laughing)

PJ: This is–this is how you use the internet, Alex Goldman. It's cool that you get to learn it right now. Julia Stiles. [typing] Wikipedia. Career.

ALEX: Why would I go to that, when I could go to ZergNet and see–

PJ: "In 2015, Stiles signed on to reprise her role as Nicky Parsons in Jason Bourne, the fifth installment of the Bourne franchise. She's also featured as Courtney, the wayward mother of Sophie Nélisse, in The Great Gilly Hopkins, which premiered in U.S. cinemas on October 7th 2016." She's not doing a lot right now.

ALEX: I am on Nicki Swift finding out “why Hollywood won't cast Julia Stiles anymore.” See? Different Strokes.

PJ: What do they say?

ALEX: Um, well, it's paginated, so I don't know yet. "Here are a few theories. Her critics haven't pulled punches, uh, 10 Things I Hate About You, uh, bad reviews continued with 2003's A Guy Thing." So she's gotten bad reviews.

PJ: See this is the problem with these websites, is like, they will pose a question, but they don't actually have the answer. Like if you asked Sruthi what happened to Julia Stiles, she would say something as informed as that thing that you would decide to click on.

ALEX: Oh! “Box office blues.”

PJ: I'm slacking Sruthi. "Hey, do you know what's up with Julia Stiles these days?”

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: “Like why isn’t she in more movies?” Sruthi said, “I have a friend who's close to her, should I ask her to connect us?“

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: I'm just saying you could get better information literally anywhere, including Sruthi. “Nevermind...was just proving a point to Alex.”

ALEX: Um...

PJ: So wait, so where are we actually, like Julia Stiles aside, like where are we in getting this ad taken down at this point?

ALEX: Ok so it’s clear to me that the websites that are writing these articles, they’re not going to take these stories down. But I feel- I think that like, if I could appeal directly to the people who run the chumboxes, the people who are putting the ads on legit news sites, like maybe I could just ask them, like, if they would take them down.

PJ: Because if the articles are there, but there’s no ads linking to them, they’re not going to get any traffic. And Matt’s not going to have to run into them.

ALEX: Exactly. So I contacted Taboola and Outbrain, the two biggest chumbox companies, and they were friendly but they seemed kind of nervous to talk to me.

PJ: Oh what, our senior scam investigator Alex Goldman?

ALEX: (laughs) It was, you know, I think that like these are companies that most people don't know the name of, even if you see like ‘powered by Outbrain,’ it doesn't mean- it doesn't register with you when you're on the site. And anytime someone writes about them, I feel like, whenever I come across an article about them, it's like: these are the people who provide us with the lowest quality content.

PJ: Nobody- yeah, it's never like, an appreciation for the place that tells you how to lose weight by eating beetles or whatever.

ALEX: Right. So, I say like, “Hey we want to do an interview with you guys.” And they were both like, “What specifically do you want to talk to us about?” And so I explained to them what I was interested in and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll- we’ll get back to you.”

But in the meantime, I was contacted by another person who had written one of these articles about Matt and Liz. And she claims not to remember having written it. But she told me about how the company she writes for uses this specialized software that is specifically designed to find trending articles that are very popular that they can then just copy and then throw up on their sites.

It’s called BuzzSumo, which is the-

PJ: BuzzSumo. (laughs) (ALEX: Yeah.) Why is it like in the Constitution that every one of these websites has to steal some part of Buzzfeed's name? Anyway, BuzzSumo.

ALEX: Basically what BuzzSumo does is show you how often an article has been shared on social media – so it’ll show you how often it’s been shared on like Facebook, or Reddit, or Twitter or whatever. And you can search by like keywords in the headline, you can search by things that are trending over the past 24 hours, stuff like that.

[MUSIC — Phrygian, “The Chills]

So I went in and I searched for the, the words “pregnancy blog” because those two words appear in a lot of headlines for this story. It brought up a bunch of articles about Matt, some that I knew and some that I didn’t know. And I found one article from July 28th of last year – on a website called LittleThings.com – that I am pretty sure is the very first of this recent spate of articles about Matt and Liz.

PJ: What makes you think it’s the first one?

ALEX: First of all I can’t find an article earlier than this one, and second of all, this article definitely went viral. According to BuzzSumo, it had 85,000 of what it calls, “engagements,” which is like comments, shares or likes on Facebook .

PJ: Wow.

ALEX: But that still leaves a question, right?

PJ: Why nine years after this happened did like chumbox internet pick up the story?

ALEX: Well I think I know the answer. So the author of this article is, is named June Rivers.

PJ: Sounds fake.

ALEX: Definitely sounds fake. I called and emailed LittleThings to ask them if I could talk to June Rivers. They didn't get back to me. I emailed a former writer from LittleThings and she said, “The reason you're having trouble finding June Rivers is because that's a pen name–”

PJ: Mhm.

ALEX: “–of an author of someone who worked on the staff named Amy Paige.”

PJ: Whoa!

ALEX: I contacted Amy Paige, no response.

PJ: Oh.

ALEX: But I went back to the article and I found a huge clue, which is that, embedded within the article was a video from The Rachael Ray Show. So in 2009, Matt appeared on The Rachael Ray Show during the heyday of his blog success.

PJ: I thought Rachael Ray was a cooking show.

ALEX: She does cooking stuff, but she also does human interest stuff.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: Um, here is the video of Matt on The Rachael Ray Show:

RACHAEL RAY: It’s a story that began 13 years ago, when Matt Logelin met his highschool sweetheart, Liz.

MATT: She was perfect, I mean, she was perfect in every way. She was smart, she was funny, we were together 8 years before we actually got married.

ALEX: So I looked at the YouTube channel for Rachael Ray–and for whatever reason, reasons that are hard to discern, maybe they didn’t have a YouTube channel in 2009 – but that clip, of Matt, on The Rachael Ray Show, was uploaded on July 21st 2017.

PJ: And how soon after that was– did June Rivers do her magic to it?

ALEX: One week.

PJ: Interesting.

ALEX: So my theory is: this site– LittleThings is all about doing human interest stories. In fact, the writer I talked to told me that they didn't care at all about timeliness, as long as the stories were quote “meaningful and heartfelt.”

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: So I imagine the author was looking around for stories. She knows that Rachael Ray does human interest stories. She goes to the Rachael Ray YouTube channel, sees this ar–sees this video and is like, great, this is perfect for our site. Writes the article, it goes viral. And then it creates a whole ecosystem of Matt Logelin stories.

PJ: Wow.

ALEX: Right. So, bully for me, I figured out where it came from, still haven't figured out what to do about it.

PJ: Right. I mean, I–it's weird. It's like- like- the- the- the- the–even on these like scammy sort of like copy, stealing websites, like there has to be a decay cycle of interest in the thing. Like it–like the die-hard “Elsewhere on the Web” readers, like the people who click every one of those, eventually everyone is going to be like, oh that story. I know that story. Like eventually this thing has to become less shareable, right?

ALEX: I'm not interested in that eventuality.

PJ: So what do you want to do?

ALEX: What I want is to do is get Taboola and Outbrain to take down all the ads featuring Matt and Liz. And...I heard back from Taboola.

PJ: Oh!

ALEX: They invited me to their offices in Manhattan.

PJ: Wow.

ALEX: And on Friday morning, producer Chris Neary and I went up there.

PJ: Wow, what are their offices like? Is it tons of like giant beautiful pictures of people losing belly fat?.

ALEX: (laughs) Their offices are very nice.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: They're very Google-y. (PJ: Huh.) They're like, uh, it's like-

PJ: Did they offer you a tall glass of carrot juice?

ALEX: Beautiful. (PJ laughs) Basically!

PJ: Really?

ALEX: I walked in and they had, they had a big kitchen full of fruits and vegetables and candy and soda and they were like, would you like anything? And I was like, that's okay. Um, so they bring me in, they bring me into an office.

CHRIS: We are recording, and if I could just get a level, if you could just tell me what you had or breakfast?

ADAM: Uh nothing. But I had a coffee for breakfast actually.

ALEX: And I meet a guy named Adam Singolda.

ADAM SINGOLDA: I'm the founder and CEO at Taboola, which I started 10 and a half years ago.

PJ: What was he like?

ALEX: He is like–he was like a handsome tech nerd. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The Taboola logo is kind of like a googly-eyed smiling face.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: And he had a Taboola–he had a T-shirt that was that logo but with a Darth Vader helmet on.

PJ: Was he like, before we talk I need to tell you about nine celebrities who died before their time?

ALEX: (laughs) No.

ALEX: So can you- first of all, you look very young, how old were you when you started Taboola?

ADAM: Oh come on, you know, there's white hair all over there. Don't be too nice to me. (ALEX laughs) I started Taboola, 10 and a half years ago, I was about 26.

ALEX: (off-mic) See, that’s pretty young to start.

ADAM: Right after the–I was seven years in the Israeli Army as an engineer and then that's my first job. I started back in Israel and then I moved to New York and I've being doing this for, for a long time

ALEX: And I asked Adam, like, so what do you make of the term “chumbox”? Have you ever heard of it? And he's like, no. (PJ laughs) And so-

PJ: He's really never heard of it?

ALEX: No, he'd never heard chumbox before. But it’s not like he was offended by it or anything. He was like, look, I know that I- we don’t always serve the highest quality content in the world. But he starts telling me about his company and I was like, oh these guys make a ton of money. Like he told me that Taboola has a thousand employees. All because of stories like Matt’s or like the “What Julia Stiles is up to?” story.

ALEX: And how many–I mean how many different ads are you serving a year?

ADAM: Um I don't like the word ads, I'll just say, but recommendations–but, so, we have–we index about, few tens of millions of articles, videos, products that's in our index and we recommend about 20 billion times a day.

ALEX: 20 billion times a day.

ADAM: Yeah, almost half a trillion times a month.

ALEX: So if they’re serving this many ads — or recommendations — I figure it probably won’t kill them to get rid of one or two.

So I ask him about Matt.

ALEX: (clears throat) So we got this email from this guy, his name’s Matt Logelin, and about 10 years ago his wife passed away during childbirth...

ALEX: I told Adam that Matt had asked me if I could help him put an end to these ads, and Adam was listening very intently, he was leaning forward–

ALEX: ...And so, he said to me, he said, is there any way that we could talk to these people about just not serving these ads with my picture on them anymore. I’m curious how you’d feel about that.

SINGOLDA: I can tell you, I mean, I don’t know that we are important enough to matter to address all of Matt’s needs, because, you know, we’re, we’re just one. But as, you know, as long as I can affect it - I’m going to look into it.


ALEX: So Adam said they would “look into it.” And that was on Friday.

PJ: Today's Monday.

ALEX: I was drumming my fingers on the table being like, what's gonna happen, what's gonna happen?

PJ: And?

ALEX: Sunday morning, I got an email from Adam, which said: “Since our meeting we've worked with our policy team and have removed images related to Matt’s story from our network. We've also notified our content review team about this story. So if more publishers try to run related campaigns with Taboola, we can identify it and not approve it. We recognize that this is a painful experience and hope that he will find some solace in this response.”

PJ: That's pretty stand-up.

ALEX: Yeah. The articles will remain up, but Taboola won’t share ads to those articles.

PJ: Which is great.

ALEX: Yeah that’s great.

PJ: One thing...Taboola’s like half of that ecosystem? Like the other big company is Outbrain. Unless- like did you do anything about Outbrain?

ALEX: I uh spoke to them on the phone just a couple hours ago.

PJ: And?

ALEX: They didn’t want to do an interview (PJ Laughs). But they did agree to take them down.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: So they–they said to me, yes, we’ll take it down too. And, uh, it might take us a day or two, but you can tell your listening audience and you can tell Matt.

[MUSIC — “Simplicity”]

PJ: Huh. Cool.

ALEX: Yeah.

ALEX: Alright, so I have a lot to tell you.

MATT: Oh great! I can’t wait.

And so I told Matt.

ALEX: But I finally managed to get a sit-down with the CEO of Taboola, in his office in Manhattan.

MATT: No shit (laughs).

ALEX: I explained your predicament and he said to me, “We have the power to deal with this, we’ll take them down.”

MATT: Wow. You’re some sort of wizard. That’s amazing.

ALEX: Honestly, it didn’t take a lot of convincing. They seemed to totally understand that this was causing you pain and decided to work with us on it.

MATT: Well the Internet’s not as terrible as we once thought, huh? (Alex laughs) This is really amazing so, I’m- I’m–like I couldn’t be more happy. You know, this is, this is really cool.

PJ: I have to say, this does feel genuinely like Super Tech Support. You actually solved this one.

AG: Yeah, yeah I know. It feels pretty good.


Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Chris Neary, and Anna Foley. Our editors are Tim Howard and Sara Sarasohn. Our intern is Jessica Yung. We were mixed by Kate Bilinsky. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks this week to John Herrman and to Caroline Moss for putting us in touch with Matt Logelin. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is your favorite group chat. You can find more episodes of the show on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts. Thanks for listening! We'll see you in a couple of weeks.