It’s been nearly a month since I deleted all the ads from my site. Instead of pasting targeted distractions to my readers, I opted for simplicity. If readers wanted to support me, they could buy my book, donate, or share my work. Since then, an explosive dialogue surrounding the ethics and use of ad blockers has ensued. I decided to share my two cents on advertisers, marketing, and the “death of the web.”
Advertisers want us to believe that their commercials and banner ads inform us. They need us to consider their arguments, and think we’re making rational decisions in response. And they implant a picture of perfection – of what life could look like – with their products.
We’re supposed accept this bombardment of stimuli as the cost of accessing and reading websites. Go to The New York Times, and a slurry of ads feast over your metadata to predict what you might purchase next and serve up a healthy dose of consumerism. Behind the scenes, trackers surreptitiously soak up your browsing history, location, and personal data.
This is the cost of being a content consumer in the 21st century, and for years, we’ve accepted it. Until recently, when the entire Internet exploded in euphoria and vitriol over Apple’s new mobile operating system (iOS). It’s most recent update empowered users to install “content blockers,” which would effectively eliminate advertisements in the mobile browser.
These ad blockers allow users to surf the web cleanly. The busy and distracting pages disappear – suddenly the content comes into focus. Trackers suffer and people’s profiles can’t be built as easily. Now, companies struggle to personalize ads via privacy infractions.
As the browsing experience improves, profit revenue decreases. It’s a perfect inverse correlation. The web feels calmer without ads. I don’t have to be defensive and avert my eyes.
Over the last few weeks, publishers worldwide have clambered to their keyboards, predicting apocalypses. The Verge conducted a poll of its users, which found that 78% said “Yes” they will use an ad blocker. Without ad revenue, how will they survive?! If everyone turns off the ads, how will companies make money?
Publishers are already predicting that companies will cease to exist. One quote from PC Mag highlights the hyperbolic language: “With this move, users will eventually wonder why their favorite website died before finding another set of content to plunder.” Supposedly, a content pirate will kill sites left and right because of their ad blocker use.
Wired highlighted the plight of Google’s profits in an almost sympathetic tone: “Google depends almost entirely on ads for revenue. By one estimate, the giant may be losing billions of dollars from these kind of browser blocking extensions.” What will the massive, multinational corporation do without its record-breaking ad revenue?
Adding to the publisher outcries is The Verge’s Nilay Patel, who said ad blockers could mean the “Death of the web.” Then he added that “taking money and attention away from the web means that web innovation will slow to a crawl.” Wow! Death, as in ceasing to exist. That’s pretty extreme, right? Without ads, your computer literally would cease to surf – browsers would be pointless.
The problem with all this fear mongering is that it’s flawed. The web was not invented by corporate interests; rather, it was a governmental invention that became a public good. Advertising wasn’t part of the equation. Profit wasn’t the sole motivator to those who innovated in the early days of the Internet.
Even today, much of the web exists because of volunteers, governments, and public grants. Open source projects like Wikipedia, Ubuntu, and Firefox are perfect examples of how third-party ads needn’t be the sole source of innovation or income.
Interestingly, in this ad-infested web, major publishers have grown to bloated proportions. Many recycle other news outlets’ content and repackage it as their own. Companies like The Verge, Wired, and PC Mag occasionally publish top-notch journalistic pieces, but they’re most often caught up in quasi-advertisement “product reviews” and republishing. It’s lazy work to draw eyeballs, not critical thinking. To lose these companies would be awful, as I must admit I enjoy them, but we’d move on.
We’ve come to a crossroads as publishers and consumers. Should we put up with ads or use ad blockers? Should we accept distraction or simplicity? Should we keep the status quo or demand an alternative?
Some suggest paywalls, which force readers to subscribe for content. I can guarantee that circulation will drop immensely and many won’t pay (here’s looking at one of them). If it’s news, it’ll be printed somewhere else in a non-subscription form. And if it’s not reprinted, then it can’t be that important, can it? So, that idea’s gone.
Others promote the concept of paid articles. Many publishers have already experimented with advertiser-paid articles such as The New York Times and The Verge. Instead of reading a non-biased, semi-objective piece of journalism, readers have the distinct privilege of reading a lengthy advertisement. Again, everyone loses if the web destroys objectivity in journalism.
We live at a time of immense progress; ironically, technology is contending with these advances. Ad blockers censor and clean the web of the dirty bits. You no longer need to continually feel compelled to buy, buy, buy. Nor do pages deliver 20, 30, or 40+ trackers to your computer.
The rationale is clear: the web is better when it’s simpler. But questions remain about the sustainability of any company once their ad revenue dries up.
Here’s where I must be slightly callous. Frankly, capitalism is said to be flexible and adaptive. The invisible hand is supposed to morph and move with demand. There are companies constantly winning and losing in this roulette wheel of life – not everyone wins all the time. The companies that can successfully adapt to changing market forces… They’re the winners in this game.
Either way, the web is here to stay.