Sunday, September 20, 2015

ad blocking "controversy" aka foolishness

tl;dr:  If your website can't make money without crappy ads, and nobody looks at your crappy ads because of advances in technology, then blaming that technology puts you squarely on the wrong side of history.

The creator of peace, one of the most popular iOS ad blocking apps, just pulled his app after a day and a half because it "didn't feel right" to him. While that's his choice, this strikes me as misguided.

There's been a lot of media coverage lately about ad blocking, and complaints about a regurgitated and irrelevant tech news cycle aside, I have seen a quite a few well meaning people stating something like:
ads make the internet go round. it's irresponsible to enable ad blocking software.
As a web developer and armchair philosopher, I'm on the record as being for ad blocking software, insofar as I think it only makes the internet a better place. Crucially, I'd remind the reader that under our current more-or-less capitalist system, no business models are guaranteed by government or (mostly) morality. And tho I think capitalism has some blind spots (see healthcare, maybe?), advertising on the internet ain't one of them.

We would only improve the internet by striking back against giant, centralized ad serving systems. How anyone could honestly defend cross-site targeted ads is beyond me. Do they improve anyone's browsing experience? Do they honestly make all that much money for the sites that run them? For the businesses that pay for them?

I humbly submit that any website that subsists on google (or similar, but right now it's mostly google)'s ad network, that could not possibly conceive of another way to monetize (of which I'll speak more below) does not deserve to make money. This is the good part of capitalism. This is how we improve technology and social organization as a species. This is the process that government interruption / manipulation frequently subverts (see: the DMCA, drug laws, FCC regulation, oil subsidies, etc).

In fact, the DMCA is a useful parallel from recent history: Pirating music is very different from stealing a physical CD, all whiny record execs to the side. But a powerful industry complained that their business model had become obsolete, and instead of letting that business model die a natural death, our government guaranteed it with the DMCA's intellectual property laws. As a result, we are stuck with all sorts of negative externalities. I'd write more about it but Cory Doctorow explains it way better.

Without the DMCA, all the useless blood sucking middlemen (aka giant record labels) would have evolved or shrunken away, and maybe our entire culture would have been better off (fewer cookie cutter pop stars, anyone?). Smaller labels would have had no trouble monetizing, just like they do today anyway - with more interesting physical releases, more/better concerts, a resurgence in vintage-format media, pay-what-you-can downloads, free streaming to help spread music, and much more.

Ad blocking is the same way. I wouldn't be surprised if Google lobbied congress to pass an anti-adblocking law. When you think about it, and for the reasons stated here, it'd be very similar to the DMCA. Google has enough at stake here to make spending hundreds of millions in lobbying dollars quite worthwhile for Google. And as we know, congress is cheap.

Instead of rooting for the old ad-supported paradigm, let's brainstorm how a newer, sleeker web could monetize:

  • more thoughtfully crafted ads, negotiated more directly with businesses, not served from ad farms, and hence not so easily blocked (aka native ads)
  • opt-in / crowdfunded memberships with perks (plenty of tipping services out there on the net)
  • merchandising
  • online or offline "rent party" type fundraisers, where website fans could meet and mingle
  • In general, new products that people are more interested in paying for
To reiterate and conclude: if your website can't make money without crappy ads, and nobody looks at your crappy ads because of advances in technology, then blaming that technology puts you squarely on the wrong side of history.

A similar opinion I just found:


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  2. The solution to ads is resource allocation via micropayments / Bitcoin. When you see partial content that you like, and you want to see the rest, you should be able to just click on it and the payment is done, and the content is displayed. We don't have this functionality yet because currently sites pop up an opt-in and ask the user to create an account, provide a username/password, enter credit card details... blah blah. It's just unworkable as long as we're stuck on 20th century banking technology. Cryptocurrencies will fix all that.

  3. Hey Leli. I'd like your feedback on my position on advertising. It includes your opinion that it damages the internet and undermines the free market, but goes much further. My comment on the Hacker News discussion of "ad blocking 'controversy' aka foolishness"[1] has links to my position, though you may have to go a couple levels deep.

    If you agree, are you willing to contribute your writing or tech talents to an activist website that explains the reality about the ad-based internet? You can find my email in my HN profile.