Vote with your wallet, not your ad blocker

I loathe web ads as much as any­one. I gave a talk in 2013 where I sug­gested that the dom­i­nant eco­nomic model of the web—ad­ver­tis­ing—was in­hibit­ing de­sign excellence.

Why? Be­cause web ad­ver­tis­ing is a bad busi­ness, and it’s only get­ting worse. De­sign bud­gets are de­clin­ing with it. And though this is bad for web de­sign­ers—as I said then, it means their work is get­ting “re­stricted to a smaller and smaller box”—it’s even worse for the web at large. Be­cause if web ad­ver­tis­ing can’t even sup­port de­sign, it means the web is al­ready run­ning on fumes.

I’m far from the only one to make that ob­ser­va­tion. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to make this next ob­ser­va­tion. But it will have to be said more than once.

I’m grate­ful for ad-block­ing tech­nol­ogy. I use ad block­ers in all my desk­top browsers. And like the rest of iAmer­ica, I’m ea­ger to use the ad block­ers en­abled by the new iOS update.

But I’m skep­ti­cal that ad block­ers have the ef­fect we like to think they do. Let’s call it the “civil dis­obe­di­ence” the­ory of web ads. As read­ers, we know that we hurt pub­lish­ers—and writ­ers and jour­nal­ists and every­one who works at these pub­lish­ers—by block­ing their ads. But the ads are get­ting more in­tru­sive and an­noy­ing. And the only way pub­lish­ers will change their ap­proach is if we block their ads, a.k.a. take what we want for free.

A log­i­cally co­her­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for block­ing ads. But it has three sig­nif­i­cant flaws.

  1. I agree that web ads are get­ting more in­tru­sive—but are ad block­ers the so­lu­tion, or the cause? This arms race has been go­ing on for years al­ready. At the out­set, ad­ver­tis­ers merely wanted a strip at the top of the screen. For in­stance, here’s the web’s first ban­ner ad, from 1994—

    But we didn’t even want to let ad­ver­tis­ers have that. So coun­ter­mea­sures en­sued. And coun­ter­coun­ter­mea­sures. Maybe if we had just clicked right THERE, right then, none of this would’ve happened.

    You could say that the rise of ad track­ing and sur­veil­lance is an in­de­pen­dent phe­nom­e­non. I’m not con­vinced. Print, ra­dio, and TV ads aren’t tar­geted to the same de­gree. But they’re also not block­able to the same de­gree. Be­cause web ads are of­ten blocked, they’ve had to rely on sur­veil­lance to add value and pre­serve their small profit mar­gin. As the mar­gin has got­ten smaller, more sur­veil­lance has been needed, and so on.

  2. On that view, we can al­ready pre­dict what ef­fect this next round of ad block­ing will have on the web at large: it will make things worse, not bet­ter. Did you think pub­lish­ers would aban­don ads en masse? “Fi­nally, we see the er­ror of our ways!”

    Of course not. In­stead, they’ll sim­ply redi­rect their at­ten­tion to­ward whichever read­ers still aren’t us­ing an ad blocker. In turn, the writ­ing and con­tent on these sites will in­creas­ingly be tar­geted to these read­ers. Web ads are now a form of re­gres­sive tax­a­tion. As a re­sult, the av­er­age qual­ity of the web—de­sign, writ­ing, every­thing—will con­tinue to suffer.

    You’re right—as ad-block­ing soft­ware be­comes more pop­u­lar, that’s a down­ward spi­ral that can’t go on for­ever. But fel­low ad avoiders, we must ap­pre­ci­ate the cost of our dis­obe­di­ence. The first vic­tims of ad-rev­enue star­va­tion aren’t go­ing to be dreck like Game In­former or Fam­ily Cir­cle. They have the re­serves they need to sur­vive. In­stead, the vic­tims will be the sites we like, which will ei­ther shut down or “pivot” to ap­peal to a dif­fer­ent kind of reader.

  3. In the end, the con­ver­sa­tion about ad block­ing is really a con­ver­sa­tion about how we cre­ate a sus­tain­able model for web pub­lish­ing. It’s an im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tion. And it touches every­one who puts writ­ing on the web—from in­di­vid­ual au­thors (like me) to be­he­moth news or­ga­ni­za­tions and book publishers.

    But as of­ten hap­pens on the web, most of the en­ergy so far has been fo­cused on grip­ing about the bad thing, rather than mak­ing pro­duc­tive steps to­ward re­plac­ing it with some­thing bet­ter. The only thing that can really put a dent in web ad­ver­tis­ing is a bet­ter eco­nomic model. As long as ads are the only game in town, ad block­ers will just make things worse, as pub­lish­ers have shown they will chase every ad nickel, down to the last one spin­ning on the edge of the drain.

Am I say­ing you should re­frain from us­ing an ad blocker? No. But con­sider off­set­ting your act of dis­obe­di­ence with an act of af­fir­ma­tive sup­port. Vote with your wal­let. Put some money be­hind the writ­ing you like—whether it’s a web­site or a mag­a­zine or a news­pa­per. “But such-and-such web­site won’t let me pay for it.” Then dis­cover some­thing new. As a reader, what’s im­por­tant is not where you put your money, but rather that you re­main an eco­nomic par­tic­i­pant in the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try. Be­cause oth­er­wise you’re a free­loader. And when the writ­ing you like is gone, you’ll have noth­ing to com­plain about.

You won’t go wrong with a print or dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tion to:

The At­lantic
The Guardian Weekly
Harper’s Mag­a­zine
Mother Jones
The Na­tion
The New Yorker
New York mag­a­zine
Vir­ginia Quar­terly Re­view
your lo­cal daily newspaper

—Matthew But­t­er­ick
17 Sept 2015

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