Internet Advertising (Part 1)

Every once in a while, when I feel like getting really angry, I go find an article on the Internet condemning the use of AdBlock. This perspective makes me angry for a lot of reasons, and I’m always really tempted to leave a scathing comment deconstructing the fallacies and assumptions that go into this perspective. I even went so far yesterday to make a biting remark on my Twitter feed yesterday, before deleting it 30 seconds later. Then I remembered this morning that I have my very own blog with which I can rant about things, and since nobody reads it, it doesn’t matter!

Before we go any further, let me give you a little history lesson to make sure we’re all on the same page. Exhibit A: The Internet. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s “free”, in the sense that as long as you can pay for an ISP, or walk to a public library, or whatever, you can read all kinds of stuff there. It is the greatest equalizing force that has ever existed in the history of humanity, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. A person anywhere on the planet can read (or watch, or participate in, or help create) anything that anybody else feels like putting up.

Exhibit B: Google. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It used to be, back in the days when the Internet was young and nobody really knew what it was, that most websites were an awful conglomeration of flashing banner-scrolling visitor counters made on Geocities. In 1998, or thereabouts, the Google search engine came along and made it supremely easy to find content on the Internet. Moreover, it was free! (I mean, so was everything else in those days, but the fact that Google was free will become significant in a moment). Then Google went public in 2004, and all of a sudden it was a big company with shareholders and employees, and servers, and lots of things that cost money, and it needed some way to get paid. So it introduces advertising to the Internet.

[Editor’s note: Don’t nitpick the details. There was advertising on the Internet before Google, but Google was the first company to figure out how to do it “right” — or actually, “wrong”, if you agree with me]

See, here’s the idea: Google gets millions of people a day looking at its website. So then Google says to companies, “Hey, look at all these people visiting our site and using our awesome service! Tell you what — if you give us money, we will display ads for your stuff to the people who use our search engine.” It’s actually not a bad business strategy, and has been used pretty successfully by radio and TV for a while. Fast forward a decade, and the little-known fact is that Google’s advertising business is bigger than anything else it does (I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, but look at it this way: if you go to a website—ANY website—and it has ads on it, those ads are more than likely served by Google). Google’s entire corporation—email, maps, Google+, News, everything—is propped up by one giant advertising crutch.

See, Google is now playing an advertising middle-man: if you own a website, and you want to monetize it, you can go to Google and say, hey, put some ads on my site! And Google will go to companies and say, “Hey, this guy wants money! Put some ads on his site!” and the website owner gets paid based on how many people visit his site, and the advertisers get to sell their crap, and Google gets a cut because they arranged the whole deal. Everybody’s a big happy family!

Well, everybody except the people who actually visit the website and have to deal with all this extraneous crap that demands their attention, that demands that you “look at me, buy me, make out with me!” See, advertisers figured out a long time ago that if the ads are easy to ignore, they’re not worth much, because people will ignore them. And there are all kinds of nasty tricks advertisers can play (sound, flashing, motion, bright colors, naked women, etc.) to draw your attention to the ad, which detract from the content that you’re actually trying to read.

So anyways, that bit of digression finally brings us to our last exhibit, and the point of this article:

Exhibit C: AdBlock Plus. AdBlock Plus is a plugin that installs into your web browser and does exactly what it sounds like: blocks the ads. It does this by analyzing all of the content on the page, and just refusing to load the content that it identifies as advertising. There’s nothing very clever about it, actually—it just looks at a giant, crowdsourced list of known advertisements, and if anything on the page matches anything on the list, it doesn’t get loaded. It’s a wonderful plugin, and I’m honestly astonished at how different and ugly the Internet looks on a web browser without AdBlock. I highly encourage you to go install it right now.

But this brings us to the heart of the conflict. See, when ads don’t get loaded, the owner of the website doesn’t get paid. It’s pretty easy to tell when an advertisment doesn’t load, and advertisers are naturally unwilling to shell out money for something that is guaranteeed to have no impact on their market base. So then the website owners are unhappy because their paycheck is smaller, and they accuse people who use AdBlock of “stealing”, and they whine that if everybody used AdBlock, the Internet wouldn’t exist because nobody would get paid. But, really, this is all just a shell game and logical fallacies. I’d like to deconstruct these arguments here:

  • Argument 1: If you use AdBlock, you’re stealing from the person who created the content! This is the most common argument that gets trotted out against people who block advertisements, and it drives me absolutely up the wall. Firstly, it tries to guilt people into doing something, which is never a good way to start a debate, and then it sets up a false equivalence. Refusing to look at advertisements on the internet is no more stealing from content creators than turning off the TV or radio when an advertisement comes on. Stealing is when I take something from you and then you don’t have it any more. By comparing AdBlock to stealing, you’re saying that you don’t understand the inherent social contract of the Internet, or of the creative economy at large.

    See, here’s the problem: when you say people are stealing your paycheck, what you really are saying is “I’m entitled to get paid for the work that I do.” And that’s fine if you think that, but not everyone does. I never entered into any contract or agreement with you saying “I will pay you for your work.” Instead, you voluntarily put your work on the Internet for anyone to read, and then expected to get paid for it.

    And I don’t totally blame you for thinking this way, either. The history of the Internet has pulled the wool over the average consumer’s eyes. The average consumer doesn’t realize that they’re paying you for your work, because they don’t know how the advertising system works. All they know is that they’re getting stuff for free, and you’re getting paid for it! That sounds like a pretty sweet deal on all sides, until you think a little deeper. See, there’s something that’s been swept under the rug, that nobody (consumers or creators) likes to think about: The content produced by the creators is NOT what’s for sale. What’s for sale are the people who VIEW the advertisements. When people go around the Internet viewing “free” websites, they are actually selling themselves to advertisers, in a very literal sense. Your viewing habits are tracked across the Internet by advertisers, and enormous databases are stored of who visits what when where, so that advertisers can more effectively sell you their crap that you don’t need. It is an enormous industry with earth-shattering implications for privacy, corporations, society, and the world. I believe, in fact, that the advertising economy undermines and destroys the great equalizing power of the Internet—knowledge is power in a very real sense, and advertisers wield enormous power over the Internet. And as much as I’m sometimes hyperbolic when I write, nothing I’ve said in this paragraph is hyperbole.

    That is the social contract of the Internet as it exists today, and it is a social contract that I never signed and refuse to participate it. If you don’t like the fact that I refuse to participate in that contract, fine. But at least be honest about it, and stop calling me a thief.

  • Argument 2: If everyone used AdBlock, the Internet would cease to exist because no one would get paid! This argument also demonstrates a severe lack of understanding about human nature, and about the history of the Internet. What you’re really saying when you make this argument is “If everyone used AdBlock, I’m scared that I wouldn’t get paid!” It’s a slight twist on the previous argument.

    See, creative people need to create. They don’t care if they get paid to do so, though having money is nice. They’re going to create regardless of if they get paid or if anybody ever looks at it. People who love teaching are the same way. They’re going to find a way to teach and explain about the world, regardless of whether they get paid for it. Critics, authors, craftsmen, researchers—they’re all in it for the love of the game. This is what we see in the early beginnings of the Internet. Nobody was getting paid to make all this cool stuff and put it up there, they did it in their spare time, and did other things to support their creativity. This is how art has worked since forever, and it’s why the stereotype of the starving artist is so accurate.

    [Editor’s note: Sheesh, I can hear the objections from here. You’re right, not every single creator will create things if they don’t get paid. We’d lose some stuff for sure without advertising. But there are thousands—maybe millions—of people who create things and put them on the Internet, and don’t get paid a single cent for them. They do it because they love to create. They do it because if they don’t create something, anything at all, they’ll go crazy.]

    So the first fallacy in this argument—that the Internet wouldn’t exist if people didn’t get paid—is completely false. It might look substantially different, but it very clearly would not cease to exist. The second logical fallacy in this argument is that everything on the Internet is inherently worth supporting monetarily. This is also clearly false. Not everything is worth money. Not everything is worth the same amount of money to all people. The advertising economy of the Internet has created this false dichotomy, where it doesn’t matter who the other person is, you get paid! It doesn’t matter whether they loved the thing you made or hated it, you get paid! Advertising has decoupled the feedback mechanism between consumers and creators. If a creator makes something bad, that’s his perogative, but he can’t force other people to like it or to support him making other bad things. That’s how economics is supposed to work.

Actually, I went around the Internet looking for other reasons why people believe AdBlock is bad, and everything I could find was either outright guilt-tripping/shaming, or some variant of one of the above two arguments. Which, actually, I’m glad there aren’t more arguments out there, because I’m already pushing 2000 words on these article, and I haven’t even begun to cover why AdBlock is a good thing.

So I guess this article will have to be a two-parter (or maybe even a three-parter). But until next time, block more ads! Or at the very least, be honest about the social contract of the Internet, and about your expectations of that social contract.

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