Internet Advertising (Part 3)

So in parts one and two of my three-part diatribe against Internet advertising, I took a number of common arguments made by people who like advertisments, and deconstructed them. Often times, in debates about this subject, the person supporting advertisements will at some point say “Well, we don’t know any better way to do it, so we’re stuck with advertising for right now.” First of all, this is another really lazy argument—it concedes that advertising is bad, but it’s not willing to try to fix it. Secondly, this argument is also false. There are a number of other models for supporting and paying people for the creative work they do on the Internet, and some of those models are really starting to take off! Here I’d like to talk about three such models, but before I do I want to discuss a mind-shift that needs to happen for content creators on the Internet:

That mind-shift is simply this: Not everyone is going to pay for your content, and that’s OK. There’s a knee-jerk reaction that somehow if you don’t pay for someone’s content, you’re stealing, or an evil person, or whatever. But the truth is, that everyone has a finite amount of money, and a finite amount of things that they’re willing to spend it on (and here, I’m using money to mean “any sort of thing that supports the content creator”, whether it’s a direct donation or advertising dollars). And I’m going to say it one more time, the Internet is the single greatest equalizing force our society has ever seen. Part of the reason behind this is that it allows literally anybody to view the creations of anyone else in the world. If you stick something on the Internet, you do it because you want and expect other people to look at it and (hopefully) benefit from it. If you expect every single person to pay for the things you create, then either you’re not going to make much money or you’re going to undermine the equalizing force of the Internet. So, content creators, just stop it. Not everyone will pay for your content, and that’s a good thing.

“But wait!” you say. “If I don’t get paid for the stuff I make, how will I eat? And I went to school to learn how to make my doo-widgets, and I have a lot of debt! You surely don’t expect me to do this for free, do you?” Of course not, don’t be silly. I’ve already said that a lot of people will do it for free, but it’s equally dumb to expect everyone do to it for free. So, without further ado, here are three ways to still make a living without making everyone pay for it.

  1. Freemium websites. This is maybe the “No duh” option, and in fact a lot of websites do this already. The basic idea is that you have a “free” version of the website with advertisements, and a “for-pay” version of the website that removes the ads, and possibly provides some other bonus content. Ars Technica, a popular tech news site, uses this model. New York Times does a variant of this, where you can read 10 free articles per month, but any more than that requires a subscription. This is certainly better than nothing (and in fact, I subscribe to both Ars Technica and NYT), but I still see three fundamental problems with this approach:

    Firstly, advertising is still the default option. If someone forgets to log in, or visits from a different computer, or whatever, they still get the advertising. And we’ve already discussed why this is bad. A lot of times these sites use guilt-trips or nag-reminders to make the people who refuse to participate in the advertising social contract feel bad (I’m looking at you, Ars Technica). Let me just say that guilting your readership base into doing something is a terrible way to keep said readership base.

    Secondly, this solution is not a very robust solution. Freemium content is really easy to get access to if you are dedicated enough. Heck, to get around the NYTimes article limit, all you have to do is delete your cookies! A hassle, but not a huge one. I mean, here’s the point: if content is on the Internet, and somebody wants to get access to it, they will get access to it. You can’t protect it behind a paywall, and you can’t expect people to respect your arbitrary website rules. It just won’t happen.

    Thirdly, most freemium content is pretty worthless. In addition to the “no advertising” thing, Ars Technica offers some bonus podcasts and articles. I don’t think I’ve read a single one of them. I certainly didn’t sign up for my Ars subscription to get access to it, and I certainly didn’t sign up because I was guilted into it by their naggy spam. I signed up for my subscription because I believe that Ars Technica’s core content is worth paying for. And that’s not unique: the trouble with digital content in the modern age is that it’s really tough to come up with “freemium” incentives that are worth much of anything at all. Most content creators have a thing they’re good at or focused on, and their bonus content is either going to not be as good as their core content or just more of the same. So, freemium certainly can work, but I don’t think it’s a very good model.

  2. Microtransactions. This is an idea that I’ve heard bandied around a little bit, but it certainly isn’t in use anywhere that I know of, and would require a fundamental shift in the Internet infrastructure, as well as the mind-sets of the content consumers. The basic idea is the following: let’s just charge money for all the websites on the Internet. We don’t want to make this a huge amount of money, and we don’t want to prioritize one site over another, so let’s just say that every time you load a page, some centralized authority collects $0.000001. At certain points through the year, that money would be disbursed to all the website operators in the world according to the number of pageviews they got during that period.

    This is a really interesting solution to me, and I’d like to have a window into a parallel universe where this is done, but I again don’t think it’s a good solution for the world we live in. Firstly, people are funny about money. It wouldn’t matter if a page load cost so little money that you never spent more than a dollar a year browsing the Internet: as soon as you start charging money for something on the Internet, people tend to get angry, or refuse to participate. I certainly do this.

    There’s also the problem that charging money, even very small amounts, kindof destroys the Internet. Some people just don’t have money, even $0.000001. So you’re cutting them off from the Internet, from the one thing that’s supposed to be available to them as an equalizer.

    Finally, there’s all the technical hurdles that would need to be overcome: how do you collect the money? How do you keep track of who gets how much? Who’s the central authority managing all this money? What happens if they get hacked? What do we do about internet connectivity problems? Do we charge people for every single page load, even if the first dozen times they loaded it they only got half the content because their connection crapped out on them? Yea, none of those are easy questions, and there’s a dozen others lurking beneath the surface. For that reason, I don’t expect to see this model take off anytime in the near future.

  3. Sponsorships and Crowdsourcing. Here’s the idea I’m most excited about. See, a few years ago, Kickstarter came along and allowed people to get paid for making things, even if they didn’t have a centralized marketing division or factory or company behind them. We’ve seen all kinds of great things come out of Kickstarter, and all kinds of really stupid things, and all kinds of projects that have just failed or tanked for whatever reason. We’ve also seen Amazon allow writers to get on there and just start selling their books without a publisher; Steam lets people do this for video games; Bandcamp lets people do this for music. Crowdfunding is all over the web.

    In fact, the crowd-funding service that I’m most excited about is Patreon; the idea here is that the content creator says, “This is the kind of content I make. In order to keep making it, I need some money. Would anybody out there on the Internet be willing to pay me for the stuff I do?” And if the content is good enough, and the creator has a big enough following, he or she can actually make a pretty decent living doing this. The cool thing is that the content creator doesn’t have to have billions of patrons to make a living. You’ll need more than 20 people who like your stuff, but a few hundred people pledging a couple of bucks a month? That’s something that most people can get behind, and it’ll be a pretty nice addition to your paycheck.

    Here’s the other thing that’s awesome about this approach: it doesn’t require, or even expect everyone to pay for the content. You get a few people who like the content enough, and they’ll pay to make it available to everyone. Now we’re really getting at the spirit of the Internet as the great equalizer. And it actually for-reals works! There is tons of content on the Internet being supported by patronage, and that number is growing daily.

    Also, for you history buffs out there, it turns out that “crowd-funding” or patronage for content is centuries old. This is how most of the art that we go look at, admire, and draw inspiration from in museums and churches and castles and private collections was created. Somebody, or a few somebodies, said “We want art: we’ll pay you to make it, and then we’ll show it off to everyone who comes to my thing!” It’s only in the last couple hundred years or so that we’ve moved to this model of expecting everyone who consumes content to also pay for it, and from my perspective that’s not a very sustainable way of doing things. So it’s nice to see a service that is moving us back towards a more traditional way of creating content :)

So anyways, that concludes my long-winded series on why Internet Advertising (TM) is an evil thing, and why you should all be losing AdBlock. Because frankly, the more people who use AdBlock, the faster of a death advertising will die.

And just in case it wasn’t entirely clear from this sequence of articles, yes, I put my money where my mouth is. I support content creators on the Internet through services like Patreon, I participate in donation drives for websites I believe in (like Wikipedia and Mozilla), and I pay for subscription services to get rid of ads when I believe the content is valuable enough. But I don’t do this everywhere! I still use AdBlock, because there are a ton of sites I benefit from, but I’m not willing to support monetarily. And this is how it should be. A single person can’t support all of the content on the Internet, but together all of us can support all the content on the Internet.

P.S. Oh, right, here’s the other thing: none of my websites are supported by advertising, and nothing I create ever will be supported by advertising. The stuff I create is either free for all or I’ll do a Patreon for it.

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