The Social Interruptions
So much advertising is predicated on interruption. Think about television, where the interruption of advertising is so codified, that many shows deliberately insert cliffhanger moments just before the next batch of commercials. Back in the early days of television, sponsors attempted to integrate their advertisements into the narrative of the program, as if the interruption to the story wouldn’t be noticed. Compared to that mess, I appreciate the bald-faced nature of television ads.
Interruption is what makes advertising on social media such a problem. You’re reading through your stream, catching up with the moments of your friends, maybe sharing your own, and suddenly there’s an advertisement for something. It’s an interruption of your conversation. Much like back in the early days of television, companies often try to make their ads blend in to their streams, as if you won’t notice. Unlike the early days of television, the social stream companies have the ability to find ways to at least make the ads relevant, as if that can offset the interruption.
Why are we so up in arms when Twitter decides to algorithmically determine what shows up in our feeds? It’s because they’re interrupting the conversations in our stream. Why is it so obnoxious when Facebook’s “Top Stories” hides important updates from our friends? It’s an interruption to the narrative flow of people’s lives. Even worse is that it’s an interruption that pretends to be part of the conversation. That’s why they relentlessly track our browsing, our conversations, and anything else they can get. Like the sponsorships on 50s TV, they think that if the ads are integrated into the experience, we’ll forgive the interruption.
I take the position that advertising is an unfortunately necessary evil. Nobody likes to hear it, but as long as there are products that need to be sold, advertising will exist. This will never change. The advertising arms race comes from the human ability to eventually tune out repeated, non-value stimulus (e.g. Banner Blindness). What can done if none of us want to be interrupted by irrelevant (or relevant, but unwanted) advertising?
We could pay, but discussions about people’s unwillingness to pay for ad-free, tracking-free services often ignore those who can’t pay for those services. We already have a stratified Internet between the haves and have-nots (moreso than you might think). A privacy-conscious paid-tier Internet, above and beyond the existing cost of service from your local ISP, would only make matters worse. There must be a third way, a balance that can be struck between the needs of Internet users, between companies that need to make money to keep the lights on, and between the necessary evil of advertising.
I just hope it means less interruption.