Essays on Technology and Culture

A Few Scattered Thoughts on Web Advertising

Everyone’s talking about ads, and tracking scripts, and web performance, and ads, and ads, and ads. As someone who works in media—albeit niche, specialized media—and someone whose job involves setting up lists and tracking codes for targeted advertising, it all hits home. It’s the part of my job I hate the most, even more than the gross pictures of dermatological disorders that end up in my inbox at least once a week. [1] Yet, as someone who also uses the web, who makes things for the web, who genuinely loves the web, and who wants to somehow make a living with making things for the web, I’m genuinely conflicted as hell about the whole thing.

Let’s face it, advertising is a necessary evil—only not actually evil, at least in theory. Someone has a product they need to sell. Someone has a need for a product to do something for them. Advertising is often how that gap is bridged, and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet, some people roll their eyes and view advertising as an affront to all it means to be human. Sure, many ads are bad, and advertisers in the digital age want more and more data so they can get closer and closer to the creepy world of one-to-one advertising—which both evil and unnecessary—but advertising as a general concept is not.

Speaking as both a digital media employee who has to deal with ads, and as a web user who uses an ad blocker and a tracking script blocker at home, the frustration—and the conflict—arises, when advertising becomes more important than content. We’re not going to The Verge, or iMore, or wherever to look at ads. We’re going there to read cool stuff, and the ads are getting in the damn way.

I’ve taken to unblocking the ads on sites that use ads in a respectful, polite manner. Stuff like The Loop, Six Colors, Daring Fireball, Metafilter, etc. Usually these are places that use ad networks like Fusion and The Deck, who also don’t target and track users. These ad networks, however, don’t work at the scale needed to support a site like iMore, or The Verge. So, they’ve gotta go for the more gross, and intrusive ads.

But what’s the alternative? The content model on the web is broken. Nobody wants to pay for anything—who do you know who has a digital subscription to the New York Times, anyway? The only way to make money at media scale with ads is more intrusive, obnoxious ads, and it’s clear audiences are fed the fuck up. It’s unlikely that online audiences are going to start coughing up money for commoditized content. With Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies creating content platforms that free readers from the burden of obnoxious ads, content is only going to be more commoditized, and harder to make money from.

I don’t have a solution, but I can’t help but think people would be less inclined to block ads if the ads weren’t so obnoxious. We’re a long way from the days of egregious pop-up ads that spawn more pop-up ads, flashing neon-colored “YOU ARE OUR 100,000th VISITOR” banners, and “Punch the Monkey” garbage that could crash your entire machine… but that’s a small blessing. There’s going to have to be a reckoning and a pushback against the current ad model, and it won’t be pretty when it happens. I just hope I’m in a place far from ground zero when it blows up.

  1. And those dermatological disorders are occasionally on parts of the body you don’t want to see in your work inbox.  ↩