I was in a shop recently, a real bricks-and-mortar high street shop. I bought a magazine and the shopkeeper said “no, it’s free.” Free? He pointed to the walls of his shop, floor to ceiling advertisements.
“Everything in the shop is free. My income comes from the adverts.”
“Good for you,” I said before realising the doors were locked. “I can’t get out.”
“No,” said the shopkeeper. “You can only go when you’ve looked at all the adverts.”
Now you’re thinking, hang on, Harrison, you just made all that up. And I’ll confess I sort of made it up, but the free shop scenario is a high street version of the moral morass we find ourselves with so-called free content on the web.
There has been an ongoing debate for some time now regarding the use of adblockers, and it amazes me that there are people who still don’t use them. I have Adblock which combined with No Script and Ghostery pretty much filters out everything from Youtube video ads to beacon cookies. I haven’t seen an advert on Youtube since 1487.
Some will say good on yer, where can I get these browser plug-ins? Others will shout thief. But let’s for a moment address some of the objections to using adblockers.
1 – they deny content providers an income.
Answer: tough. A high street shop giving stuff away and relying on adverts wouldn’t last a week, but online businesses seem to think they have some god-given entitlement to this unsustainable business model. It’s called the free market, sunshine. If you can’t make money from what you sell you don’t have a viable business.
2 – you don’t object to adverts on television (or magazines).
Answer: I don’t get called a thief if I change channels when the adverts come on, and no one cares if I turn the page of a magazine ignoring the advert for Tag Heuer watches I can’t afford.
3 – you’re taking advantage of a free service eg WordPress, but not paying for it.
Answer: altruism is a beautiful thing. In the old days I paid for web hosting and didn’t complain about it. If some mug offers me free web hosting knowing that adblockers exist to undermine their income that’s their problem, not mine.
Part of the problem here is that the internet was never designed to be a commercial sales channel. Back in the day the content was free. A lot of it was ugly shite, but it was free. Then big business saw the potential and expected us to start paying for stuff we previously got for nothing. They lured us in with free web hosting, discreetly supported by ads, and then the whole lot went up in smoke. Enter the multi-headed hydra of animated gifs, Flash, pop-ups, pop-unders, tracking cookies and scripts; anything to grab our attention and sell us stuff.
Today we have multi-billion dollar companies whose income model is entirely dependent on ad revenue. But before Facebook there were BB forums and we were happy enough with that. The owner of the forum might occasionally ask for a donation to pay for the hosting and we chucked in £5 or $5.
Internet advertisers are trying to change habits and people resist change. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Last year I watched a series of documentaries on Youtube. They were about finance and the world economy. What wasn’t apparent is that they were elaborate advertisements. I didn’t mind, they were fascinating to watch and the sell was discreet.
There are ways to improve online advertising if it’s essential. Make them interesting, cut down the bandwidth, stop tracking users (lets face it, it’s simply malware by any other name). There’s a big difference between making us look at an advert and forcing us to look at one. If you don’t understand that difference you shouldn’t be working in the industry. It might also help if the ads bore some relation to the content. I hate to think one of my carefully crafted posts about Malandanti mayhem and black magic is finished off by an advert for car hire in Clevelend.
And by the way, if you do see an advert at the end of this post it has nothing to do with me.