A couple months ago, Apple revealed that the upcoming iOS 9 will enable users to install ad blocking apps for Safari, marking ad blocking’s first serious foray into mobile browsing. If you’re thinking, “Great! I can’t wait to get rid of those pesky french fry ads that conveniently appear at 2 a.m.,” here’s something else for you to chew on: ads are the main source of revenue for the web, and if all of the sudden publishers have to figure out how to make up for losses that can total more than half of their operating budgets, some businesses may not survive.
Cue angsty op-eds, social media rants, and this week’s Note to Self.
The bulk of the episode is spent contemplating the fascinating ethical dilemma consumers face with ad blocking and the existential problem it poses to online content creators. Manoush does this with the help of guest Casey Johnston, a journalist who wrote an informative piece for The Awl on the subject. Would you, in good conscience, install ad blockers knowing that you are depriving your favorite sites of their financial lifeblood? Is avoiding the nuisance of clicking out of an ad every now and then worth potentially contributing to the demise of an entire business?
The Internet was built on an ad-based revenue model. Until recently, we’ve tolerated looking at some of annoying things we don’t like as long as we get to see the things we do enjoy for free. So what’s changed? A sort of tolerability threshold for how much ad-induced inconvenience consumers can take consistently appears as a theme in Note to Self‘s discussion as well as in other literature on the topic. What may have started out as just banners or side bar images that you could quickly scroll past are now videos, gifs, have sound, take forever to load, and even track your activity and personal information without your explicit consent.
One common response to the tolerability issue, which Manoush and Casey discuss, is the idea that publishers should push for “better” ads. But not everyone agrees on what characteristics a “better” ad should have. For some, “better” ads are ones that don’t intrude, don’t track your data, don’t eat up your bandwith, and don’t significantly detract from the user experience. Alternatively, as Casey notes, “better” ads might depart from distracting banner or pop-up ads to ones that people might actually want to see, like this entertaining Buzzfeed-Purina Friskies collaboration that has several million views on YouTube. While this is an interesting possibility, it should not be forgotten that sponsored content and native advertising comes with its own set of ethical dilemmas. 1
News of Apple’s ad blocking has been called adblockalypse, the new piracy, and, in Casey’s words, “kind of a bloodbath” (15:54). But let’s step away from the panicked press for a moment and consider: how devastating is this, really? This article in Fortune argues several reasons for why iOS 9’s ad-blocking capability may not be as catastrophic as some would make it seem, including a direct dispute of the widely-cited $22 billion number in favor of a more modest $1 billion. Additionally, iOS 9 does not automatically block ads—the user must still download and install an app—and the block would only work for Safari users.
This is not to say that there will not be serious, lasting consequences. Some small online publications may fail. Publishers will get pushed to the app format or have to make deals to host their content on Apple News. More publications may begin to more aggressively employ paywalls or subscription-based business models. In the long term, if ad blocking truly is the way of the future, the online publishing community will have to innovate a new way to generate revenue.
And change will likely occur in the consumer mindset as well. In a world where all quality media is hidden behind a paywall, will more and more people choose to start actually paying for content? Note to Self briefly mentions, but ultimately doesn’t linger on this possibility. And with reason: it’s hard to start paying for something we’re used to getting for free and alternatives to paid content are constantly popping up everywhere. 2 But if we risk completely losing access to our favorite publications, might we take the plunge? What if, in a strange twist of fate, paying for online content becomes the new norm?
For now, Note to Self offers us some practical alternatives: If you use ad blockers, take the time to whitelist certain websites. Pay for a subscription. Donate to Kickstarter. Put your money where your mouse is.
- In most cases, Manoush’s casual, conversational style makes her likable and easy to follow—but for someone who is self-professed “totally nerdy geeky,” she occasionally comes across about as tech savvy as my great aunt with a flip phone.
- Relatedly, the “figuring out how to install things on my phone” recordings scattered throughout the episode basically amount to mumbled ramblings and felt unnecessary. We get it: new technology can be hard to figure out sometimes. But did she really have to mention her arugula salad twice?
- Marco Arment and Peace should get a mention here: known for his excellent podcasting app Overcast, Marco pulled his ad-blocking app Peace from the App Store after it had been at the top of the Paid Apps list for more than 36 hours. In a blog post titled “Just Doesn’t Feel Good,” he wrote that he could not enjoy his app’s success while many others undeservedly took the hit as a result. Just some food for thought.
- The problem, I think, with the “better” ad approach is that ad blocking doesn’t differentiate between the non-obtrusive image in the corner and the monstrous video ad in the center of the page—it’s a black and white solution for a gray issue. ^
- This actually came up in Eric’s review of Wednesday’s Planet Money. ^
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