We Should Care About Why We Get Paid

The amoral dumpster fire that is online advertising

I very briefly touched on this a few weeks ago, but to state the obvious once again — online advertising is a mess. The landscape is a rapidly changing free-for-all with multiple business interests (wireless providers, hardware makers, publishers, social media platforms) all trying to shake money out of consumers. For instance, wireless carriers want to charge you for data as if you had any idea how much data you need, and publishers want to load up 100kb web pages with 15 megabytes of animated ads and javascript trackers as if data usage didn’t matter.

There are a couple arguments out there, and I have reactions to all of them as someone who’s been in online marketing for a while, someone who reads a lot of things on a phone, and someone who writes a fair amount.

Argument #1 : If you don’t like a site’s ads, don’t visit the site.

This is the “it’s like software piracy” argument, and frankly, I don’t find it compelling at all. What you get from people who visit your site is totally opaque to them — they don’t get to decide if you’re worth what they have to give up because they have no idea what they are giving up, or because they have to give it up first before ever actually seeing anything. Do you use non-tracking, unobtrusive ads from The Deck? Do you follow people around forever, monetizing their visits to other sites that have nothing to do with you? Either way, in most cases the user has no idea, and they definitely have no idea when they’ve never been to the site before. This is not a fair market exchange. I suspect publishers are a little blind to this argument because they’re understandably myopic about their site, but in reality, cruising around the internet like a normal person involves constantly visiting places you’ve never been before. You can say that shouldn’t be the case — that readers should have long term relationships with their publishers, like they did with print magazines — but then you’re kind of making an argument for a smaller universe of content, which is better served by either native apps, or subscriptions. If you’re a big proponent of media being consumed via the “open web”, I think you have to consider how that open web is most likely going to be accessed by the general public.

Speaking of subscriptions… paywalls are fair market exchanges. You describe what you have to offer in advance, in whatever form you find appropriate. If people are interested, they can pay for access at the price you’ve specified. End of story. Consumers can get pissy about paywalls if they want, but the truth is that they just don’t think access to said content is worth the money, and that’s fine.

Some organizations use paywalls. However, most do not, because they do not want you to decide if visiting the site is worth the cost you pay, because it’s not a cost most people are willing to pay. So, like anyone else who wants to sell something for more than the market is willing to pay, they’d prefer to obfuscate the cost through advertising and undisclosed tracking. That way, not only do customers think the content is free (when it’s not), but you can actually change the price people pay (more tracking, more ads, etc.) without telling them (and hopefully without most of them ever even figuring it out), which gives you control over what you’re charging.

I don’t have Slate Plus, for instance, but I’m also not running around trying to steal Slate Plus content. I understand what’s there, and occassionally it sounds pretty compelling, but I forgo hearing/reading it because I don’t want to pay for it. This is a normal, fair market interaction. I have zero resentment for Slate putting Plus content behind a paywall. I don’t think they are “misleading” people or anything like that — and best of all, they are taking control (and responsibility) for their revenue model. At some point, they may offer content that is valuable enough to me (maybe because it improves, or maybe because I have more money) that I’ll pay to access it.

Argument #2 : It’s only okay to block tracking and “bad” advertisments.

This is an oversimplified version of John Gruber’s argument; basically that “ad-blocking” has really become “garbage blocking”, and that there are plenty of ads that aren’t garbage.

I am pretty receptive to this, although I don’t think the industry will ever coalesce around this thinking. It allows for a floating definition of “bad” that I will probably agree with when Jason Kottke defines it, and wildly disagree with when a Conde Nast executive is trying to hit a growth number. I guess someone with a really good grasp of how this stuff works (not conceptually, but literally how different networks and marketing platforms are implemented) could build the “right” kind of blocker, but I certainly don’t blame regular people for saying “the hell with it” and just blocking external calls for data. Things have simply gotten that bad.

Argument #3 : This is really about moving people away from the open web and into closed platforms (Facebook, Apple News, etc.)

You know what? This is totally plausible. You can follow the money pretty easily, and see why the company that’s forcing this confrontation — Apple — stands to benefit (even marginally) from a world where online advertising as we know it dies. If people on the open web can’t monetize through whatever crazy, convoluted technical shenanigans they want, everyone will have to go through controlled channels, and the owners of those channels will obviously benefit.

This is Nilay Patel’s argument, and it’d be a lot more convincing as the primary thrust behind all of this if he wasn’t completely unable to defend his publication’s (The Verge) advertising & tracking policies, which are abhorrent. His responses to criticism so far have been so flippant, and so obviously dimissive of clear evidence, that I can only assume he’s either personally hurt by this debate, or is emotionally unprepared to deal with a world in which he’s in any way morally culpable for how his business makes money. Given how brilliant of a writer and thinker he is at his best, it’s difficult for me to believe he really and truly sees this as nothing more than a platform power play from Apple, a company that already makes more money than God from selling devices that made mobile open-web browsing a reality for the mainstream.

Publishers — and journalists — aren’t ready for this kind of responsibility.

Journalism is a funny thing. It’s pretty much always had to function inside capitalism, but for large periods of time, economic conditions insulated it from how capitalism actually works. For a long time, newspapers had geographic near-monopolies, and safe, reliable revenue streams from things like classified ads. Even print magazines had protection from competition due to the simple fact that making a magazine was inherently expensive.

All of that has been blown up, and while journalists and pundits have practically reveled in analyzing the disruption of music, television, and other forms of mass media, the idea of it happening to them seems to simply be too much to process. To me, Patel’s knee-jerk “this is an attempt to kill the open web!” response reflects a general uncomfortableness with thinking about revenue at all; that it’s inherently the responsibility of someone else. That’s what we’re talking about here — the complete outsourcing of advertising (and whatever that entails) to a third party. The Verge brings eyeballs, someone else does whatever they want to make money off those eyeballs, and gives some of that money to the people who write on The Verge. If you have a problem with that, you apparently have a problem with the open web.

Bullshit. I have a problem with publishers refusing to take any responsibility for how they make money in the name of editorial independance. It’s a false dichotomy, just like it’s a false dichotomy for the engineers at my companies to have to choose between working in development, or weighing in on who we sell to and how we do it. They do both, leaning on the business team to make front-line decisions, but demanding transparency and visibility into what we do and pushing back when they think something doesn’t align with their values. It’s their company too, and they deserve to know (a) how we can afford to pay them, and (b) whatever moral quandaries arise from doing it. Those conversations are often fascinating, as idealistic bubbles run into business realities, and messy, but morally acceptable resolutions are hammered out.

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But in Patel’s view, there’s no solution here to determined, other than that mobile browsers should take on the responsibility of more seamlessly handling the megabytes of trash publishers inject into pages. The market value of The Verge isn’t to be determined by the people who might want to read it; people who stumble onto the site are expected to allow themselves to be monetized in whatever manner The Verge finds most optimal, or else they’ve committed a moral violation. That lets writers and pundits to simply shrug away the reading experience (“not my job!”), or better yet, to complain about it without taking any responsibility.

I’ve always considered the possibility of getting into digital media — I even applied at Vox a few years ago (The Verge’s publisher), as they’re in DC and seem like an interesting company. But I’ve never been interested in creating content for money in an protective cocoon that insulates me from where that money comes from. That’s what this site is for.