Posted on February 1st, 2016
In 2016, I want to see if I can use the Internet as if it is not powered by ads. For other posts in the series, click here.
Several people have asked me something along the lines of “hey, why don’t you just not click on the ads, and work on not being affected by them?"
So here are is the (unsatisfactory, I’m sure) answer:
I don’t ever purposefully click on ads, and I do work on not being (positively) affected by ads.
But, the more complete answer is that this is a surface question, and that the rabbit hole goes much deeper. This is not simply about not being affected by ads, but about the nature of the Internet, the nature of discourse, our attention spans, and much more.
To start, “not clicking on ads" is not as simple as you might think. Due to clickjacking, popovers, popunders, new windows, “native" advertising, and news-masquerading-as-ads, even the most discerning of us are clicking on ads without meaning to. Of course, ads are being designed this way on purpose, precisely because people try to avoid them. This, like much of the “adtech" space, is an arms-race.
As far as the “don’t be affected" question, it’s true that we can shape our attitudes and responses to limit how much we are manipulated. But there is a reason that this is such a huge industry: they work, even when we are prepared, and research supports this.
But there are deeper problems, and those are at the root of why I chose to do this experiment. If it were only the above, then I could have upped the arms-race by continuing to use good adblocking software.
First, as a risk & information security specialist, I must mention the problem of malvertising. The adtech ecosystem and the way that ads are served mean that we are injecting unsafe content into our sites and applications, and this is a major source of security compromise and privacy breach. (More on this here and here.) Whether by accident or malign intent, this continues to be a huge issue. Again, the arms race means that these issues are much more of a deep and architectural problem. For example, ad space on a page is often auctioned-off at time of page load, meaning that it is much more difficult and complex to try to verify and safely load that external content, especially if we want to load it in a way that prevents malicious code from affecting our other assets (not to mention the user).
On a semi-related note, we have privacy issues. In order to (try to) serve more effective and targeted ads, the adtech ecosystem has dug deeper and broader into our computing usage. Using cookies, tracking scripts, social networks, information purchases, and other techniques, more and more of our personal information is being collected and bartered for the purpose of getting us to view (and click) ads. And this information is not always (or, arguably, even usually) kept safe or used only for advertising.
As I continue this experiment, another angle that I am becoming increasingly aware of is the effect on quality and attention. You have probably joked about the way that “news" headlines and social media posts continue to devolve into terrible hot takes, listicles, and other attention-jerking headlines we call clickbait. This is not a surprising trend in an ad-driven Internet where it is more important to load “content" than it is to give the user a satisfying or edifying experience. Psychologically-powerful taunts are well-designed to get us to load that content to increase the number of pageviews, grab more of our information for targeting, and increase the value of ads on that domain. But, it comes at the price of quality & attention. It becomes harder to find good long-form uninterrupted news and essays. Our discourse is further slanted towards soundbites, slogans, and & short polemics. It becomes more difficult to tackle and untangle complex issues. Our speech is tempered by our desire to appeal to certain advertisers and advertisees. In short, it is a dumbing-down of the Internet.
The above issue leads us to a related point. The ad-driven model of the Internet is normalized and crowds out other models, such as paid service, patronage, micropayment, donation-based, and public-service. It is the standard, and most others are considered abnormal and unworthy of attention. You have seen this in how we derogatorily say “paywall", or how we groan and complain when an app costs 99 cents instead of being free. Yet, the costs of adtech ecosystem are often much higher, both in the “prices" I mentioned above, but also in other ways. Maciej Ceglowski of Pinboard has published an excellent number of talks and essays on these topics, which I would encourage you to read. “Our Website Obesity Crisis" reminds us that "it costs [the reader] thirty cents to load a page from [one of these sites] on a typical data plan". Remember: that is for a single load! Maciej also introduces the concept of “Investor Storytime" to remind us how much of our Internet ecosystem is built on a bubble, and that we must “repent, for the end is nigh!" because this bubble will come crashing the market, just like the bubbles that have come before.
I could go on and on about the issues, but we can reserve those for other posts. The point is, fighting the ad-driven Internet is not simply about fighting ads, but also all the other direct and opportunity costs that they impose.