Freethoughtblogs is a small content provider on the web: we openly and unabashedly serve a tiny niche of the available market (if you think atheism in general is a big thing, you need to get some perspective. Religious sects get a bigger slice of the pie, and heck, automotive makers are YUUUUUGE. There are many niches that totally dwarf us). And yet even us little people have infrastructure needs — gone are the days when I could just plug in some CMS widgets on my lab computer and have my site run in the background. We had to buy a dedicated server and have it hosted, with monthly fees, and with a tech person who has to keep it all running reliably, deal with those DOS attacks, etc. It all costs money, real cash.
So we’re dependent on some kind of revenue stream, and that comes from…ads. I hate the ads. You hate the ads. I would love to have some alternative means of covering our maintenance costs, but I haven’t seen a good strategy yet. I suppose we could go the route of public broadcasting, and yell at you every month to pledge to your local freethought blog network, but I think that would be about as unpleasant as the ads, and would also require us to work at fundraising. Most of us aren’t here for the money, you know, and playing pitchman is deeply uninteresting.
So this story fills me with trepidation: the big guns — Apple, Google, and Facebook — are warring over ads and adblocking, and guess who’ll be collateral damage?
But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all! And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish. Just look at the number of small sites that have shut down this year: GigaOm. The Dissolve. Casey Johnston wrote a great piece for The Awl about ad blockers, in which The Awl’s publisher noted that “seventy-five to eighty-five percent” of the site’s ads could be blocked. What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience? Who’s going to make all that content we love so much, and what will it look like if it only makes money on proprietary platforms?
There are other things that aren’t discussed. Google is the master dominator of ads on the web — most of our ads are served up by Google. And Google isn’t the benign impartial deliverer of ad content that you might think. They have RULES. Show a hint of nudity in a photo on one of our pages, and someone can report it (we have no shortage of assholes looking to report such things) and Google will just shut down ads for our entire network. We’ve had long weeks with zero revenue because of bullshit like that.
Further, ad providers are not well-behaved. There is a constant competition for the people providing us with ads to inject sneaky code — it’s not enough to display your wares decorously in the space provided. They have to pop up, or pop under, or slide onto the screen, or switch on autoplay video so some shill can babble at you, and we all fucking hate that, and we turn on our adblockers. People come to a web site for the content, and if some goddamn cable company uses that as an excuse to dominate the screen with a dancing floating singing window, it defeats the purpose of going to the site. This whole ad-blocking conflict is an example of the tragedy of commons.
And we’re mostly helpless. We sign a contract, we dedicate a chunk of our page real estate to the ads, and our ad host gives us a little piece of code that fetches ads from some servers somewhere else, and we willingly place that parasitic sucker on our site, for the money. The money that we need to have a site at all.
The near future isn’t going to be fun.