Internet ads, I'm not so sure

Do you remember the Internet without ads? Most likely not.

I vaguely remember in the early 2000s you could surf for what felt like hours without seeing any. Maybe I’m misremembering. Maybe ads were less intrusive. Maybe they were less follow-you-around-the-web-until-you-buy-the-shoes-you-looked-at annoying. It’s really difficult to imagine an Internet without them nowadays. They aren’t naturally part of the Web’s grain, but they’ve cemented themselves to it pretty darn well.1

Let’s consider something like Spotify or Bloomberg.com.

If you subscribe, then you get the full service for as long as you pay. That seems pretty fair.

If you don’t, the user experience breaks to accommodate ads. Your time and attention are taxed for this. You can’t listen to songs or read articles right when you want to consume them. Minute-long audio ads or six-second ad walls (à la Bloomberg) trap some of your time. Your attention also suffers because of the context switching. If I’m in programming flow, I don’t want my 150 BPM music suddenly cut for an ad about Harry’s razors.

Unfortunately, the more insidious side of ads doesn’t include ad/pay walls or context switching. It’s that products are designed to be (unethically) addictive. Whatever utility Facebook, Instagram, et al. had was corrupted by trying to get people to click on more ads. The incentives are just really misaligned. Lots of people—in fact billions—are fine with this, but if they fully understood the tradeoff, they might not be.

Currently, ad-supported models demand creators constantly grow their time spent, page views, clicks, conversions, etc. For example, article headlines are engineered to attract new readers (so they can see ads), not for their existing, paying subscribers.2 Content has to be crafted so more eyeballs view it and advertisers are content.

You see what’s so wrong here?

The blogger writes for his/her readers, but the advertiser paying them likely doesn’t know or care what they are writing about. Or at least not as much as their fans do. A lot of creators are too quick to insert ads, assuming their fans won’t pay for something. But they never ask. A 1,000 true fans are much more powerful than ads.

I think there is a middle way, where consumers still have access to high quality content on the Web and creators can earn enough to keep creating that very content. It won’t happen right way, but there’s already a shift towards it. Companies, like Patreon and Open Collective, are leading the charge to normalize the idea of paying for things, especially the non-material things you love (videos, articles, OSS). They are redefining the creator/consumer relationship.

Slowly chipping away at ads on the Web.

I encourage you to consider paying for the services you use and love. You can support a creator so they don’t have to turn on ads, can remove them, and/or more importantly pursue what they love. Plus, you get to use the real thing. It’s a win-win.

I support a journalling app, Day One, monthly. You can read a bit why I like it so much here.


Thanks to Himanshu Sahay and Tim Petri for reading drafts of this.

  1. The Web’s Grain, written by Frank Chimero, one of my favorite reads on the Interwebs. 

  2. Kevin Kelly from the fantastic On Margins podcast by Craig Mod: Here’s a little bit inside stuff from the magazines, and I always objected to this, which was that when you have a magazine that you’re only going to subscribers, you can do amazing things with the cover, because the covers are all designed for magazines on the people who don’t subscribe. We’re trying to win over people who are not your fans, and so all the people who are your fans, you’re ignoring them. 

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