The ad-supported web

The history of the public Internet is a story of arms races. Spammers versus spam blockers. “Pirates” versus DRM. Websites against their visitors.

That last one might come as a surprise, but it’s an accurate-if-cynical description. Websites have content that visitors want, but the visitors (often) don’t want to pay and the website owners and contributors (often) want to make money for their work. Advertisements have become more and more obtrusive and visitors have worked harder and harder to keep those ads out of the way.

Fundamentally, the problem is that the Internet has changed the economics of information. It used to be that the value (economically-speaking) in reporting and commentary was the scarcity and the medium. As the Internet has democratized communication, the cost of an individual article gets much smaller.

Of course, the ability to get an individual article makes a difference, too. With a newspaper or magazine, you generally have to buy the whole thing. That’s not the case with websites. And advertisers in a newspaper or magazine can only do so much to get in your way. Perhaps technology just allows them to behave like they always wanted to.

In any case, Apple’s recent announcement that it would allow ad blockers on iOS has caused no shortage of consternation among content producers, especially on smaller sites and sites that depend solely or mostly on ad revenue. “Dear Apple: I may rob your store” is a fine example.

Everything is free! is probably not a sustainable model in the long term. By the same token, subscriptions for everything won’t work either. Micropayments are nice in theory, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they actually work. I don’t have an answer, since this isn’t really my area. I’ve made about four cents from my ads on Funnel Fiasco in the past 10 years, which is probably commensurate with the value I’ve provided.

The sky is not falling, but the landscape is changing. Old business models won’t continue to be viable. Some people will lose their jobs, some will find new niches to fill. I’ll continue to not use an ad blocker because I understand it’s the tradeoff for free content, but I’ll also continue to avoid websites that abuse my tolerance.

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