AdBlock, a browser extension that filters ads before displaying websites, is running a crowdfunding campaign. They’re going to buy advertising to tell people about a world without advertising. They’ve already raised more than $35,000, and with 27 days to go they’re working toward $50,000 and beyond. The goal of the campaign is clearly to gain users, but it has caused them to lose at least one. I’ve been using AdBlock for more than a year, but I just uninstalled it.
Irony is the centerpiece of the AdBlock campaign and I think it’s supposed to seem cute. Use ads to get rid of ads. Post an anti-ad video on a site like YouTube that is supported by ads. Promote an unencumbered open Internet by disabling commenting on your video. Good-humored fun! But noticing all of these aspects of the campaign just freaked me out. I’m a journalist so ad revenues pretty directly pay my bills and rent every month.
I always vaguely knew that it was bullshit for me to use AdBlock, because it was reducing the number of ad impressions I gave to news sites that currently pay me or might in the future. It was especially dumb because there are a lot of people out there who I think should get paid besides me. Journalism can’t function if people in the industry aren’t fairly compensated. But AdBlock runs so quietly in the background that it wasn’t hard to justify. After the initial install I never even had to think about it again. No thought, no guilt.
There is a specific part of the AdBlock campaign video that motivated me to actually click "uninstall" in my Chrome preferences. Matt Krisiloff, an employee at AdBlock, grins as he delivers the lines, "The web is one giant community. We have the power to reshape it to be better for everyone. If the more than 80 million of us who have AdBlock help spread it to the billions who don’t we will literally change the entire Internet." Yeah, Matt, you literally will. And it will be terrifying. I don’t know if ads are the best way to monetize content production on the Internet, but right now they’re the best idea in town, so I don’t want to see the last ad I will ever see. —Lily Hay Newman
As a journalist who also pays my rent (and the occasional Seamless.com order) with writing online, from publications that are in turn primarily funded from ad revenue, I definitely hear what Lily is saying. I have no illusions about the extent to which advertising funds online publications. But I disagree that the net effect of AdBlock would be a worse-off Internet. I’m an AdBlock user, though I have made the choice to specifically disable it on some sites that I want to make sure my clicks are supporting. So it is possible to make that kind of distinction, but by and large Lily is right that AdBlock functions as a "set it and forget it" tool that most people will never revise.
I’m more concerned with what advertising-driven journalism does to the state of our profession. It’s why we have click-bait HuffPo tweets, BuzzFeed listicles, and CNN.com running Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs as their top story. I’d like to see more journalism that is driven by quality content rather than monetizing eyeballs. Yes, that means we need radical new distribution and publishing models. Yes, no one has really come up with a model better than advertising-per-impression. But isn’t there some saying about necessity spawning invention? A critical mass of people using AdBlock would force publishers’ hands. Sure, some—lots, probably—of publications would go out of business. Call it growing pains. But the end result would probably be better for digital journalism than maintaining the status quo. —Jay Cassano
[Image: Flickr user David Evers]