The ethics of ad blocking and the future of media consumption

Posted on by Mark

Originally posted on blog.gruden.com

I turned off my ad blocker a few weeks back. I wanted to watch Champions League highlights on the SBS site and they cunningly serve this value-added content from their ad servers. SMH have been doing the same thing some time and I’d been playing this “turn ad blocker off, watch video, turn ad blocker back on” game with them too. I don’t know if it’s for good, but this time I didn’t turn my ad blocker back on.

I’d always felt slightly guilty about running an ad blocker – but when it comes down to it is it that much different to a popup blocker? Where is the line between what I’m ethically obliged to put up with if I want to access content and what I am allowed to control? But as the death knell for traditional media, particularly print, has become louder I have started to worry about losing the content I love.

Back in December one of my favourite columnists was sacked. I used to look forward to reading his column each Saturday morning, online or in print. Then there was a brief tussle over wages and staff cuts. He didn’t cross the picket line and was axed. It’s tempting to think back now and wonder whether I didn’t contribute to his departure in smallest of ways.

Adblock Plus is currently getting downloaded by around 700k users a week making it the most popular Firefox extension out there. Ad blocking is just starting to hit the main stream:

But ad blockers are really the tip of the iceberg – the more content becomes digitised, the more control the consumer has over how they consume. Tivo, RSS, YouTube, Google Books, mash-ups and BitTorrent are all part this transfer of power from the producer to the consumer. It is telling that the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th most popular Firefox extensions are all focused on controlling the user experience – generally against the wishes of the content producer.

Efforts to fight this transfer of control head on may slow things down temporarily but are ultimately just teaching users be pirates and alienating them in the process. BitTorrent used to be the plaything of pimply teenagers and geeks who didn’t get out enough, but now your aunt is downloading full seasons of Lost without ads and the guy next to you on the bus is watching Watchmen on his iPhone.

Dependence on controlling consumption indicates a business model which is at best limited and yet traditional media persist because the alternatives are apparently unthinkable.

And the threats to traditional modes of media production and consumption don’t stop there. The barriers to entry that have made print & TV so lucrative have all but disappeared allowing bedroom and backyard producers to rise up and take control of millions of eyeballs – not through any great talent but through their shear numbers and magnetism of the long tail.

So how can the industry be saved? How can the role of the journalist, the author be preserved? Don’t get me wrong – I love pictures of cats and videos emo teens whining into their web cams, but I suspect I’ll miss high quality, well research and professionally produced content if it goes.

eBay and CraigsList, ugly as they may be, are bleeding newspapers around the world dry. More localised and specialised versions of these classified portals such as realestate.com.au and carsales.com.au are further eroding these shrinking markets. Media organisations are fighting back and moving their classifieds online – but once established dominant exchanges are difficult to compete with. And even if a media company does gain a foothold, what incentive is there to plough the profits back into investigative journalism?

Google and Facebook are getting it right by building sophisticated systems that appreciate users and their context. Twitter has an great chance of getting in on the act  and Last.fm has an incredible opportunity to provide highly relevant advertising to a captive audience. Understanding you, your friends, your interests, your location – having a true “database of intentions” and presenting you with relevant time critical information and advice could be the tipping point between advertising as annoying intrusion to advertising as helpful supplement.

Nic Hodges puts it well

No longer are you selling products that no one wants to solve a problem they never had. You may actually be helping people do stuff they want with people they like in places they want to be.

But why is it that technology companies, starting from nowhere, are able to succeed while media companies, who have an enormous headstart in audience and content, seem to consistently fail?

These products of the Internet age are also getting it right by mostly getting out of the way and being unobtrusive. Call me a hippie, commie, ad-hating loser but I honestly don’t think that full page take overs do anything to develop the relationship between the user and the brand or the user and the site. Add value and get out of the way is the catch cry of the digital age.

Google and others are also frantically aggregating content, “organising the world’s information” and mashing up data in interesting and useful ways. But are aggregators a friend or foe of the content owners? The jury is still out on that one, but is there a business model around making content as open and mashable as possible? The Guardian has taken a punt in the hope that there is. They have opened up their archives and data sets to all comers. The catch? You need to be willing to present ads along with any of the data you use.

Another trend the shift from print to online-only and from online magazine to blogging. Seattle’s daily has been the first major US paper to go “online only”, but I’d expect more to follow. At other levels the trend has been going on for some time – Crickey in Australia and Gigaom in the states have been at it for some time, while more recently mUmBRELLA looks promising.

Evangelism, advertorial and product placement are also logical directions to take if only because the ad is harder to automatically strip from the content. Some seem to have made the transition from free agent to evangelist successfully and without losing their voice – but it is very fine line and few will be able to walk it successfully.

At the other end of the spectrum is public broadcasting and not-for-profit media. The ABC, the BBC, the PBS and the CBC are all offering content in open, innovative and digital ways. Having a charter that is focused on distributing the highest quality content as broadly as possible rather than focused profits certainly gives them an advantage.

Crowd sourcing projects such as OpenAustralia and Project Democracy help make sense of the masses of information generated by our politicians. While these are poor substitutes for a healthy press gallery they should certainly be studied closely by media companies struggling for relevance.

Finally there is always free magazines and newspapers – MX and Nine to Five seem to be bucking the trend.

For now I’m going to keep my ad blocker off, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to be enough to make the banners a viable lifeline for newspapers.

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