Summary: Facebook’s recent decision to block ad-blocking software may have ignited an anti- advertising war.
Facebook is making headlines following a recent announcement that the social network giant will circumvent ad blocking software — effectively force-feeding advertising to users who’ve made it abundantly clear this is not the experience they seek. Full disclosure (in case the opening paragraph was not written well enough to demonstrate my clear bias): my name is Frank, and I’m an ad blocker. I’m blocking ads as I write this post. But, apparently, not on Facebook anymore.
A “Pure” Experience
Ad-blocking enthusiasts (or “blockies” — a term I made up that has little hope of catching on) assert that web browsing devoid of intrusive advertising is a throwback to the “glory days” of the late 1990s. Whether or not the screeching “melody” of dial-up connections and waiting three days for one page to load actually constitutes “glory” is, of course, still open for debate. And sure, even then we had flashing banner ads and annoying pop-ups, but — and now I’m sounding like an old man — it was nothing like the flyout, pop-up, auto-play, can’t even view the web page until you subscribe antics that today’s whippersnappers have to endure.
As a Vermont native — a state where billboards are outlawed — I know there’s a certain pleasure in cruising the information superhighway (<– old man term) and actually being able to enjoy the scenery without being accosted at every turn with one sales pitch after another. But web marketers will be the first to remind us that the lights don’t stay on by magic, and even the free and fun social media experience comes at a cost.
Mama’s Got Bills to Pay
Plus, there’s gold in them thar digital hills! Just ask Facebook.
In recent months, the social network reported second-quarter revenue jumped nearly 60 percent, to $6.4 Billion. Insert “wow” emoji here. In fact, most of Facebook’s revenue (somewhere around 84 percent) comes from showing ads to its users. That’s not counting ‘click-throughs’ or any engagement other than simply getting eyeballs on the ads.
So on the one hand you have every day “users” like you and (ad-hating) me who just want to consume our web content in peace, while on the other hand you have advertisers and web content creators (including ad-hating me) who need and like to eat and pay their car notes.
I’ll Meet You Halfway
Though a third hand may be anatomically incorrect, as a former investigative journalist I realize there’s always more than two sides to any story. And so a perhaps evolutionary-advanced creature may raise its third hand to ask the question (in its best hippie tone): “Why can’t we be friends?”
Today’s digital ads slow page load time and do their best to divert attention to the content people visit the web pages for in the first place. Yet companies are often dependent on revenue from these very ads in order to continually serve the content-hungry public with consistently fresh information. So what’s a girl to do?
Read the Fine Print
For those who may have blown through the terms and conditions in their haste to post the latest cat video (which I can’t confirm or deny are sent directly to my inbox on a daily basis), Facebook offers a “friendly reminder.”
“Our mission is to connect the world,” said a Facebook spokesperson who (for some reason) didn’t want to be named. “The business model that gives everyone in the world the option of using Facebook and our services for free is an ad-supported model.”
Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the New York Times, goes one further:
“We need to spell this out clearly to our users. The journalism they enjoy costs real money and needs to be paid for. Advertising is a vital part of the revenue mix.”
Missing the Point?
The Times and a growing number of content creators (Forbes, GQ, Wired, and more) have been blocking ad-blockers for years now — some offering an “ad-light” experience and others promoting an ad-free paid subscription option.
However, one needs simply to glance at their downward-trending analytical data to instantly discover these models may not necessarily be working as well as they may have looked on the “idea board.” It seems the cautionary tale of MySpace’s demise (fueled in no small part by intrusive advertising!) has as yet gone unheeded.
Advertising Chess Game
Though Facebook is unlikely to suffer the same fate, it will be interesting to see the results of this social experiment in the coming months. Developers at software giants such as AdBlocker Plus are already working on methods to block the block. Next will come Facebook’s block to the block block, and from there it gets so confusing I need to take a break with a mug of tea and a cannoli. And there are some cynics who assert this is merely a carefully-crafted ploy to setup the soon-to-be-rolled out paid version of Facebook.
What About Us?
But through all of this speculation and back-and-forth debate on the ethics and effects of ad-blocking, the information and entertainment fate of the end user (people like you and me) seems to be largely glossed over.
I can’t help but notice that all of this sullies the spirit behind what should be the web professionals’ main focus. In this increasingly-heated back-and-forth of companies deciding what’s best for people, despite what the people themselves have made alarmingly clear, the heart of the matter may be overlooked. Because when a war is waged in the name of “user experience,” the user always loses. ■