Thinking About Sewers and Freedom: Google’s Self-Serving (But Cool) Assault on Shitty Internet Ads

The Sewer (Serusier, 1892)

In 2018, the Google Chrome browser will block “low quality” ads (pop-up ads, self-launching videos, countdown ads, and sticky ads that won’t go away) and only display more “user-friendly” and “tasteful” ads approved by the Coalition for Better Ads industry group (check out the member list and the ad format stack rank – they are interesting!).

With the global market for digital advertising already approaching $225 billion, and expected to grow annually at double digits until 2020, analysts believe Google, which already controls more than 50 percent of this market, is willing to risk anti-trust challenges because the company both understands the existing advertising model is unsustainable and is strategically positioned to be able to plan for the future, and use its influence to shape that future.

I don’t know how digital ad market revenue splits between the shitty ads and the tasteful ads, but would agree the model is incredibly toxic and absolutely unsustainable. Here’s the thing, and it can’t be repeated too frequently. Media businesses rely on deplorable advertising methods and depressing click-bait content to support business models that would otherwise fail. As consumers of digital information, we have become dependent on this free access to content, but are finally realizing that this kind of access is a deal with the devil. We are learning that  nothing is free – not media content, not speech, not freedom. “Free” as in “no cost” or “no effort” or “no loss” is a misnomer. In fact, “freedom” may be the most misused, misunderstood, most cynically exploited words in our lexicon.

The problem is not even that we only get what we pay for. We get less than we pay for, because every transaction has a cost. So when we pay nothing for our journalism and our media and our online speech, we get journalism and media and speech that is worth less than nothing. We get Donald Trump and his merry band of trolls.

I can imagine a middle way for digital advertising – great ads can enhance a publication, not detract from it. Ads that cost a lot to produce and purchase will probably make good publications and products even better and more successful. Conversely, media platforms that depend on volume advertising and raw eyeballs will suffer in a Better Ads marketplace, but good riddance to them. These are the platforms – the Breitbart’s and Fox News’s of the world – that Trump(et) “freedom” as the permission for readers to spew from the deepest, darkest, most batshit-crazed recesses of their minds. So screw them. And screw the ad-serving businesses that cater to them.

We should pay for our “content” (terrible word). Paywalls are good. And successful media models also exist that do not require paywalls. The old-school alternative weekly newspaper – The Stranger in Seattle being the best example – keeps print publication costs down and journalism quality high with weekly publication schedules and distribution strategies; fosters healthy (not grotesque) “community” with its emphasis on arts, culture, entertainment, and local reporting; generates revenue from robust classified ad sections; and publishes high-quality advertisements with significant local resonance. And this model translates well to a digital format!

Another good national publishing model is the leverage-the-shit-out-of-my-other-successful-businesses-to-subsidize-high-quality-media model. Thinking of you, Bloomberg News/Views, which publishes generally great, smart stuff because it can subsidize news operations from the Bloomberg terminals/data cash flow firehose. Jeff Bezos has also been able to relieve the Washington Post of significant financial pressure that would otherwise require draconian cuts and a painful, depressing dependence on ads and clicks. Instead, the Post has built one of the most irritating, daunting paywalls in all of media. And good on them for that!

Finally, the Wikimedia FoundationThe Intercept, and Pro Publica all do great jobs by building trust, loyalty, and respect – giving those who depend on them a stake in their survival. They exist and thrive, without advertising, because they can depend on their readers to support them financially, one $5 or $50 or $500 donation at a time.

Yes, most people now get most of their news via social media, which has not simply torqued even the idea of print publishing for many people, but also mashed-potatoed online versions of print publications. These alternative reality communication platforms have undermined dependence on (and trust in) established news organizations (and generally accepted editorial standards), and substituted a kind of faux-news (as distinguished from fake news) legitimacy to emotionally salient (but otherwise unvetted) information sourcing from people we know (or, in the case of celebrities, people we would like to imagine we know). With the degradation of respect for and deference to categories of “experts”, who at least in theory possess some universal warrant and status based on widely acknowledged technical criteria, social media has reframed and reduced our sense of what we can trust to what circulates within weakly defined communities of “friends.”

Among the minority of Bernie Sanders supporters who voted for Donald Trump, justification for a Trump presidency was that we needed to surface deeply rooted political and cultural dysfunction in the United States, and that a Clinton presidency would only delay the inevitable day of reckoning. The virtue of this perspective is that it can accommodate an optimistic sense of the resilient capacities of American institutions and American citizens to respond creatively to challenge. And there is some evidence that the Trump presidency may ultimately serve this goal of a sustainable and enduring regeneration of our journalism and media institutions.

Trump’s election has uncovered and forced us to confront rot and sewage that contaminates both our institutions and our souls. But people like not being shitty. And digital media models are starting to emerge that will succeed because they (directly and intentionally) satisfy this basic human need. To simply not be shitty.

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