Whose fault is it?
Whose fault is it that ad blockers are the 21st century’s version of DDT, and as indiscriminately deployed, ridding us of a pestilence (pop-ups, autoplay, slow-loads, remnant spam, malware) but also doing grave harm to useful ad species and the publishing ecosystem as a whole?
Is it advertisers’ fault? They inundate us with both highly interruptive junk of no personal relevance and creepily targeted or re-targeted pitches that are so personally relevant they give us all the heebie jeebies. They’ve all but abandoned attempts at thoughtful engagement versus various ways of getting between us and the content until we can fumble to x them out of our way.
Is it publishers’ fault? As they moved online, they put all their chips on advertising, which had made them so obscenely profitable for three centuries. They failed to reckon with a few important realities:
1) Much of their audience scale would be "trash" audience, with no value to advertisers.
2) The glut of online content supply would be paralleled by a glut in ad inventory, driving down prices and necessitating much more clutter.
3) People hate ads. Hate 'em. As often mentioned in this space, despite mindless commonplaces as "The ads are better than the programming" and the occasional crossover into pop culture, ads have never been anything but what we have to put up with in order to get free and subsidized content. Essentially, all ads are spam.
4) By going all-in on this strategy, they cemented the notion that all content deserves to be free -- giving license to the public to renounce the historical quid pro quo.
Is it the fault of frauds and criminals, who lure us constantly into rabbit holes of sleaze, interrupting us, infecting us, deceiving us, defrauding us until we are at our wits’ end and just desperate to free ourselves from their onslaught?
Is it consumers’ fault? We were not born yesterday. We know that everything we visit online had a cost to produce, and that our part of the deal is a grudging acceptance of advertising. Anyone who sets up an ad blocker -- even the ones spouting the empty-headed nonsense about content being free -- knows he’s a freeloader. But it’s like stealing cable or sharing all-you-can-eat-salad-bar items or watching a second movie at the multiplex. It’s easy, and it feels like a righteous repudiation of The Man. Plus, while perhaps evidence of poor citizenship, it is totally legal.
Is it the ad-blocker publishers? They are like gun manufacturers. They know their product is important when used judiciously by the right people in the right circumstances, but that it is ruinous to the entire society (and many innocent victims) when it is available to everybody. They may not be legally culpable for the damage, but they have blood on their hands. In fact, that’s just what Marco Arment concluded after his ad-blocking app, Peace, catapulted to the top of download charts. On his blog, Arment explained why he withdrew his adbuster blockbuster after only 36 hours:
Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.
Is it Apple? By making its new IOS 9 hospitable to blocking apps, it is fortifying its advantages over other content sellers. You’d be excused for believing this is no coincidence, that what’s bad for Facebook, Google and Yahoo is very, very good for Apple.
Is it nobody’s fault? What publishers are experiencing, after all, is the logical outcome of technological change. The steam engine changed the economics of manufacturing, destroying the livelihoods of many a cobbler and seamstress. Yes, the change unleashed some of the uglier dimensions of runaway capitalism, but who exactly is to blame?
The answer with ad blocking, I suppose, is: everybody.Everybody and nobody. We are merely seeing the convergence of technology, denial, opportunism, rationalization, strategic blunder and human frailty to further undermine an economic sector already buffeted by digital revolution.
Nobody is pure in this, but the one true culprit is inevitability.