You know how you can get all this amazing free stuff on the Internet? You can read anything you want, learn anything you want, watch anything you want? Well, that’s the secret: It isn’t actually free.
It’s been said that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product -- and this is exactly what’s happening online. The free content is used to lure in the bait (that’s you, the reader), and the bait is used to catch the big fish (that’s the advertisers).
You, dear reader, know this already, of course; anyone reading this column is almost certainly part of the ecosystem. And you’ll almost certainly be well aware of the two-pronged threat this ecosystem is facing: First, that almost nobody can generate enough eyeballs to really make it financially worthwhile to produce anything of quality, and second, that people will happily consume your content while avoiding your ads if this is at all possible.
Let’s tackle the second threat first. One of my favorite MediaPost columnists, Bob Garfield, recently wrote that “ad blockers are the 21st century’s version of DDT,...doing grave harm to useful ad species and the publishing ecosystem as a whole.”
Thing is, you can only use ad blockers to consume ad-free content if there are enough people looking at the ads to make it worthwhile for somebody. Ad blocking is like queue-jumping: if you’re the only one doing it, you win, but if everybody does it, the whole thing falls apart.
At the same time, it’s apparently incredibly tempting to try to jump this particular queue. Consuming content while avoiding the ads that allow that content to be free is “like stealing cable or sharing all-you-can-eat-salad-bar items or watching a second movie at the multiplex,” says Garfield. “It’s easy, and it feels like a righteous repudiation of The Man.”
This is why Marco Arment’s “Peace” became the number-one paid app in the U.S. App Store for about 36 hours -- before he pulled it because he realized he was destroying the foundation underpinning the entire house of cards.
But let’s conduct a wee thought experiment. Let’s imagine Arment hadn’t pulled his app. Let’s imagine Peace, and hundreds of others like it, become installed on computers and mobiles around the world, that suddenly there is no option of running an ad-supported model, that eyeballs become worthless without an accompanied willingness to fork out actual cash. What would that world look like?
Yes, some very worthwhile publishers would go under. But what would also go under is the disproportionate financial incentive to appeal to the lowest common denominator in all of us. When content is free, I’m as likely to click on a “Celeb Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong” post as the next gal. But I would never pay for it, and I suspect the friction threshold to knock a significant number of us out of the audience is pretty low.
And who would thrive, if every publisher had to earn their way? Those publishing informative content. Unique content. Investigative content. Genuine content.
In other words, we’d be taking care of the first threat the publishing industry faces: that it’s not worthwhile to spend time creating the really good stuff.
But there is appetite for this content. It’s why I paid to subscribe to Pando. It’s why, according to a BuzzSumo analysis of over 100 million articles, we’re much more likely to share long-form content of between 3,000 and 10,000 words than any LOLcat tidbit. It’s why there is, possibly, hope for the future of Internet publishing: because if we’re forced to pay for it, we may actually insist on quality.
Thanks to ad-blockers, Internet publishing is dead. But -- in large part also thanks to them -- long may it live.