While I will be shifting the focus of the blog from ad blocking news in general to a more specific analysis of the technology of ad blocking, I do want to get down a number of thoughts and conclusions I have come to in recent months. I will be writing a series of posts that lay out, in concise (if scattershot) snippets what I really think is going on and where we might be headed in the future. Not sure how many of these there will be, certainly fewer than 95, but I hope you find them interesting and thought provoking.
(1). Ad blocking is a small part of a far larger story, which is the continued attempt to re-create an analog publishing world online. Twenty-plus years after the internet became a mass phenomenon, publishers are still operating from assumptions that pre-date the digital era, especially in regard to monetizing attention through advertising. Ben Thompson of Stratechery has analyzed this most insightfully, in the context of the shift from desktop to mobile and from the open web to platforms:
The end result of this process is that newspapers have been modularized and commoditized into effective Facebook-filler, competing on an equal basis with everything from new media startups like BuzzFeed to personal blog posts to pictures of your cousin’s new baby. It’s hard for publishers to break through with content, and publisher-centric advertising is dying: better for ad buyers to get as close to the customer as possible and buy space on the service that has aggregated users on one side and leveraged that into commoditizing and modularizing suppliers on the other.
(Really, go and read him, he just nails it.) The old notions of publishing and advertising do not apply cleanly to the web generally and certainly not to the web of 2016. Ad blocking is merely one manifestation of a bigger dynamic working against the traditional publishing revenue model of easily monetizing attention.
(2). Ad blocking is not new. I first started experimenting with it in the late 1990’s. The explosion of interest in recent months stems from Apple’s big move last year that essentially “legitimized” it for many in the publishing and advertising world. Yet Apple’s decision occurred in a context of a deep unsettlement of digital already taking place. By itself, I do not believe allowing content blocking on iOS devices would have had quite the impact it did if publishers were not already nervous about two terrifying trends: 1) ad price commoditization and 2) ad visibility on mobile devices. In addition, the existence of Eyeo and Ad Block Plus allows publishers to lash out at ad blocking, without directly criticizing their own users, helps to push the narrative. But fundamentally, ad blocking is quite old, it is just the context in which it is occurring for both publishers and consumers that is creating tension, anxiety and excitement.
(3). Doc Searl’s conceptualization of ad blocking as a “boycott” is good, but I think a better term would be “consumer disobedience.” While there are many consumers who sincerely would turn off their ad blockers if the advertising industry cleaned up their act and shifted to less intrusive ad practices, like the IAB’s LEAN proposals, I believe that essentially no body would voluntarily turn off ad blockers without the threat of loosing free content. Put it in these terms, would anybody opt-in to advertising if they had the choice? No, of course not. Nobody values advertising as a good in itself, no matter what marketers wish to believe, or delude themselves over every year during the Super Bowl. Advertising is, at best, a necessary evil for the vast, vast majority of online readers, most of whom are happy to have it blocked from their view, for a variety of reasons we shall discuss.