You may be wondering why every website you visit begs you for money. Sites like Snopes.com started raising money on GoFundMe in 2017. The humor site Cracked.com started taking reader contributions, and probably half of your favorite YouTubers, podcasters, and Twitch streamers do the same.
Many people worry about net neutrality (and that is a big deal), but the collapse of web advertising is a much bigger threat. Unlike other problems, we can’t lobby politicians to stop the collapse.
We may be moving toward a walled-off version of the web that works like streaming services do now. Want to see your favorite stuff? You have to buy Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube Red, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, HBO GO, and a dozen other services. Your rent costs less than the total cost of the streaming services. Is that the future? How did we get here?
You may not care much. The reasons are hard to understand, and in many cases as boring as watching grass grow. But this affects you.
“Why Am I Pestered to Sign Up for a Newsletter or Download an App?”
Back when people used desktop computers with large monitors that took up half of a desk, they would bookmark their preferred sites in their browser and create a reading list. They could use portal sites or an RSS feed. This gave a writer or publisher a pretty reliable way to find the readers.
When browsing on a phone, though, it’s a pain to bookmark things. The result is that internet users download the app for their favorite sites and sometimes just depend on Facebook for all of their content. Two billion people and every publisher are on Facebook. So why not just “like” the pages of your favorite sites and then get all your desired content more efficiently?
Publishers now depend on Mark Zuckerberg’s inventions since a large percentage of internet traffic flows through it. Facebook then redesigned its system to ensure users were only fed updates of Facebook’s choosing. Sites got annihilated. Upworthy lost 80 percent of its traffic. The average website lost fifty percent of the traffic they were formerly receiving from Facebook, which was the bulk of their business for most.
Everything is completely backward. It’s like a punishment for those who spend to create high-quality content. It’s more profitable to publish junk or steal other sites’ content. It’s for this reason that sites turn to apps and newsletters to ensure the creators aren’t at Zuckerberg’s mercy.
“Why Do Ads Act Like Viruses?”
As you browse articles on your smartphone you are sent to the app store. And then on your PC, an ad exclaims that you must call the virus police. Why do publishers allow this?
Publishers end up having little to no control over ad networks. The system is kind of a mess, and it’s simple for ill-meaning ads to pass through, even if you’re adamant about stopping them. Every ad-supported site has to deal with this.
But obnoxious ads are just a symptom, as are the constant frustrating battles some creators have to fight to get paid. Snopes starting a GoFundMe stemmed from a fight with their ad network/business partners over missing revenue payments. It’s no better at YouTube, where hosts routinely see ad money vanish for unclear reasons. Even after 20 some years after its start, the internet economy still feels like the ancient goats-for-poetry days. Just try making a living from it yourself. Even ask Google, which was shocked to see its own ads running on videos put out by Nazis and jihadists. Leaving all the work to the automation bots leads to trouble.
Nobody is happy with the current system – the readers, the publishers, nor the advertisers. It will change because it must. Is the future letting willing fans just straight up contribute money to support the rest? It’s hard to say, but that is preferable to a future in which networks are formed by every site with a professional staff behind a paywall. No one wants to pay a subscription to be able to read their favorite news sources. The net neutrality folks have been warning us about this for some time.
“Who Is to Blame?”
Not every problem has a villain. Yes, information was set free by the internet. Unfortunately, nothing comes without a price. The hard part is figuring out how to reward those who work to share knowledge and art and yet have basic daily necessities like housing and food.
If you had said in 1998 that everyone would eventually have a gadget in their pocket they could use to read internet articles written by multiple people, not many would believe it. But here we are, and it’s great. Of course, there are points that we need to keep working on to improve.
This will be a crisis for some. Chrome started blocking ads by default in 2018, and all other browsers soon followed. The catch-22 is that they only block the “intrusive” ads, but the intrusive ones are the ones advertisers will pay for – if the ad isn’t “intruding,” then it’s being ignored, and if it’s being ignored, the advertiser is wasting his money.
And here we are: at the beginning of the end of free internet. It has to happen. Focus groups and writers have made it clear that they don’t want to pay for web content by giving some of their attention to advertisements, and so we have to decide how we want to do this instead.