Ad blockers will destroy listicles and other dumb clickbait

A better internet is within reach.
A better internet is within reach.
Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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The internet these days is a cesspool of clickbait. I’m talking about the kind of journalism that patronizes rather than explains, reveling in breathlessly counterintuitive screeds—like a high-school junior who just discovered Ayn Rand. Even supposedly top-tier publishers behave like needy friends thirsty for social-media approval. We’re warming ourselves in the glow of a thousand hot takes and cycling through outrage.

What’s the driving force behind all this #content? The problem, of course, is ads. Publishers make money on the internet by showing us little boxes and banners that track our every move. The more articles they publish, the more display ads they can sell, which is how websites wind up playing the John Oliver sweepstakes.

But have hope. Ad blockers are here, and they’re going to save us from a future of ubiquitous which-Harry Potter-character-are-you quizzes. That is, if they don’t kill the media first.

How display ads breed clickbait

According to the Grand Unified Theory of Content, publishing companies have two ways to measure the value of a piece. They look at how much money it cost to produce, and at how much monetizable attention—in the form of display advertising—it captures. An underpaid freelancer might take one hour to produce a zany listicle on confused cats and one hour to create a slideshow about the history of mac-and-cheese pizza. If each one captures readers’ attention long enough to shove an advertisement down their eye-gullets, then — congratulations! — you have produced essentially interchangeable pieces of #content.

Once you start seeing the web this way, it’s hard to turn ad-vision off. Suddenly, long, well-sourced, well-researched pieces look like inefficient ways to capture 30 minutes of a user’s attention. Reporting takes time, which drives up costs. And the going theory is that people don’t even want to read these kinds of articles. They especially don’t want to read them on mobile devices, which are poor showcases for fancy interactive, web-native, multimedia pieces anyway.

So publishers don’t make well-sourced, well-researched pieces, at least not as much as they ought to. Instead they make content. Many excellent writers and publications have at one time or another partaken in what amounts to a venial sin of the internet. It makes a warped kind of sense. When all you need is for 50% of an ad unit to be seen for one second so you can bill an advertiser, you incentivize page views over engagement and clicks over reads.

This is the logic of #content. It is also the logic of capitalism, which demands greater efficiency no matter the human cost. We privilege what we can count, monetize and quantify.

But just because publishers have landed on an advertising model that is satisfactorily monetizable doesn’t mean they’re producing work that is valued by humans. Maybe people want to eat their vegetables! We wouldn’t know, because publishers’ business model subsidizes high-fructose corn syrup.

Ad blockers to the rescue

You’ve probably heard that Apple released the newest version of its mobile operating system iOS 9 last month. You also might have heard that Apple’s “content blocking” capability has already led to a vibrant, controversial, and profitable ecosystem of plugins that prevent ads and trackers from loading in Apple’s mobile Safari browser. Apple also approved an app that blocks ads almost everywhere on your phone—including inside other apps.

Ad blockers are an obvious danger to media companies. Much like a lamprey, they threaten to attach themselves to online publications and suck away the juicy guts of its advertising inventory. For small publishers, which tend to rely on display ads (banners and boxes) rather than native advertising (embedded ads that look similar to editorial content), ad blockers are especially threatening. The publisher of the small but beloved The Awl, for example, has said that 75% to 85% of its revenue is vulnerable to ad blockers.

Some apps allow websites to pay to have their ads exempted from blocking technology. And websites can try to play whack-a-mole by requiring users to disable their ad blockers before they can view content. Of course, ad-blocking technology finds workarounds fast, and it’s all publishers can do to keep up in a resource-intensive arms race. For the most part, publishers that run display ads are easy targets.

It’s important to note that Apple isn’t the cause of the ad-pocalypse. In fact, it’s late to the party. Ad blocking has been on the rise for a while now—especially among the young and the tech-savvy. In 2014, 41% of 18-to-29 year olds polled by the anti-ad blocking company PageFair said they used ad blockers. What’s new is that Apple’s move paves the way for mass adoption of ad-blocking technology among its large and affluent audience, which also happens to be highly valued by advertisers.

Ad blockers’ potential to bring about the bloody deaths of a great many publishers has inspired some backlash. Programmer Marco Arment pulled his ad blocker, Peace, just two days after launching it. “Just didn’t feel good,” he wrote in a blog post. He explained that the app treated all ads the same way, hurting sites that “don’t deserve the hit.”  

Arment’s bout of conscience aside, ad blocking will march on. Loading ads over your cellular network eats up your data, which costs you money. And the future—if not the present—of the internet is mobile-first.

We’re clawing our way toward an online world that’s free of display ads, but not every media company is going to make it. Blocking the blockers might work for a while, but I don’t think any publisher is going to win the future by pissing off younger readers. Some publishers will undoubtedly go under before they figure out another revenue model.

For me, these changes are bittersweet: I built ads at Quartz for two years. Even so, I’m happy to move toward a future that gives publishers one less incentive to farm #content. Go ahead and ad-block this article—there’s nothing to lose but clickbait.