Web Advertising is Eating Itself

How often does this happen?

  • You click on a link that appears in one of your social media feeds.
  • You begin reading the article
  • Suddenly the screen darkens and and an unskippable video ad pops up, often with audio.
  • You close the browser tab without reading the rest of the article.

The web did not used to be like this. There used to be a time when not every online newspaper article had “sponsored links” to bottom-feeding clickbait garbage about celebrities who have aged badly or the sorts of barely-legal get-rich-quick scams that you only used to see in email spam.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons situation. Now that internet usage in the developed world has plateaued, web advertisers are locked into a zero-sum game with each other for finite amount of web users’ attention. Making your own advertising more and more intrusive gains a temporary advantage, but it only leads to a race to the bottom in which everyone else is the loser.

It’s also the reason why a thousand-word article sometimes results in a browser-crashing multi-megabyte web page, bloated with third-party cruft whose only purpose is to serve ads that the reader doesn’t actually want.

The whole ecosystem is clearly unsustainable, and the way more and more people are being forced to install ad-blockers just to make the web usable highlights this. There has to be a better way.

So, once web advertising has finally eaten itself, what alternative economic models might replace it?

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3 Responses to Web Advertising is Eating Itself

  1. Ted Nelson, who invented the concept (though not the technology) of the Web had the answer 50 years ago: micropayments, or paying fractional pennies per page view. But when the technology caught up with his vision and made the web a reality, the vision of the people who made it happen was stuck in a 100-year-old advertisers-pay-for-column-space model. And now I don’t believe it will ever go away. For no matter how much people hate adverts, they still believe on-line content should be free to them.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    What about some kind of anonymised micropayment system implemented at ISP level, funded by a flat-rate levy on broadband accounts and using the same sort of auctioning algoritms as currently used for serving ads?

    Alternatively perhaps what we need is some kind of voluntary code of conduct by advertisers to focus on quality rather than quantity?

  3. Michael says:

    I understand Amazon Unlimited pays its authors by the page read.
    I don’t suppose the amount per page is all that much.

    Could this sort of model work more generally?