I’ve been thinking about potential topics for my PhD, which will likely be somewhere in the realm of ‘Science, Technology and Society’, or STS. The University of Alberta’s description of their STS program sums up my academic interests eerily well, claiming to gather “insights from Anthropology, Art and Design, Economics, English and Film Studies, History, Sociology, and Philosophy.”
While the program seems amied at undergraduate students, I began thinking about ideas for an STS-based thesis that I could work into a more general humanities PhD. Having spent most of Calgary’s uncharacteristically wet summer indoors and online, the semi-recent scuffle between websites reliant on advertising for revenue, and the users and developers of ad blocking software, popped into my mind. While the topic would need modifying and further research in order to grow into a potentially viable PhD thesis, investigating the history of ad blocking online has been fascinating.
Recently, many websites have begun responding to ad blocker users by writing scripts that detect ad blocking software addons (such as Scriptsafe, Adblock, NoScript, and Ublock), and present users of such software with pleas to either ‘add this site to your ad blocker’s whitelist’, or to stop using your ad blocker altogether. One of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon is the Forbes website which, back in 2015, would not display anything if the user was using an ad blocker (this appears to have changed since the website received blowback for doing so). Yahoo also tried a similar tactic, with similarly negative results.
The irony of developers of ad blockers creating websites on which they advertise their product (albeit a free product, and albeit without selling their web space to third parties), is not lost on me.
Not all websites resort to invasive or malicious ads, or sell space to the highest (or first) bidder without applying some kind of standard to their selection process, but as a user of the internet myself, I’d rather be safe than sorry, and I would certainly rather not have to spend time investigating the advertising practices of each site I visit when such information would likely be all but impossible to dig up.
The question that arises from the arms race between websites reliant on advertising, and ad blocker developers and users (who have begun circumventing ad blocker blocking) is, what effect has the spread of ad blockers had on websites’ advertising practices and ways of generating revenue, and what will websites resort to if ad blockers continue to grow in popularity?
The phrase “click-bait” has recently been swirling around like a newly uprooted sapling in the information hurricane of the web, as more and more news stories become more difficult to distinguish from outright advertisements or thinly-veiled ‘endorsements’ written in a journalistic style. South Park has tackled this issue in their last season, along with John Oliver in a bit he did in 2014.
Despite my distain for ads, I am tempted to play devil’s advocate. Should users choose to block advertisements, or simply abstain from visiting websites that use them? What if there is no satisfactory alternative to a given website? If users expect an ad-free experience, but aren’t willing to donate money to support costs, how do they expect companies to afford hosting, pay domain fees, and pay the salaries of web developers? Smaller sites often resort to banner ads and the like because, unlike Forbes or Yahoo, they have fewer resources and less capital. Are adblock users ‘fighting the man’, or are they harming sites they should be supporting by biting the bullet and enduring the ads?
Inevitably, politics and economics must butt heads when considering questions like these, however I am more interested in chronicling the history of such software. Did ad blockers exist before I installed my first ad blocking addon to Firefox in high school? If so, were they as effective or as user-friendly as current addons, which require a mere single click to install?
Perhaps most importantly, in what direction is online advertising going, and how will it affect the integrity of the content users view?