Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Off Topic Tuesday #3: Ad blocking

I thought I'd talk about ad blocking on the internet and whether it's right or wrong. This was sparked partly because of something I heard in a podcast I listened to last year, wherein the people on the 'cast were talking about Marco Arment, the co-founder of Tumblr and creator of multiple apps, who had created a hugely successful ad blocking app for Apple's Safari browser, then pulled it after two days because it made him feel guilty.
Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.

Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.
As you can see, his problem wasn't necessarily with the blocking of ads itself, but that his app, Peace, was more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel. I agree with his opinion here because while I favor ad blocking, I don't believe it should be unilateral. You can read about his ad blocking ethics here, if you wish.

Why I ad block

As I said, I'm in favor of ad blocking and have been ever since I discovered the Adblock extension. The first thing I do after installing Firefox on a new computer is slap Adblock Plus on it. It's not that I hate internet adverts, I'm just wary of them for a couple of reasons:

1. They can be annoying and intrusive. I've been online since like '98, so I've been around ad banners for a good little while and possibly, this is the reason for my pro-blocking views. The 90s and 00s were a terrible time when it came to banners because they were just so annoying. Imagine trying to read something on a website and having a banner flashing in the corner of your eye. I know ad banners have come changed since then, but even today, I'll come across ones that are only a few steps above those aforementioned disasters. If you want people to stop blocking ads, then make them less intrusive. Video ads are just as bad. I've watched YouTube on my phone and tablet and while I have gotten some not terrible and pretty interesting ads, most are irrelevant and annoying to me and my interests. I don't know how common it is, but there have been a few times when YouTube will just up and decide to run an ad right in the middle of the video. Like literally just cuts right to it, then back to the video after it's done. Imagine having that happen in a movie theater? People would be massively pissed off and rightly so.

Out of all the ads I encountered back in the 90s and 00s, pop-ups were without a doubt, the most annoying. I'm pretty sure if Dante Alighieri were alive today, he'd have added an eighth circle of Hell just for whoever created pop-up ads and the people who proliferated them across the web. How bad were these things? Well, the fact that all browsers have long since added a feature to block them by default is a pretty good indicator.

2. Not all ads are safe. I'm no computer expert and I'll be the first to admit that, but I've heard about how ad banners can be used to slip adware and malware into a person's computer and that's obviously something to avoid. I grok that that probably only happens on less than reputable and not even work safe websites, but just the awareness that it's possible for that to happen makes me not at all willing to run without an ad blocker.

3. Privacy. A lot of ads nowadays are generated based on your searches and browser history and that bothers the hell out of me. It's creepy, to be honest. I mean, if you go to your bank's site to check on something, you'll suddenly get ads for online banking. I know that it's probably just a one-way thing and whoever on the other end of the ad service can't (hopefully) know where and what you do on the internet, but it comes off as being nosy and a violation of privacy.


Now there are exceptions to my ad blocking stance because one size certainly does not fit all. I acknowledge and respect that people only have ads on their websites and blogs because they need to generate revenue in order to cover the costs of having a website and blog (since not everybody wants to use Blogger and other free services). I grok that and so in the case of the ones not owned by a media company, I'll gladly disable Adblocker if I plan on frequenting them. In fact, I've come to see that as my own seal of approval and it's the second thing I do after bookmarking them.

And you know how I complained about YouTube's ad videos? Well, I'm a bit of a hypocrite in that regard because I don't mind them if I'm watching an episode of TV show online. If I miss or have to skip an ep the night it airs, I'll try and catch it online, usually with the network's app if they have one. In those cases, there's no way to block the ads, but as I said, I don't mind them in that case. I'm used to commercials when I'm watching TV and they're useful for bathroom breaks or the quick snack run, so they serve a purpose in that case. Obviously, with online videos, I can just hit pause just the same, but years of TV viewing has made me use to them, so it's not a problem.


So what's the best solution for user apathy towards ads? Several, actually. First, made ads less annoying and intrusive. I get that they have to catch people's attention and entice them to click, but surely that can be done in a way that's not off-putting. Second, make it customizable the kind of ads that people see. There's no point in someone who's interested in cars to see an ad banner for makeup or the latest haute couture and vice versa. I'm aware that ads can be generated based on the websites you've been to, but as noted earlier, there are privacy issues I have with that. Instead, I think people should be able to choose what kind of ads they want to see, based on their own personal interests. So like the car-head would only see ads for cars, while the fashionista only sees ads for clothes and makeup vendors, and so on and so forth. If, IF this became a thing, then I would have absolutely zero problems with letting go of Adblock and so would others, I think. Obviously, not everybody, but enough to make customized ads a worthwhile solution.

In the end, it's 2016 and internet advertisers need to evolve with the times and change the way they run ads so that everybody benefits.

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