I actually wrote about this extensively in the Thanksgiving reader mail response last year. I don't want to rehash the answer here, but what it boils down to is that publishers have shockingly little control over ad networks. The system is kind of a mess, with lots of moving parts, and it's easy for malicious ads to slip in, even if you're relentless about trying to stop them. (There's another article about it here, if you're curious. Every ad-supported site has had to deal with this.)
But really, obnoxious ads are just a symptom, as are the constant frustrating battles some creators have to fight to get paid. The thing with Snopes I mentioned in the intro stems from a fight with their ad network / business partners over missing revenue payments. It's no better over on the YouTube side, where hosts routinely see ad money vanish for unclear reasons. The heart of the issue is that even 20-plus years in, the internet economy still feels like the goats-for-poetry days of yore. Ask literally anyone who has tried to make a living from it. Hell, ask Google, which was shocked to see its own ads running on videos put out by Nazis and jihadists. This is what happens when you try to automate everything, goddammit! Somebody needs to start paying attention!
The point is, nobody is happy with the current system -- not the readers, not the publishers, not the advertisers. It will change, because it has to. I don't know if the future is letting willing fans just straight up contribute money to support the rest, but we're trying that, among other things. I can say that I much prefer that over a future in which every site with a professional staff is behind a paywall, and soon they start joining forces to create networks -- suddenly you're paying $19.95 a month for the Tech News Bundle. That's the exact "cable model" the net neutrality folks were warning us about!
I'm not an expert, but that sounds super plausible to me.
"So Who Is To Blame For All Of This? Who Stole All Of The Money?"
Not every problem has a villain. The web is a miraculous invention that has set information free. We're awash in all of the collective knowledge and artwork of our glorious species. But food does not grow for free, and housing does not build itself, so it's a puzzle to figure out how to reward those who work hard to keep knowledge and art flowing but themselves still need meals and roofs.
I mean, if you'd come to me in 1998 and told me that someday everyone would have a gadget in their pocket they could use to read my articles, I'd have said that sounded incredible. Once you clarified that they could also use that gadget to read other people's articles, I'd have still been happy. So now we're here in the future, and it's great, but there are complications we have to figure out. In the Star Trek universe, they probably had to figure out how to compensate the cook who came up with the recipes the replicators used. There was probably a point where that created a genuine crisis for some people.
And make no mistake, this will be a crisis for some. Starting next year, Chrome will start blocking ads by default, and all other browsers will soon follow. Sure, they say they will only block the "intrusive" ads, but those are the only ones that 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 their money.
That is, as far as I can tell, either the end of the free internet or at least the beginning of the end. It has to happen. Audiences have made it clear that they don't want to pay for web content in attention (that is, giving some of their attention to advertisements as a form of payment), and so we have to decide how we want to do this instead.
For more from David Wong, check out 6 New Kinds of Anxiety the Internet Gave Us and Cracked's Secret (Communist) Plan To Keep The Site Free.
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